Eddie Green: A Pioneer’s Contribution

Special thanks to Eddie’s daughter, Elva Diane Green, for this article.

Edward (Eddie) Green was born in 1891 to William and Janie Green in East Baltimore, Maryland, in a poverty-stricken neighborhood to which Blacks were relegated. Through talent and determination Eddie would become a well-known composer, a sought-after vaudeville and burlesque comedian and song and dance man. He became a popular Broadway, and radio personality. He was one of the first Black men to appear on an NBC/RCA television broadcast. As a pioneering Black filmmaker he wrote, produced, directed and starred in five movies. He formed three moving-picture studios with his last studio doubling as a television studio. Eddie found fame through his portrayal as Eddie, the waiter on the popular long-running radio comedy program Duffy’s Tavern, reprising the role on the big screen in the 1945 Paramount movie Ed Gardner’s Duffy’s Tavern. From poverty to prominence, he accomplished more than most people could dream.

Eddie left home at the age of nine. He had taught himself to read by picking up newspapers from the street and discovered the world of magic through books. He left home with a plan to bill himself as “The Boy Magician” and to take his act to various halls and churches to support himself. Over time he took the advice of a fellow entertainer and dropped the magic act concentrating on what had become his “droll” sense of humor. Eddie also took work as a laborer and supplemented his income by working as a handy man in local theaters. Which is what he was doing by 1917 when he was invited to register for WWI. He was twenty-five years old, had been married for seven years and had a young daughter.

According to Eddie’s Registration Card from June of 1917, he was working at the Standard Theater as an actor. Later that year he copyrighted his first song in Chicago, Illinois. The title of the song is “A Good Man is Hard to Find”. He sold the song in 1918, formed a group called the “Deluxe Players” and went on the road. Eddie’s journey would take him through vaudeville with Barney Gerard in Girls De Looks as a black-face comedian, to burlesque with Billy Minsky’s 125st Apollo Theater, where he became Billy’s “right hand man.”

Meanwhile, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” became a major hit. The first artist to record the song in 1919 was Marion Harris. Over the years the song has been recorded many times by such greats as Wilbur C. Sweatmen’s Jazz Orchestra, Williams Cotton Club Orchestra, Louis Prima, Thomas “Fats” Waller, Bessie Smith, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Wilson, Brenda Lee, Carol Channing, The Alabama Red Peppers and the list goes on. Most recently a version of the song was heard in Woody Allen’s film Blue Jasmine (2013) and the “Fats” Waller version of the song was used in the HBO television production of “Bessie” in 2015.

Eddie’s first foray into the motion picture industry was in 1922 when he became the President of the Deanwood Motion Pictures Corporation, located at 308 Southern Aid Building in Washington, D.C. His stock was listed at $1.25 per share, with capitalization of $200,000 and could be found listed in the Polk’s Colored Business Directory of 1922. The building is now listed at 1901 7th Street NW and is considered a historical landmark according to the Black Studies and Washingtoniana MLK Library Division (DCPL). Unfortunately, this was a short-lived venture, but Eddie had continued with his stage work.

By the end of the 20s, Eddie was making a splash at the Hudson Theater on Broadway in Connie Immerman’s Hot Chocolates, staged by Leonard Harper. Eddie not only performed in the play, he also wrote all of the comedy sketches. Included in the cast was Thomas “Fats” Waller, Andy Razaf, and Louis Armstrong. One of the skits written by Eddie, Sending A Wire, went on to become what some said was the funniest Warner Bros. (WB) Vitaphone comedy act and that it kept thousands shaking with laughter. It was shown at Loew’s Main St. Theater and at the Strand along with a Mickey Mouse cartoon. He would also appear in at least two more WB Vitaphone films, Temple Bells, which is housed at the Wisconsin Historical Society and The Devil’s Parade.

In his own words Eddie Green became “somebody” when he was asked by Gannett newspaper to perform his comedy sketch over the airwaves for Commander Richard E. Byrd who had started an expedition to the Antarctic and had set up a base on the “Ross Ice Shelf”. Eddie discovered his importance when it was made clear that the radio broadcast was slated to begin immediately after the last curtain at the Hudson Theater. The New York Police Department solved this timing problem by providing an escort, with siren, down Broadway after the final curtain to the National Broadcasting Company.

The 1930s brought many “firsts” for Eddie. NBC/RCA broadcast their first public television variety show on July 7, 1936. Among the performers in Part 2 was, according to announcer Milton Cross “that droll comedian Eddie Green and his partner George Wiltshire.” Eddie and George were the first Black men to appear on public television. Today this broadcast can be seen on the Internet. This would be Eddie’s first and only time on live television. This was the first actual public television broadcast in the United States. Mr. David Sarnoff started off the program with an introduction and the broadcast concluded with another well-known comedian Mr. Ed Wynn.

