Category Archives: Entertainment

Music hall, cabaret, dance hall

The Mammy Stereotype

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The sheet music for Coal-Black Mammy (Francis, Day and Hunter, London, 1921).
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The cast of the Co-Optmists revue at the Palace Theatre of London. Author Laddie Cliff stands third from the right.

Coal-Black Mammy was written by comedian Laddie Cliff and composed by actress and singer Ivy St. Hellier in 1921. Although the author was born in Bristol (UK), he adapted the American South’s archetypical Mammy for the successful ‘Co-Optimists’ London revue.

A photograph of author Laddie Cliff when young, and the obituary in the Glasgow Herald
A photograph of author Laddie Cliff when young, and his obituary in the Glasgow Herald of 1937.

The Co-Optimists revue combined in its name two political keywords of the time, optimism and co-operation.  It was a sequence of short sketches, performed by musical comedy and variety artists dressed in pierrot costumes. The show ran for six years at the London Palace Theatre and went on tour along British seaside resorts.

View of the Palace Theatre across Cambridge Circus, London, 1910
View of the Palace Theatre across Cambridge Circus, London, 1910

In 1929 it was made into a film, co-directed by Laddie Cliff. A filmed extract from the stage musical brings the photo on the sheet music cover literally to life.

Salabert published Coal-Black Mammy in France and Roger de Valerio illustrated its cover. Mammy characters were a staple of minstrel shows, so they were certainly known in Europe at that time.

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‘Coal-Black Mammy’, illustrated by Roger de Valerio (Francis Salabert, Paris, 1921)

But, in picturing the mother with her own baby de Valerio proves that he did not correctly grasp the Southern archetypical meaning of the Black Mammy. Unlike the happy mother on the cover, she did not have time to care for her own children. The Mammy in these shows and comedies is a racist stereotype: usually an overweight, large-breasted, maternal woman. Moreover she is a neat and clean, domestic, non threatening to white people, and always busy attending to the needs of the master’s children. She is the one person on whom all (white people) depend when in need.

American illustrator Dorothy Dullin on the other hand, understood perfectly well how to draw a Mammy for the cover of the 1922 song Carolina Mammy: the Mammy is nurturing a white boy.

‘Carolina Mammy’, cover illustrated by Dorothy Dullin (Publications Francis-Day, Paris, 1922).

The two songs mentioned above were also performed by black face par excellence, Al Jolson. In 1927 Walter Donaldson composed the ultimate Mammy song for the film The Jazz Singer: My Mammy. The song became a classic in Al Jolson’s version. For the French edition of the song the illustrator Deléage made a strong caricature of Al Jolson’s black face character.

‘My Mammy’, sheet music cover illustrated by L. R. Deléage (Publications Raoul Breton, Paris, 1929).

The persistent Mammy stereotype extended well into the twentieth century in literature, films and TV series. In the cartoon Scrub me Mamma with a Boogie Beat from 1941, we see another archetypical image of the Black Mammy, kerchief on her head. Of course the entire cartoon is the epitome of stereotyping: black men living in Lazytown, doing nothing else than, well… being lazy. It is only when a sexy light-skinned woman appears, that they jump into action  to dance and play their instruments.

Or to say it with a good old sheet music cover…

Lazin', Sheet music (Lazin', partition illustrée)
‘Lazin’, composed by Charles Tovey (illustrator unknown, Lawrence Wright, London, 1934).

 

The Dolly Sisters: Art Deco gold diggers

Gold Diggers illustrated by Boullaire
Gold Diggers illustrated by Boullaire

Gold Diggers is an appropriate title for the fox trot danced by the Dolly Sisters. They surely knew something about gold digging, not as in ‘gold mining in Klondike’ but as in sweet-talking sugar daddies. The Dolly Sisters were hot during the jazz age and everybody wanted to be seen with them, even royalty.

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The Dolly Sisters in their flamboyant costumes

Jenny and Rosie Deutsch had immigrated from their native Hungary to America where they began performing on stage at an early age. They were identical twins and they accentuated this by synchronising their movements and by wearing identical costumes. The Dolly Sisters soon became famous both in Europe and in the States. They had a penchant for plumes, jewellery, money, and older men but above all for gambling.

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The Dolly Sisters in gypsy costume.

The best known of their sugar daddies was Harry Selfridge, who founded the first ‘shopping is fun’ department store in Oxford Street, London: Selfridges. In his later life he became so besotted by the Dolly Sisters that he catered for their every wish. He bought them diamonds, flew over their favourite food and sat next to them at the gambling table, his wallet wide open. This would eventually hasten the downfall of Harry Selfridge: he lost his entire fortune and his beloved department store.

