Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers

December 4, 1930

On December 4, 1930, the Philadelphia Tribune ran an advertisement that the Standard-Theatre (South Street & 12th) was hosting a return engagement of the Whitman Sisters Company. The Whitman Sisters were the highest paid act on the Negro vaudeville circuit and toured extensively from the 1910s through 1930s. The troupe featured four sisters, Alberta (“Bert”) who performed in male drag, Mabel, Essie, and Alice, who was one of the best tap dancers of the era. Cultural historian Constance Vails Hill describes the group in her book, Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History:
The Whitman Sisters’ fast-paced shows were based on a variety format of songs, dances, and comedy skits; it included a cast of up to thirty performers, with a chorus of twelve to fourteen girls, and a five or six-piece jazz band...The handsome and debonair ‘Bert’ Whitman, dressed in a top hat and tails, strutted onstage to introduce the ‘Queen of Taps,’ Alice Whitman.  Cute as a button in her baby-doll costume, she sang with the sultry voice of a Helen Kane, flirted when she balled the jack, and then cleared the stage for the audience to focus on her solo routine of pullbacks, wings, and time steps; she finished with a shim sham shimmy, in which she danced mostly from the waist down, wearing a shawl and a little flimsy thing around her middle with a fringe and a bow on the back. Beneath her floppy bows, she produced very clear taps. There was no scraping or shuffling, just the sharp distinct sound of a hoofer, weighted and fluent.

For more on the Whitman Sisters, see Nadine George-Graves, The Royalty of Negro Vaudeville: The Whitman Sisters and the Negotiation of Race, Gender and Class in African American Theater 1900–1940.

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