The author of this incredible biography is my great friend and jazz connoisseur Keller WHALEN.
Part 2: The Cotton Club Revues
NEW YORK, THE COTTON CLUB PARADE THIRD EDITION
In spite of any bad publicity, Mae’s star was in demand and she had two tremendous opportunities come up at the same time. Mae was selected to play the lead in Broadway impresario George Abbott’s (“Room Service,” “Jumbo,” “On Your Toes”) latest Broadway production called “Home Sweet Harlem,” a melodrama scheduled to open in September.
Simultaneously Mae was to be featured in the Third Edition of the Cotton Club Parade at the successful new downtown incarnation of the Cotton Club. This was a major new show starring Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson and Cab Calloway and His Orchestra. Also appearing in this lavish production were dancer Tondaleyo (also formerly of the Ubangi), singer Avis Andrews (check our full-lenght article), Tip Tap & Toe, the Tramp Band and Shorty Showden and His Lindy Hoppers. Another band, Arthur Day’s Orchestra, played music for dancing when the acts weren’t on stage. In the earliest performances, the Nicholas Brothers stepped in to cover for Bill Robinson who was called to 20th Century Fox in Hollywood to film “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” with Shirley Temple.
From the revue’s opening on Saturday night, September 24th, 1937 through early October, the publicity for the Cotton Club show listed its top draws Robinson and Calloway, plus the Nicholas Brothers and a certain Mona Manville. Mona Manville? Who? The newspapers listed the name Mona Manville without comment although this top-billed name didn’t even exist. She was in fact our Mae Johnson. Why the alias? Perhaps Mae was still being optioned by George Abbott when she took the Cotton Club job and was still weighing which job to take. (She could have done both by playing Broadway for matinees and evenings while the Cotton Club shows started 11:00 PM or later—both Bill Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers had done this before.) Billy Rowe didn’t clarify at all when he wrote: “Delovely Mae Johnson ain’t what she used to be a few short weeks ago…she now insists that the press and others address her as MISS MONA MANVILLE” (Billy Rowe, October 2, 1937.) The Mona Manville designation, however, was dropped within a couple of weeks.
Sheet musics of songs Mae Johnson sang at the Cotton Club
Listed in the Cotton Club programs under her own name and dubbed the “Copper Colored Mae West,” Mae sang “Now I’m a Lady” and joined Cab Calloway for a duet on “Hi-de-Ho Romeo.” The former number is from Mae West’s 1935 film “Goin’ to Town;” the latter song was a Cab Calloway number, which had been recorded as a solo vocal by Cab and was still being sung 20 years later in another Cotton Club Revue duet by Calloway and Norma Taylor. Mae also took part in a scenario called “Savage Rhythm” with Tondaleyo and Cuban dancers, and she joined in the grand finale with the entire cast.
Cab Calloway recorded "Hi De Ho Romeo" in 1937
before his duets with Mae at the Cotton Club, listen to it here
The Cotton Club Parade, Third Edition, opened in September 1937
Variety liked Mae’s solo turn but not so much her duet with Cab. “Mae Johnson, comedienne a la Mae West…clicking with a Westian specialty. Harlemesque Shakespeare (‘Hi-De-Ho Romeo’ by Calloway and Mae Johnson) is a tossup for inclusion, if it's a matter for pruning. It tends to slow down the show” (September 27, 1937).
Meanwhile George Abbott’s production of “Home Sweet Harlem” was postponed from a September opening to early December, but still promising Mae “Mona Manville” Johnson in the lead. The show finally opened, without Mae (and without Mona for that matter) in the cast, under a new title, “Brown Sugar.” It ran for only four performances before closing. The New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson said the entire production had “a studied avoidance of originality,” but he did single out for special praise a new actress fresh from Tampa, Florida making her stage debut -- Butterfly McQueen, soon to make history as Prissy in the movie version of “Gone with the Wind.”
Mae’s star seemed to be on the rise anyway. The Cotton Club show continued to get good reviews into the spring. Mae was “bewitching” and “the house came down” with her rendition of “Now I’m a Lady.” One columnist described her along with Bill Robinson and Cab Calloway as outstanding performers, dubbing them all with the term “super-artists,” (she “out-Wests Mae West”). Mae wore a multitude of different gowns for her Cotton Club numbers and was described by another columnist as a “new meteor across the theatrical horizon” (Alan McMillan, Chicago Defender, October 2, 1937). A 1938 New Year’s entertainment summary predicted that Mae Johnson and Maxine Sullivan would be the “great stars of tomorrow.”
