Cast: Irvin C. Miller Girls

the Sepia Ziegfield Folllies

Irvin C. Miller Girls, chorus dancers

The Irvin C. Miller girls were the chorus line from Miller’s Brown Skin Models, the renowned vaudeville show organized in New York during the height of the Harlem Renaissance as a “sepia Ziegfield Follies.” They continued through the 1930s as a road show, playing theaters throughout the East and South, as vaudeville was being replaced by movies, radio, and big band orchestras, and their chorus dancers were always their primary attraction.

“Pitch” is invaluable in its depiction of typical Models’ stage shows, which featured beautiful young women offering up various poses through the course of a performance that would be punctuated by specialty acts: vocalists, Lindy hoppers, a fire dancer, specialty dances–exactly what you get in “Pitch a Boogie Woogie.” In their three featuresd performances in “Pitch,” the Models do more posing than dancing.

After World War II, such entertainments increasingly were relegated to the rural South, where eventually they folded or, as in the case with Miller’s Brown Skin Models, merged with traveling circuses or carnivals. 

Their best years behind them, they may have been working with Winstead’s Mighty Minstrels during the summer of 1947, when “Pitch” was filmed in Greenville. Mattie Sloan recalled their having been stranded in the Carolinas during the ’30s and picked up by Winstead for part of a tour, maybe a couple of times. Willie Jones talked about cast members of Winstead’s and the Models, with whom he was working, almost as if they were interchangeable. He said that the Models had done well during the Depression, but that after the war, work was harder to find, and the New York performers who had worked with them for so many years began leaving the road and returning to New York. Bandleader Barney Johnson was one of those who left, and he was replaced by Don Dunning, a trombone player who had experience playing Black tented vaudeville shows like Winstead’s. He and Jones then began helping Miller re-filll his roster, Jones said, with “carnival people and the minstrel people.”

Willie Jones at home in Philadelphia, 1987. Still from “Boogie in Black and White”

Jones said they were not only cheaper than the New York talent but better entertainers because “they did more work.” He explained: “Anytime you do more work, you get more practice, see. Those people, I found out, it was nothing to do 4, 5  shows a day. They’d change their act more than we would change ours, because they went over the same place sometimes three and four times in one year. And they had to change it every time and for every show. We would go so much farther, we would go p one side [of the territory, from New York to Florida] and come down the other side, and what I did to this place I could do it to another place and another place. I wouldn’t have to change again until the next year. To go down with those people they had to change every week. They may stay in a place five or six weeks, and to keep people coming, they had to put new material in, that’s why they could do it, do so much. See, all those comedians when they come north and went there, they’d beat those northern comedians ’cause they’d know so much stuff.”

According to Jones, a typical Models show would begin with a number played by the band, which was comprised of 7-8 pieces. An emcee would then come on stage for jokes or a song and then introduce the first act, which would be followed by the Models, who, wearing elaborate and revealing costumes, would go through several poses while the band played. “Then maybe a singer,” Jones said, “and the band would play for them, then maybe another specialty act and the band would get a chance to rest. Through all this, the band is in the pit. This is when you close your curtains, that’s what the comedians are for, so you can change the acts and things behind the curtains. They would stand out on the apron and do their show, and then when the comedians go off, they raise the curtains. See, there was a door you go out under the stage and come out on the stage. Then ‘Ladies and gentlemen!’ and the band wasn’t where they were, they are sitting on the stage, not down in the pit.”

 The band would then perform its specialty, which would be “whatever was out then,” Jones said, “the song that was a big hit, that’s what people would want to hear the band playing. And the band would have a singer–they could sing the latest hits, see. The real singer would come on with the band.”

From then on, the band was on-stage, performing as the Models posed and as needed with the remainder of the specialty acts, until the Grand Finale, when all came out for a showcase of dancing and posing.

That’s the kind of basic vaudeville show that the Models and others present in “Pitch,” a snapshot of what they did in 1947. How it differed from the mid-1920s Harlem shows, in content and in marketing, may not be knowable. Jones said that some shows were preceded by band concerts; others, followed by a Midnight Ramble, were the most likely to be promoted with advertisements in a local newspaper. Plaza Theater manager Purvis Cohens said the very popular Rambles were basically the same as what one might see at an evening show, that it was “more the idea of it” that brought out a different audience.

Documenting a show like Miller’s into the 1930s and beyond is complicated in several ways, not the least of which is knowing their routes; those occasional newspaper notices about Midnight Rambles present only glimpses of day & date performances, usually in towns that had become good places for them to play. How those towns are connected, via a series of less attractive bookings over sometimes treacherous roadways, is an unknown story of traveling in the Jim Crow South that’s complicated by the presentation of beautiful dark-complected young women to White southern audiences who, especially at the Rambles, were predominantly men.

