“Have you see Miss Dora Dean, sweetest gal I’ve ever seen?”
That was a lyric of a song written about her in 1896, when she and her husband and partner, Charles E. Johnson, were at the very top of the world of vaudeville. Their song-and-dance act took them abroad for months on end, touring Europe and even Australia. They performed in Hungary and Russia, even for England’s King Edward VII.
Dean and Johnson had a perfect partnership, with his “rubberlegs” dance moves and ability to twinkle and caper and captivate the audience, often while she struck an admiring pose. Neither sang especially well — they would talk through their songs — but it didn’t matter. Dean was gorgeous. She had a wonderfully pleasing personality, and she radiated vivaciousness on stage. She was magnetic. A painter in Berlin, possibly Ernst Heilman, bought the entire show’s contract so that she had two weeks free and he could paint her portrait.
As a black teenager in the 1880s, Johnson shined shoes at the old Nicollet House hotel in Downtown Minneapolis and earned tips for his buck and wing dancing. He went to amateur nights at local theatres and then heard about a new kind of minstrel show, featuring other black (not blackface) performers and, for the first time, women. He was hired and there he met Dean.
She was from Kentucky, perhaps born with the name of Luella Babbige. While with The Creole Show, Dean and Johnson perfected their routine, a cakewalk, but soon struck out on their own. In the world of black dance, they set several firsts. They were the first to make the jump from black vaudeville to top billing in white vaudeville circuits. They were the first to perform the cakewalk on Broadway. Johnson said in 1951, using the vocabulary of the day, “The walk goes back to slavery days. The best strutting couple in the Negro festivals was awarded a cake for the elegant bearing of the gentleman and the grace of the lady.” When they stepped onto the stage that first time in New York, Johnson said, “Well, we just strutted. The crowd went wild.”
Another of their calling cards was that public display of elegance and grace. They determined from the start to be “a class act.” No dancers before them — black or white — performed the cakewalk in evening clothes. Dean changed her costume a few times during their act and wore dresses that cost $1,000. Her clothes were copied by the likes of Sarah Bernhardt. Johnson wore a monocle and top hats and tails in purple or white. Their earnings went into their costumes and jewelry. He had a six-carat diamond pin. Her earrings cost $10,000.
The cakewalk dance began with enslaved African Americans dancing to imitate and mock the stiff and formal progressions of white dancing. As blackface minstrelsy developed in the mid-19th century, cakewalk became the signature showpiece of the finale of a minstrel show. Even when African Americans performed in minstrel shows, either as themselves or in blackface, the cakewalk was performed as a cartoonish imitation. Johnson and Dean’s class act transformed the cakewalk into a stylish dance that white people eagerly took to. The dance was enormously popular in Europe and America, where it became more exaggerated and, again, cartoonish. White people imitated black people imitating white people.
When vaudeville wound down as a primary entertainment, the spotlight on Johnson and Dean faded. They broke up the act, and each tried to create a new performing career. Neither was the success they hoped for. Eventually, Dean came back to Minneapolis and to Johnson. They tried a comeback and had a bit of success until he injured his leg. It healed slowly. They lived in a modest house at 811 E. 36th St., where they once owned most of the houses on the block. Dean had a long illness and died in her sleep in 1943. Johnson was a model for art students at the Walker and at MCAD before he passed away in his 80s in 1956. He thought the modeling gave him a tiny bit of “on-stage”; he was always planning a comeback. They are both buried at Lakewood Cemetery.
But what of that painting — the life-size portrait of Dean — a copy of which hung in their home? It was still there a few decades ago, and was probably there when Johnson died. But where did it go? Have any of you seen Miss Dora Dean?