A trade ad for Irving Mills Music showcased Mae Johnson in her Mae West pose, 1937.
Mae Johnson’s Mae West impression was interesting enough to come to the attention of Miss Mae West herself when her old friend George Raft told her about it in Hollywood. Leonard Lyons picks up the story in his New York Post column:
In Hollywood, last week, George Raft met Mae West and told her about the Cotton Club show, in which the sepia Mae Johnston does an impersonation of Miss West. "Tell me, George," Mae asked, "does that Johnson gal make me look fat and sexy?"... Raft relayed this information to the Cotton Club last week. And so yesterday Jack Diets—who has controlled the motion picture rights to all championship prize fights during the past few years—took movies of Miss Johnson's Cotton Club performance and sent the film to Mae West (New York Post, December 25, 1937).
NEW YORK, THE COTTON CLUB PARADE FOURTH EDITION
With no time off between productions, the Cotton Club embarked on the all-new Fourth Edition of the Cotton Club Parade, opening March 10, 1938. Cab Calloway and his Orchestra hit the road for a few months so Duke Ellington and his Orchestra took up residence in the Cotton Club. Also starring were the Peters Sisters, three 300-pound singers, Anise & Aland, dance team, singer Aida Ward, singing team The Chocolateers and Peg-Leg Bates, the one-legged tap dancer extraordinaire. Ivie Anderson sang with Duke’s orchestra and another band, the Socarras Orchestra (Alberto Socarras was a flutist who played jazz and Cuban rhythms) provided the dance music between acts. The only performer returning from the previous edition was Mae Johnson.
After the overture, Mae sang the opening number, a spectacular new Duke Ellington song “A Lesson in C” with its tongue-twisting lyrics, described as “a rhythmic evocation of a new deal for music.” Mae never recorded that number, but it was later put to wax by Cootie Williams and his Orchestra with the vocal by Miss Jerry Kruger. Mae also returned later in the show to sing her specialty number “Rainy Day Sadie,” a sexy Sadie Thompson take-off, and she joined the entire company for the finale presenting the latest dance craze, “Doin’ the Skrontch.”
The Cotton Club Parade, Fourth Edition, opened in March 1938.
Variety reviewed the show typically, writing, “Mae Johnson really slaps ‘em down with her warbling and gyrations in “A Lesson in C” but her specialty about the wicked Sadie doesn’t cash in fully.” (March 23, 1938)
Listen to "A Lesson in C" by Cootie Williams & His Rug Cutters,
with Jerry Kruger singing the song Mae introduced in 1938
Meanwhile, Mae was being frequently mentioned in the newspapers, with the columnists still guessing about her continuing relationship with Dr. Hogans, being spotted around Harlem in the latest fashions, and posing for glamorous photos for the African American press.
Mae Johnson, April 1938.
“The cameraman reports that mellow Mae is the kind of a song
that most of the boys wish to come into their hearts.
Since coming to New York, la Johnson's popularity has leaped sky high.
She is one of the most sought after of New York performers.”
One night in April, the guest of honor in the Cotton Club audience was Mae West herself. The Brooklyn Eagle reported that Miss West was going to help our Mae brush up on her Mae Westisms. After the show, a reporter asked Miss West what she thought about Miss Johnson’s impression of her – she reportedly lifted her giant pearl necklace and said, “I’d like to see somebody imitate these!”
The Cotton Club spring show closed in early June. During a short hiatus, most of the Cotton Club Parade performers, with the exception of Duke and the band, moved to the Surfside club and resort in Long Beach on Long Island with an abbreviated Cotton Club show for the summer audience. Aida Ward, the Chocolateers, Anise & Aland, and Rufus and Richard, appeared with Don Redman and His Orchestra providing the music. Mae was publicized this time as the “Creole Mae West.”
Sexy photo of Mae Johnson from the Baltimore Afro-American June 16, 1938
NEW YORK, THE COTTON CLUB PARADE FIFTH EDITION
The Fifth Edition of the Cotton Club Parade was more expansive and packed with more stars than ever before. The entire club was redecorated, adding to the general excitement. Once again, Cab and Duke traded spots and Duke went out on the road while Cab acted as MC and his orchestra provided the show music at the club.
