February is African American Heritage Month at the Los Angeles Public Library. In celebration of this rich cultural heritage and in keeping with the branch’s theme of “African-Americans in the Arts,” the Vermont Square Branch Library will be presenting a very special program with award-winning author Elva Diane Green as she talks about her father, the legendary comedian Eddie Green. She wrote the book, Eddie Green:The Rise of an Early 1900s Black American Entertainment Pioneer, which received the Foreword INDIES 2016 Bronze Book Award. The onset of Elva’s own research for that book began right here at Central Library, in Los Angeles Public Library’s own Photo Collection. Elva Diane Green agreed to be interviewed by Catherine Sturgeon for the Los Angeles Public Library.
What was the impetus behind your writing the book about your father, Eddie Green?
The original impetus was my grandson; I wanted to show him that he could do whatever he put his mind to despite any obstacle. This became combined with the desire to bring the volume of work my father contributed to life back to the fore of the public’s mind.
Would you please share with us a little about your father’s life?
Eddie was born in 1891 in East Baltimore, an area of slums where only Blacks and poor Whites lived. There was no sewer system and disease was rampant. He left home at age nine, taught himself to read, and became a “boy magician” performing at churches and halls. He added comedy to his routine, wrote the song A Good Man is Hard to Find, and toured the South with a troupe of females in his show. In the 1920s he was hired for vaudeville stage plays, which led to burlesque at the Apollo Theater. Eddie continued to write music and appear in plays on Broadway. He eventually became popular as a radio guest and then began making movies in 1939. In 1941 he found his biggest fame as “Eddie the Waiter” in the radio program Duffy’s Tavern. He also performed as “Stonewall the Lawyer” on the Amos ‘n’ Andy radio program. Eddie died in 1950.
When the people hear the word “burlesque,” they may be confused by this term and conjure up images of Gypsy Rose Lee or Dita Von Teese. Burlesque is, by definition, “theatrical entertainment of a broadly humorous often earthy character consisting of short turns, comic skits, and sometimes striptease acts” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Would you please explain what your father’s burlesque shows might consist of back in the early days?
Morton Minsky’s theater, the National Winter Garden on Houston Street in Manhattan, was raided for the first time in 1917 when Mae Dix absentmindedly began removing her costume before she reached the wings. When the crowd cheered, Dix returned to the stage and continued removing her clothing to wild applause. Billy Minsky ordered the “accident” repeated every night. This began an endless cycle; to keep their license, the Minsky brothers had to keep their shows clean, but to keep drawing customers the shows had to be risqué. Whenever they went too far, however, they were raided.
Eddie was at the theater on this night. However, he had nothing to do with the striptease acts. Eddie was hired to produce stock shows—meaning he rehearsed the chorus girls on a daily basis, teaching them the latest dance steps for the various skits. He also performed as the head comedian, as a soft-shoe dancer, and was sometimes allowed to sing his own songs.
Your Facebook page consists of a fascinating mix of video, photographs, and other archival documents, including newspaper clippings and ephemera from your father’s career and the early days of entertainment. Are these documents that you have personally archived and/or have found during the course of your research?
Yes, after my mother found a picture of Eddie on the Amos ‘n’ Andy stage at the Central Library, I realized I might find other items as well. I started at Central Library, copying articles from newspapers. I visited museums and other local libraries. I let people know what I was doing and I received help; for instance, a friend alerted me to the fact that the Margaret Herrick Library, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Library in Beverly Hills had photos and scripts. I visited the California African-American Museum and the Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum. I researched online and paid for copies of articles from old newspapers. And I learned that the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture—part of the Photographs and Prints Collection of the New York Public Library —had an Eddie Green Portrait Collection and I bought a couple of photographs from there.
Your blog, pinthetush.com, carries the heading “Providing Propelling Encouragement Despite the Clear Presence of Obstacles.” Would you please expound upon this and its meaning for you?
My blog consists of what I think are motivational and stories and examples that will inspire the reader to get up and begin their pursuit of their dreams without worrying over the fact that obstacles exist. In 1891 there were many obstacles to a Black man trying to get ahead in life, and Eddie surmounted them all through his talent and determination.
The Vermont Square Branch Library is excited to be hosting your program on February 12. Would you please tell us a bit about your presentation?
I like to start out with a bit of information in regard to the connection of my grandson, Edward, to the book writing journey. I share a bit of the help I received in locating information and how I traversed the Internet. I include photos. As time allows, I may present a portion of Eddie’s last movie, a 20-minute short, or I have bits of Eddie’s funny radio sketches. And maybe play a bit of A Good Man is Hard to Find, a song that was recorded by people such as Fats Waller to Frank Sinatra to Nancy Wilson. And it is still being recorded 100 years later! I also offer a Q & A session.
One final question, please: what would you say is your father’s most lasting legacy?
During his career Eddie was known as a “regular guy.” Everybody liked him. At his funeral he was spoken of as the “Beloved Comedian.” Reverend Mansfield Collins said Eddie had “pushed the shadows away and brought sunshine into many lives.” People who I am in contact with on social media tell me how really funny he was and how he could fit into any program. So I guess I would say that his most enduring legacy would be his likeable character as a man and his comedic talent.