Three times systemic racism hampered Buck and Bubbles’ career in show business

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Since the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in 2020, social justice advocates have targeted systemic racism in housing, education and law enforcement. Less attention was paid to entertainment. However, as the recent controversy over racial bias at the Oscars suggests, this problem has always existed in show business. The career of legendary vaudeville team Buck and Bubbles shows how it worked.

Buck and Bubbles (aka tap dancer John Bubbles and pianist Buck Washington) were black contemporaries of well-known white duos such as Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello. Buck and Bubbles might also have been known if anonymous forces hadn’t blocked their progress at pivotal points in their careers. Here are three examples:

RKO Vaudeville

By September 1928, Buck and Bubbles had reason to hope for a rise in professional status. For eight years, they were denied headliner status despite consistently outplaying (according to critics) their white competitors. Now they had just dominated a high profile gig at the New York Palace, eclipsing the headliners and securing a rare and coveted second week booking (the first time such an honor has been bestowed on a black act, according to Pittsburgh Mail). Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) immediately offered them a contract at $750 a week the first year, $850 the second and $900 the third. The clear expectation was that RKO would send them as headliners themselves.

Buck and Bubbles performing. “It was an act that no one wanted to follow”, recalls a contemporary.
(Used with permission.)

But that didn’t happen. Instead, RKO booked Buck and Bubbles for a California tour led by comedian Frances White. What followed was an all-too-familiar pattern as Buck and Bubbles once again eclipsed the headliner, making themselves “poster hit” and “[casting] a spell on the audience that some critics called “hypnotic”. When White left the show after a few months, RKO replaced her with another white headliner, bandleader Gus Arnheim. Once again, Buck and Bubbles stole the show, becoming the only act to be retained for a second week at the Orpheum in Los Angeles. RKO’s crummy treatment of them continued for another year and a half, until outside circumstances intervened to dissolve their contract.

The follies of Ziegfeld

In early 1931, one of their childhood dreams came true when Buck and Bubbles were invited to join the famous Ziegfeld Follies. They were only the second black band to do so, after Bert Williams. In a huge company of over a hundred people, Buck and Bubbles were part of a large cast supporting the four headliners. On the opening night of the trials in Pittsburgh, Buck and Bubbles received a standing ovation that lasted a good five minutes. And when the company opened in New York, Buck and Bubbles were spotted “next to closing,” the second-to-last spot in a program normally reserved for Bill’s biggest act. Why? According to Bubbles, it was because after two weeks in Pittsburgh, none of the other bands wanted to follow them. Under this bright spotlight, they once again thrived, “[hitting] this opening like a ton of granite.

Yet, for unknown but almost certainly racial reasons, white New York entertainment newspapers hid this triumph. In Pittsburgh Variety barely mentioned the crew, and when the show opened in Manhattan, the reviewer merely expressed annoyance that Buck and Bubbles were spotted closing. We only know of the duo’s popularity with the public from articles in black newspapers and the Pittsburgh press. The Folies of 1931 appeared in New York for five months. The experience should have given Buck and Bubbles a substantial career boost, but the unconscionable silence of white New York critics killed their momentum.

University show

In 1937, Buck and Bubbles got their first chance to appear in a white feature. Cast as janitors in university show, a college musical, they had just over three minutes of camera time to perform two set pieces. Their presence was so weak that Variety didn’t even mention them in his review of the movie. In contrast, the Ritz Brothers, white vaudeville contestants to Buck and Bubbles who made their film debut the previous year, received five times as much camera time plus a written take from the studio at the end of the film. The Ritz brothers went on to make fourteen more feature films over the next seven years; Buck and Bubbles’ contract, meanwhile, was not renewed.

Among other reasons for this failure, the studio was undoubtedly alarmed by Bubbles’ powerful sexuality. Reviews of his work in vaudeville and on Broadway (especially in Porgy and Bess) testified to his masculine allure. These rumors were confirmed on the set of University showwhere, according to Chicago Grandstand, the young female cast crowded around Buck and Bubbles during breaks. The director took note. For the team’s first play, Bubbles was asked to perform his dance feature in a fraternity’s boiler room, where only a few male students sat watching. For the second set, Buck and Bubbles performed on a fantasy set with no spectators at all. It was crucial to isolate them from the student body, never to feature Bubbles alongside admiring white female students. Apparently, despite his talent – and because of his race – he was too radioactive for a starring role in Hollywood.

Buck and bubbles in University show.
(Used with permission.)

What is the lesson of these examples? It’s not that the entertainment world doesn’t appreciate Buck and Bubbles. On the contrary, the goalkeepers saw the team as a goose that lay golden eggs. By threading an evil needle, they wanted to highlight Buck and Bubbles but not too much, lest they overshadow their white competitors. So, they gave them big contracts but refused headlining status. Or they recruited them for the Ziegfeld Follies but refused to report their success. One critic expressed the condescending attitude of the white establishment: “Young people of color are great artists. in their own way, and theirs is an act that is a game-changer for the big moment. In other words, they had a role to play, but only if they remembered their subordinate place. No showbiz chef can be blamed for hampering his career. Buck and Bubbles fell victim to a racist system in which the need to subjugate them for their skin color was taken for granted by people in the industry.

Featured image: Domino Johnson (John W. Bubbles) in MGM’s Cabin in the Sky, 1943. Used with permission.

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