Plantation Days


Plantation Days opened at Green Mill Gardens in the summer of 1922, becoming one of the biggest hit shows in the club’s history. Unusual for its time, the show featured an entirely African American cast.

This wasn’t the first time Black artists had performed at Green Mill Gardens, but such occasions were rare. The Uptown neighborhood’s population was almost entirely white in 1920, and it’s fair to assume that nearly all of the people spending an evening at Green Mill Gardens were white, too.

“Chicago had its North and West Side clubs and dance halls where black orchestras entertained white audiences, but racial integration stopped there,” William Howland Kenney wrote in Chicago Jazz: A Cultural History 1904–1930. “… Whites could venture into black cabarets, but blacks could not enter most night clubs or dance halls in white Chicago, not even those white establishments where black orchestras provided the music. As a result, many, perhaps the majority, of white Chicagoans, both musicians and customers, experienced the jazz age in all-white environments; only an inner circle of white musicians realized that the latest innovations in jazz performance were to be found on the South Side.”1

Ralph Dunbar’s Tennessee Ten, a group of Black entertainers whose shows included “a replica of plantation pastimes,” had performed at Green Mill Gardens for a few weeks in 1917.2 Another Black artist, singer-pianist Shelton Brooks, who’d written Sophie Tucker’s big hit “Some of These Days,”3 appeared at Green Mill Gardens in 1920.4

Typical of that era, some of the entertainers were white people pretending they were Black. Movie palace impresario A.J. Balaban recalled Aunt Jemima performing at Green Mill Gardens. This was not Nancy Green, the Black resident of Chicago’s South Side who portrayed Aunt Jemima for more than two decades, serving as a living embodiment of the character depicted on boxes of pancake mix.5

Tess Gardella as Aunt Jemima.

Rather, it was an Italian American singer named Tess Gardella. “She was a great blues singer,” comedian George Burns said decades later. “And she was a very heavyset girl, and she used to dress up like Aunt Jemima, and she had five musicians on the stage that were dressed up like bakers.”6

In 1920, Aunt Jemima and Her Syncopated Bakers were advertised performing “Jazz Specialties” at Balaban & Katz’s Central Park Theater.7 When she sang at Green Mill Gardens, she would often go across the street to watch the shows at Balaban & Katz’s Riviera Theatre.

“One evening, all our lights went out in the middle of the picture,” A.J. Balaban recalled. “The audience began to squirm, and speculate how to get out of that pitch-dark, tightly-packed theatre. From the stage, the manager urged them to wait quietly until the electrician completed the necessary repairs, but impatience had begun to sweep over them.

“Suddenly a big voice boomed out the opening notes of ‘You’re in Virginia Sure as You’re Born.’ It was Aunt Jemima, sitting in the audience, sensing the danger of a mob scrambling for the exits in the dark. The effect was like magic—like a mother’s hand on a frightened baby’s head. Soon they were all singing with her, and when the lights went on, she finished her song, and stood up to take an ovation and our heartfelt gratitude.”8 (There doesn’t seem to be a published song titled “You’re in Virginia Sure as You’re Born.” Perhaps Balaban was thinking of “Ethel Levey’s Virginia Song” by George M. Cohan, which has similar words.)

In 1921, an all-Black musical called Shuffle Along became a smash success on Broadway in New York City, whetting the American public’s appetite to see similar shows—and laying the foundation for Plantation Days to open at Chicago’s Green Mill Gardens.

Looking back on Shuffle Along a century later, New York Times critic Ben Brantley observed: “What made it a bona fide hit, running close to 500 performances, was the jaw-dropping virtuosity of its singing and dancing.”9

Historians and critics generally agree that Shuffle Along featured stereotypes that we’d recognize today as racist and offensive. But at the time, this successful show was celebrated as a triumph for African American artists. By the standards of that time, the performers seemed to be “quiet” and “insinuating” during the show’s comedic moments, “and not at all given to the vociferous exaggeration of their race,” a Chicago Daily Tribune critic wrote.10

Egan Jacoby—Miriam Matthews Photograph Collection, UCLA Library Digital Collections.

