Portrait in a Minute: Bill “Bojangles” Robinson – National Portrait Gallery


***MUSIC*** Hello, and welcome to “Portrait in a Minute.” One of my favorite portraits is this photograph of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, taken by George Hurrell. The portrait can be viewed in our special exhibition “Dancing the Dream.” I’m particularly fond of this portrait because it has a connection to my childhood. Bill Robinson was from Richmond, Virginia, as am I, and just before he died, he came to my elementary school and performed for us. He moved across the stage and back without appearing to move his feet, and yet you could hear every single tap. Amazing! That legendary dance career began on May 25, 1878 when he was born to Maxwell and Maria Robinson. They named him Luther, which Bill despised so much that it’s said he got into a terrible fight with his younger brother, William, and upon winning the fight, took his brother’s name as his own. By 1885, both parents had died, and the brothers placed in the care of their grandmother. An extremely religious woman, she not only wouldn’t let Bill dance, he wasn’t even allowed to utter the word in her presence. But that didn’t keep Bill from dancing. By age six, he was shelling peas at Jefferson Market with his closest friend, Eggie. Soon they graduated to boot blacking at five cents a shine, and when business was slow, they danced on the streets for pennies. It was during this time that Bill acquired the nickname “Bojangles.” A hat maker named Boujasson, mistakenly called “Bojangles” by children mispronouncing his name, found he was missing a hat. And the one responsible for “disappearing” that hat was, thereafter, called “Bojangles.” At about twelve years old, Bill ran away from home and by 1892 had joined a minstrel show. By 1914, he had moved on to a vaudeville act of his own, and in 1918, he introduced a stair dance into his act, using a portable staircase which he designed himself. ***Music and Tapping*** Each stair was tuned to a different pitch so that dancing on them transformed him into human percussion. He had brought tap-dancing “up on its toes” and was on his way to stardom. When Hollywood called, he answered and became Shirley Temple’s most famous co-star, making films with her and others from 1935 to 1938. Sadly, his dancing came to an end, however, and he died at 71 in 1949. This portrait of Bill was taken in 1935 during his Hollywood days. Hurrell asked him to dance rather than hold a stationery pose. It was exactly the right choice. When Bill saw the proofs, he said: “Man, that’s dignity!” “Bojangles” got it right. To use the word he coined when he was only a kid: That portrait is “copacetic!” ***MUSIC***

5 Replies to “Portrait in a Minute: Bill “Bojangles” Robinson – National Portrait Gallery”

  1. Hurrell was a master photographer, catching a side of celebrities which the public never knew. Here we see the sophisticated Bill Robinson, rather than the image Hollywood gave us.

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