The new cast starred Mae Johnson in her third Cotton Club Parade appearance in a row, and included the Nicholas Brothers, singer June Richmond who had just left the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, the dancing Berry Brothers, the exciting new team of the Dandridge Sisters, Whyte’s Lindy Hoppers, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Will Vodery’s Choir, comedy dance team Timmy & Freddie, tap dancer Dynamite Hooker and contortionist Jigsaw Johnson. Music for dancing before and after the show was provided by an additional full band, the Socarras Orchestra. The grand finale of the revue presented W.C. Handy himself with Cab Calloway and the full company performing Handy’s classic “St. Louis Blues.”
Newspaper advertisement for the Fifth Edition of the Cotton Club Parade, 1938
The new show opened October 6, 1938 to sellout crowds every night. Reviews were uniformly ecstatic from the African American press (Pittsburgh Courier, Chicago Defender) as well as the mainstream New York newspapers (the Times, the Evening Post and the Sun). The “exotic vocal interpretations” of the “sepia-hued Mae West” were “a new high” for Mae. Jay Gould, columnist for the Chicago Defender described her “shape winkin’ at you when in action, mowing them down.” “Mae Johnson drew hearty guffaws with her saucy tunes” (Afro-American, October 16, 1938). Mae’s numbers in the show included an original set piece named “Scarlett O’Hara from Lenox Avenue” where she sang a topical song called “Dog Gone with the Wind.” It must have been saucy indeed--at one point late in the run, she was asked by a wealthy club patron to remove a reference in the song to the Duchess of Windsor that he had deemed to be insulting to Her Grace.
Mae sang a duet with Cab on the latest Calloway hit song, the “Congo Conga,” along with the Latin dance team Pablito & Estrelita. Mae also backed up Sister Rosetta Tharpe on her big number “Miss Hallelujah Brown.”
The Cotton Club Parade, Fifth Edition, opened in October 1938
Mae shared a dressing room with June Richmond and the Dandridge Sisters -- Dorothy and Vivian Dandridge and their friend Etta Jones (not the well-known Jazz singer by the same name) were all still in their teens but already a popular singing and dancing act. Etta later recalled that they were shocked by the worldly Mae Johnson: “she was neurotic and some things she said were just so vulgar” (Donald Bogle, Dorothy Dandridge, p. 56.) The older girls in the cast tried to protect the young girls from some of the cruder goings-on backstage – boyfriends visiting the dressing rooms, limousines pulling up out back, money changing hands, etc. – Mae Johnson was the one who finally said, “Oh, don’t be silly, Dottie’s got to grow up. She might as well know” (Dorothy Dandridge, Everything or Nothing, p. 48).
Mae Johnson autographs a Cotton Club program, circa 1938.
During the winter of 1938-39, Mae was busy with her three shows a night at the Cotton Club, but still found time to stimulate newspaper gossip in connection with the perennial Dr. Shag Hogans.
Nina Mae McKinney, another Cotton Club performer,
was seen off to Hollywood by her friends on September 3, 1938.
Mae Johnson is on the far right.
The memorable Fifth Edition of the Cotton Club Parade ran for more than five months and closed on March 10, 1939; rehearsals began immediately for the new World’s Fair Edition production. Although Mae was originally scheduled to be included in the cast for an unprecedented fourth show in a row, the final line-up brought Bill Robinson and Cab Calloway together again as co-headliners with a new but slightly pared-down roster of other singers, dancers and specialty acts, including the Beachcombers (a couple who threw each other around the stage), Son & Sonny and Glenn & Jenkins (both were tap dance teams), and Will Vodery’s Choir. The only holdover in the cast from the prior show was the dynamic singer Rosetta Tharpe whose star was quickly ascending.
Instead, Mae signed up to headline a European tour of a Cotton Club revue. Throughout the 1930s, several groups of prior Cotton Club performers and other African American acts had traveled to France, Germany, U.K., Netherlands and Belgium in various selective lineups under the Cotton Club Revue rubric. And among the individual artists who toured Europe to great acclaim were the Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway Orchestras, Fats Waller, the Mills Brothers, the Peters Sisters and Adelaide Hall.
Mae’s inaugural European trip was to set sail the first week of April 1939 with a 14-week tour planned starring the Nicholas Brothers, the Dandridge Sisters, The Berry Brothers, musicians Slim & Slam, the dancer Kaloah, and the Jimmy Lunceford Orchestra. But with the possibility of European war just too close, the state department canceled passports and prohibited unnecessary travel to Europe. Duke Ellington’s band had just played Paris and Amsterdam in early April, but was forced to return to America early. Mae missed her chance to conquer Europe.