The show’s writers, Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, had honed their comedic act years earlier at the Pekin Theatre on Chicago’s South Side.11 For Shuffle Along, they teamed up with composer Eubie Blake and lyricist Noble Sissle, whose songs for the show included one that’s still well known today: “I’m Just Wild About Harry.”

Eubie Blake

While Shuffle Along pulled in big crowds for more than a year on Broadway, a similar musical with another all-Black cast opened in New York: The Plantation Revue. A Black newspaper, the New York Age, described it as “a number of singing and dancing acts based on life among Negroes in the South.”12

By the summer of 1922, Variety reported: “Chicago has heard for a year or more of the success of ‘Shuffle Along,’ the colored show in New York.”13 The Tribune later noted how “strange tales have reached these parts of a wonder show by colored performers which everybody who was anybody went to see.”14 But it began to seem like Shuffle Along would never make it to Chicago’s theaters.

Two white vaudeville producers, Maurice Greenwald and Jimmy O’Neal, believed that a plantation-themed show starring Black entertainers would be popular in Chicago’s garden venues. And so, according to Variety, “They hied themselves to New York, looked over the situation there, got an idea as to how the ‘Plantation’ was being operated, looked over ‘Shuffle Along,’ engaged a contingent of actors, came back and made negotiations to present a revue which they named ‘Plantation Days’ at the Green Mill Gardens, on the North Side, for 12 weeks.”

The performers and musicians traveled from New York to Chicago and spent two weeks rehearsing the show.15 Impressed by the assembled talent, the Chicago Defender commented: “Jimmy O’Neal did a world of clever footwork in Gotham and a peek at the resultant line-up tells a great tale.”16

Advertisements in the Chicago Daily News from June 10 and July 1, 12, and 29, 1922.

Plantation Days was promoted as Chicago’s own equivalent of Shuffle Along. And the Chicago Whip, another Black newspaper, called it “a Chicago edition” of The Plantation Revue “that is taking Broadway by storm.” In reality, the Green Mill Gardens show wasn’t affiliated with either of those New York shows, even if it was similar to them.17

Chicago Daily Tribune, June 25, 1922.

“The venture is an experiment in transplanting a fad from New York, where one all colored entertainment, ‘Shuffle Along,’ is running into its second year,” the Chicago Daily Tribune reported, “… and various ‘plantation’ resorts, here and there about town, are charging fabulous admission prices and attracting enormous crowds.”18

“Nothing like it ever seen in Chicago,” proclaimed an ad in the Chicago Daily News, describing Plantation Days as “Smart Society’s Latest Fad” and “A Southern musical revel with a cast of 50 from Shuffle Along of New York.”19

A Tribune article noted: “Some former players in ‘Shuffle Along’ are among those present at the Green Mill, and the revue is largely an echo of that entertainment, which Chicago probably will not see.”20

Opening night was Friday, June 16, 1922.21 Admission was $1 (roughly $18 in today’s money).22 The fast-paced show was reportedly just 45 minutes long.23

However, a Plantation Days program—preserved in federal court archives—lists 17 songs, medleys, dances, or scenes, along with an intermission. Those tunes and skits would have to be very brief for all of that to fit in 45 minutes.24

Green Mill Gardens hosted “two performances nightly with a midnight matinee at 1:30,” according to Variety. Did that mean three shows altogether—two before midnight and one at 1:30 a.m.? In any case, the venue was openly breaking Chicago’s cabaret law, which required all live entertainment to cease at 1 a.m.

As Plantation Days opened, the Illinois Supreme Court had just ruled that Chicago city officials had the constitutional authority to shut down Green Mill Gardens’ shows at 1 o’clock. Variety predicted large crowds would turn out for the 1:30 a.m. shows, because “Green Mill Gardens is the only outdoor amusement enterprise which operates after 1 a.m. curfew.”

