Cleophus Lyons

Cleophus Lyons, eccentric tap dancer

Cleophus Lyons was new to Irving C. MIller’s Brownskin Models when his tap dancing solo was filmed for “Pitch a Boogie Woogie.” He was hired when the show was playing Birmingham, Alabama, after Clay Tyson had left. Willie Jones said that he found Lyons dancing in a Birmingham club. 

Tyson was back with the Models for 1955, performing with them at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. He also was principal comedian with James Brown; he recorded at least one solo comedy album and several of his routines are easily accessible on YouTube.

Jones couldn’t remember why, but everyone called him ‘Sammy.’

Filming Lyons’ act was complicated because part of had him tap-dancing across the stage at such wide spacing that he kept leaving the framing completely. Willie Jones said Warner had to cut cameras “because he was going com[letely out there, two or theree times, e went out completely. So they had to cut it there and bring him in and tell him not to go no further than he could. And he still, when they really made it, he would still go outside a little. At first, he ent completely out and was dancing way there and nobody could see him.”

I asked if this was an intentional part of his act, and Jones explained it was a limitation brought on by inexperience with the limits of a camera’s framig: “No, he didn’t used to dance off stage, but he [Warner] had closed in focus right there, and you went further, that’s where ou’re ot. Making the picture, see, [the camera range] didn’t go all the way, it didn’t take up the whole stage, see.”

You can also tell if the print you’re viewing is from the original 35 mm nitrate or from a 16 mm reference print that has also circulated. In it, Lyons’ feet are chopped off, an especially glaring shortcoming for filming of a tap dancer.

–March 19, 2024

Sources

Jones, Willie. Personal interview. Philadephia, PA. 27 April 1988.

Goldberg, Marv. “The Apollo Theater Shows. 2019. ” https://www.uncamarvy.com/ApolloTheaterShows/apollo.html. Web 19 Mar. 2024.