Billy Cornell Girls, a chorus line
Billy Cornell was in charge of Winstead’s Mighty Minstrels’ dancers. His career as a comic, dancer, actor, promoter, producer, and show owner spanned over 30 years; he worked throughout the United States, Canada, and in Cuba, with many of the best known entertainers of Harlem, Chicago, Baltimore, Washington, DC, and Los Angeles.
At 23, he appears suddenly on the Black entertainment scene, as a solo in 1920 on a bill with Charles Arrant, Dude & Georgia Kelly, and Baby Mack, at the Washington Theater in Cleveland.
So many dates over the next three decades find him in Ohio that it seems possible he was from there, but most of what’s reported on him in the Black press is publicity related; only once have I found an official record of sorts, a marriage announcement in 1926, when he seems to have made Baltimore a locus of his performance adventures, perhaps because his bride and fellow comedian Hazel Wallace, was from there, or had been living there.
Throughout the 1920s, Cornell worked primarily in vaudeville in theaters as a solo or with a partner, and often on a bill with others. By 1923 he had the Billy Cornell Company, which morphed quickly into Mme. Bruce’s “In Bad” Company, headlined by Billy Cornell and featuring a chorus of “ten Creole beauties.”
His own company, Billy Cornell’s Dancing Dandies, got closed down at the Palace Theater in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in 1925, canceled after its opening performance of a week’s stand. The “large audience” was “very loud in denouncing the offering. Much of the material was suggestive,” the closing bit “offensive in its entirety.” Cornell and cast left town the next morning.
In 1926, he was working with Sammy Lewis’ “Bamville Dandies”; Hazel Wallace was one of the show’s chorus dancers. They married on April 14, 1926, after the midnight show, with Little Baby Doris Wallace as the flower girl, with whom they became the Dixie Three, soon joining Harry Coppin’s minstrel show as headliners; Cornell also worked as the show’s manager and then its owner.
By about 1927, Billy and Hazel Cornell appear to have split up: He began billing himself as “A Dark Cloud with a Silver Lining” and for a while had his own “big vaudeville group” before joining the Dixiana Company. Meanwhile, “Hazel Cornell’s Dancing Days of 1927” carried 15 performers and was held over for a second week at the Aladdin Theater in Baltimore before moving to the Savoy in Atlantic City. For a while, Cornell worked as part of “Hazel Cornell’s Revue” performing for White theaters but soon he was working on his own and then with others again on the Black circuits.
As a solo with the Dixiana show in 1927, his 5-piece band and their comedians were arrested at McKeesport, Pennsylvania in a 10 a.m. raid. But by the time Cornell could get back to the station with bail money, the group had put on an impromptu show of their own, performing “Jail House Blues” and “I’m in the Jailhouse Now,” earning their freedom at no cost.
Billy Cornell’s “Broadway Follies” of 1928 was his biggest success. “The last word in high-class entertainment,” it combined the “cream of the best delineators of Ethiopian comedy the stage ever harbored.” The cast of 25 artists included a “whirling dashing dainty chorus of youth and beauty, a garden of brown-skin beauties.” Their array of costumes was “the smartest ever seen with a show of this style and order.”
By 1929, Cornell was back with Sammy Lewis (“the record & radio star”), on his “Plantation Days” show.
He worked in doubles with Joe James, George Barton, and then Leo Boatman (as “Two Dark Clouds of Joy”) and again as a solo, “the Crooning Comedian” with the Crazy Quilt Company before joining, with Marion [often spelled ‘Marian’] Ford, with whom he would work from 1933 until 1950, often as “Two Dixie Kids”–Lindy hopping comedians–when he seems to disappear from the entertainment scene as suddenly as he had arrived.
While teaming with Ford, he also worked as stage manager for Harry Hunt’s Sugar Foot Green Show and then F.S. Wolcott’s High Brown Follies; with Silas Green from New Orleans and then the Miss Dinah Lee Company; with P.G. Lowery’s side show on the Robbins Bros. Circus; and as sideshow manager with Cole Bros. Circus with the legendary concert master P.G. Lowery, and with whom Cornell also worked Ohio theaters during off-season.
As a solo again, he crossed paths in 1933 with Irvin C. Miller’s Brownskin Models in Cleveland, when they were booked at competing theaters for the same evening.
Ford & Cornell worked together on Winstead’s Mighty Minstrels in 1939, when he was stage manager, and then on their own shows called variously the “Harlem Strutters,” “Billy Cornell’s Revue,” and “Down Georgia Way.”
Black vaudeville is not well documented during World War II and the post-war period. Winstead’s Mighty Minstrels stayed on the road during most of that time, and as one of the last of the successfully traveling Black cast road shows, it’s quite possible that Cornell worked with them again prior to their 1947 appearance that was filmed in Greenville, NC for “Pitch a Boogie Woogie,” and that he and / or Marion Ford are among the uncredited performers.
Cornell and Ford were working with Alberta Snowden in early 1950 when they survived a “near fatal” automobile accident, and so far that’s the last notice of him I’ve found.
–February 16, 2024