Variety initially noted that Green Mill Gardens had a seating capacity of 2,000,25 but a week later, the newspaper said the number was actually 2,300. The venue had installed plantation-themed decorations,26 which the Defender described as “remarkably realistic Southern settings,”27 along with a new hardwood dancing floor, which the Daily News called the “finest and best dance floor in Chicago.”28

“Opening night the place was jammed,” Variety reported.29

Plantation Days program, Shuffle Along Inc. v. Lawrence Deas et al, Equity Case 2978, 1922, Equity Case Files U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois Eastern Division, National Archives, Chicago.

Before the show itself began, the audience heard an overture: James P. Johnson performing his rollicking composition “Carolina Shout” on the piano. A program handed out to audience members identified Johnson, who was 28 years old, as America’s greatest jazz pianist.30 And the Defender commented that he was “rightly billed ‘World’s Greatest Jazz Piano King.’”31

James P. Johnson in 1921. Syncopated Times. 

A New Jersey native who lived in New York City, Johnson is remembered today as the “Father of Stride,” because he’s credited with creating the Harlem stride style of playing piano, in which the left hand makes wide leaps across the keyboard. Johnson gave lessons to another legendary stride pianist, Fats Waller.

A year before Johnson played at Green Mill Gardens—writing and arranging music for Plantation Days and directing the show’s orchestra—he’d made some of the first records of solo jazz piano, including that song he was playing now as Plantation Days’ overture, “Carolina Shout.” And a year after Johnson’s run at Green Mill Gardens, another song he wrote, “The Charleston,” would debut in his Broadway show Runnin’ Wild. Inspiring a hugely popular dance, “The Charleston” became one of the decade’s biggest hit songs. It’s so ubiquitous that the tune instantly brings the Roaring Twenties to mind whenever it’s heard today.

When Duke Ellington was an up-and-coming musician, he studied Johnson’s piano roll of “Carolina Shout” to try unlocking the secrets of how Johnson played this beguiling tune.32 “We slowed the machine and then I could follow the keys going down. I learned it!” Ellington wrote in his memoir. “And how I learned it! I nursed it, rehearsed it. Yes, this was the most solid foundation for me. … I became one of the close disciples of the James P. Johnson style.” And when Ellington saw Johnson playing piano, “it seemed as though you’d never heard the same note twice.”33

Music historian Bruce Barnhart traced “Carolina Shout” to Johnson’s years playing in “The Jungles,” as the Black section of the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in New York was known. “His audience there was made up largely of laborers from the South who danced much of the night to Johnson’s solo piano,” Barnhart wrote. “The dancing style of this audience had a sharp impact on Johnson; he improvised and composed rhythmic figures and cadences to suit the dancers that he played for. Heeding the call of the shouts and dance-steps of the Carolina Island dockworkers who made up much of his audience at The Jungles Casino, Johnson incorporated these melodies and rhythms into his piece…”

Now, Johnson was playing this song for an audience of white Chicagoans at Green Mill Gardens. Barnhart noted the song’s “bold rhythmic power” and the way Johnson “demonstrates a mastery of time.” Each time Johnson repeats a sequence of notes he has already played, it’s as if he’s trying to find something different, something he missed when he played it before. And whenever Johnson breaks the song’s rhythm with a sharp lurch, “it feels as if the rug has been pulled out from beneath one’s feet,” Barnhart wrote.

In his 2010 article for Callaloo magazine, Barnhart made some rather grandiose claims for the effect that James P. Johnson’s record of “Carolina Shout” can have on a listener, suggesting that it may fundamentally alter the way we perceive space and time. One wonders how listeners sitting in Green Mill Gardens reacted.34

After this overture, the show began with a prologue, described as “A true Scene of Anti Bellum Days Introducing Real Southern Melodies by entire Company.”35 Twelve of the show’s principal stars sang these old-time songs, accompanied by eight chorus girls. “It startled the audience, which thought it would get a large assortment of ‘blue’ numbers and a lot of daring dances, such as have been seen hereabouts where colored shows have been given,” Variety’s critic wrote. “The audience liked it, and when the second number, fast and jazzy, was rendered by Leonard Harper and Arceola Blanks, everyone seemed to set his mind toward enjoying the proceedings.”36

According to the program, that second number was “Simply Full of Jazz.” This was a song from Shuffle Along—a rather blatant example of how the Chicago show Plantation Days borrowed from that Broadway hit.37

The chorus went:

Just ’cause you see my feet a-shufflin’
Just because I act like a razz,
’Cause I seem a little hazy, I ain’t crazy.
I’m just full of jazz, jazz, jazz,
Simply full of jazz.

