- Historic Sites
The 93 Years Of Eubie Blake
October 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 6
And you went straight to the Palace Theatre, New York. Then where?
Maryland Theatre, Baltimore. We followed a fellow named Harry Delf—great monologist. I’m standing in the wings on the first day, see, and the stage manager keeps looking at me.
“You from Sissle and Blake?”
“Don’t you know you follow that act?”
“Yeah, I know. It’s up on the board.”
“When you going to make up?” He’s talking about cork. Blackface. Now, I don’t know what he’s talking about; I’d just put on a little powder. I said, “I’m already made up.”
“No,” he said, “when are you going to put the cork on?”
The old man owned the theatre came over. “You ain’t going on my stage that way——.” All of a sudden, DA-DA-DADUM , it’s our cue, see, and I walked right out on stage; Sissle came on from the other side. Now, we go out and do the act and stop the show cold . Nobody wanted to follow us.
We come off. Now, Sissle knew the old man, had worked for him. He had a big change of heart, see, we’d stopped his show. He says to the stage manager, “Why are you meddling with their act?”
“They’re colored, ain’t they?”
“I raised these boys. Don’t be so smart. They don’t put on no cork!”
But it was common practice?
All Negroes put on cork. Wilbur Sweatman was the first one that didn’t put it on. But Wilbur Sweatman was an Indian.
Did you continue playing the entire Keith Circuit?
We didn’t play the deluxe houses, like the Paramount. They said we drew Negroes. We didn’t draw Negroes. We didn’t have a Negro act. I did a little light Negro comedy, a bit of dialect. Sissle didn’t like that. Sissle never sang in dialect. He was right out of college—Butler, Indianapolis. We’d just sit and entertain, wrote all our own material. When I’d play piano, I’d play a pop song, but I wouldn’t announce it. We had an act you couldn’t follow. But usually we had to work number two.
In an eight-act bill? Why was that?
All colored acts used to go on second. And they dressed on the last floor next to the toilet. Now, this story I’m going to tell you is about Joe Kennedy—before he was ambassador to London. Old Man Kennedy.
We were playing that theatre way up Broadway—Keith vaudeville, you hear what I’m saying? That’s the first time I saw Mae West. We were on the bill with her. Anyway, Kennedy comes backstage and says to this man in charge, “Who told you how to line up a vaudeville show?” The man don’t know who he is. I’m standing there; I don’t know either.
I says, “Why?”
“Because you got Sissle and Blake on number two and the show’s top-heavy. Why do you put them on number two?”
And the man said, “All colored acts go on number two.”
What was the reason for that”?
The newspapers—writers—don’t come in till the third act or so. When they come in, you’re already off. You don’t get in the write-ups. You’re like the also-ran at the races. Every time they moved you down, you’re supposed to get more money. But not us. I don’t know about other colored acts, I’m talking about Sissle and Blake. They’d move us down, next to closing—that’s the star’s place—and we still got three hundred dollars a week. That’s all we got. Well, we got four hundred to play the Palace.
Did you ever work next to closing—the star’s spot—on the opening night of a run?
Plenty of places we played the sticks—three a day. We starred in those places.
W asn’t it during that first year of touring with Sissle and Blake that you first met your “protégé,” Earl “Fatha” Hines?
Hines, now seventy, is recognized as one of the pivotal jazz pianists and orchestra leaders, a patriarch himself. But I suppose he still seems like a kid to you, from the vantage point of ninety-three years. How did you meet him?
I was playing the Keith Theatre, Pittsburgh, Sissle and Blake. Gus Greenlee said, “You want to hear a guy play the piano?”
“After the show I’ll take you to Homestead.” Little town outside Pittsburgh.
And I heard this guy play, and I said, “What the hell are you playing here for, upstairs over a junk shop?”
He said, “Oh, man, I get eighteen dollars a week playing here.”
“You’ll get three times that if you ever come to New York.”
But he never came to New York; he went to Chicago with Jimmy Noone. And he never looked back.
And now, you know, when he walks out on stage he sometimes tells people he is my protégé. And that’s nice of him. But I never showed him anything on the piano. That guy could play . He was a kid, a youngster, 1919, he could play ! Now, if I tell you a hog weighs six hundred pounds, don’t strain yourself lifting it up to see if I was right. If I tell you a guy could play the piano just say, “Eubie said he could play!”