William Earl

eccentric dancer

William Earl, from “Pitch a Boogie Woogie”

William Earl, uncredited eccentric dancer

William Earl’s performance for 20 seconds in the Grand Finale of “Pitch a Boogie Woogie” is an astonishing relic.

Mattie Sloan and Willie Jones were so excited about the very idea of him that I had become almost certain they were forcing a memory of some great unknown star onto this old blackface dancer who, it was clear as he performed his routine in outsized rags and floppy shoes as though it were in a silent movie (music for the Grand Finale was added after the film was shot; what music Earl and his crew are dancing to can only be imagined), came from another time.  Furthering that suspicion, they both talked like he was with their show, and early on it was difficult to imagine Irvin C. Miller’s sophisticated Brownskin Models and Fat Winstead’s Mighty Minstrels as cohorts, so different were their New York and country Carolina origins.

Sloan had obvious admiration and respect for Earl when she said emphatically, “He was old, I mean he was really old in there.” Jones said he was at least 74 and spoke of him as a stage giant, “as good as Bert Williams ever was,” almost always referring to him as “Mr. Earl.”

Jones vividly recalled the first time he met Earl, when the Models had set up in Winston-Salem, in the Black business district anchored by the Lafayette Theater where they were performing. “That was the first time I see all the Winstead people coming ’round,” Jones said. “At that time, they were closed. And that’s the first time I saw William Earl. We came over there [to Winstead’s] and he had on skater shoes and one of the prettiest brown overcoats with something around the collar that looked real good. But we didn’t hire him then. We went another two or three months” before hiring him to replace Daybreak Nelson, and how Earl’s contract was negotiated is emblematic, it seems, of the differences in the two types of performers. Nelson had been promised $150 a week buy wasn’t making it, Jones said, and added: “So Mr. Earl told him [Miller], ‘Yeah, I would work [for you]’ but he said, ‘You can’t pay me $150 a week, you can’t pay me $100 a week. I think he said $50 or $40, I can’t remember which one, but he said, ‘I want it and I want it every Saturday–he didn’t want pay time no other time, you must pay him on Saturday.” Both Jones and Earl worked with Miller for several years and later, during hard times, Jones said it wasn’t unusual for Miller to be borrowing money from Mr. Earl.

Renowned Memphis bandleader and entrepreneur Maurice “Hot Rod” Hulbert was proud of having performed with the Models, both as a trumpeter in the band and a comedian, working in tandem with William Earl. “The greatest thing for me with the Models,” he said, was working with a comedian by the name William Earl; he was a old man, much older than me, came back through the days of Bert Williams, and this man taught me the meaning of what comedy is like. He says ‘Comedy is timin,’ and I would be on stage with him, and if sometimes I read, I did my line wrong, I could see him flinch–but he would bring me back in–he would tell me, ‘You must raise your voice when you’re giving me this line in order for me to come back at you with my line; you must lower your voice at this point in your delivery, in order for me to come this way’ and I wasn’t aware of that, which taught me that timing, phrasing, and modulation is important in comedy, and I think comedy is much harder than dramatic acting. Anybody who’s a good comedian, I think, can be a good dramatic artist. It helped me a lot the rest of my life, because I learned more how to ad lib, and my emcee qualities broadened.”

Neither Willie Jones nor Mattie Sloan knew what happened to the music being played behind Earl and the others dancing in the finale of “Pitch a Boogie Woogie,” what went wrong with the original soundtrack for that portion of the movie that required the Rhythm Vets, with a young Lou Donaldson, to replace that sound. But Jones agreed that it was “about the way” a Brownskin Models finale would proceed.Iit surprised him, though, to see a star such as William Earl make his only appearance in the film in the finale: “William Earl, we didn’t even see him in the movie, but he’s a comedian, and he come out there and dance and that was the chance for everybody to dance. See, he’s a comedian but he didn’t come out and tell no jokes, but he come out and dance, for the Finale.” [The UNC-TV transcriber notes here that Jones “repeats this concept over and over,” so astonished that Mr. Earl’s role in the film was so reduced.]

• • •

There’s this part of the finale in “Pitch” where Earl, the uncredited old man in blackface, does his pants-tugging dance in what’s also the finale of his little bit, where he’s going at it in increasingly erotic gestures until the dramatic pause, after which he turns his head, and spits.

Willie Jones said that Earl could spit a hundred feet, but that wasn’t all: “He did a flip and could do a strip and a split and a handstand. At that age, he was doing it. Then he used to take–he could spit from here I guess a hundred feet almost. That’s what people likes. When he would get out and do a windup like that and pull his stomach and spit so far everyone would have a fit. A lot of people had never seen anything like that, people spit on the stage, but it would bring the house down.”

At first, Irvin Miller didn’t realize how good Earl was, Jones said. He “was used to people coming, taking out the girls for lunches and things. But old man Earl was so good they would come and take him out. They’d invite him out to lunch and bring him lunches and things. That’s how good he was.”

When, after World War II, Miller’s show had difficulty keeping performers on the Southern routes–everyone, it seemed to Jones, was quitting and going back to New York–Earl showed his true worth and talent. At first, he had a single slot on the show, but as the cast got thinner, he took on more roles, sometimes performing three routines in a night. “He got so he was the principle of the show,” Jones said. “A man might come and say we ain’t got no glamor picture tonight and you have to do an hour-and-a-half show, a two-hour show. Earl could make it up. What he did, he had a round barrel we carried around and that was his pulpit. He would go out on the stage and do a dance, the split and all before he started talking. He’d dance and flap himself all around and go down and spit like that and then say, ‘Bring me my pulpit.’ And I walk out there with his pulpit and set it right down for him and I say, ‘Okay, Rev’– No, I say ‘Pray for me, Rev,’ and he’d say I’ll pray for your mammy and I’d laugh and the house would just fall out.”

Next, Earl would start drinking and he’d ask, “What did the book of John say? What did the book of John say?” and I’d say, ‘John say he ain’t going to bring no more whiskey ’cause you didn’t pay for the other half a pint. Then he’d say ‘Oh, what the hell,’ and the people would laugh because he was supposed to be preaching. He’d say, “Anybody who sit on a hot stove shall rise again!’ And then he’d get through and have something black in his pocket and he’d take it out, a big old black towel, and he’d wipe his face with it and everybody would just laugh, and the next time he’d go for his towel he’d get a big pair of drawers, woman’s drawers, and wipe his face [like he] didn’t know what he was wiping his face with and people would just fall out. And he’d do his dance and go on off the stage. That was his specialty.”

The last year I can find Earl listed on a roster with the Models is 1950.

• • • 

–March 22, 2024


This page is under construction.
The Willie Jones tapes in the Susan Massengle Collection
in the Southern Historical Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill
are loaded with more material about William Earl.