The song was performed by Leonard “Hot Feet” Harper and Osceola (also spelled Arsceola or Arceola) Blanks, accompanied by cast members costumed as flappers.

Harper & Blanks. Wikimeida.

The Chicago Whip called Harper & Blanks “one of the niftiest teams in vaudeville.”38 According to the Defender, Harper & Blanks were already a “famous big time team,” thanks to their recent shows on the Shubert Organization’s national theater circuit.39 They’d been dancing together on stages since at least 1917.40

Harper, who was in his 20s when Plantation Days opened, was born in Birmingham, Alabama, where he’d started dancing as a child to attract crowds to a medicine show wagon.41 Blanks, a 33-year-old born in Missouri or Iowa, had been part of a singing duo with her sister Birleanna.42 Five months after the opening night of Plantation Days, Leonard Harper and Osceola Blanks would get married in Indiana.43

The Defender praised this “clever pair,” commenting: “Both in their single numbers and when backed by the nifty chorus is their work of the most impressive sort and the splendid ability of the pair is shown throughout the entire entertainment.” 44 The Chicago Whip remarked: “Miss Blank’s a pretty young lady to look at, is possessed with magnetic personality and dances and sings to the delight of all.” 45

Later in the Plantation Days show, Harper & Blanks performed “Southern Wedding” (introducing “Carolina Ivy”), joined onstage by comedian Blondi Robinson and the Dixie Bridesmaids. Harper & Blank also performed a number called “Vampire Babe,” with help from some “Vamps.” (At the time, Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula was well known, but movie vampires hadn’t yet become iconic figures in pop culture. Sadly, I have not found any sheet music, lyrics, or recordings of “Vampire Babe,” if that was in fact a song title.)

Harper wasn’t just one of the show’s stars—he was also producing Plantation Days, together with Lawrence Deas, a choreographer who’d worked on Shuffle Along.46 And in the years after Harper worked on Plantation Days, he became a show-business impresario, creating floor shows for Black nightclubs in New York City throughout the 1920s and 1930s, while serving as a dancing coach for stars including Fred Astaire, the Marx Brothers, and Ruby Keeler.47

Another star of Plantation Days was Marjorie Sipp, a 33-year-old born in New York City,48 was known as “a prima donna of marked ability”49 as well as an “eccentric comedienne.”50 She’d won a Ford touring car as the top vote-getter in a 1916 contest for “New York’s most popular girl.”51 She was said to be the first Black woman featured at the Folies Bergère in Paris52 and the first colored graduate of the Milan Conservatory.53 In a touring production of Shuffle Along, 54 she sang “I’m Just Wild About Harry” in a “pleasing soprano voice,” prompting audiences to cheer for encore after encore.55

Her dancing also attracted attention. “A dancer should do more than simply frisk gracefully about the stage,” she told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “She should give her spectators a message, and her dancing should mean something. It must either tell them a story or reflect some emotion—happiness, jealousy, anger—something. … The artist dances with her face and her whole body, not simply with her feet. As she goes through various steps her facial expression changes and she makes gestures conveying a message most clearly to the spectators. Her dancing actually speaks—not any of the languages in common everyday usage, but a language that is far more beautiful than any other language known.”56

In Plantation Days, Sipp sang the song right after “Simply Full of Jazz.” Backed by a trio of male singers, she performed “Swanee River,”57 a title commonly used for Stephen Foster’s immensely popular minstrel tune from 1851, “Old Folks at Home.”

It fit right in with the theme of Plantation Days, with the song’s Black narrator declaring:

All up and down de whole creation
Sadly I roam,
Still longing for de old plantation,
And for de old folks at home.

