HISTORY CHALLENGE
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BERT WILLIAMS & GEORGE WALKER

Vaudeville actor George was born around 1873 in Lawrence, Kansas.  He began his show business career as a member of a troupe of Black minstrels which traveled throughout his home state.  He then decided to try his luck as a solo act and worked his way to California in medicine shows.  Egbert Williams was born in Antigua, the West Indies, on March 11, 1875.  In 1885, his family moved to California, near Los Angeles.  He attended Stanford University for a few semesters, then moved to San Francisco.  There he gained experience performing in saloons, restaurants, and road shows.  Williams met Walker in San Francisco in 1893, and the pair spent two years playing different venues and putting together their act.  

During this time, they were employed by the Mid-Winter Exposition in golden Gate Park to work at an exhibit of a Dahomeyan village intended to portray life in darkest Africa.  Because the real Africans were late in arriving, Williams and Walker played Dahomeyans, wearing animal skins in a setting of potted palms.  Once the Africans did arrive, the duo took time to study the natives' singing and dancing, an experience which was to become an important influence on their work.  The two men made their way to Chicago in 1895, and tried out for Isham's Octoroons, one of the first African American companies to break from a strict minstrel format. 

A week later, Williams and Walker were dropped from the show.  Realizing that their act needed improvement, they decided to embrace the coon stereotype, billing themselves as "The Two Real Coons."  They based their act on standard minstrel routines reduced to a two-man performance.  Walker played the part of a dandy and told the jokes, and Williams, dressed in mismatched, oversized clothes, and played the straight man.  After the audience reacted favorably to a performance in which he blackened his face, Williams donned the burnt-cork mask for the rest of his professional life.  "Real Coons" In 1896, a musical farce called The Gold bug made Williams and Walker famous.  The play was weak, but the duo's performance of the cakewalk captured the audience's attention, and they soon became so closely associated with this dance that many people thought playing this well-known venue was a step up for them, and many doors opened as a result. 

For the next two years, Williams and Walker toured the country on the vaudeville circuit as stars of the show.  In 1897, they performed in London, but apparently the British audiences did not understand their comedic approach, and they were not well received.  Williams wrote..long before our run terminated, we discovered an important fact: that the hope of the colored performer must be in making a radical departure from the old time "darky" style of singing and dancing.  So we set ourselves the task of thinking along new lines.  The first move was to rent a flat on 53rd St., furnish it, and throw open our doors.  The Williams and Walker flat soon became the headquarters of all the artistic young men of most talented members of our race.  On October 11, 1901, when Williams and Walker made their first recordings for the Victor Company, they became the first African-American recording artists.  Walker's voice sounded thin on the playback, and he was not pleased.  William's voice, on the other hand, was strong, and the recordings he made over the next 20 years created a legacy of his original material.  Combined with their desire to shift focus away from the coon stereotype gave impetus to their next big step. 

Remembering their job as "Dahomeyans" in San Francisco, they decided to set the scene of their next production in Africa, and in 1902, the duo allowed them to achieve their dream of performing on Broadway.  Williams, now an experienced actor and a mime with incomparable timing, emerged as one of the leading comedians in the country.  At the time, George Walker was quoted as saying, "My partner, Mr. Williams, is the first man I know of in our race to attempt to delineate a darky in a perfectly natural way, and I think much of his success is due to this fact."  In the spring of 1903, the team achieved its greatest accomplishment when they took "In Dahomey" to England.  Initially the show played to a sympathetic but not very spirited audience.  However, on June 23, the tide turned after a lavish command performance at Buckingham Palace for Edward VII on the birthday of the Prince of Wales (later Duke of Windsor).

Revised: July 18, 2013.