Florence Mills a Pioneer of The Silver Screen
Florence Mills never had a memorial in her own nation, but the tiny country of Grenada recently issued a stamp in her honor. It was part of a set as a tribute to pioneers of the silver screen. The stamp illustrated a poster from the Palace Theatre, the place to be for top vaudeville performances. Florence never actually made it to the big screen, but was the first black star, male or female, to headline at the Palace.
Florence was born in January of 1896 in the slums of Washington, DC. As the daughter of ex-slaves, she had it rough, but this girl had an ability that would soon show. She won a talent contest at age four, and by age seven she had made her professional debut. Two years later, she joined a vaudeville touring company. Since she was too young to do this, therefore it was not very long before she was arrested and put into an institution.
Soon after in 1905, Florence's family moved to Harlem, where she attended regular schooling. However, it was in Harlem where Florence joined her two older sisters in playing black vaudeville in local theatres as "The Mills Sisters".
In 1916, Florence moved to Chicago where she became a member of the "Panama Trio" alongside Bricktop and Cora Green. They played at the Panama Café along with jazz notables Alberta Hunter, Glover Compton, and Mezz Mezzrow. Another admirer of the trio was the legendary Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, who gave personal tap lessons to Florence. About one year later, the Panama Café was shut down by the police due to a shooting scandal. The trio played on at other local venues for a short time until they broke up in 1918. Florence then moved on to join a very successful black group called the "Tennessee Ten".
After several years with the "Tennessee Ten", Florence joined a new show called "Dixie to Broadway" in 1924. With her widely recognized theme song, "I'm a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird", the show was a phenomenal success. In June of 1925, Florence received vaudeville's highest honor. She was the star attraction at the Palace Theatre. By heading the bill at the Palace, she became the first black performer to have that honor.