Foster’s song is often criticized for romanticizing the lives of enslaved people on Southern plantations before the Civil War.58 It’s hard not to wonder if Plantation Days was guilty of using the same trope. Even the show’s title raises a troubling question: Was it glorifying the era when Black people were enslaved on Southern plantations?

In 1903, when Black scholar W.E.B. Du Bois wrote The Souls of Black Folk, he used “Old Folks at Home” as an example of popular music based on old African American folk songs. “What are these songs, and what do they mean?” he wrote. “…They tell us in these eager days that life was joyous to the black slave, careless and happy. I can easily believe this of some, of many. But not all the past South, though it rose from the dead, can gainsay the heart-touching witness of these songs. They are the music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways.”59

At another point during Plantation Days, Sipp sang a selection of songs from Shuffle Along, accompanied by James P. Johnson on the piano. And she later took the stage with the Plantation Johnnies to perform a number billed as “Harry,” which was almost certainly the Shuffle Along smash hit “I’m Just Wild About Harry.”60

This song was a Black woman’s declaration of love and desire for a Black man—something that had never been heard on Broadway stages until Shuffle Along.61

There’s just one fellow for me in this world.
Harry’s his name,
That’s what I claim.
Why for ev’ry fellow there must be a girl.
I’ve found my mate
By kindness of fate.
I’m just wild about Harry,
And Harry’s wild about me.
The heav’nly blisses of his kisses
Fill me with ecstasy.
He’s sweet just like choc’late candy
And just like honey from the bee.
Oh, I’m just wild about Harry,
And he’s just wild about, cannot do without,
He’s just wild about me.

The Chicago Daily News called Sipp’s performances of the Shuffle Along tunes “a sensation.”62 The Defender said she was “making a great impression.”63 And Variety reported: “Marjorie Sipp is the prima donna. Her soprano voice is one of the most audible and distinct heard in an outdoor amusement place.”64 While the Tribune praised Sipp, it remarked that the rest of the cast showed “no great prowess in the matter of singing.”65

The Defender praised “acrobatic and Russian dancing of the most sensational order”66 by a male-female duo known as Dave & Tressie, who’d advertised themselves as “Two Dancing Demons.”67 They performed an “interpolation” on “Bandana Days,” another song lifted straight out of Shuffle Along, with more lyrics filled with nostalgia for olden times (presumably, the olden times when Black people were enslaved):

Why, the dearest days of my life were bandana days,
Bandana days, though filled with turmoil, trouble, and strife.
Dearest mem’ries will live always
In those dear old bandana days,
Cane-and-cotton-ne’er-forgotten bandana days…

Dave & Tressie did a “specialty” segment of “Chicago’s Favorites,” perhaps a demonstration of dance movies that were popular in Chicago at the time.68 And Tressie performed “Ukelele Blues” with Sydney Grant (a lyric tenor from the Shuffle Along cast69) and some “hula girls.”70 One critic called this a Hawaiian number “an attempt to do a wiggly dance thing.”71

The Tribune’s critic said the show’s best dancers were “two amazing hoofers identified in the playbill only as ‘Harper’ and ‘Dave.’”72 Harper was the producer Leonard Harper. The full names of Dave & Tressie were rarely ever mentioned in ads or press reports. Dave was North Carolina native David Stratton, who’d started dancing and drumming in stage shows when he was just six years old.73 The real name of “Tressie,” his wife and dancer partner, was Fannie Hart.74 After their successful run in Plantation Days, they bought a house on Chicago’s South Side.75

Chicagoans who frequented revues had never seen such a wide variety of “novel dance features” in one show, according to the Defender. “The fact that all the terpsichorean efforts are original and therefore new to the Mill patrons is a great recommendation for Deas,” the newspaper wrote, “as well as a demonstration of the fact that when it comes to handing out work of class and distinction along that line ‘our folks’ are not to be equaled.”

