Sugar Foot Sam from Alabam

I bought this photo for a few dollars a few years ago at What’s On 2nd? in Birmingham. It’s undated and un-located, but it’s a beautiful, rare glimpse-in-action of the vaudeville road show, Sugar Foot Sam from Alabam. There’s a lot going on in this photo, onstage and off.

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Richard Penniman, who became Little Richard, worked on the Sugar Foot Sam show, circa 1949-’50. Almost as soon as he joined the troupe, they put him in a dress and changed his name to Princess Lavonne. “One of the girls was missing one night,” he later explained, “and they put me in a red evening gown…. I looked like the freak of the year.” From a brief tenure with Sugar Foot Sam, Richard moved to the King Brothers Circus and then to the Tidy Jolly Steppers, where he also worked in drag. Next, he got work “with the L. J. Heath Show from Birmingham, Alabama. It was a minstrel show, a little carnival. And they wanted me to dress as a woman, too. They had a lot of men dressed like women in their show. Guys like Jack Jackson, who they called Tangerine, and another man called Merle. They had on all this makeup and eyelashes. I’ll never forget it.”

I love the photo above, both as composition and historical document. One wonders which of the women onstage are and aren’t women. It’s the only photo I’ve seen of the Sugar Foot Sam show — anybody out there know of others? Or have anything else on the L. J. Heath Show?

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Notes: Quotes from Little Richard are from The Life and Times of Little Richard by Charles White. For more cool old photos and music and history, follow my radio show, The Lost Child, on Instagram or Facebook, or follow this weekly-ish blog.

Found Family Photos

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Before I knew her, my grandmother, Eloise McKerrall Mathews, had been a dancer. During a recent trip to my parents’ house in Montgomery, we found this box of very old photos — including these great ones of a young Eloise in some of her dancing costumes and poses. None of us remembers having seen these photos before.

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We also found these newspaper clippings from April of 1909, details of a “Baby Opera” at Montgomery’s Grand Theatre. My grandmother, age 3, appeared with her brother Jack, age 4, and her cousin Carolyn, also 3. Someone has labeled this by hand: “First appearance in public.”

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According to the lengthy(!) write-up in the Montgomery Advertiser, Eloise and Carolyn were dressed as “May Dolls” and Jack as a clown. The girls sang a tune called “School Days,” and the three of them together performed the “A. B. C. of the U. S. A.” For an encore they sang “Eat, Drink and Be Merry for Tomorrow You May Die.”

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The Advertiser reports that throughout the night “There were on the stage all sorts of babies, dressed alike in every act.” In one scene, Eloise and Jack appeared as minister and maid of honor in a “Lilliputian wedding.” That’s my grandmother, in the middle, on the broom:

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Speaking of lost-and-found photos, all the month of January I’ll be posting to Instagram daily photos from the fascinating history of Birmingham jazz. Follow @lostchildradio for some great images and anecdotes from the last hundred years; and follow this blog, if you’re not already, for occasional updates.

Happy New Year, everybody.