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The Cakewalk


The Cakewalk had its origins in slavery. Peering through the windows at the spectacles hosted by white planters, enslaved blacks would then prance and preen in imitation of whites at their own dances, using exaggerated movements, curtsys and bows to and adopting “high-toned” clothing to mock. In performance, couples would line up to form an aisle, down which each pair would take a turn at a high-stepping promenade through the others. The irony was extended when white planters began to host and judge Cakewalk competitions, awarding a cake of some kind to the winning couple.

The meaning of the dance was lost on white minstrel performers, who added the exaggerated, over-the-top dance to their repertoire to portray the bumbling attempts of poor blacks to mimic the manners of whites. No longer was the Cakewalk a dance of satire; minstrels and their audience genuinely thought it signified blacks wanting to be like whites. By the turn of the century, the Cakewalk was used by both black and white minstrel performers far from its original intentions, and when the musical comedy gained prominence in theatre, the Cakewalk was transferred from the circuit theatre to Broadway.

williams and walkerDora Dean and her husband Charles E. Johnson brought the dance to the Great White Way in the 1893 production of The Creole Show. Their performance was a sensation. Not only did Dean, Johnson and the entirely black cast dispense with blackface, but the partner dancing on stage was a novelty. This success was followed by the musical comedy Clorindy The Origin of the Cakewalk (1898), an hour-long sketch that was the first all-black show to play in a prestigious Broadway house, Casino Theatre’s Roof Garden, whose ragtime music was scored by Will Marion Cook and whose cast of black dancers and white actCakewalking coupleors became the first instance of integration on stage in New York. The comedy also introduced the actors most associated with the dance, George Walker and Bert Williams.

Walker and Williams teamed up in the early 1890s after meeting in San Francisco. They performed the typical song-and-dance numbers, comic dialogues, skits and humorous songs of the vaudeville oeuvre, but found fame when they discovered, after portraying the stereotypical vaudevillian roles of con-man and victim (Williams and Walker, respectively), that they got a better reaction by switching roles. The slender Walker eventually developed a persona as a strutting dandy, while the stocky Williams played the languorous oaf. Their performance in the musical farce The Gold Bug electrified audiences when the duo’s performance of the cakewalk so captured the audience’s attention, they soon became so closely associated with this dance that many people still think of them as its originators.

This success was followed by a booking at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall in New York. Playing this well-known venue was a step up for them, and many doors opened as a result. Joining them was Walker’s wife, Ada (or Aida) Overton, whom George met in 1898 after they posed for a cigarette advertisement. They married the following year and she became the leading lady and soubrette in the Williams and Walker Company, soon after becoming famous in her own right as a performer of the Cakewalk.

She dazzled early-twentieth-century theater audiences with her original dance routines, her enchanting singing voice, and her penchant for elegant costumes. Her interpretation of the Cakewalk was to rewrite the bodily gestures of the dance in ways that appealed to white elites and black Americans, and make the dance “respectable.” Her elegant cakewalking opened the door for the Four Hundred to pick up the dance and Ada was hired frequently by New York’s renowned hostesses to teach guests how to Cakewalk at fancy balls and tableaux.

This success was fine, but the ultimate goal the Williams and Walker Company of was to produce and star in their own Broadway musical. From their original meeting, the men wanted to introduce African themes on Broadway and rid the theatre of the limitations placed on black actors. In 1902, the duo teamed with Will Marion Cook, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and Jesse Shipp to produce In Dahomey, the first musical to open on Broadway written and performed entirely by African-Americans.

The musical was a resounding smash hit, and the company took In Dahomey to England the following year. Initially met with tepid response, the play picked up after the Royal Family requested a special performance at Buckingham Palace, where King Edward sent a courtier to inquire whether the cakewalk just performed was the most absolute form of the dance, and of course, the company said it was. In Dahomey ran for four years, and broke all records: it helped make its composer, lyricist and leading performers house-hold names, and its score was the first black musical that had its score published (in England, not America).

cakewalkThe Cakewalk became the first black dance to be accepted by white society, which paved the way for the acceptance of other dances of African-American origin, such as the turkey trot or bunny hug, and later, the Black Bottom, the Charleston, all the way to the Electric Slide. As for the Walkers and Bert Williams, the trio continued their success despite George dying of syphilis in 1908, and Ada succumbing to kidney failure in 1914. Bert Williams continued as a solo artist, become a star performer with Ziegfeld’s Follies, and recording songs to much acclaim. He died in 1922. Despite their early deaths, George and Ada Walker, and Bert Williams proved the talent and dedication of black actors, and their successes pushed a recalcitrant Broadway (and society) to accept the presence of a black performer, or a black star, on the stage.

Further Reading:
Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance by Marshall Winslow Stearns & ‎Jean Stearns
Staging Race: Black Performers in Turn of the Century America by Karen Sotiropoulos
A History of African American Theatre by Errol Hill & ‎James Vernon Hatch
Swing Along: The Musical Life of Will Marion Cook by Marva Carter
The Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre by Harvey Young
Cross the Water Blues: African American Music in Europe by Neil A. Wynn
Introducing Bert Williams: Burnt Cork, Broadway, and the Story of America’s First Black Star by Camille Forbes

The Presidential Inauguration


There is no other expression of American democracy than the exit of one President for another. Whether the President has served one term or two–or in the case of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, four–the inauguration ceremony is one of excitement, triumph and the bittersweet. The first inauguration was held on April 30, 1789, in New York City. The day was originally set for March 4, which gave electors from each state just about four months after Election Day to cast their ballots for president. This was changed in 1937 by the 20th Amendment, which changed Inauguration Day to noon on January 20, in time for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s second term. Thomas Jefferson became the first president to be sworn in at our nation’s capital, though D.C. did not official become the federal capital until 1801.

All inaugural ceremonies at the Capitol have been organized by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies since 1901, and the U.S. military has participated in Inauguration Day ceremonies from the first president, as the president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Naturally, the proceedings for the inauguration of a new or continuing president were strictly regulated by etiquette.

It was customary for the President-elect to arrive in the city one or two days before the time designated for his formal induction into office. Upon the arrival of the President-elect at the Capital the national colors would be floated from all public buildings during each day between sunrise and sunset until after the inaugural ceremonies. As soon as practicable after his arrival the President-elect would call upon the President, having previously sent a messenger to ascertain his convenience as to time, to pay his respects and to exchange views with reference to the ceremonies attendant upon his succession and taking possession of the Executive office. The President returned the call of the President-elect on the same day. The President then invited the President-elect and members of his Cabinet and ladies to dinner before the expiration of his term of office. He also held a levee at a convenient time before his retirement.

The inauguration of the President was attended by more or less pomp. The order of arrangements for the inaugural procession was assigned to a military officer. The following is the official program adopted and promulgated for the inaugural ceremonies of March 4, 1881, from which point it was free to elaborate upon:

Two platoons of City Police (mounted)
Grand Marshal and Aids
First Division: Chief Officers, Aids, U.S. Artillery, Marine Battalion, Troops (if any) which accompany the President-elect to the seat of Government; The President and President-elect and party in carriages, attended by three aids; Calvary, Portion of the visiting military organizations
Second Division: the Chief Officer and Staff, Visiting Military designated
Third Division: the Chief Officer, Staff, Grand Army of the Republic, Misc military organizations from different states
Fourth Division: the Chief Officer, Staff, Misc military organizations
Fifth Division: the CO, Staff or Aids, Civic Societies, Political Organizations, Fire Department, etc
Salutes: The artillery will post a gun and detachment in the mall south of the Treasury, and another in the Capitol grounds to fire the signal guns when so required

The procession moved towards the Capitol at 10:15 am. At that hour, Pennsylvania Ave would be cleared of vehicles.

After arriving at the Capitol, the President and President-elect were escorted to the Senate Chamber, while the troops and civic organizations massed in front of the building. The ceremonies attending the administration of the oath of office to the President-elect were under the direction of the Senate. After the conclusion of the inauguration ceremony in the Senate, the President was conducted to his carriage and attended by the guard of honor, who drove him to the reviewing stand erected for the purpose on Pennsylvania Ave north of the White House. If the new President chose to take immediate possession of the White House, the retired President and his First Lady awaited his arrival there to welcome him into the mansion, and formally yielded up its possession. A lunch was usually prepared by the direction of the retired President, at which the new President presides. After this, the retired President and the First Lady withdrew from the mansion to their temporary residence in the city.

President Washington set the precedent for retiring from the Presidential office, when he published a farewell address, reviewing some of features of his administration. It then became customary for the retiring President to review principal acts of his administration in his last annual message to Congress, preceding the expiration of his term of office. His departure from the Capital was attended with no ceremony, other than the members of his late Cabinet and a few officials and personal friends. The President left the Capital as soon as practical after the inauguration.

helen taft's inauguration gownThe excitement of the day didn’t end there. It was customary to close the ceremonies of Inauguration with a grand ball, which was generally conducted under the auspices of a citizens committee of arrangements, appointed at a public meeting. Arousing much comment and curiosity was the costliness of the ball and more importantly, what the new First Lady was to wear. Mrs. McKinley dazzled with a gown made of silver cloth. The groundwork was of white satin, heavily woven with silver thread in a lily design. The full, sweeping train was plain, but measured two and a half yards in length. The left side was open over a panel of seed pearls, embroidered on satin, and at the bottom, a flounce of Venetian point lace cascaded, partially concealed beneath the train. The right side of the skirt was also slashed open half way up and under that was also am embroidered petticoat of pearls. Special silk was woven for Mrs Roosevelt’s inaugural gown, and it was shipped from New Jersey to Washington days before March 4. Of heavy brocade, with a background of blue, through which, at intervals, was woven the figure of a dove. The filling was of gold tinsel. Appropriately, given the occasion and the wearer, the pattern was destroyed, allowing Edith Roosevelt a one-of-a-kind ballgown. 1909 saw Mrs. Helen Taft in “one of the handsomest models ever seen in Washington.” A severely plain underdress of heavy white satin formed the foundation. Over this was draped with white chiffon, on which a pattern of goldenrod, the National flower, was embroidered in silver. The design was repeated in the embroidery of the long Court train, and point lace formed the sleeves and served to trim the decolletage. In her hair was a diamond aigrette, and around her neck, a pearl dog collar.

The inaugural ball was considered by many the quadrennial tribute paid by politics to society. There had only been but two intermission in the series of inaugural balls to commemorate the accession of a newly-elected President. The earlier balls were held on sites then deemed fashionable. Martin Van Buren had two balls given in his honor, William Henry Harrison gave three, James K. Polk had two, one of which was charged $10 a ticket and the other $2, Zachary Taylor had three balls given in his honor, and President Pierce would up being inaugurated in a snowstorm, and had no ball given him. By the 1880s, the Pension Building was staked as the official ballroom for the inauguration ball. Tickets to President Cleveland’s ball cost $5 apiece, and fully 12,000 guests were provided for in the committees plans. The ball was catered to meet vigorous appetites: over 60,000 oysters, 10,000 chicken croquettes, 7,000 sandwiches, 150 gallons of lobster salad, 300 gallons of stewed terrapin, 150 boned turkeys, 300 gallons of chicken salad, 1,300 quarts of ice cream and hundreds of pounds of pate de foie gras.

With all this hustle and bustle, one can imagine the sentiments of the day when President Woodrow Wilson canceled plans for an inaugural ball in 1913. In the midst of societal outrage, the milliners, caterers, dressmakers, tailors, chauffeurs, and any other person who provided services and goods for ball attendees were devastated. The New York Times reported a glut of white gloves on the market, citing their obscenely cheap prices as a result of glovers overstocking their wares in anticipation of the inauguration. After the frenzy died down, it was revealed that President Wilson canceled the ball fearing the dancing of the turkey trot! He instead opted for a safe, turkey-trot-free reception.

Read the Inaugural Addresses of America’s Presidents from George Washington to George W. Bush


The Inauguration of President McKinley, 1897

President McKinley’s Second Inauguration, 1901

President Roosevelt’s Inauguration, 1905

First Lady Fashion: 200 Years

Photographs courtesy of Library of Congress

More photos of First Lady inaugural gowns: Past Perfect

Lobster Palace Society


great-white-wayFrom the late 1890s through the 1910s, there emerged a spectacular, dazzling nightlife along Broadway. At that time, Broadway was a two mile stretch of din and dazzle between Madison and Longacre Square (renamed Times Square in 1904). One might rub shoulders with sparkling showgirls and squalid prostitutes, cops and confidence artists, panhandlers and the wealthiest men of Wall Street. Nicknamed the “Gay White Way” because of the never-ceasing splendor of lights from street lamps to marquee boards, the classic way to spend a night on Broadway began with cocktails, then to a show, then to one of the gaudy, extravagant “lobster palaces.”

These “lobster palaces,” defined as “one of the elegant, expensive new restaurants that emerged in New York City, which specialized in lobsters and attracted the rich and famous,” catered to the theatrical crowds that nightly surged out of limousines, taxis and theatres in search of dinner or an after-theatre supper. And “lobster palace society,” comprised of playboys, professional beauties, stars such as Lillian Russell, chorus girls, kept women, sportsmen, newspaper men, celebrities of the Bohemia of the arts, and businessmen from the hinterlands. Beginning with the opening of Café Martin in 1899, the lobster palace, and its accompanying society both challenged and changed the components of New York society and its nightlife, proving a worthy ancestor of the “café society” of the 1920s and 1930s.

The first official lobster palace was Café Martin, which was opened in 1899 by Louis Martin, who had successfully operated a small hotel on Ninth St that was a favorite of French visitors. When he learned that Delmonico’s was vacating its site on Twenty-Sixth street to move uptown, he leased the building and created an intimate restaurant that introduced side-by-side eating known as a banquette. This cozy atmosphere was very attractive to men who wished to entertain young women who were not their wives and not surprisingly, Café Martin became the rendezvous of the smart set for luncheons and dinners. Another beguiling feature was his dining terrace, which was placed just above the street and covered with a brightly striped awning. Seated behind shrubs, flowering plants, and palms, guests could admire the splendid view of Madison Square without being seen. Martin hired an orchestra for his cafe and allowed women to dine there if escorted, and even served drinks to them (cafes normally operated as masculine preserves).

lillian-russell Café Martin was quickly followed by the Café des Beaux Arts, founded by a former employee of Martin, Jacques Bustanoby, and his two brothers. Located a Forty-Second and Sixth, Bustanoby’s restaurant was immediately popular with theatergoers and the headliners of the shows. The attraction for the theatre stars were the soirees artistique, which Jacques cajoled them into performing. Lillian Russell, for example, would enter the restaurant to applause and in the company of Jesse Lewishon, Diamond Jim Brady and his wife Edna, and producer Florenz Ziegfeld and his wife, Anna Held, and it was in this restaurant that Lillian and Diamond Jim, both famous for their girths and appetites, wagered that if she could match him course for course, he would give her a huge diamond ring the following day. According to Bustanoby, Lillian slipped into the ladies’ room and came out with a heavy bundle under her arm, wrapped in a tablecloth. She told the proprietor to keep it for the next day and then returned to the table and ate plate-for-plate, beating Jim fair and square. diamond-jim-brady

The bundle she handed to Bustanoby was her corset.

“Diamond Jim’s” given name was James Buchanan Brady, and though a successful financier, he was most known for his love of the items which gave him his name, and his astounding appetite. It was not unusual for Brady to eat enough food for ten people at a sitting. A typical Brady breakfast would be: eggs, pancakes, pork chops, cornbread, fried potatoes, hominy, muffins, and a beefsteak. For refreshment, a gallon of orange juice—or “golden nectar”, as he called his favorite drink. Lunch might be two lobsters, deviled crabs, clams, oysters and beef, with a few pies for dessert. The usual evening meal began with an appetizer of two or three dozen oysters, six crabs, and a few servings of green turtle soup, followed by a main course of two whole ducks, six or seven lobsters, a sirloin steak, two servings of terrapin and a host of vegetables. For dessert, the gourmand enjoyed pastries and a two pound box of candy.

Lillian Russell, his longtime amour–though the actual details of their relationship (romantic or platonic?) are murky–“airy, fairy, Lillian, the American Beauty”–after whom America’s favorite rose was named–whose hourglass (while corseted) figure with its ample hips and very full bosom weighed 200 pounds; she was the Belle Epoque ideal. She was known equally for her legendary beauty, her voice and stage presence, and her appetite, as it was said she ate more than Diamond Jim! Whatever the case was, restaurateurs and maitre d’hotels sighed in ecstasy alike when the two descended upon a lobster palace after a performance, with Rector’s being the ideal place.

Rector’s, though making its debut in New York City after the restaurants of Bustanoby and Martin, was the premiere lobster palace. Though sharing fame with such entities as Shanley’s and Murray’s Roman Gardens, etc in terms of opulence and grandeur, something about Rector’s placed it ahead of the crowd. It didn’t help either that everybody went to Rector’s.

Lobster palace society indulged itself in a healthy exhibitionism which led to its most characteristic ceremony, the “entrance.” At no other place could one make an entrance as at Rector’s. A sturdy, imposing building of Greco-Roman design, the interior was breathtaking, Charles Rector lavishing $200,000 to transform the interiors into a mirrored paradise of green and gold, providing linen especially woven in Dublin, hand-stenciled silver covered a hundred tables on the ground floor and seventy-five on the second. Four private dining rooms completed the interiors. In a neat coup before opening, Rector wooed saucier Charles Parrandin, the maitre d’hotel Paul Perret and the business manager Andrew Mehler from Delmonico’s. His staff of 165 were impeccable, most having graduated from professional schools in Switzerland and though the hours were grueling (10 am to 3 am with three hours off in the afternoon) and the salary meager ($25 dollars weekly), Rector’s was the place to be for both patrons and employees alike.

