Slices of the Tenderloin #4: Cole and Johnson

BY TRAVS.D. | For Black History Month, we present you with weekly slices of the Tenderloin, the now-defunct New York City neighborhood that at its furthest extent ran between 24th and 62nd Streets between Fifth and Eighth Avenues, thus overlapping with modern Chelsea. The Tenderloin was so-named by a local police captain who relished the nabe for its savory graft. In its heyday of the 1880s through the early 1910s, it was a nightlife mecca full of saloons, dance halls, gambling dens, and bordellos. Prior to the Jazz Age and the northward migration to Harlem and San Juan Hill (where Lincoln Center is now), it was also where much of NYC’s African American population resided. This month, we will celebrate several black showbiz heroes and pioneers who lived there. 

L to R: Bob Cole and J. Rosamond Johnson. | Photo via NYPL, Billy Rose Theatre Division

Robert “Bob” Cole (1868-1911) was to become one of the top popular music composers and performers of his day, a historic breakthrough at that time for an African American. Originally from Athens, Georgia, Cole moved to Chicago in 1889 where he sang, danced, and clowned with Sam T. Jack’s Creole Show. Within five years, he was not only one of the principles of the company but directed the productions. There, too, he met his first vaudeville partner (and wife), Stella Wiley.

The pair moved to New York’s Tenderloin in 1894 and were running a troupe of performers at Worth’s Museum on the Bowery, when Cole teamed up with Billy Johnson, with whom he performed from 1894 through 1899. The combination of the team sounds a lot like Williams and Walker. Johnson, a former minstrel, played the fast talking con man, Cole played a tramp. They wrote sketches and songs for Black Patti’s Troubadors, but left after a money dispute and created their own show, the hit A Trip to Coon-town (1898), an unfortunately titled show, which happens to have been the first American musical entirely created and produced by black theatre professionals.

In 1897, Cole and Johnson wrote a song about Alexander “Clubber” Williams, the cop who’d named the Tenderloin. It was a take-down more than a tribute. Most people with a sense of humor might have enjoyed the attention in the spirit of Citizen Kane (“You buy a bag of peanuts in this town and you get a song written about ya!”). One suspects that Williams reacted less than graciously to lyrics like these:

America has a President and England has a Queen

While Germany’s great Emperor sits ruling all serene.

The Indians have their medicine man, Bavaria a king.

But none of these high diplomats are quite the proper thing.

 

For in gay New York where the gay Bohemians dwell,

There’s a Colony called the Tenderloin, though why I cannot tell.

A certain man controls the place with no regard for coin,

The Czar, the Czar, the Czar of the Tenderloin.

 

Chorus: The Czar of the Tenderloin!

With great propriety, seeks notoriety,

But the girls all shun the society

Of the Czar of the Tenderloin.

 

Each evening through the Tenderloin the Czar will gayly prance,

With whiskers well divided just to give the wind a chance.

His bodyguard behind him scouting for a finish fight,

Arresting everything that left because it isn’t right.

 

Piano legs must now be clothed with care,

And he’s ordered all the trees cut down because their limbs were bare.

He’s going to build a little church which everyone must join,

The Czar, the Czar, the Czar of the Tenderloin.

 

Chorus

 

His hobby is arresting shoes whenever they are tight,

He also nabs electric lights when they go out at night.

The sun came out one morning and he ordered its arrest,

The moon was full, he pulled it in and claimed it was a pest.

 

One day on the Tenderloin, a maiden changed her mind.

Now the Czar thought that was naughty so the girl was quickly fined.

He arrested a cook for beating an egg, now don’t that take the coin,

The Czar, the Czar, the Czar of the Tenderloin.

 

Chorus

 

By the turn of the century, the ambitious Cole seems to have outgrown Billy and began collaborating with a pair of brothers, also named Johnson, and much more up to the scale of his abilities. His performing partner was J. Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954), who played piano and sang harmonies with Cole. Both wore tuxedoes (and no black face) when they performed, and their act was among the very first African American teams to play mainstream “white” vaudeville. Their behind-the-scenes partner was James Weldon Johnson (1876-1938), later a famous author, poet, and U.S. consul to Venezuela.

The two Johnsons and Cole wrote songs together in various combinations. Their most famous one today (the one with the most longevity) is Under the Bamboo Tree, used so memorably by Steve Martin in The Man with Two Brains (1983). After penning songs for several Klaw and Erlanger shows, the team decided to create their own productions. To raise money, they worked the big time vaudeville circuits. In 1910, Cole collapsed onstage as a result of what most sources say was syphilis, an ailment all too common among showfolk at the time. He passed away the following year. The Johnson brothers went on to become major figures in the Harlem Renaissance with decades more of professional triumphs to enjoy.

For more on black artists in American show business, check out nearly 500 posts on Travalanche: https://travsd.wordpress.com/category/ethnicities-identities-representations/african-american-interest/.

 

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