Sunday, September 21, 2014

Child Star Appreciation (Part One)

Some of the biggest performers in entertainment history got their start as "little ones"--Michael Jackson, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis, Jr. Then, you have some great performers who also made their big debuts as children, but didn't exactly go on to become "icons" or "legends" like the aforementioned. The list below includes some of those unsung talents, as well as some names you may be familiar with.


Florence Mills

By the time she was five years old, Florence Mills (born Florence Winfrey) was one of Washington, D.C.'s biggest "little" stars. She won numerous Cakewalk and Buck dancing competitions as a child, and when her family moved to Harlem (in 1905), she and her two older sisters, Olivia and Maude, performed on Harlem's stages as 'The Mills Sisters'. They soon began touring in nearby major cities (like Chicago and Indianapolis) and in the South. The act dissolved in about 1914.

Florence Mills performed with many different acts over the next few years before taking over the role of "Ruth Little" in Shuffle Long, the role that catapulted her into super-stardom. From then on, Florence Mills was a household name--one of the biggest and most sought-after stage performers of the 1920s. Sadly, Florence Mills died on November 1, 1927 after an exhausting run of her show, Blackbirds, took a toll on her health.

Unfortunately, no audio or video recordings of a Florence Mills performance are known to exist. But below is a video of Duke University Professor, Thomas "Tommy" DeFrantz, demonstrating the "Buck", "Wing", and "Jig" dances:

Now, below is footage of performers doing the "Cakewalk" in Uncle Tom's Cabin (1903):

These are the dances that Florence Mills mastered as a child.

Florence Mills


Josephine Baker

From Wikimedia Commons

By the time she was 13 years old, Josephine Baker (born Freda Josephine McDonald) was certain that she wanted to be a dancer. "La Baker" began touring with The Jones Family Band and The Dixie Steppers in 1919. However, it was her work as the "clumsy" chorus girl in the hit Broadway show, Shuffle Along, that made her a star. 

She was just 14 years old when she auditioned for the show in April of 1921. However, she was rejected for being too young, "too skinny", and "too dark" (particularly darker than the other chorus girls who had already been cast). By 1921, young Josephine had been married twice and in desperate need of money, so she auditioned for the show a second time--this time, she put light powder on her face and told the company manager she was 17. To her dismay, she was employed as a dresser (taking care of the costumes and helping performers get in and out of them), but when one of the chorus girls got sick (she was pregnant), Josephine took her place. 

The reviews for Shuffle Along were mostly positive and many reviews specifically mentioned Josephine's performance. She'd become one of the show's biggest stars and as they say, "the rest is history".

Below is rare footage of Josephine Baker's famous "banana dance":



Hazel Scott

From Wikimedia Commons

Hazel Dorothy Scott was born to, raised in, and destined for greatness. Her father, R. Thomas Scott, was a scholar, and her mother, Alma Long Scott, was a musician.

Hazel started playing the piano when she was three, and when she was eight years old, she was enrolled in the Juilliard School of music. As a teenager, she played piano and trumpet in her mother's all-girl jazz band and by the time she reached her early 20s, she was already one of the biggest and most sought-after nightclub acts in the United States (according to Wikipedia, by 1945, she was earning $75,000 a year--that's $991,050 in 2014). 

Through marriages, motherhood, and blacklisting, Hazel Scott played the piano well into her final years of life.

*50 Minutes of Hazel Scott!*



Ida James
(192? - ?)

Not much is known about singer and actress, Ida James, specifically significant dates or events of her life, but thanks to the Google News Archive and Google Books, I've been able to scrounge up a few things.

As a child, Ida Mae James traveled with her mother, who also taught her how to sing. After making her debut at the age of nine on Philadelphia's Colored Kiddies Hour radio show, she'd become one of Northern United States' most recognized talents (she was probably the most famous in Philadelphia, of course, and in her hometown of Providence, Rhode Island).

Ida grew up to become one of the most popular (and distinguishable) singers of the 1940s. She was a featured vocalist for the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra, Earl "Fatha" Hines and his Orchestra, and even recorded a few songs with the King Cole Trio. She also appeared in a few films, including the Cab Calloway film, Hi-De-Ho (1947)

It seems that Ms. James' career may have waned by the mid-1950s, but here are a links that may help you get to know her more: 1944 photo at Café SocietyMay 1953 issue of Jet magazine, November 1953 issue of Jet magazine, September 1954 issue of Jet magazine, August 1959 issue of Jet magazine.

Below is a "soundie" of Ida James performing "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby?" with the King Cole Trio (1944):

The Afro American (June 4, 1932)
The Afro American (July 9, 1932)


Barbara Jean Wong

From the Old Time Radio Catalog

Barbara Jean Wong began performing at the age of five and was dubbed "the Chinese-American Shirley Temple" (she too wore her hair in ringlets). In 1937, she made her debut as a radio actress. It was recently discovered that she voiced the character of "Judy Barton" in the popular radio program, The Cinnamon Bear.

Barbara Jean Wong lent her voice to many radio characters throughout the late 1930s and 1940s. Her most popular (and shocking) role was as "Arbadella"--Amos' daughter in Amos 'n' Andy. She also worked in several films, including Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938) and The Red Dragon (1946). When Barbara Jean Wong married, she retired from acting and became a teacher.

Below is a Columbia recording of "The Lord's Prayer" as recited by Freeman Gosden as "Amos" (of Amos 'n' Andy) and featuring Barbara Jean Wong as "Arbadella". The Jeff Alexander Choir sings in the background:

Old Time Radio Catalog


Sammy Davis, Jr.

