February 7, 2013
Philadelphia has produced so many performers who have danced around the edges of history. Many contributed in a unique way to their special field and then disappeared, underrated and unremembered. African-American dancer, choreographer, composer and film actor Louis Winston Douglas was one of those Philadelphians.
BELLE DAVIS & HER PICKANINNIES
Louis Douglas was born in Philadelphia in 1889. Very little is known of his early life, but he began his amazingly long and varied performing career in Philadelphia juggling plates and dancing. Somehow, as a child, he joined with the beautiful black music hall performer Belle Davis, right, who performed frequently in Philadelphia at the Park Theatre on Broad Street and Keith’s on Chestnut Street. She’d deliver her songs surrounded by three or four young boy dancers as “Belle Davis and her Pickaninnies,” below. Davis, a Chicagoan, toured Europe from about 1901 until World War I, crisscrossing the continent and returning frequently to the U.S., part of the first wave of American black performers to engage European audiences. Douglas first travelled to London at the age of 14 with Belle Davis and her troupe in 1903, although he was officially listed as being 11. He stayed with Davis for about 5 years, then joined black impresario and singer Will Garland in a song and dance act. Next, he toured the continent as a solo until the beginning of World War I. During the war he based himself in London, starring in music hall revues and making a name for himself.
After the war, he teamed with dancer Fernandes “Sonny” Jones, who had been one of Belle Davis’ “pickaninnies,” as “Douglas and Jones; Syncopated Black-Faced Comedians.” In 1921, they formed an act backed up by a chorus of a dozen women dancers billed as “The Shurley Girls” and took it to the Folies-Bergères in Paris.
LA REVUE NÉGRE
While in Paris, Douglas, left, became involved as choreographer and chief male dancer with an all-black musical extravaganza that white Chicagoan Caroline Dudley Reagan was mounting at the Music Hall des Champs-Élysées. The show, called “La Revue Nègre,” opened on October 2, 1925. Although critics wrote that Douglas “created veritable events with his feet,” the production made an instant hit of his partner, the beautiful and talented Josephine Baker. Baker shocked and mesmerized Parisians with her sexy caricature of American jazz dance. Revue Négre was so successful that it travelled to Berlin, where Douglas settled for a while, becoming such a popular icon that his face was used in advertisements for German cigarettes, below.
THE SILVER SCREEN
While in Germany the accomplished Douglas went on to dance and act in early German sound films. In Einbrecher, (The Burglar), a 1930 musical comedy, he appeared in several cabaret scenes, accompanied by saxaphonist Sidney Bechet’s jazz band. In the clip below, he appears first as a tap solo, then flanked by two female dancers:
Interestingly, in this clip, black and white patrons are filmed together in the cabaret, throroughly enjoying the music and the show, something that would not have happened in any film made in the U.S. at that time. In 1931, Douglas appeared in a dramatic role in Niemandsland, (No Man’s Land), a German anti-war film set during WW I. Both films had the distinction of being banned under the Nazis, Einbrecher because of its decadent American jazz, Niemansland because of its pacifism and both because they featured African-Americans in prominent roles.
Douglas made one final tour of Europe before debt drove him back to New York in 1937. In New York he worked with the legendary Eubie Blake and Andy Razaf. Louis Douglas died in New York in 1939 at the age of 51.
AFRICAN-AMERICANS IN EUROPE
From 1899 until World War II, hundreds of African-American performers found full time employment in Europe. They also found fewer of the restrictions that the racist codes of American theatre and cinema had imposed on them. How they exhibited themselves onstage and how they were perceived by Europeans is a complex construct. Whether loved or hated, African-Americans and the American jazz dance and music they brought with them were rarely viewed with indifference. Louis Douglas often performed in black face and choreographed stereotypical pieces set in watermelon patches and plantations, yet somehow he transcended those stereotypes. Not everyone was pleased by those choices. The African-American actor, singer and activist Paul Robeson, for instance, dismissed such performances as degrading clichés that pandered to white audiences.
Many Europeans, however, saw black performers through a skewed lens as somehow exemplifying primitive African energy filtered through American modernism. German critic Ivan Goll wrote “Negroes dance with their senses, while Europeans can dance only with their minds.” In the 20s, the racist sexuality that Europeans equated with blackness worked in the favor of African-Americans abroad and some, like Josephine Baker, used that to their advantage. She wildly gyrated onstage, clad only in a skirt of bananas, drawing both criticism and praise, at the same time slyly exaggerating and mocking the stereotypes.
Because they left America to seek fulfilling and rewarding careers in Europe, many African-American expatriate performers simply fell out of the U.S. popular spotlight and into the shadows. Unlike Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith or Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the truly amazing lives and accomplishments of performers like Louis Douglas are virtually unknown to American audiences and theatre and dance historians today.
Ivan Goll, “The Negroes are Conquering Europe,” Die literarische Welt, no. 2, January 15, 1926.
Larry Green, “Germans and African-Americans: Two Centuries of Exchange,” Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2011.
Clarence Lusane, “Hitler’s Black Victims: The Historical Experiences of Afro-Germans, European Blacks, Africans, and African Americans in the Nazi Era,” Psychology Press, 2003.
William A. Shack, “Harlem in Monmartre: A Paris Jazz Story Between the Great Wars,” U of California Press, 2001.
A special thank you to Nick Cvetkovic from the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, who pointed me toward a publication called “African-Americans with German Connections,” available as a free download from the American Association of Teachers of German here.
I have a special fondness for Paul Colin’s explosive “Revue Nègre” poster above, a copy of which hangs over my home desk.