Plantation Days featured a large contingent of singing and dancing girls, “all of whom are of the pony type,” the Defender observed. Practically all of them had previously performed in the East Coast touring version of Shuffle Along. “Pretty, capable and full of youthful pep and dash, they carry every number in which they are concerned to a speedy climax and their work is a revelation to those who have become accustomed to the ordinary type of ‘entertainer,’” the Defender wrote.76

“The chorus is a collection of eight girls of the creole type, good of form, graceful of appearance, have more than the average voices and can qualify individually as steppers,” Variety wrote. “In several of the numbers they sparkled brilliantly through their ‘strutting’ and eccentric steps.” 77

The Tribune’s critic wrote: “Most important among the celebrants, I should say, is the energetic chorus of dusky damsels, one or two of whom classify as beauties and all of whom display their charms and agility with the wildest possible abandon.”78

Baby Theda Deas, the five-year-old daughter of producer Lawrence Deas, performed in one of the show’s big numbers. “She is a veritable riot,” the Defender said.79 The Whip called her “the little wee tot that works, and riots the bill.”80 And another critic said, “She is a cute little stepper.”81

Other veterans from Shuffle Along—Archie Cross, Cecil Rivers, Lemuel Jackson and Sterling Grant82—performed as the Plantation Four, harmonizing with near perfection83 during a selection of “Jubilee Singing.”84

Elgar’s Creole Orchestra. Syncopated Times.

Throughout the show, the music was performed by Elgar’s Syncopated Band—25 Black players led by Charles Elgar, a 43-year-old violinist from New Orleans who’d lived in Chicago for the past decade.85 “It is one of the greatest aggregations of which Chicago can boast and works in perfect harmony with the idea in part as a whole,” the Defender wrote.86

At a few points during the show, various entertainers performed comedy routines known as “specialties” in between songs.87 Harris & Holley did a bit called “The Piano Movers,” in which they rolled dice.88 Edgar Martin “held his own, offering a real interesting monologue, and good singing and dancing,” the Chicago Whip wrote.89

Comedian Blondi Robinson wore blackface, as did many of that era’s Black entertainers, including the cast of Shuffle Along. This was a peculiar tradition dating back to the time of the Civil War: If Black people performed on a stage in front of white people, they were forced to darken their faces with burnt cork or makeup. “Custom obligated black performers to fulfill an audience’s expectations, expectations that white performers had established,” Wesley Morris explained in an essay for The 1619 Project. “A black minstrel was impersonating the impersonation of himself.”90

The Defender did not see anything offensive about this Black comedian performing in blackface in Plantation Days. “Blondi Robinson, the famous eccentric comedian, working under cork, has a world of opportunity for a display of his famous ‘nut’ stuff,” the newspaper reported. “He scatters his pearls throughout the production and lends a world of added pep to the fast working group.”91

Variety reported: “Blondi Johnson, known locally, serves as the singing and dancing comic of the outfit. He does a pantomime scene with Harper and Blanks, leads an ensemble number and does a specialty of song and grotesque eccentric dancing.”92 The Whip found that Robinson “was funnier than ever.”93

The Defender praised the show’s lavish costumes, which were designed by a Black Chicagoan named Miss Musgrove. Even the overalls and bandanas were made from the finest silk, the newspaper said.94

The show’s final number was the “Broadway Glide,” described in the program as “New York’s Latest Dance.” The chorus girls “more than earned their salary when they were matched up with all of the principals, and every one had to step, and step fast,” Variety reported. “This number proved to a fitting climax. The customers went home the opening night satisfied that they had seen something novel and entertaining as well.”

