Ernest 'Brownie' Brown, 93
Ernest 'Brownie' Brown, 93; Vaudevillian Helped Keep Tap Dancing Alive
Friday, August 28, 2009
Ernest "Brownie" Brown, 93, a vaudeville entertainer and a founding member of a tap dance ensemble called the Copasetics that helped keep the dance style alive long after its golden age, died of prostate cancer Aug. 21 at a nursing home in Burbank, Ill.
An impish spitfire of a performer, Mr. Brown teamed with Charlie "Cookie" Cook about 1930 to create a comedy, tumbling and tap dance act that at various times shared stages with Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and other leading entertainers. Cook and Brown, as the partnership was called, headlined shows at Harlem's Cotton Club, the Palladium in London and the Latin Casino in Paris.
Their routine was simple: Mr. Brown, not quite 5 feet tall, was the mischievous clown, while the tall and lanky Cook, known for his Russian floor dancing, played the strait-laced grouch. Often their shows would feature Mr. Brown being tossed around like a rag doll and falling to the ground, only to finish in an impressive pose.
"Brownie can fall like a champion," Cook, who died in 1991, once told an interviewer. Authors Marshall and Jean Stearns wrote in their book "Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance" (1968) that Cook and Brown's act "looks like bone-crushing mayhem, but it is actually carefully rehearsed dancing and acrobatics, with tiny Brown emerging triumphant at stage center in the finale doing a wildly satirical version of the twist."
In 1949, Mr. Brown became a founding member of the Copasetics, a tap fraternity launched just after the death of celebrated tap dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson to honor his legacy. The group took its name from one of Bojangles's most frequently used expressions.
When someone asked how he was doing, Robinson often replied, "Everything's copasetic," meaning very satisfactory.
The Copasetics included some of the era's best-known hoofers, including Charles "Honi" Coles and Cholly Atkins, and put on lively shows that were heavy on improvisation and aimed to showcase the dancers' individual strengths. Mr. Brown frequently closed out the show, the last in a line of eight or 10 dancers to do a combination of a steps. He was the last surviving member of the original troupe.
The Copasetics were "the dancers that laid the foundation for all this new generation that's coming. They're the ones who really held the tradition together," said Reginald "Reggio the Hoofer" McLaughlin, a contemporary tap performer and educator who trained with Mr. Brown.
Later, Cook and Brown went on to perform on Broadway as a specialty dance act in a 1952 production of the Cole Porter musical "Kiss Me, Kate." The duo continued to dance together until the 1960s, but performance opportunities became harder to find. Cook soldiered on in the performing arts, but Mr. Brown went in a different direction, working for 14 years as a messenger at Manufacturers Hanover bank in New York.
Last year, the team of Cook and Brown was inducted into the American Tap Dance Foundation's Tap Dance Hall of Fame.
Ernest Brown, whose father was a barber, was born April 25, 1916, on Chicago's South Side. He was the youngest of nine siblings.
A talented performer even at an early age, he was performing with a vaudeville troupe called Sarah Venable's "Mammy and Her Picks" by the time he was 12 years old. Cook was performing in the same act, and they soon left to work as a team. Initially, the duo called themselves Garbage and His Two Cans, but switched to Cook and Brown around 1930.
His marriage to Hazel Coates Brown ended in divorce. Another wife, Patricia Brown, died in 1989. Survivors include a daughter from his first marriage, Barbara Junkins of Chicago; a sister; four grandchildren; and a great-grandson.
During his later years at the bank, Mr. Brown occasionally took part in a gala or revue-style performance. He was fully lured out of retirement in the 1990s, when he moved back to Chicago, befriended McLaughlin and began giving the younger man dance lessons. Mr. Brown, who lacked formal training, didn't use names of steps when teaching, he just showed the movements. Throughout their sessions, McLaughlin said, their conversations were always peppered with singing, with Mr. Brown turning a straightforward question like "How are you?" into a melodic ditty.
Soon, McLaughlin got a call from an organizer of the Chicago Tap Festival saying that they had contacted his partner about having their act perform in the show. McLaughlin said, "I was like, 'Partner? What partner?'" And when the organizer answered "Brownie," that was how he found out that Mr. Brown saw him as an equal and wanted to share the stage with him.
From that point forward, "we just kind of clicked," said McLaughlin, and the two performed and taught together for more than a 15 years. New York Times dance critic Jennifer Dunning called Mr. Brown a vibrant force, likening him to a "small dapper Jiminy Cricket look-alike."
Mr. Brown and McLaughlin made their final engagement in 2008 in New York. The pair was also featured in a PBS documentary, "Juba! Masters of Tap and Percussive Dance."
McLaughlin described their dance relationship this way: If the young man showed any sign of puzzlement when Mr. Brown improvised during their performances, "Brownie would say, 'Ah, just shut up! Follow me, keep moving, don't stop!' "