Ernest “Brownie” Brown died of prostate cancer Aug. 21, 2009 in a nursing home in Illinois. He was 93. He was the last living member of the Copasetics, a group formed to keep the memory of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson alive. He was also a member of Cook and Brown, one of the most entertaining acts in vaudeville, which played all the great music halls in Europe and the United States. Cook died in 1991.
I first met Brown in New York. He was sitting in the audience of the New York Tap Extravaganza and Flo Bert Awards. At intermission, historian Delilah Jackson introduced us. When they closed with the Shim Sham, he went on stage and danced with his hands over his head, looking as though he was in his own groove. You simply could not take your eyes off him. Though he was not quite five-feet tall, he knew how to get attention and how to perform. Following that event, I saw him dance the Shim Sham many times in New York and St. Louis, and he always stole the show. He upstaged everyone. What a delight to see him perform.
When younger dancer Reggio McLaughlin and Brown taught classes at the St. Louis Tap Festival, I wondered how these two, who were years apart, connected and became dancing partners. Brown often performed numbers with McLaughlin in addition to the vaudeville dances they taught. McLaughlin explained that while he was in high school, he visited the local library and often watched the film clips of the hoofers. In his class at high school, a classmate knew of his interest in tap and told him of her tap dancing grandfather who lived with her parents. She invited him over for dinner to meet her grandfather. When McLaughlin saw Brown, he recognized him as one of the dancers in the library film. McLaughlin couldn’t believe it. They spent much time together and McLaughlin asked Brown to show him some steps. Brown danced in regular shoes or house shoes on carpet and this did not make it easy to pick up the steps.
“We did a little choreography for a musical, ‘Tommy Parker's Black Minstrel Show,’” says McLaughlin. “They put our photos in the newspaper. When [co-founder of the Chicago Human Rhythm Project] Lane Alexander saw the photo, he asked us to dance at CHRP. He called Brown who told him to call his dance partner. I was surprised to know I was his partner. Alexander wanted us to perform for his festival. When we got on stage Brownie would start doing things we had never done. ‘Hey what are you doing?’ ‘Just keep moving,’ Brownie would repeat. He never used terminology so he couldn’t name the next step.”
McLaughlin looked after Brown as though he were his grandfather and took care of him when they were invited to many festivals and awards that required travel.
They taught the “chair dance” and the “cane dance” all over the country. It was authentic and historical. Many vaudeville acts are now lost. They had a great time dancing together and teaching Brown’s routines. Sometimes Brown would dance in class, demonstrate, or just watch while McLaughlin explained or reviewed a step.
Once I was outside watching McLaughlin help Brown into the back seat of his convertible after a performance for the drive back to Chicago. Brown began singing. I asked McLaughlin if Brown usually sang in the car and McLaughlin replied, “Every mile.” Then Brown explained, “When I was in vaudeville we drove everywhere and didn’t have a radio, so we sang.”
Brown had a great sense of humor. When going through the check point at the airport, Brown was asked to take off his shoes. Then they asked him to take off his belt. His pants usually fell down without a belt. "We might as well get naked," said Brown.
Brown and Charles Cook were part of a well know act, Cook and Brown. Cook worked with Sarah Venable in an act called “Mammy and Her Picks.” Venerable hired Brown when a member of the act left. They became known as Garbage and the Two Cans. A comedian was Garbage, and they were the two cans.
In 1950 they formed their own act that included tap, comedy and acrobatics. They appeared in the Cotton Club revue, “Get Lucky,” and also performed often at the Apollo Theater. They performed at the Roxy, Radio City Music Hall, London’s Palladium, and the Latin Quarter in Paris. In 1948, they danced “Too Darn Hot” in “Kiss Me Kate.” They appeared on the Dick Cavett Show and with Maurice and Gregory Hines in the movie, “The Cotton Club.” They were featured in Brenda Bufalino’s “Great Feats of Feet,” Susan Goldbetter’s “Cookies Scrapbook” and Jane Goldberg’s “By Word of Foot.”
Brown has received awards from the St. Louis Tap Festival, The Tradition In Tap Award, the New York Tap Festival’s Hoofer’s Award, and the Flo Bert Award from the New York Committee to Celebrate Tap, The Living Treasure Award from Oklahoma City University, and appeared in the tap documentary, “JUBA-Masters of Tap.” Last year Cook and Brown were inducted into the Hall of Fame at Tap City: The New York City Tap Festival. McLaughlin and Brown danced the “cane dance” and it was the last time they performed together.
Brown will be remembered and missed by many generations of the tap world who loved him. His classic vaudeville routines are preserved and will be performed forever.
Fire Force Production Company has a documentary in progress based on the friendship of McLaughlin and Brown. The second part of his life probably became the highlight of his career. Many wonderful tributes and awards were presented to him, and his performance life was extended with the help and love of Reggio McLaughlin.