Bill “Bojangles” Robinson

By: Brian Berger
May 25, 2015


In September 1941, BILL “BOJANGLES” ROBINSON (1878–1949), “King of Harlem,” arrived in Brooklyn for a week-long engagement at the Flatbush Theater. Robinson was starring — as he had previously on Broadway and the New York World’s Fair — in Hot Mikado, an all-black, jazzed up recasting of Gilbert & Sullivan’s 1885 ersatz Japanese operetta, The Mikado. Unlikely as that sounds, it was a terrific chance to see Robinson excel as the complete entertainer he’d long been: actor, singer, dancer, comedian. In the mid-1930s, Robinson had become best known for movies, with very mixed results. King For A Day (1934), a twenty-minute black mini-musical, is slight but Robinson charms. The Reconstruction romance The Little Colonel (February 1935), the first of his four Shirley Temple features, is execrable and to see Robinson — in real life, nobody’s patsy, least of all racially — so graceful yet debased is difficult, the well-known stair dance sequence set to sentimental minstrel songs included. “My Old Kentucky Home”? Burn Hollywood Burn! The frothy Ann Sothern vehicle Hooray For Love (June 1935) isn’t great but its token black scene, with Robinson, stunning Jeri LeJon, and genius Fats Waller is extraordinary. The Littlest Rebel (November 1935) makes The Little Colonel seem like Shaft by comparison. Robinson plays Uncle Billy, the loyal slave determined to protect cutsey-pie of the Confederacy Virgie (Temple) from Yankee oppression. Who to blame for this vomit? Blame everyone, including the kid: they all loved the money that Robinson, a degenerate gambler, needed more than the self-respect he asserted elsewhere.

King For A Day

Stair dance from The Little Colonel

“Living In A Great Big Way” from Hooray for Love

Hot Mikado (silent)


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Miles Davis, Tom T. Hall, Rosario Castellanos, Luc Sante, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

READ MORE about members of the Psychonaut Generation (1874–1883).


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