Variety praised Plantation Days as “a continual showing of fast and jazzy numbers, all presented in a refined manner, with vaudeville specialties interwoven among them.”95

The Tribune offered this endorsement: “The strut, the prance, and other bizarre manifestations of prevailing manners and customs in the dance are being demonstrated in spirited fashion at the north side resort known as the Green Mill gardens. If you are not a patron of this more or less sylvan temple of the arts you will need to be told that it is now populated by a troupe of colored performers, offering a lively and kaleidoscopic revue called ‘Plantation Days.’”96

The Daily News said Plantation Days was well worth seeing. “Southern scenery, a jazz orchestra, unctuous comedy and graceful dancing are features of the summer frolic,” the newspaper said. Commenting on the show’s Black cast, the Daily News said: “Their love for dancing and for singing makes them great entertainers.” The article quoted producer Jimmy O’Neal’s comment about the Black artists he’d helped to assemble for the show. “They are never still,” he said, speaking on a warm evening in the moonlit gardens. “Even behind the scenes they dance and sing and whistle and shuffle.”97

The Defender praised Greenwald and O’Neal for bringing together “as clever a group together as money, time and a world of discriminating experience could assemble.” The publication also took pride in the fact that Chicago’s white newspapers were praising this all-Black production at Green Mill Gardens, “one of the most famous dancing and entertaining pavilions in Chicago.” The Defender commented: “It is safe to predict that this is but the beginning of a fine series of openings which will mean much to the artists of our Race. Like the beautiful sunshine, it is bound to spread.”98

Several weeks after Plantation Days opened, the Chicago Whip reported: “This show is the talk of Chicago and many such places as The Green Mill Gardens are now looking for such colored attractions to entertain their patrons.”99

Amid all of the excitement over Plantation Days, Green Mill Gardens served “Mammy’s Plantation Waffles” as a special dish.100 The venue also hosted a cakewalk contest—a competition featuring the style of dancing that originated among enslaved Black people and became a staple of minstrel shows.101

Was the audience at Green Mill Gardens entirely white during performances of Plantation Days, as would have typical most of the time? The Defender’s articles may have encouraged African Americans to see the show, but if they ventured into the overwhelmingly white North Side, they risked facing hostility and harassment

After 12 weeks at Green Mill Gardens, Plantation Days moved to the Avenue Theater, at 3110 South Indiana Avenue,102 on September 7, giving the South Side’s Black residents a chance to see the show in their own part of Chicago. Dave Peyton, a critic for the Whip, reviewed Plantation Days at its new location. “A good show at a moderate price and played by real people,” he concluded.103

One of the people watching Plantation Days at the Avenue Theatre was working for the producers of Shuffle Along. That Broadway show was finally being booked for performances in Chicago. “An advance man for the company was astounded when he took in a show and heard the best numbers of the play being done by another company of performers,” the New York Clipper reported.

National Archives.

Shuffle Along Inc. quickly filed a lawsuit in federal court against the producers of Plantation Days, Green Mill Gardens, and the Panama Amusement Company, which owned the Avenue Theatre. Shuffle Along’s producers accused Plantation Days’ producers of using their songs without permission.

They noted that Shuffle Along “has created for itself an enviable reputation,” making more than $500,000 at the box office (more than $9 million, adjusted for inflation). They argued that Plantation Days was cutting into their profits by featuring songs from Shuffle Along. “The defendants have realized large profits and income from such infringing performances,” they said.

Their evidence included a program for Plantation Days, which an usher at the Avenue Theatre handed to lawyer J. Hilding Ostberg on September 15, 1922.

National Archives.

The Avenue Theatre’s owners insisted that they weren’t responsible for which songs were performed. “It does not control the compositions, songs, etc., sung or played by the companies or groups of players renting the theatre,” the company’s lawyers argued. Green Mill Gardens could have made the same argument, but there’s no documentation showing that the club’s owners ever responded to the litigation.

A judge issued a temporary restraining order, telling the Plantation Days cast to stop performing “Gypsy Blues” “I’m Craving for That Kind of Love,” and “Bandana Days.” Curiously, the order was originally going to prohibit performances of “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” but that song was crossed out in the judge’s order. However, the order covered “all other music used in connection with” Shuffle Along, a clause that banned the singing of “Harry.”

National Archives.

In spite of that initial order, the lawsuit against Plantation Days was eventually dismissed in Chicago’s U.S. District Court.104

Meanwhile, Green Mill Gardens was hosting another all-Black show produced by Greenwald and O’Neal, called Bandanna Land.

