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Retrospective for a Black Vaudeville Star

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Retrospective for a Black Vaudeville Star

Performing Arts

Retrospective for a Black Vaudeville Star

Retrospective for a Black Vaudeville Star

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/3890469/3890470" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Bert Williams, photographed in 1922. Library of Congress hide caption

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W.C. Fields called Bert Williams "the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest I ever knew."

Williams was an African-American vaudeville star in the early 1900s, and an influence on many future comedians, black and white.

The customs of the times forced him to perform in blackface, playing a sad, luckless clown... but also a figure of wisdom. Comparisons to Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp are inevitable.

As Elizabeth Yate McNamee reports, a small record company, Archeophone, has released a collection called Bert Williams: His Final Releases, 1919-1922.

Williams had become wealthy and popular at the time of his death in 1922. But author Mel Watkins says Williams remained sad because of racial disparities.

"He was a very intelligent man, who listened to operas, who read Nitzche," Watkins says. "He was basically a kind of elite individual... and had he been not black, he would have been accepted as such."

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