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by John-Ivan Palmer
One day my father did the unthinkable. He brought a Negro into our trailer park. This was the 1950s and if there ever was a “white thing” it was the American trailer park. Any non-Caucasian with the audacity to appear in the land of Airstreams, Vindales and Stuart Coaches would be regarded as disturbing the peace. As this alien creature stepped up into our trailer, people stood dumbfounded or peeked through the Venetian blinds of their front windows.
His name was Teddy Qualls, the comedy tap dancer known as “Mr. Rhythm.” He was in Oak Grove Trailer Park in New Brighton, Minnesota that day because he needed a ride to Fargo. He and my father, a downscale magician known as “The Master of Deception,” were often booked at the same Elks smokers and boondocks nightclubs around the country. But for Mr. Rhythm it was a much different experience.
He and his twin brother were born in New York City and raised as orphans in Father Flanagan’s Boys Town in Nebraska. Teddy’s twin went into a life of crime and ended up in prison under the White Slave Traffic Act for running prostitutes across state lines. Teddy went into show business. His publicity brochure described him as “the protégé of Paul Robeson,” the African-American singer who made the hit recording of “Old Man River” from Showboat and starred as Othello at the Savoy Theater in London. It was only the drop of a famous name because Robeson and Qualls were in no way similar.
Before the audience knew who he was, the emcee introduced Qualls as “a real live Scandinavian folk dancer.” Then, to everyone’s shock and laughter, he jumped from behind the curtain, as out of place as a piece of coal in a bag of marshmallows. Facing a stunned audience, he forced out a loud guffaw, showing big white teeth and eyes bugged out as if to say, Ha! Looga this, white folks! With his checkered coat and derby hat on a bobbing head, he played the Negro stereotype to the point of absolute hilarity. Like a good stripper will burlesque sex, Mr. Rhythm burlesqued race. I heard a theatrical agent one time try to sell him over the phone. “He’s a colored boy who devastates, I mean devastates an audience. Even if you don’t like the coloreds, this jigaboo will knock em outa their damn chairs!”
After his initial impression as a walking sight gag, he tipped the mic stand over so the microphone was on the floor to better pick up the sound of huge Stevens Stomper steel taps screwed into the heel and toe of his patent leather shoes. Then he lunged his way around in a blitzkrieg of self-deprecating racial mockery. You better laugh, or I’m gonna move right next door to you! He had an abnormal number of sweat glands and almost from the beginning, generous plewds of perspiration flew off his face in all directions. His biggest laugh (remember, this was the 1950s) was when he wiped his face with a handkerchief and said, Look at all that good hot chocolate goin’ to waste! He did a solid twenty minutes and that was it. True to the promise, he knocked em outa their damn chairs. When he left the stage the show was over. No one could follow something like that. Talent and success don’t always go together, but Qualls did have one chance at fame when he was selected as opening act for Bob Hope on one of his tours. The problem was, Mr. Rhythm was too good. He got bigger laughs than the famous comedian. So they he fired him.
There were two reasons why he was riding to Fargo with us. One, he was a notoriously bad driver, frequently getting lost, driving the wrong way down one-way streets, or mistaking a sidewalk for a road. Small town cops gave him little sympathy as a black man, although his comedy skills occasionally got him off the hook. The other reason was he sometimes got turned away on racial grounds from the very places that hired him. The agent and client would have to be called and it could take a while to resolve the matter. His mentor, Paul Robeson, ran into the same problem, fame notwithstanding. I often heard the story of the time Robeson tried to check in at the Curtis Hotel in Minneapolis. The desk clerk took one look at him and tried to say there were no rooms available. Robeson had a law degree from Columbia University and was an ex-professional football tackle, so he was not only articulate but physically imposing. He slammed his giant fist down on the desk and corrected the bigoted fool in no uncertain terms and got his room with no further delay. Gentle Teddy was better off with us. To turn him away meant they’d have to turn us away too—white people—and how dreadful would that be?
While my mother, “the lovely assistant” who always needed more time, was getting ready back in the trailer, my father and I picked up Teddy at his house, which of course was in a black neighborhood. His wife stood shyly in the doorway to see him off while neighbors stared at us, as out of place as a Negro in a trailer park, and watched their talented neighbor get in a car with white people who took him away to the heart of darkness.