The Dolly Sisters’ exuberant partying lifestyle came abruptly to an end when Jenny was injured in a car accident. She never recovered from it and sadly hanged herself in 1941. Rosie retired from public life and also tried to take her own live. She passed away in 1977.

The Dolly Sisters were wildly famous during their heyday, but it was not an enduring fame. Now this is interesting. We still know Greta Garbo, Maurice Chevalier or Charlie Chaplin, but not the Dolly Sisters. Maybe long-lasting fame has to do with persistence and talent. The Dolly Sisters’ career span was rather short. As for their talent we can get a glimpse of that in a recently published YouTube fragment. They are performing in a pantomime of a traditional children’s tale Babes in the Woods, although not in their usual identical costumes.

In an iconographic way the Dolly Sisters simply breathed Art Deco. Their ornate costumes and lavish acts are the quintessential image of the Roaring Twenties as can be seen in some of our Dolly Sisters sheet music covers.

Dolly Sisters, illustrated by de Valerio
Dolly Sisters, illustrated by de Valerio
Charleston Dolly, illustrated by Jack Roberts
Charleston Dolly, illustrated by Jack Roberts
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Three covers illustrated by Loris with Maurice Chevalier between Jenny and Rosie.

Furthermore statuettes, porcelain figurines and boudoir dolls accompanied the Dolly Sisters’ rage and success. In 2012 a bronze and ivory statuette of the twins by Chiparus sold for almost 350.000 € .

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Large bronze and ivory statuette of the Dolly Sisters, by Demetre Chiparus
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Goldscheider figure group, the Dolly Sisters, 1925

 

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Boudoir dolls of the Dolly Sisters, courtesy of Frau Wulf, http://frauwulf.blogspot.be

The twins also inspired László Moholy-Nagy for his modernist photomontage Olly & Dolly Sisters. Moholy-Nagy transforms their normally cheerful disposition by a vast emptiness using light, monochromatic colours and simple geometric shapes.

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Olly & Dolly Sisters by László Moholy-Nagy, circa 1925, Gelatin silver print (The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles)

The Kinkajou, one of the many dance crazes of the Twenties

A kinkajou is a small mammal native to Central and South America with nocturnal habits and related to raccoons.

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Kinkajou

The name of this cute little animal was used for a dance novelty in the late 1920s. An article of the Examiner in 1927 explained how to dance the Kinkajou: ‘You must sway the shoulders, tango like a sailor manipulating a gangway, and then change from one foot to the other as though in pain, lifting each foot well off the ground.’

While the dance originated in the 1927 Broadway musical Rio Rita, there was a serious disagreement in Paris on who created the original dance routine: the dance teacher Jean Mesnard, the beautiful Irvin Sisters or Albertina Rasch? In fact, all three of them contributed to the pseudo-craze.

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Music by Harry Tierney, lyrics by Joseph McCarthy, cover by Würth
The Albertina Rasch Girls illustrated by Würth
The Albertina Rasch Girls, as illustrated by Würth
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The Albertina Rasch Dancers in costume for Rio Rita (1927).

It was Albertina Rasch,  leader of her own troupe The Albertina Rasch Girls, who choreographed the Kinkajou for the original Ziegfeld production on Broadway. The Albertina Rasch Girls also performed the Kinkajou dance routine at the Moulin Rouge in Paris, together with Harry Pilcer.

Strangely, at exactly the same period Publications Francis-Day edited another version of the Kinkajou sheet music, also by Würth. This time Würth chose not the stage of the Moulin Rouge as the central theme, but drew a highly stylised close-up portrait of the two main actors.

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Also in 1927 Paddy & Zez Confrey composed The Black Kinkajou. Although the manager of the Irvin Sisters insisted they had nothing to learn from a dance teacher and that they could very well invent their dance routines themselves, it was Jean Mesnard who choreographed the dance moves that were presented by the Irvin Sisters at the Concert Mayol in Paris.

A lot of quarreling for nothing, because the Kinkajou was never really succesful…

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The Black Kinkajou, illustrated by Pigeot

Pigeot, the illustrator of The Black Kinkajou had presumably never heard of a kinkajou and thought a drawing of a cat might do as well.

In 1929 the stage musical Rio Rita was made into a film. A rare excerpt with the Kinkajou dance routine made it to YouTube: