The Liberty Theatre production of Blackbirds of 1928 catapulted Bill “Bojangles” Robinson to tap dance fame.
The Liberty Theatre presented some of the most important tap dance shows of the early twentieth century Broadway stage. Opened in 1904, the 1055 seat house on 42nd Street in New York City’s famed Broadway Theater District was designed by architects Herts and Tallant as a smaller version of the New Amsterdam Theatre. The Liberty was run by producers Klaw and Erlanger until it was turned into a movie house.
The most significant Broadway show to influence tap dance history may well be Lew Leslies’ Blackbirds of 1928 which opened May 9, 1928 at the Liberty Theatre, starring Bill “Bojangles” Robinson & Adelaide Hall. Even though Robinson had been a star on vaudeville, he did not become well known to the New York theater critics until he was fifty years old when producer Lew Leslie hired him for Blackbirds. In the glorified nightclub revue, Robinson was assigned a late spot in the second half of the show to sing "Doin' the New Lowdown" and perform his famous Stair Dance. Robinson's success was instantaneous and overwhelming. He was "discovered" and hailed as the greatest of all dancers by at least seven of New York's newspapers. The show also featured singer and tap dancer Adelaide Hall in "Diga Diga Doo," Earl “Snake Hips” Tucker, and young Nina Mae McKinney.
The Liberty had been well known for tap dance decades earlier. Soon after the theater opened in 1904, tap impresario George M. Cohan produced Little Johnny Jones and premiered his iconic songs “Yankee Doodle Boy” and “Give My Regards to Broadway.” Cohan controlled every aspect of his musicals, writing the book, music and lyrics and featuring himself as the tap dancing star. "Cohan changed the definition of a Broadway Leading Man,” wrote John Kendricks, Cohan’s biographer. “Tap dancing with a lightness that seemed to resist gravity while looking manly."
In 1924, four young talents got their big break at the Liberty. Lady Be Good, with music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin, starred the brother and sister team of Fred and Adele Astaire, who sang and danced their way to Broadway fame with the hit tune, “Fascinating Rhythm.” The Astaire style of theater dancing blended ballet, ballroom, and soft-shoe tap dance.
Other tap dance shows at the Liberty include George White’s Scandals of 1919 and 1921 with Ann Pennington, Molly Darling (1922) with Jack Donohue, Brown Buddies (1930) with Bill Robinson, Adelaide Hall, Red and Struggy, and the Dixie Dancing Girls, Singin’ The Blues (1931) with the Four Flash Devils, and other shows featuring the hoofing of many tapping female and male chorus dancers.
In 1933, the Liberty was made over as a movie theatre and continued this function into the 1980s. In 2000, Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum was built on the site. Although the building's exterior structure is still standing, it's interior is no longer in use as a theatre. The Liberty remains one of the hidden gems of the New 42nd Street district.
By Margaret Morrison
American Tap Dance Foundation
American Tap Dance Center
154 Christopher Street #2B New York, NY 10014
© 2010 ATDF