Chicago Daily News, September 1, 1922.

It had the same title as a 1907–09 musical comedy starring the Black comedic duo of Bert Williams and George Walker,105 but it isn’t clear if the Green Mill Gardens show was a new version of that musical or if it just borrowed the title. Some of the talent from Plantation Days was involved in this show, including Leonard Harper, Blondi Robinson, Edgar Martin, the Plantation Four, and Charles Elgar’s band, but it didn’t receive nearly as much press coverage.106

The show opened at Green Mill Gardens on September 1, 1922,107 and moved to the South Side’s Avenue Theatre in early October.108 Defender critic Tony Langston urged readers to snap up tickets before they disappeared.

“This aggregation of specialty stars and the accompanying chorus of 10 snappy workers are giving one of the most satisfying performances ever seen at a local theater,” he wrote. “… The fact that several of the ponies from the ranks of ‘Plantation Days’ have been added will lend interest. … Hundreds were turned away on Sunday night.”109 The Bandana Land show later returned to Green Mill Gardens, which featured it in a December 1 advertisement.110

By this time, the Plantation Days company was on a tour of other cities, which eventually took it to Harlem’s Lafayette Theatre, where a court order forced the show to remove the songs borrowed from Shuffle Along. After that, Plantation Days moved on to London.111

The original Broadway hit Shuffle Along finally did make it to the Chicago. Initially scheduled for January 1923, the show’s arrival was hastened112—at the same time that Shuffle Along’s producers were suing Plantation Days. Perhaps the proliferation of imitators made the Shuffle Along team feel a greater sense of urgency to get the show onto a stage in Chicago.

Chicago Daily Tribune, November 7, 1922.

Shuffle Along opened November 13, 1922, at downtown’s Olympic Theatre,113 with the show’s creators—Flournoy Miller, Aubrey Lyles, Noble Sissle, and Eubie Blake—in the cast. A Tribune headline declared: “Dusky Band in Riot of Swift Jazz. Sing Lustily—and How They Can Dance!”114

Many of Chicago’s elite African Americans turned out for the show’s opening night, including women who were “gorgeously attired” and “resplendent with creations from America’s most critical designers,” the Defender reported. Wabash Avenue YMCA leader Alexander L. Jackson was among the attendees, along with Defender publisher Robert Sengstacke Abbott and his wife, who was “charming in coral tulle and diamonds, with pink velvet cape.” The Abbotts’ guests in box 2 were brigadier general Franklin A. Denison and his wife.115

The Tribune’s critic, Sheppard Butler, said the show was performed by “a company of incredibly eager performers, singing lustily in vibrant, well balanced harmony and dancing as if they were composed of steel strings instead of flesh and blood.”

Butler added: “Any Caucasian producer who achieved an ensemble of such spirit and abandon would regard it as a triumph.”116



1 William Howland Kenney, Chicago Jazz: A Cultural History 1904-1930 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 33.

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34 Bruce Barnhart, “Carolina Shout: James P. Johnson and the Performance of Temporality,” Callaloo 33, no. 3 (Summer 2010), 844–849,

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72 Butler, “Weather Man’s Whims…”

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84 Plantation Days program.

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90 Wesley Morris, “For Centuries, Black Music, Forged in Bondage, Has Been the Sound of Complete Artistic Freedom. No Wonder Everybody Is Always Stealing It,” New York Times Magazine, August 14, 2019,

91 “Plantation Days,” Chicago Defender, June 24, 1922, 7.

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100 Advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, June 25, 1922, 19.

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102 Advertisement, Chicago Defender, September 9, 1922, 6.

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108 Advertisement, Chicago Defender, October 14, 1922, 7.

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110 Advertisement, Variety, December 1, 1922, 22,

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113 Advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, November 7, 1922, 21.

114 Butler, “Dusky Band in Riot of Swift Jazz.”.

115 “Society Turns Out to Welcome ‘Shuffle Along,’” Chicago Defender, November 18, 1922, 5.

116 Butler, “Dusky Band in Riot of Swift Jazz.”