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The Whitman Sisters “Royalty of Negro Vaudeville” » I For Color

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The Whitman Sisters “Royalty of Negro Vaudeville”

Whitman, Albery A.
1851 –  1901

Albery Allson Whitman was born into slavery in Hart County, KY, on the Green River Plantation. Albery was the husband of Caddie Whitman (1857-1909), who was also from Kentucky. Albery was a poet and a Bishop of the Methodist Church. He was a graduate of Wilberforce College (now Wilberforce University) and served as Dean of Morris Brown College in Atlanta.

 

His published works include “Leelah Misled” in 1873, “Not a Man and Yet a Man” in 1877, and “The Rape of Florida” in 1884. His last work was published in 1901: “An Idyll of the South.”

His talent as a Negro poet has been described as between Phillis Wheatley and Paul L. Dunbar.

Albery A. Whitman was also the father of musician Caswell W. Whitman (1875-1936) and The Whitman Sisters, one of the most successful vaudeville troupes in the U.S. Albery taught his older daughters to dance when they were children, and for a brief period they were manged by their mother, Caddie. The Whitman troupe first toured Kentucky in 1904. The Whitman Sisters were Mabel (1880-1962), Essie B. (1882-1963), Alberta (1887-1964), and Alice (1900-1969). Mabel directed the shows, Essie was a comic singer, Alberta was a flash dancer and did male drag, and Alice was an exceptional tap dancer. For more on Albery A. Whitman see Dictionary of American Negro Biography, by R. W. Logan and M. R. Winston; and Albery Allson Whitman (1851-1901), epic poet of African American and Native American self-determination (thesis), by J. R. Hays.

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Jeni LeGon played leading roles in a number of black films, where she claims, “sometimes I even got to be myself,” not a maid or any number of stereotypical roles. She toured widely with US Army shows, and she did club and theater performances nationally and internationally.
In a 1999 documentary by Grant Greshuck, LeGon’s extraordinary devotion to passing on tap dancing is as much a feature of the film as her stardom. Living in a Great Big Way, named for one of her famous numbers with Bill Robinson, is narrated by Fayard Nicholas, who reveres LeGon as a star performer and a gifted teacher who could “do it all.” LeGon says that sees teaching as a natural extension of her performing – “I’ve had a dance school all my life.” One envies those students for whom she clearly and still labors for the love of the form.

Dr. Jeni LeGon was one of the first African American women in tap dance to develop a solo career.  A career, very much on her own terms. In a sea of chorus girls in short skirts and high heels, she was centre stage in pants and low-heeled shoes. Her routines combining flash, acrobatics, and rhythm tap proved you  idn’t have to be a man to dance like a hoofer.

Dr. Jeni LeGon and Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson. (http://traditionintap.org/Former/TIT5_JLG_May2004/index.html)

The Dr. Jeni LeGon Tap Experience
Image Source Page: http://traditionintap.org/Former/TIT5_JLG_May2004/index.html

Born in 1916, the fifth child of Harriett and Hector LeGon, she developed her talents on the sidewalks near the  southside of Chicago

Jeni LeGon

“Born in Chicago, LeGon broke into the business at age 14 as one of the chorines performing at Chicago’s Uptown Theater with the Count Basie band. The budding young tap artist later toured the South with her sister in a troupe called the Whitman Sisters.”  (http://www.tapheritage.org/jeni.htm)

That association led to an invitation to work in Los Angeles, where LeGon, then 16, was signed by MGM for future film roles. “I was the first black woman to get a long-term contract.” LeGon recalled. But MGM bought out her contract. “I didn’t get the opportunity, I guess, because I just wasn’t the girl next door.” Undaunted, LeGon continued to pursue her career, achieving relative success in the theater, in nightclubs and in film on both coasts. Her numerous roles would earn her the title “Hollywood’s Chocolate Princess.” Her film credits include “Birth of the Blues” (with Bing Crosby), “Stormy Weather” (with Lena Horne), and “Hooray for Love.” Which starred an early mentor, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and also featured the music of Fats Waller.   “Both Bojangles and Fats were just wonderful to me, a brand new little thing like me that just came out of nowhere,” recalled the ebullient LeGon. “They were so encouraging. Fats became one of my closes friends. Of all the people I’ve worked with, he was my favorite. He also wrote two songs especially for me. I played every kind of maid, that’s all I ever did. I was an East Indian, West Indian, African, Arabic, Caribbean, and black American. Eventually, there weren’t that many roles. They were too few and far between. I worked three to four days a week. I had to go out an perform.” At the height of her fame, LeGon became one of the few females to succeed as a tap artist. She says her sex was never a hindrance to her success and counts several male tap acts as her early inspirations, including such fabled performers as the Step Brothers and John and the Five Giants of Rhythm, the tap group that accompanied Count Basie’s big band. “I was that rarity,” LeGon said. “I used to go and watch all of these guys when I went to the stage shows in Chicago. I was one of the only girls allowed in the Hoofer’s Club (in New York), where I used to go and challenge all of those guys.” When LeGon wasn’t singing and dancing on the screen, for nearly two decades she owned and operated her own dance school, Jeni LeGon Dance Studio, in Los Angeles. Her former students include playwright Mickey Grant, author of the hit musical, “Don’t bother Me I Can’t Cope.” And Victor Upshaw, a successful choreographer now living in Paris. LeGon relocated to Vancouver in 1969 and carved out her own niche in the local dance scene there. In 2002, she received a Doctorate of Performing Arts in American Dance with eight other tap legends, Cholly Atkins, Bunny Briggs, Buster Brown, Henry LeTang, Fayard Nicholas, Leonard Reed, Jimmy Slyde and Prince Spencer.” (http://www.tapheritage.org/jeni.htm)

“Pops “Albert” Whitman started dancing at a very early age with his mother Alice Whitman of the famous Whitman sisters. After the death of Mabel, the sisters disbanded and Pops Whitman joined with Louis Williams and toured the country.”

For more about the Whitman Sisters see The Royalty of Negro Vaudeville by N. George-Graves; and Jazz Dance, by M. W. Stearns and J. Stearns. For more on Caswell Woodfin Whitman see the following Chicago Defender articles – “The Whitman Sister’s kin passes away,” 04/04/1936, pp.1 & 10; “Allen Bowers Entertains,” 03/06/1932, p.7; and “The Whitmans arrive,” 03/16/1918, p.6 – [article citations provided by the Curator of the Chicago Jazz Archive at the University of Chicago].
Subjects: Actors, Actresses, Authors, Education and Educators, Fathers, Mothers, Musicians, Opera, Singers, Song Writers, Poets, Religion & Church Work, Minstrel and Vaudeville Performers, Cross Dressing, Dress in Drag

 

  LINKS:

©1999 www.StreetSwing.com
Whatever Happened to the Whitman Sisters – Hue Magazine, June 30, 1954

The Whitman Sisters

The Royalty of Negro Vaudeville

The Whitman Sisters

http://www.powells.com/biblio/1557094950?&PID=30070

http://www.tapheritage.org/jeni.htm

http://westcoasttapdance.com/jeni.html

http://www.atdf.org/awards/legon.html

http://youtu.be/JOcQ6uC8gyg