From Wikimedia Commons

"Mr. Entertainment" was born to two entertainers--Sammy Davis, Sr. and Elvera Sanchez, a tap dancer. It was only natural that he'd go on to be one of the greatest performers in entertainment history.

Sammy Jr.'s parents split when he was about three years old, and so he wouldn't lose custody of his son, Sammy Davis, Sr. took him on tour with them. Soon, Sammy Sr. and Will Mastin (the leader of the dance troupe he was in) began teaching Sammy Jr. how to dance, and soon after that, Will Mastin, Sammy Sr., and Sammy Jr. formed the "Will Mastin Trio". 

Sammy Davis, Jr. performed as one-third of the Will Mastin Trio until he joined the United States Army during World War II. After his discharge, he rejoined the trio and over time, because its "star", thus leading to a fruitful solo career that lasted well into his final years.

Below is a clip of seven year old Sammy Davis, Jr. performing "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead, You Rascal You" in Rufus Jones for President (1933):



Philippa Schuyler

From Wikipedia

Philippa Duke Schuyler was born on August 2, 1931 to George S. Schuyler, a black journalist and essayist, and Josephine Cogdell, a white native of Texas and former beauty queen. Her parents believed that mixed-race children inherited the "strengths" of both their parents' races, and as a result, had the power to ease racial tension. They raised their daughter to be a genius by, of course, educating her from a very early age, and even feeding her only raw foods (her mother believed that cooking food destroyed its vitamin content) a daily ration of cod liver oil, and lemon slices in place of sweets. 

By the time Philippa was two years old, she could read and write, and by the time she was four, she was a skilled pianist. Throughout her childhood, she composed her own music, gave recitals, and performed on radio. She received widespread media coverage for her work, but her parents shielded her from the media attention to keep her from becoming self-conscious. 

As Philippa got older, she became disillusioned with her country and in its music industry. She began to recognize and understand racial and gender discrimination in America. Plus, the public was beginning to lose their fascination with her. Philippa basically found herself "lost" in the entertainment industry. To make matters worse, her parents finally showed her a scrapbook that documented her career. When she read newspaper clippings with quotes from her parents about her upbringing, she realized that she was "conceived and raised, in a sense, as an experiment" (Wikipedia). 

Philippa moved to Europe and changed her name to Felipa Monterro in an attempt to pass as a woman of Spanish descent. She continued performing sporadically and even made plans for a comeback in the United States, but the plans never really panned out. She eventually followed in her father's footsteps and became a journalist. In 1967, she traveled to Vietnam as a war correspondent. During a helicopter mission, the helicopter crashed into the sea. 

 "A court of enquiry found that the pilot had deliberately cut his motor and descended in an uncontrolled glide – possibly in an attempt to give his civilian passengers an insight into the dangers of flying in a combat zone – eventually losing control of the aircraft." [Wikipedia]

Philippa survived the crash, but she didn't know how to swim, and as an unfortunate result, she drowned. She was 35 years old.

*"Philippa Duke Schuyler plays Chopin Scherzo in C-sharp minor Op. 39"*

Extravagant Crowd: Carl Van Vechten's Portraits of Women 
(^Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library^)
On An Overgrown Path: Philippa Schuyler - genius or genetic experiment?


Toni Harper
(born on June 8, 1937)

From Jazz Wax

Toni Harper studied dance under the tutelage of the great Maceo Anderson. In 1945, she auditioned with hundreds of others kids for a part in dancer/choreographer, Nick Castle's production of Christmas Follies. Toni won a part in the stage show, but it wasn't her dancing that won her a part--it was her singing. 

Toni Harper received enthusiastic reviews for her role in Christmas Follies and she soon became one of America's biggest "little" superstars. She performed onstage with entertainers like Cab Calloway and Herb Jeffries, and even recorded a few songs, including her platinum-selling hit, "Candy Store Blues".

Toni Harper also made several big and small screen appearances throughout her adolescent years, and as an adult, she recorded three albums: Toni (1956), Lady Lonely (1959), and Night Mood (1960). However, after being in the music industry for over twenty years, Toni Harper (now Toni Dunlap) retired in 1966 at the age of 29. 

*Toni Harper singing "Candy Store Blues" in Make Believe Ballroom (1949)*

Jazz Wax 
(Words from the woman herself in the link above)


Frank "Sugar Chile" Robinson
(born on December 28, 1938)

From Wikipedia 

Frank Isaac Robinson showed interest (and talent) in the piano at a very young age. When he was just three years old, he won a talent show at the Paradise Theatre in Detroit, and by the time he was six years old, he was playing on stage and on the radio with Lionel Hampton, his band, and other bands. In 1946, he gained national notoriety after playing for President Harry S. Truman at the White House. "Sugar Chile" also made appearances on television and in film throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s. 

Frank Robinson stopped touring and recording in about 1952 so that he could focus on his education. As he attended school, he continued making occasional appearances, but in 1956, he stopped completely. Young Frank graduated from high school at the age of 15 and attended Olivet College, where he earned a degree in history, and the Detroit Institute of Technology, where he earned a degree in psychology. 

Frank "Sugar Chile" Robinson made a comeback as a musician in the early 2000s and makes guest appearances at festivals and on radio shows. 

Below is a clip from a newsreel that features six-year old Frank "Sugar Chile" Robinson playing the piano:




I hope you found this post informative (and the clips/links entertaining!). Don't forget to share! 

Also, be on the look-out for "Part Two". It will feature groups!

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