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Bill "Bojangles" Robinson was an iconic African-American tap dancer and actor best known for his Broadway performances and film roles.
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Broadway legend Bill "Bojangles" Robinson was born Luther Robinson in Richmond, Virginia, on May 25, 1878. Robinson started his career as a vaudeville performer, transitioning to Broadway and to Hollywood films in the 1930s and 1940s. His delicate tap-dance style and cheerful demeanor made Robinson a favorite of both black and white audiences. He died in New York City on November 25, 1949.
"Everything is copacetic."
Bill "Bojangles" Robinson was born Luther Robinson in Richmond, Virginia, on May 25, 1878. His father, Maxwell, worked in a machine shop, while his mother, Maria, was a choir singer. After both of his parents died in 1885, Robinson was raised by his grandmother, Bedilia, who had been a slave earlier in her life. According to Robinson, he used physical force to compel his brother, Bill, to switch names with him, since he did not care for his given name of Luther. Additionally, as a young man, he earned the nickname "Bojangles" for his contentious tendencies.
At the age of 5, Robinson began dancing for a living, performing in local beer gardens. In 1886, at the age of 9, he joined Mayme Remington's touring troupe. In 1891, he joined a traveling company, later performing as a vaudeville act. He achieved great success as a nightclub and musical-comedy performer. At this stage of his career, he performed almost exclusively in black theaters before black audiences.
In 1908, Robinson met Marty Forkins, who became his manager. Forkins urged Robinson to develop his solo act in nightclubs. Robinson took a break from performance to serve as a rifleman in World War I. Along with fighting in the trenches, Robinson was also a drum major who led the regimental band up Fifth Avenue upon the regiment's return from Europe.
In 1928, he starred on Broadway in the hugely successful musical revue Blackbirds of 1928, which featured his famous "stair dance." Blackbirds was a revue starring African-American performers, intended for white audiences. The show was a breakthrough for Robinson. He became well known as "Bojangles," which connoted a cheerful and happy-go-lucky demeanor for his white fans, despite the nearly polar-opposite meaning of the nickname in the black community. His catchphrase, "Everything's copacetic," reinforced Robinson's sunny disposition. Although he worked regularly as an actor, Robinson was best known for his tap-dance routines. He pioneered a new form of tap, shifting from a flat-footed style to a light, swinging style that focused on elegant footwork.
Robinson's fame withstood the decline of African-American revues. He starred in 14 Hollywood motion pictures, many of them musicals, and played multiple roles opposite the child star Shirley Temple. His film credits include Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, The Little Colonel and Stormy Weather, co-starring Lena Horne and Cab Calloway. Despite his fame, Robinson was not able to transcend the narrow range of stereotypical roles written for black actors at the time. By accepting these roles, Robinson was able to maintain steady employment and remain in the public eye.
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