At the turn of the century Bert Williams was one of America's top comedians. Comedian Eddie Cantor called him a comic "genius," W.C. Fields, a comic genius himself, once described Williams as "the funniest man I ever saw."
Williams was the first Negro to make it on the American stage. His success opened the door to scores of Negroe comedians who came after him.
Williams' popularity lasted for 25 years. He was a Ziegfeld Follies star for 10 of them. He also was a vaudeville comedian, a musical comedy star, singer, writer and producer.
Egbert Austin Williams was born on the Bahaman island of New Providence in 1876 and was brought by his parents to the United States at the age of 2. The family eventually settled in Riverside, California, where Williams was reared and schooled. After high school, he briefly studied civil engineering in San Francisco, soon abandoning that for the stage.
Williams joined a small minstrel troupe which played the mining and lumber camps of CA and Oregon. In 1895 he met another young African American, George Walker and their forturnes became intertwined. the two men formed a team and hitthe vaudeville circuit.
Williams and Walker appeared as "black-face" comedians in 1896 at Tony Pastor's and in 1897 at Koster and Bial's theaters--both leading houses on the vaudeville circuit.
Williams and Walker opened in "The Song of Ham" in 1902. A musical farce, it played New York for two years. In 1903, they produced an all-Negro musical coomedy, "in Dahomey," which captivated broadway and played in London for eitht months, including a command performance before King Edward VII. the two comedians followed this up with three or four similiar musicals which also were successes.
Walker died in 1909 and Williams gave up producing to become a featured performer in otherwise all-white Broadway productions. In 1910, he signed a long-term contract at a salary in four figures with the Ziegfeld Follies. He frequently wrote his own songs and skits.
Williams stayed with the follies until 1921. He was appearing in "Underneath the Bamboo Tree" when he collapsed a year later on stge in Detroit. Taken to his home in New York, Williams died a month later.
Billboard, ther show business bible, reported his death this way:
"E.A. Williams, known to the theatrical world as 'Bert' Williams, and regarded by many as the greatest comedian on the American stage, died at his home March 4 1922 of pneumonia."