Search This Blog

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

To Bert Williams

Guest Blogger Dept.: Bert Williams died on 4 March 1922 at the age of 47. He was a top stage entertainer, a headliner with Ziegfeld, with his hit song, “Nobody,” a best-seller in the days of 78s. W.C. Fields termed him “the funniest man I ever saw – and the saddest man I ever knew.” Newspaperman Ben Hecht, still years away from a renowned career as playwright and screenwriter, penned a tribute to the late Williams for the Chicago Daily News that later appeared in Hecht’s book 1001 Afternoons in Chicago. The use of dialect would have been unremarkable to the newspaper-reading public of that time.


“WELL,” SAID MR. BERT WILLIAMS, in his best “Under the Bamboo Tree” dialect, “If you like mah singin’ and actin’ so much, how come, you bein’ a writer, you don’t write somethin’ about youah convictions on this subjeck? Oh! It’s not youah depahtment! Hm! Tha’s jes’ mah luck. I was always the mos’ unluckiest puhson who ever trifled with misfohtune. Not his depahtment! Tha’—tha’s jes’ it. I never seems to fall jes’ exactly in the ri-right depahtment.

Bert Williams
“May I ask, without meanin’ to be puhsonal, jes’ what is your depahtment? Murder! Oh, you is the one who writes about murders and murderuhs foh the paper! Nothin’ else? Is tha’ so? Jes’ murders and murderuhs and—and things like tha’? Well, tha’ jes’ shows how deceivin’ looks is, fo’ when you came in heah I says to mahself, I says, ‘this gen’le-man is a critic of the drama.’ And when I sees you have on a pair o’ gloves I added quickly to mahself, ‘Yes, suh, chances are he is not only a critic of the drama, but likewise even possuhbly a musical critic.’ Yes, suh, all mah life I have had the desire to be interviewed by a musical critic, but no matter how hard I sing or how frequently, no musical critic has yet taken cognizance o’ me. No, suh, I get no cognizance whatsoever.

“Not meanin’ to disparage you, suh, or your valuable depahtment. Foh if you is in charge o’ the murder and murderuh’s depahtment o’ yo’ paper possuhbly some time you may refer to me lightly between stabbin’s or shootin’s in such wise as to say, foh instance, ‘the doomed man was listenin’ to Mr. Williams’ latest song on the phonograph when he received the bullet wound. Death was instantaneous, the doomed man dyin’ with a smile on his lips. Mr. Williams’ singin’ makes death easy—an’ desirable.’

“What, suh? You is! Sam, fetch the gen’leman some o’ the firewater, the non-company brand, Sam. All right, say when. Aw, shucks, that ain’t enough to wet a cat’s whiskers. Say when again. There, tha’s better. Here, Sam. You got to help drink this. It’s important. The gen’leman says if I will wait a little while, jes’ a little while, he is goin’ to alter his depahtment on the newspaper. Wasn’t that it? Oh, I see. In the magazine. Very well. Here’s to what you says about me some day in the magazine. An’ when you writes it don’t forget to mention somewhere along in it how when I was playin’ in San Francisco and Sarah Bernhardt was playin’ there, and this was years ago, don’ forget to mention along with what you write about mah singin’ and actin’ that I come to mah dressing room one evenin’, in Frisco, and there’s the hugest box o’ flowers you ever saw with mah name on it. An’ I open it up and, boy! There plain as the nose on your face is a card among the flowers readin’, ‘to a fellow artist, from Sarah Bernhardt.’ And—whilst we are, so to speak, on the subjeck—you can put in likewise what Eleanora Duse said o’ me. You know who she is, I suppose, the very most superlative genius o’ the stage, suh. Yes, suh, the very most. An’ she says o’ me when she went back to Italy, how I was the best artist on the American stage.

“Artist! Tha’ always makes Sam laugh, don’t it, Sam, when he heahs me refuhed to as artist. An’—have another beaker o’ firewater, suh. It’s strictly non-company brand. An’ here’s how again to tha’ day you speak of when you write this article about me. An’, boy, make it soon, ‘cause this life, this sinful theat’ical life, is killin’ me fast. But I’ll try an’ wait. Here’s howdy.”

HE DIDN’T WAIT. And today a lazy, crooked grin and a dolorous-eyed black face drift among the shades in the Valhalla where the Great Actors sit reading their press notices to one another. The Great Actors who have died since the day of Euripides—they sit around in their favorite make-ups in the Valhalla reserved for all good and glorious Thespians.

A company of ladies and gentlemen that would make Mr. Belasco’s heart stop beating! The Booths and Barretts from antiquity down, the Mrs. Siddonses and Pattis, the Cyranos, Hamlets, buffoons and heroes. All of them in their favorite make-ups, in their favorite cap and bells, their favorite swords, their favorite doublet and hose—all of them sit around in the special Valhalla of the Great Actors reading their press notices to one another and listening to the hosannas of such critics as have managed to pry into the anterior heaven.

And today Bert Williams makes his entrance. Yes, suh, it took that long to find just the right make-up. To get just the right kind of ill-fitting white gloves and floppy shoes and nondescript pants. But it’s an important entrance. The lazy crooked grin is a bit nervous. The dolorous eyes peer sadly through the opening door of this new theater.

Lawdy, man, this is got a Broadway first night backed off the boards. Rejane, Caruso, Coquelin, Garrick and a thousand others sittin’ against the towering walls, sittin’ with their eyes on the huge door within’ to see who’s a-comin’ in now.

All right, professor, jes’ a little music. Nothin’ much. Anything kind o’ sad and fidgetylike. Tha’s it, that-a-boy. There’s no use worryin’—much. ‘Member what Duse said as I was the greatest artist, an ‘member how Sarah Bernhardt sent me roses in Frisco an’ says, ‘To a fellow artist’? Yes, suh, they can’t do mo’ than walk out on me. An’ ah’s been walked out on befo’.

All right, professor. Tha’s it. Now I’ll stick my hand inside the door and wiggle mah fingers kind o’ slow like. Jes’ like that. An’ I’ll come on slow. Nothin’ to worry about—much.

A WRINKLED WHITE-GLOVED HAND moving slowly inside the door of the Valhalla. Sad, fidgety music. Silence in the great hall. This is another one coming on—another entrance. A lazy, crooked grin and a dolorous-eyed black face. Floppy shoes and woebegone pants.

Bravo, Mr. Williams! The great hall rings with hand-clapping. The great hall begins to fill with chuckles. There it is—the same curious grin, the lugubrious apology of a grin, the weary, pessimistic child of a grin.

The Great Actors, eager-eyed and silent, sit back on their thrones. The door of the Valhalla of Great Actors swings slowly shut. No Flo Ziegfeld lighting this time, but a great shoot of sunshine for a “garden.” And the music different, easier to sing to, somehow. Music of harps and flutes. And a deep voice rises.

Yes, I would have liked to have been there in the Valhalla of the Great
Actors, when Bert Williams came shuffling through the towering doors and
stood singing his entrance song to the silent, eager-eyed throng of
Rejanes, Barretts and Coquelins—
Ah ain’t ever done nothin’ to nobody,
Ah ain’t ever got nothin’ from nobody—no time, nohow.
Ah ain’t ever goin’ t’ do nothin’ for nobody—
Till somebody—
– Ben Hecht, 1001 Afternoons in Chicago, McGee/Covici, 1922

No comments: