Since George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police in 2020, social justice advocates have targeted systemic racism in housing, education, and law enforcement. Less attention has been paid to entertainment. As the recent controversy over racial bias in the Academy Awards suggests, however, this problem has always existed in show business. The career of legendary vaudeville team Buck and Bubbles shows how it worked.
Buck and Bubbles (aka tap dancer John Bubbles and pianist Buck Washington) were Black contemporaries of such well-known white duos as Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello. Buck and Bubbles might have become well-known, too, if nameless forces hadn’t blocked their progress at pivotal moments in their career. Here are three examples:
In September 1928, Buck and Bubbles had reason to hope for an upsurge in their professional standing. For eight years they had been denied headliner status despite consistently (according to the critics) outpacing their white competitors. Now, they had just dominated a high-profile gig at the New York Palace, upstaging the headliners and securing a rare and much-coveted second-week booking (the first time such an honor had been given a Black act, according to the Pittsburgh Courier). Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) immediately offered them a contract at $750 a week the first year, $850 the second, and $900 the third. The clear expectation was that RKO would send them out as headliners themselves.
But this did not happen. Instead RKO booked Buck and Bubbles for a California tour headed by comedienne Frances White. What followed was an all-too-familiar pattern as Buck and Bubbles again overshadowed the headliner, making themselves “the hit of the bill” and “[casting] a spell over the audience that some critics have called ‘hypnotic.’” When White left the show after a few months, RKO replaced her with another white headliner, bandleader Gus Arnheim. Again, Buck and Bubbles stole the show, becoming the only act to be held over for a second week at the Los Angeles Orpheum. RKO’s shabby treatment of them continued for another year and a half, until outside circumstances intervened to dissolve their contract.
The Ziegfeld Follies
In early 1931, one of their childhood dreams came true when Buck and Bubbles were invited to join the celebrated Ziegfeld Follies. They were only the second Black act to do so, after Bert Williams. In a huge company of over a hundred people, Buck and Bubbles were part of a large cast supporting the four headliners. On opening night of the tryout in Pittsburgh, Buck and Bubbles received an ovation that lasted a full five minutes. And when the company opened in New York, Buck and Bubbles were spotted “next-to-closing,” the penultimate spot on a program normally reserved for the most important act on the bill. Why? According to Bubbles, it was because after two weeks in Pittsburgh none of the other acts wanted to follow them. In this bright spotlight they again thrived, “[hitting] that opening house like a ton of granite.”
Yet for unknown but almost certainly racially-motivated reasons, the white entertainment papers of New York concealed this triumph. In Pittsburgh Variety barely mentioned the team, and when the show opened in Manhattan the critic merely expressed annoyance that Buck and Bubbles had been spotted next-to-closing. We only know of the duo’s audience popularity from reports in Black newspapers and the Pittsburgh press. The Follies of 1931 appeared in New York for five months. The experience should have given Buck and Bubbles a substantial career boost, but the unconscionable silence of white New York critics killed their momentum.
In 1937, Buck and Bubbles got their first chance to appear in a white feature film. Cast as janitors in Varsity Show, a college musical, they were given a bit more than three minutes of camera time to perform two set pieces. Their presence was so slight that Variety didn’t even mention them in its review of the film. By contrast, the Ritz Brothers, white competitors of Buck and Bubbles in vaudeville who made their feature film debut the previous year, were given five times as much camera time plus a written plug from the studio at the end of the movie. The Ritz Brothers went on to make fourteen more features in the next seven years; Buck and Bubbles’ contract, meanwhile, was not renewed.
Among other reasons for this failure, the studio was undoubtedly alarmed by Bubbles’s potent sexuality. Reports of his work in vaudeville and on Broadway (especially in Porgy and Bess) attested to his masculine allure. These rumors were confirmed on the set of Varsity Show, where, according to the Chicago Tribune, the young women of the cast flocked around Buck and Bubbles during breaks. The director took note. For the team’s first set piece Bubbles was asked to perform his dance feature down in the boiler room of a frat house, where only a few male students sat watching. For the second set piece, Buck and Bubbles performed on a fantasy set with no spectators at all. It was crucial to seal them off from the student body, to never present Bubbles alongside admiring white coeds. Apparently, despite his talent—and because of his race—he was too radioactive for a prominent role in Hollywood.
What’s the lesson of these examples? It’s not that the entertainment world didn’t value Buck and Bubbles. On the contrary, gatekeepers very much saw the team as a golden goose. Threading a devilish needle, they wanted to showcase Buck and Bubbles but not too much, lest they overshadow their white competitors. So, they gave them big contracts but withheld headliner status. Or they recruited them for the Ziegfeld Follies but refused to report their success. One critic voiced the patronizing attitude of the white establishment: “The colored young fellows are great entertainers in their own little way, and theirs is an act that is a decided asset to the big time.” In other words, they had a role to play, but only if they did not forget their subordinate place. No single showbiz chieftan can be blamed for hindering their careers. Buck and Bubbles fell victim to a racist system in which the need to subjugate them for their skin color was taken for granted by people across the industry.
Featured image: Domino Johnson (John W. Bubbles) in MGM’s Cabin in the Sky, 1943. Used with permission.