Childhood & Early Life
Bill "Bojangles" Robinson was born Luther Robinson, on May 25, 1877, in Richmond, Virginia, to Maxwell and Maria Robinson. His father was a machinist, while his mother was a church-choir director. He grew up with his younger brother, William, in Richmond's Jackson Ward neighborhood.
Robinson’s parents died when he was a child. Thus, he was raised by his grandmother, Bedilia, who was a former slave.
He had little formal schooling. He began dancing for money at a tender age.
He once claimed that he was initially named “Luther.” However, he later exchanged his name with his younger brother, William. His brother subsequently adopted the name “Percy” and became a musician.
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Robinson began dancing for a living at the tender age of 5, performing in local beer gardens. In 1886, he joined ‘Mayme Remington's troupe. He joined a traveling company in 1891, later entertaining as a vaudeville act.
He went back to Richmond in 1898 and joined the ‘United States Army’ as a rifleman at the beginning of the Spanish–American War.
After winning a dance contest at the ‘Bijou Theater’ in 1900, Robinson gained significant publicity.
Following the “two-colored” rule of vaudeville, which prevented black performers from appearing alone on stage, he teamed up with other black vaudeville performers, the most renowned being George W. Cooper (1902). Robinson and Cooper did not wear “blackface” makeup, though that was the norm for early vaudeville performers.
Soon, Robinson began performing alone, in spite of the rule.
Robinson met Marty Forkins in 1908. Forkins later became his manager. He made Robinson develop his solo act.
During World War I, Robinson volunteered to entertain the U.S. troops and bagged a solo act at Chicago’s ‘Palace Theatre.’
In 1918, Robinson performed his iconic “stair dance” at the ‘Palace Theatre’ in New York. It required the dancer to tap up and down a flight of stairs, both forward and backward. Though the origin of the dance is disputed, Robinson is largely credited to have developed it. Nevertheless, he failed to patent the dance.
From 1919 to 1923, he did regular shows at the ‘Orpheum Circuit.’ In 1924 and 1925, he worked full-time for the ‘B. F. Keith Circuit.’
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In 1928, he starred in the phenomenally successful ‘Broadway’ musical revue ‘Blackbirds of 1928,’ which featured his "stair dance." The revue starred African-American performers and was meant for white audiences. It also featured Adelaide Hall.
Soon, he became known as "Bojangles," connoting a cheerful disposition. His catchphrase, "Everything's copacetic," became hugely popular.
Adelaide Hall and Robinson were cast together again in the ‘Broadway’ musical ‘Brown Buddies.’
Robinson made his film debut with the 1930 ‘RKO Pictures’ musical ‘Dixiana.’ He then appeared in his first starring role, in ‘Harlem Is Heaven’ (1932). The movie is regarded as the first film with an all-black cast, although silent all-black movies existed earlier.
He was part of 14 Hollywood movies. Many of them were musicals. He is also known for his multiple appearances with child star Shirley Temple. Robinson and Temple were the first interracial dance partners in the history of Hollywood. They appeared in four films together, namely, ‘The Littlest Rebel,’ ‘The Little Colonel,’ ‘Just around the Corner,’ and ‘Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.’
He appeared as a romantic lead opposite African–American actor Fredi Washington in ‘One Mile from Heaven’ (1937), after Hollywood relaxed its reservations against such roles for African–Americans.
He appeared in ‘The Hot Mikado,’ a jazz-based reworking of Gilbert and Sullivan's popular operetta, in 1939, at the age of 61. He celebrated his 61st birthday by dancing through 61 blocks of ‘Broadway.’
He made his final film appearance in the 1943 ‘Fox’ musical ‘Stormy Weather.’
Robinson's final public appearance was as a surprise guest on the TV show ‘The Original Amateur Hour’ in 1949.
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He helped in the establishment of the ‘Negro Actors Guild of America’ and raised money for benevolent causes.
He also co-founded the baseball team known as the ‘New York Black Yankees’ in Harlem in 1936, along with James Semler.
Family & Personal Life
He was married thrice. He got married to Lena Chase in 1907. They separated in 1916 and divorced in 1922.
He married Fannie S. Clay in 1922, though some sources state the exact date of their marriage is uncertain. Clay was her husband's manager and helped him in establishing the ‘Negro Actors Guild of America,’ an organization that fought for the rights of African–American performers.
Robinson divorced Clay in 1943. The following year, he married Elaine Plaines. They were together until his death in 1949. He had no children.
In 1949, he died of a chronic heart condition in New York City.
Robinson's funeral, arranged by TV and friend host Ed Sullivan, was held at the ‘369th Infantry Regiment Armory.’ It was attended by nearly 32,000 people, including many stalwarts from the entertainment industry. He was buried in the ‘Cemetery of the Evergreens’ in Brooklyn, New York.
His birthday was declared the ‘National Tap Dance Day’ by the ‘Congress’ in 1989.
A public park in Harlem was named after him.
Jim Haskins and N. R. Mitgang published his biography, ‘Mr. Bojangles: The Biography of Bill Robinson,’ in 1988.
Academy Award-winning lyricist Sammy Cahn collaborated with playwright Doug Jones and composer Charles Strouse for a musical named ‘Bojangles,’ which premiered at the ‘Barksdale Theatre's 40th anniversary season in 1993.
A made-for-TV film titled ‘Bojangles’ (2001) bagged the ‘NAACP Best Actor Award’ for Gregory Hines (who played Robinson).
He has been referred to in many songs, such as ‘The Grateful Dead’s ‘Alabama Getaway.’
On March 21, 1908, Robinson was arrested for armed robbery in New York City. On September 30 that year, he was convicted and sentenced to 11 to 15 years of hard labor. However, he was later exonerated, as it was proved that he had been falsely accused.
He was also known for his unique ability to run backward, almost at the same pace as other men could run forward.
He is said to have died penniless despite having earned a huge fortune in his heyday.