Even how the Models marketed themselves seems sometimes at odds. Clearly they were showcasing beautiful young women suggestively clothed: their lobby card was arrested once in Alabama, on suspicion of lewdness; other shows were promoted as having “no course [sic] jokes, no double entendres, nothing the most perfect lady will object to.”

Greenville Daily Reflector, July 24, 1947

I have not found a 1947 Brown Skin Models roster, but in 1949, several in its cast also appeared in “Pitch a Boogie Woogie”: William Earl, Willie Jones, and Evelyn Whorton. The others in that 1949 show may also have been in the movie: Bertha Hayes; comic Clay Tyson, who later would become an Apollo Theater solo star comic himself during the 1950s and then James Brown’s comedian; comic and singer Earl Jackson; dancers Alex and Gracie Shavers; the Three Melody Tones; and orchestra leader Barney Johnson. According to Willie Jones, Tyson and Johnson had left the Models in 1947; both, he said, were in and out of the show during the post-War period.

In 1950, the Models were being billed as “William Earle’s New York revue with Barney Johnson’s orchestra.” Performers included Johnny Moon “and his mule team girls”; Bill Brown “and his dancing nymphs”; Clay Tyler [Tyson?], “new tap dancing find”; the Thunderbolt adagio team; “shapely Dolly Hopson” who dances the Hawaiian rumble, the crab back crawl, the African Jungle Hop,” and an Egyptian ceremonial. Plus: “comedy and a voluptuous prima donna.”

In October 1954, Eubie Blake, Irvin C., and Flournoy Miller were working on a book for a new edition of Models, which opened in Washington, DC before moving to the Apollo for a February 25 show billed as as Irvin C. Miller’s Brown Skin Models of 1955, with Flournoy Miller, Mantan Moreland, Rastus Murray, Clay Tyson, Johnny Christian, the Rhythmaires, and Lee Richardson.

In 1956, Milller scripted Rockin the Blues, an underappreciated gem of early concert films. Parts of it look like an updated “Pitch” with one scene featuring Brown Skin Models-like “dancers.” He’s also credited as a producer for Paradise in Harlem (1939), which starred Lucky Millender and Mamie Smith; Murder on Lennox Avenue (1942), which also starred Mamie Smith; and Sunday Sinners (1939)–all are streaming free on Youtube.

Irvin C. Miller

Irvin Colloden Miller was born in 1884 in Columbia, Tennessee, the oldest son of a prominent newspaper editor. He was educated locally before attending Fisk, where he excelled at basketball, football, and acting. 

He and his younger brothers Flournoy (1886 – 1971) and Quintard Miller were among the most important families of Black vaudeville during the first half of the 20th century. Their father was a newspaper editor. The [Flournoy] Miller & Lyles duo was responsible for Shuffle Along, the 1921 musical that helped launch the Harlem Renaissance. 

After Fisk, Irvin C. went to Chicago to pursue acting and got work at the Pekin Theatre, which opened in 1905. He soon brought brother Flournoy and his friend Aubrey Lyles to join him in Chicago and to work at the Pekin. “The Colored Aristocrats” by Miller & Lyles, their first show there, starred all of them and it introduced the characters who would later be featured in Shuffle Along. Quintard soon joined them in Chicago.

During the 1910s and ’20s, the number of duos listed on vaudeville cards with “Miller” as half the billing seems infinite, and without knowing further details about the act it’s often impossible to know which brother Miller is the co-star. Although he is often noted for his dancing and acting skills, Miller’s Browns Skin Models remain his most enduring legacy. Their popularity spawned countless imitator like the Brownsikn Mannekins and also, for over 20 years a regular Apollo Theater chorus line called the Brown Skin Chorus Girls.

Miller changed up his main show as well as its name a few times over the years , and after World War II he operated both the Models and , for a season, the Florida Blossoms Minstrels.

Miller worked the Models and other enterprises out of New York for many years but eventually moved to Philadelphia and then, in the 1940s, to Benton Harbor, Michigan, from where he continued to work in New York, Los Angeles, and on the road until he retired.

He died in 1975.


“The ‘Brown Skin Models’ Like Old Man River, Just Keeps a Rollin'” Chicago Defender [national ed.]18 Feb. 1950: 20

Roy, Rob. “Brown Skin Models is back–better some say: Greats of first edition in wings for the opening.” Rob Roy’s Olde Tymer’s scrapbook. Chicago Defender [national ed.] 19. Mar. 1955: 7.

Sampson, Henry. Blacks in Blackface.

—. The Ghost Walks.

March 20, 2024

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