The Magic of Bill Robinson

Thank you, last night’s episode of Modern Family for inspiring this post.

In first minutes of the episode, before the earthquake and before Nathan Lane’s fantastic guest appearance as Pepper Salzman, Phil and Claire are arguing over what Phil has fixed around the house and he hasn’t. He defends his staircase repair work exclaiming, “I’m like Shirley Temple and that black guy.” I had a good laugh.

“That black guy,” as Phil so eloquently put it, is Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, arguably one of the greatest dancers of all-time. Fred Astaire famously paid tribute to Robinson in the tap routine “Bojangles of Harlem” from Swing Time.

Robinson is perhaps best known today, just as Phil Dunphy implied, for his appearances in three Shirley Temple films: The Little Colonel, The Littlest Rebel, Just Around the Corner, and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.

This is unfortunate. Although Robinson has an intriguing presence in the Shirley Temple films, even more so when you compare his role to the brief appearance of Willie Best in The Little Colonel, they in no way showcase his best cinematic work or even his immense dance skills. Stormy Weather, a 1943 musical, which is loosely based on Robinson’s life and features 20 musical numbers, does just that. Stormy Weather was released the same year as Cabin in the Sky, two films that feature predominantly African-American casts and showcase some of the top African-American performers of that time. It was Robinson’s last screen appearance.

Still, my favorite Bill Robinson act is whenever he performs the version of the stair dance. You saw the Stair Dance briefly in the clip from The Little Colonel. It never fails to capture my attention.

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