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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.
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In 1926, Florence made a concert appearance at New York's Aeolian Hall, singing four pieces specially written for her by her friend, William Grant, an African American classical composer. The show, "Blackbirds", was conducted by Eugene Goossens in front of a distinguished audience that included Toscaninni and George Gershwin. This was Florence's farewell to her friends and supporters before departing for France, England, and international stardom. "Blackbirds" was a huge success overseas.
In April 1927 "Blackbirds" reached its 250th performance, and the strain of two shows per day plus matinees and charity benefits took a heavy toll on Florence. By October of that year she was in a hospital bed with an appendicitis ailment that was beyond repair. Knowing she was dying, Florence sang songs to cheer her caretakers. On November 1, 1927, Florence said her last words, "I don't want anyone to cry when I die.
I just want to make people happy." Five days later Harlem saw the largest funeral it had ever seen.
Florence Mills was a world-class dancer at age 5. She was skilled in all varieties of jazz and tap dance, and was especially renowned for her acrobatic dancing style. Some of the highest enthusiasm for Florence's dancing came from the experts of classical dance and ballet. They understood that her jazz dancing was art of the highest form.
What others had to say about Florence Mills
"What hit me about Twinkle [Davis], Alberta [Hunter], and another fine singer in the
[Panama Café] named Florence Mills, was their grace and their dignified, relaxed attitude. Florence, petite and demure, just stood at ease and sang like a hummingbird."
~Mezz Mezzrow (jazz musician)
"And Florence Mills, who died very young, is, after all these years, a great person in the
memory of all who ever saw her. . .When she sang, the whole of her person was engaged so that even if I cannot remember her voice, I am still under the spell of her singing."
~Gilbert Seldes (1920s art critic and writer)
"Florence Mills became just as big a star as Bessie [Smith] but she was the opposite. Shewas a hummingbird, and dainty and lovely. Her little voice was as sweet as Bessie's was
rough, and it was like a cello."
~Alberta Hunter (blues singer)
"In her small throat she hides all manner of funny little sounds that flutter out like sparrows from an inexhaustible nest."
~Dudley Nicholls (American drama critic)
The memory of Florence Mills, as well as that of Bert Williams, is held in the form of the Flo-Bert awards. These prizes honor the outstanding figures in the field of tap dance. Delilah Jackson, a historian and researcher of black entertainers founded Flo-Bert Ltd. in 1989. Flo-Bert is both the organizations name and its annual award for life achievement in performing, teaching, or supporting the art of tap dance.
Kislan, Richard. The Musical: A Look at the American Musical Theater. Englewood
Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1980.