becoming josephine baker -- 3/9/23

Today's excerpts selection -- from Josephine: The Hungry Heart by Jean-Claude Baker & Chris Chase. In 1921, Josephine McDonald married Billy Baker, the handsome son of a restaurant owner on South Street in Philadelphia. But Josephine Baker wanted to be a star, and nothing was going to stop her:

"By 1921, Philadelphia was already a big city with more than 134,000 black residents. It boasted Independence Hall, and an interest in theater that dated back to the 1720s, when wandering players drew crowds to the outskirts of town. But for Josephine [Baker], its appeal lay in the fact that it was only eighty-three miles from New York City.

"As it happened, Shuffle Along, playing the Dunbar, a few blocks from the Standard, was headed for New York City. Josephine heard from Wilsie Caldwell, a former Dumas classmate who was in the Broadway-bound show, that the management was looking for more dancers, and she asked Wilsie to help her get an audition.

"Next thing she knew she was doing her routine for Noble Sissle and Eubic Blake. (Sissle and Blake were the elegant vaudeville team who had joined forces with Miller and Lyles, a comedy-dance act, and created Shuffle Along, the music designed ‘to put the Negro back on Broadway’)

"The way Josephine described her audition, Mr. Blake had said nothing, while Mr. Sissle had said she was too young, too small, too thin, too ugly. And too dark. '“Can you even dance?” he asked me. “No, but it doesn't matter . . . I watch, I dance without knowing . . . without dancing.”’

"Whatever Noble Sissle may have said to Josephine, a letter he wrote to the dancer Willie Covan indicates clearly that it was only Josephine's age that had made him turn her away.

"‘I will always remember her,’ Sissle said, ‘leaving us without a word, her eyes full of tears. . … The last we saw, she was walking in the street under heavy rain. Her clothes were all wet, so was her hair. She did not even open the big umbrella she was carrying. We felt so sad for her, but we were heading for Broadway, and the law was, you had to be sixteen to perform onstage there; on the road, nobody cared.’ …

"[Josephine Baker’s husband, Billy Baker] and his parents were lovely people, they all looked like they were white. And their restaurant was so high-class, white tablecloths, waiters, everything. … Billy worked in his father’s restaurant -- ‘He was a good-looking thing,’ said the Duchess, but it was for Pa Baker that she reserved her highest praise. ‘If you had no money, he’d give you a meal. He did his own cooking, but he didn’t serve no whiskey, didn’t allow no cussing or nothing.

"‘The family lived upstairs over the restaurant. There were two sons, Billy and Edward, and after Billy married Josephine, she came to live there too, up on the third floor. I seen her at the Standard --- oh my God, she broke the show up, how she could dance -- and I seen her at home.' …

"In Philadelphia, at least, there doesn't seem to have been much to witness; once she married Billy, for the first time in fifteen crowded years, she had at home. She called Mr. Baker ‘Pa,’ and the Duchess said this pleased him. ‘Her and her father-in-law was very close because he wanted a daughter, and she looked so much like the Bakers she could have been one of them, except she was darker. Mr. Baker called her ‘Daughter,’ he never called her Josephine. Yes, he sure did love her. He wanted everything for her.’

"[O]ne magical afternoon, [Josephine] got to see Shuffle Along, which wasn't in Harlem, but wasn't exactly in the theater district either. It was playing at the Sixty-third Street Theatre, a kind of run-down lecture hall; even so, white people came in droves, helping to make it the longest-running (504 performances) book musi­cal ever coproduced, directed, written, and acted by black talent.

"Shuffle Along was, Josephine knew, the show she needed to make her happy. The final curtain hadn't rung down before she was racing back­stage, father-in-law by the hand, asking him to invite Wilsie Caldwell for a bite to eat. Chorus people hear all the gossip; Wilsie, who'd got her the Philadelphia audition, might be able to help again, she might have news of replacements, or touring companies.

Gibson's New Standard Theatre, 1126 South St Philadelphia PA (1919)

"Back in Philadelphia, business was so good at the Standard and the Dunbar that John T. Gibson, who owned both houses, put up new illuminated signs; a hundred lights made them so bright they could be seen from anywhere on South Broad Street. ‘Old Gibby kept them two theaters running,’ said Lily Yuen.

"Josephine should have been happy. Christmas was coming, she had a handsome husband, a loving father-in-law, work she enjoyed. But what she wanted from Santa Claus was a job in Shuffle Along.

"Wilsie phoned one day to say a second company was being formed. The show, now in its sixth month on Sixty-third Street, was so popular that even the owners of white theaters out of town were clamoring for it. The road company was already scheduled to open on February 14 and play one-night stands through New England.

"That was all Josephine needed to know. She took the train to New York, went to the theater, and was hired -- at thirty dollars a week -- by Al Mayer, one of the producers who didn't realize she'd ever auditioned before.

"She went back to Philadelphia, packed, and bought a one-way ticket to New Haven. ‘It was the Shuffle Along No. 2 show that gave Jose­phine a new start in the theatrical profession of which she was very fond,’ Billy Baker recalled. Maude Russell put it more bluntly. ‘I don't think she stayed with her husband but a hot minute.’

"The way it turned out, Maude's was the first face Josephine saw when she reported to the theater in New Haven. Maude had been in the original New York cast of Shuffle Along, and had quit to go back to her on-again, off-again marriage, but when Sam Russell punched her, it was the end. ‘I stole a hundred dollars from him,’ she says gleefully, ‘and I left town so fast I blinded him with ass.’

"Now, having joined the second company of Shuffle Along, she was delighted to see Josephine, swathed in black sealskin and a silk turban, sweeping through the stage door.

"‘I ran over and threw my arms around her and said, “Oh, Tumpy, how good you look, I'm so glad --" She cut me off. “My name is not Tumpy anymore. My name is Josephine Baker.” And then she started to giggle. But I was impressed. I thought she was really grand out there, puttin' on the dog.'"



Jean-Claude Baker & Chris Chase


Josephine: The Hungry Heart


Cooper Square Press


Copyright 1993 by Jean-Claude Baker and Chris Chase


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