I was a kid at the time and mentally Teddy was about my age, which was why we got along so well. We played finger games in the back seat, made funny noises and talked in silly voices. We’d settle down for a while, then start up again, two juvenile goofballs chortling our way happily across the plains.
Most of the time, however, he had to take his chances alone. Unlike his twin brother, he survived by getting laughs. Yet he still had to go hungry from time to time and sleep in his car in the parking lot of the very place where he just knocked em outa their damn chairs.
But not all nights ended badly. After a few hours of heavy drinking, members of the audience might lower their inhibitions enough to invite the black clown to join them. Sometimes he’d continue his wild tap dancing act in a nearby bar or even gather a crowd on the sidewalk. If some people can suck all the air out of a room, Mr. Rhythm, on certain occasions, could suck the air out of a whole town. On those nights he was the undisputed King and drank for free. But he knew, and so did everyone else, that by morning he’d better be gone.
By the time I was in high school in Brookfield, Wisconsin, I hadn’t seen Teddy Qualls for years, but he’d made a lasting impression on me. Although I’d never been one for dancing, his simple 2/4 beat stage music kept repeating in my head and made my feet want to move. Cleats on boy’s shoes were a common non-conformity at the time, the pedestrian version of a loud muffler, so I thought it would be cool to have cleats on the heel and toe of my shoes so I could clickety-clack just like Mr. Rhythm down the halls of Brookfield High. If someone were to ask why I was making such an ass of myself I would not have been able to tell them. I was no Paul Robeson.
Even though I never saw him anymore, the name Teddy Qualls came up occasionally in conversation, usually in relation to the latest trouble he’d been in, like the time he arrived at the wrong banquet room where there really was a Scandinavian folk dancer. Qualls, who’d had a few drinks, tried to claim it was him. He was nearly arrested for doing what he did for a living, being out of place.
As a philosophy student in college, I still wore cleats for reasons unrelated to logic. I had toned them down from steel to plastic and only on the heels, but I could still hear myself clack through the halls of academe. On a free weekend I accompanied my father to a banquet show at a hotel in Des Moines. By that time he’d been having the same problems as all post-war floor show acts. Tastes were changing because of television, and variety performers like Mr. Rhythm and the Master of Deception were slowly becoming obsolete. At the front desk my father asked for the “theatrical rate,” an antiquated price still on the books at some hotels that used to cater to vaudeville performers. The clerk had to look it up and sure enough, there it was, a price at least thirty years out of date.
Then the front door opened and the winter winds blew in. It was Mr. Rhythm. He looked exactly the same as I knew him as a kid, except his eyes were bloodshot and his suit looked like he’d slept in it, probably more from lack of money than lack of lodging. I smelled alcohol on his breath long before he reached the counter. I was too callow and self-conscious at that point to know what to say to this man I spent so many hours joking around with in the back seat of our car. We were not the same age anymore. Even though he was black and intoxicated, the desk clerk welcomed him warmly. He was no longer that much out of place. As we walked to the elevators, the carpeting silenced the cleats that had automatically become part of my footwear.
Mr. Rhythm hadn’t changed so much as a single word of the routine that had guaranteed him a fate other than that of his brother. He was still the same “real live Scandinavian folk dancer” with the sweat and the hot chocolate joke and the power stomping and wild shouting. Amusing enough, but I can’t say he knocked em outa their damn chairs. The Civil Rights Movement (in which Paul Robeson took a leading part) was at its height and audiences were no longer unified in the way they perceived African-Americans. The prejudicial assumptions on which Mr. Rhythm based his entire existence were now fragmented. This bizarre Negro Other with his camped-up “colored” routine with the bobbing head and derby hat was going the way of the freak show. It would not be long before he would disappear altogether.
Afterward, backstage, I heard the heavy clack of steel taps on the bare floor as he labored over to sit down in a thick smog of booze. He put each betapped patent leather shoe, shiny on the top, dusty on the bottom, in its own well-worn cloth bag and returned it to a battered case. I was aware of my cleats and tried to keep them quiet, but his ears were tuned to that kind of sound and when he heard it he looked up at me with sad, red eyes. Neither of us, for our own reasons, was capable of saying anything.