A man named Bert Williams

June 6, 2009

I guess I’m on a Broadway kick.  I watched a dvd of the original Broadway recording session for Company.  I watch the most interesting things almost by accident because of Netflix.

Anyway – after I watched it a few times I looked at what else there was like it and I found a PBS series about American Musicals and Netflix has it as an instant watch thing.

Normally I don’t do instant watch on a lot of stuff because you don’t get the extra features but I decided to watch this series.  TV shows don’t tend to have a lot of extras anyway.

The show starts with the very beginnings of Broadway and Ziegfeld, Cohen, etc.  It was really fascinating learning the baby steps that Broadway took and seeing the various pictures and surviving film footage of the times.  But what I really love are the quotes from various people done in voice over.

That’s how I learned about a gentleman named Bert Williams.  I hope the quotes attributed to him and about him are true.  Ziegfeld hired him to be in the Follies and the other acts said they wouldn’t perform on the same stage as him because he was black.  Supposedly Ziegfeld said that he could replace all of them but not Mr. Williams.  W.C. Fields, a contemporary, said Bert Williams was, “the funniest man I ever saw – and the saddest man I ever knew.”

Where’s HBO with the biography of this man?

He’s insanely urban and quotable.  Here’s a quote to show you what I mean,

People sometimes ask me if I would not give anything to be white. I answer . . . most emphatically, “No.” How do I know what I might be if I were a white man? I might be a sandhog, burrowing away and losing my health for $8 a day. I might be a streetcar conductor at $12 or $15 a week. There is many a white man less fortunate and less well-equipped than I am. In fact, I have never been able to discover that there was anything disgraceful in being a colored man. But I have often found it inconvenient . . . in America. – Brooks, Tim. Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919, University of Illinois Press (2004), page 174 – ISBN 0252028503 (yes I put the whole citation in… if you are surprised by this you obviously haven’t met my mother)

He seemed to be a true gentleman in a time when he was treated as less than …. okay – I don’t even want to think about that anymore.  But come on.  Halle Berry made us remember the great Dorothy Dandridge. Who’s going to bring us the story of Bert Williams?

I think Spike Lee and Oprah should produce.  Robert Townsend can direct.  Maybe Andre Benjamin should star to bring in a young demographic.

Just a thought.



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