They were a couple of teenage chorus dancers in a T.O.B.A. vaudeville show in 1917 when a publicity agent offered them $50 to get married on stage at the Standard Theatre in Philadelphia. It started out as a joke for Jodie Edwards and Susie Hawthorne, but they stayed together for life.
As “Butterbeans and Susie,” they battled and bickered their way to stardom with earthy, racy humor. They were masters of the “hokum blues,” sparring with each other on numbers like “My Daddy’s Got the Mojo, But I Got the Say So” and “I Wanna Hot Dog for My Roll.”
Speaking of their influence, the black comedian Godfrey Cambridge said, “Butterbeans and Susie originated the routine…that later was translated into George Burns and Gracie Allen.”
Butterbeans and Susie spent decades performing on the circuit known as T.O.B.A., or the Theater Owners’ Booking Association. In a deeply segregated era, it was the top booking agency for black performers. A contract with the “Toby” circuit meant steady work. But, performers called it “doing Tobytime” because living conditions were so rough, and complained that T.O.B.A. stood for “Tough on Black Asses.”
In a career that spanned 40 yrs, Butterbeans and Susie were still performing in the 1960s, appearing at the Apollo Theater in Harlem with rhythm and blues bands and Motown recording artists. In true vaudeville tradition, Butterbeans died, October 28, 1967, as he walked on stage in Chicago.
This week, on Riverwalk Jazz, the comic interplay between Butterbeans and Susie is brought to life by Broadway’s Vernel Bagneris and acclaimed jazz vocalist Topsy Chapman. The Jim Cullum Jazz Band provides a musical backdrop steeped in jazz and blues of black vaudeville of the ‘20s.
Photo credit for Home Page and Recent Radio Broadcast Page:
Butterbeans & Susie photo courtesy Vaudeville Museum
Text based on script by Margaret Pick ©2011