On to the “entrance”:

The time is somewhere between eleven thirty and midnight. The orchestra is playing, when it is suddenly called to a halt. The leader has caught sight of a star just about to enter (if she is not a star recognizable on sight, he has probably been tipped off in advance as to her identity). There is a pause of silence during which all conversation ceases. Then the orchestra strikes up the song currently associated with the star who, blushing faintly, glides swanlike to her table, skin dazzling, diamonds winking, profile at the proper tilt. Her escort, probably hidden behind the blanket of violets, her evening’s tribute, knows his name will go down in history.

By the 1910s, competition for patronage became fierce, particularly after the ragtime dance craze swept across both sides of the Atlantic. As restaurateurs and patrons sought new diversions, into America came the cabaret. Initially existing on the fringes of New York society, and mainly known through Parsian caf-concs of the 1890s, the cabaret first reached beyond the vice districts to the attention of respectable New Yorkers in the spring of 1911 when Henry B. Harris and Jesse Lasky, two vaudeville entrepreneurs, opened the Folies Bergère Theater on Forty-Ninth in the heart of the theatre district. Two shows a night were offered: first, an elaborate revue from 8 pm to 11 pm, and an after-theater cabaret performance from 11:15 pm to 1 am. The two promoters introduced a champagne bar, a balcony promenade, and the first American midnight performance. Soon after its opened though, the Folies suffered a financial decline. Offering only 700 seats, the theatre could not sustain its huge redecoration costs and entertainment investment. Designed as a theatre-restaurant, the Folies’ two elements didn’t work well together. The restaurant only comprised 41% of the floor plan.

Nonetheless, people latched onto the idea of supper, dancing and a show, and by late 1911 and early 1912, a number of lobster palaces picked up the cabaret idea and began experimenting with the presentation of entertainment along with the sale of food and drink. Jacques Bustanoby opened the Domino Room at Columbus Circle and introduced midnight ’til dawn dancing. Reisenweber’s, which could claim to have introduced cabaret to America, had four rooms and a ballroom. At various times, it had its large restaurant divided into the 400 Room–where the Dixieland Jazz Band were introduced –, the Sophie Tucker Room and the Doraldina Hawaiian Room–was the first in New York to echo with the pitter-pat of turkey-trotting feet–, all offering patrons a choice of environments. Later cabaret/lobster palaces were The Midnight Frolic and the Century Roof (Cocoanut Grove), who charged relatively expensive covers of $1-2 for a couple without drinks! Once inside, drinks cost 25 cents for cocktails and highballs, $2.50 for a pint of champagne, five dollars for a quart. Sans Souci, founded by Vernon and Irene Castle, was the first cabaret not associated with a preexisting lobster palace. Designed after Parisian models, the club opened Dec 1913 in a basement on 42nd Street. Other places followed suit, opening special cabaret establishments. Finally, theatres converted their roof gardens to cabarets and ballrooms.

Dancing girls were the sole attraction of this first show, and within two weeks every lobster palace with a dance floor had a chorus line. At first, the development of the floor was almost accidental, as restaurants merely followed Lasky and Harris’s policy of presenting a few entertainers as incidental diversions. restaurant managers would hire a few special intimate acts, such as singers and dancers, from rathskellers or the lower rungs of vaudeville and have them circle among the tables as incidental attractions to the dining and drinking. Rather than putting up stages, the restaurants cleared a space in the dining room or installed small platforms. It was only after 1915, after the ragtime dance craze had made the cabarets profitable that owners were convinced of their earning potential and began to implement more elaborate stages.

The seating of patrons at tables was the other distinctive feature of the cabaret, one that encouraged greater intimacy between audience and performers and among the audience itself. Guests watched the entertainment from dining chairs at tables. As the years went by, the size of meals declined as guests spent their time watching the acts or dancing, but the restaurant setting and the table continued as an important locus for patrons’ dining, drinking and personal interactions.

Lobster palaces died with the closing of the Great War, and despite efforts to revive the old restaurants of both lobster palace society and the Four Hundred, society had changed too much. Most notably was the sudden popularity of Harlem in the 1920s, and finally, Prohibition, which put many legitimate restaurants out of business who were unable to sustain profitability without the sale of liquor.

Further Reading:
On the Town in New York by Michael Batterberry & Ariane Batterberry
Diamond Jim Brady by Harry Paul Jeffers
Empire City by Kenneth T. Jackson, David S. Dunbar
Steppin’ Out by Lewis A. Erenberg
Welcome to our city by Julian Street
Incredible New York: High Life and Low Life of Last Hundred Years‎ by Lloyd R. Morris