Today in Theatre History: BROADWAY’S FIRST INTEGRATED CAST–June 20, 1910

Photo portrait of Vaudeville star Bert William...

The legendary Bert Williams (circa 1921) after his success in the Ziegfeld Follies. “He was the funniest man I ever saw… and the saddest man I ever knew.”  W.C. Fields on Bert Williams.

On this day in theatre history–June 20, 1910–Flo Ziegfeld premiered the fourth edition of his famed annual musical revue when The Ziegfeld Follies of 1910 opened at the Jardin de Paris Theatre on the corner of 44th Street and Broadway.  Heading the cast was comedian Bert Williams who topped the salary list, earning a stunning $1100 a week.  More significantly, Williams–already famous for his years of vaudeville work with his former partner George Walker–was African-American, making this the first major Broadway production to feature both black and white actors performing in the same show.  The integrated cast was not without controversy.  When it was announced that Williams would be joining them, a number of cast members objected and announced their refusal to perform.  Ziegfeld told the reluctant actors quite bluntly that they were all replaceable, except Williams.  And with that the rebellion ceased and the show went on.  The New York Times review confirmed Williams’ brilliance when it declared, “There is no more clever low comedian on our stage today than Bert Williams, and few, indeed, who deserve to be considered in his class.”  This production was also notable for the presence in the cast of a young comedienne making her Broadway debut, Fanny Brice.  Both Williams and Brice would perform with Ziegfeld off and on for several more years, each becoming enormously popular Broadway stars.  Williams died in 1922, only 47 years-old, at the height of his career.

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