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The Harlem Blackbirds

In 1955 Australia was visited by the “Harlem Blackbirds”, a troupe of performers from the United States. The group of 32 performers was billed as “Australia’s first all-coloured revue” and by all accounts the show was very popular. I’ve often seen programmes of the tour in my travels around second-hand bookshops and recently I found one in Newcastle – rather bug-eaten, unfortunately – that was distinguished by bearing signatures of many of the performers.

I’ve been able to find surprisingly little written about the show and its performers. Or perhaps, sadly, that isn’t surprising, given that the performers were black which may mean they have received less attention than might otherwise have been the case (pure speculation on my part).

It seems the group and the tour grew from the work of prolific songwriter, composer and showman Larry Steele, the son of a Chicago barber who went into show business when he was 21, moving to Atlantic City in 1947 where he opened a show called “Smart Affairs” in Club Harlem, featuring a female chorus billed as the “Beige Beauts”. Smart Affairs was highly successful and earned good money touring the US. It toured overseas under the banner “Harlem Blackbirds” and I understand the show went to India before touring Australia and New Zealand. The show came to Australia with the assistance of Ziegfield Theatrical Productions and Australian entrepreneur Harry Wren.

Autographed photo of Larry Steele, from my Newcastle programme

“Harlem Blackbirds” and “Blackbirds” were names with a long tradition in the context of black American performance groups, dating back at least to the 1920s. Old programmes from the 1930s show that apparently similar revues were touring London decades before Larry Steele’s Australian visit.

Smart Affairs played its last show in 1970, and Larry Steele died in 1980. More detail about his life can be found here, on Wikipedia.

The Harlem Blackbirds arrived in Sydney in June 1955 to play at the Palladium Theatre. Comedians in the troupe were Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham and Freddie and Flo Robinson. Dolores Cooper did burlesque dancing under the stage name “Sunshine Body”. Among the dancers was Peter Ray (who did a lot of novelty dancing with trays and other items balanced on his head – as shown in this somewhat appalling video where he accompanies vocal blackface performer Hoagy Carmichael.

Other dancers included Paul and Chester Leonard (billed as Leonard and Leonard) and a quartet billed as the “Four Moroccos”. Prolific musician and composer Eugene “Gene” Kee (the show’s musical director) featured as “Harlem’s King of Swing” and Maurice Rocco was billed as “our star, the world’s greatest boogie woogie pianist”. The keynote singer was Mabel Scott, a sample of whose style can be heard here. Steele was the MC, and also sang and performed in skits.

The “Beige Beauts” were there: Lyle Smith (captain), Jacqueline Greenwood, Verdi Lo Presti, Betty Comeaux, Lorian Wells, Sunshine Body, Helen Colbert, Alvenice Alford and Betty Beverhoudt. Other named performers included Julian Swain, James Elliott, Leonard Harrell, Sollie Sylvester and Arnell Pugh.

Interestingly, the revue arrived in Sydney and Dewey Markham gave an interview in which he said he appreciated the lack of a colour bar, and could move more freely than in his home country. Interesting, because immediately below that news article in The Sydney Morning Herald (June 12, 1955, page 7) was another describing how the council of the NSW town of Moree had just voted to ban any people of Indigenous descent from using the town’s baths and memorial hall.

At any rate, the Harlem Blackbirds shows were popular and received reasonably favourable press reviews – particularly the dancers, though not so much the comedians.

You can view the Newcastle programme, complete with autographs, here. The show ran at the Victoria Theatre in Newcastle from October 6 to 19, 1955.

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