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How John W. Bubbles

Changed America

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Portrait of John W. Bubbles, as the original Sporting Life in George Gershwin's 1935 opera Porgy and Bess.
The Originator Of Rhythm Tap Talks Dancing With Reel To Real, Including Nuggets About His Selection As Sportin’ Life, And Giving Fred Astaire Dancing Lessons For $400 Per Hour

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By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine

Feb. 16, 2015 — Eighty years ago something unprecedented happened in the American theater. An original folk opera with an all-black cast called Porgy and Bess made its debut on Broadway at the Alvin Theater with a score by George Gershwin and lyrics written by George’s brother Ira and DuBose Heyward.

The show instantly gave birth to such Great American Songbook classics as “Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “Bess, You is My Woman Now,” “I Loves You, Porgy” and “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin,” and continues to be revived, most recently in a controversial 2011 adaptation that changed some of the plot, dialogue and score, ostensibly to make the show more palatable for contemporary audiences.

Back in 1935, the man who brought the role of “Sportin’ Life” (the gambler/pimp who drives a wedge between Bess and her ever-loyal Porgy) to sinister life was famed tap dancer John W. Bubbles. The “Father of Rhythm Tap,” Bubbles was the first tapper to drop his heels, adding complex rhythms and syncopations to his routines. He was also George Gershwin’s personal choice to play “Sportin’ Life.”

In 1980, we interviewed Bubbles (who would have been 113 on Feb. 19) in his home in South-Central Los Angeles. The legendary dancer who can be seen in such movies as “Cabin in the Sky” and “I Dood It,” had his arm in a sling which we learned was due to the lingering effects of a stroke.

“I taught Fred Astaire some of my steps for $400 an hour back in 1930 when he was appearing in a Broadway show called ‘Smiles’ with Marilyn Miller.” Bubbles said that he would teach the steps to Miller who would then pass them on to Astaire. “For that kind of money I didn’t want to give Fred just any kind of steps, but ones I knew he could use.”

And for his money, Astaire knew just who to buttonhole when he needed killer combinations or finish steps. In the early 1920s, after months of painstaking and solitary innovation, Bubbles was among the first to elevate tap dancing from the flat-footed stomps, scrapes and shuffles of early exponents like King Rastus Brown to heal and toe steps that really swung.

Around the time Bubbles was revolutionizing tap technique, he teamed up with a pianist named Ford Lee Washington in a hit vaudeville act called “Buck & Bubbles in a Variety of Varieties.”

“Buck and I were costumed as vagabond tramps in patched clothes and overalls,” Bubbles said. “We used to do a gag that went something like this:

Bubbles: “C’mon boy, get outta that hole. You’re a low man. Look at yer feet, they sure are big – like U-boats.”
Buck: “What’s the matter with ‘em?”
Bubbles: “Nothin’ … only they’re so big, man. How do you get your pants off a night?”
Buck: “I pull ‘em off over my head.”
Bubbles: “Well, pull this off your head.” Then he’d start playing the piano and I’d start dancing.

The songs in Buck and Bubbles’ act back then included such gems of the American popular song canon as: “Mammy ‘O Mine,” “Rhythm for Sale,” “International Rag,” “Somebody Loves Me,” and “Nobody Knows and Nobody Seems to Care.”

The last song, although played straight, effectively summed up the prejudice that black performers experienced during their circuit tours in vaudeville – segregation that included accommodations in black boarding houses and meals served out the backdoors of “white-only” restaurants.

“We just persevered the best we could,” Bubbles said matter-of-factly. “One distraction we took with us everywhere in vaudeville was our collection of electric trains. Buck and I were nuts about ‘em and we had a trunk full of them. We used to lay track all over our dressing room.”

John Bubbles said he never “challenged-danced” anyone on a street corner or in a back alley as was the custom among hoofers of that period decades ago. But when asked who the best tap dancer was that he ever saw, Bubbles had a ready answer: “You’re looking at him,” he said.

Not an idle boast. Just ask Fred Astaire

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have been entertainment journalists for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV. Fantle teaches film and television at Marquette University in Milwaukee and Johnson is a former senior editor for Netflix. They can be reached at www.reeltoreal.com
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