In 1939 Eddie formed his second movie production studio, Sepia-Art Pictures Company, Inc. His letterhead read “Producing the Best in Moving Pictures Of, By, and With Negroes.” His office was located at 2352 Seventh Avenue in New York, New York, and later moved to 138th Street. His sales manager and assistant was Jack Caldwell. The company started out with a capital of $35,000.00. Eddie wrote, produced, directed and starred in each of the movies produced by Sepia-Art Pictures.

Eddie shot four all-colored cast movies in a studio on a lot in Palisades, New Jersey, shorts on the slapstick order. It was said that his films were a new outlet for the “race” (Black) actors, and that the films were real side-splitters. The first movie was Dress Rehearsal. Starring Eddie and a young beauty contestant named Bonnie Marie Skeete, the movie had chorus girls, and jokes like the following:

FIRST MAN: What are you doing here? I wrote you a letter four days ago. Didn’t you get it?

SEDCOND MAN: Yes, here it is.

FIRST MAN: Well, can’t you read, it says your services are no longer required, why did you come back?

SECOND MAN: Well, the envelope says “return in 5 days.”

The movie debut was at the Apollo Theater in New York in April of 1939. Frank Schiffman, the owner of the Apollo at the time had high praise for the film.

History was made when in December of 1939 Dress Rehearsal became the “first Negro motion picture ever to be broadcast by television”, and the first film of its kind to be broadcast over the air by the National Broadcasting Co. (NBC). Dress Rehearsal has since been shown periodically in movie theaters. It was shown at the Vogue in Philadelphia in 1943 along with Destroyer with Edward G. Robinson. It played also at the Vogue Theater in Philadelphia on January 31, 1949 along with the movie Road House with Richard Widmark. It is unknown what has happened with this film.

Eddie’s next movie was What Goes Up (1939) starring himself, Babe Matthews, Dick Campbell and ‘Honey Boy’ Johnson, a chorus of young beauty contestants and the Sepia-Art Choir. One of the dancers in the chorus was Millicent Roberts. Millicent was a “Miss Glamour” beauty contest winner when Eddie discovered her. Millicent turned ninety-nine years old this year and has one wish, to see the movie again. Unfortunately, this film also has gone missing. Millicent remembers Eddie as being “all-business”.

Eddie’s third movie Comes Midnight (1940) stars Eddie, Amanda Randolph, James Baskette (Mr. Baskette would receive an Honorary Academy Award in 1948 for his portrayal of “Uncle Remus” in the Disney movie Song of the South), Sussie Sutton, Elinor Seaguers and Bonnie Skeete. The plot for this movie is that two men will receive $100 if they stay overnight in an old supposedly haunted house owned by two spinsters. They were to dig up Uncle Mose in order to retrieve the gold they believed was buried under his body. The movie could be seen at The Apollo Theater in Brooklyn and that summer Comes Midnight would be aired, according to The New York Sun, on television July 30, 1940 right after the film “Tour of the World’s Fair,” making this the second of Eddie’s films to be shown on television.

Eddie’s last movie under his Sepia-Arts Picture’s banner was One-Round Jones. This is the story of a night club owner who offers $50 to anyone who can go one round with his “mystery” fighter. Eddie is of course the “mystery” fighter. The cast included Lorenzo Tucker, ex-heavy-weight fighter Tiny McClure and Ruth Nelson. Ruth Nelson was the winner of the Miss Sepia America contest at the 1939 World’s Fair which was overseen by Eddie. One of her prizes was a part in this movie.

In a 1939 article by Lillian Johnson of the Baltimore-Afro regarding Eddie’s movie making he stated, “The first thing I try for is naturalness. I write my own stories, building them around some incident that has been interesting, but not offensive. Then I select the actors that I think are best suited to the parts so that they need only be themselves. We usually rehearse for a short about two weeks.” The best recipe for success Eddie said is to “find something you like to do and do that the best you know how.”

Eddie’s movie making career stalled in the early 40s, though he continued to be in demand on radio. His popularity led to a top spot as Eddie the waiter on Duffy’s Tavern, a radio program that would become one of the longest running radio programs. Ed Gardner’s radio program Duffy’s Tavern began broadcasting in 1941. Eddie and Shirley Booth, then Ed Gardner’s wife, were introduced to the audience in the premier episode. The program’s regular cast at that time included Ed Gardner, Alan Reed and Charles Cantor. Eddie would portray his character until 1950. Over the years many stars would stop by the tavern, including Mary Martin, Adolphe Menjou, Ida Lupino, Lucille Ball, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Boris Karloff, Veronica Lake, Sophie Tucker, Victor Mature, Carmen Miranda, Lena Horne and many more, too many to name here.

Duffy’s Tavern proved to be so well-received that Paramount decided it would make a good movie. The movie was made using thirty-two of Paramount’s greatest stars. Ed Gardner was chosen to portray his radio role as Archie and Eddie was chosen to portray his radio role as Eddie the waiter, thus making this the first motion picture he appeared in as simply a part of the cast. The movie was titled Ed Gardner’s Duffy’s Tavern, and made its screen debut in September, 1945.

During the 1940s Eddie’s fame grew thanks to his portrayal of Eddie, the waiter. He moved from New York to Los Angeles. Eddie married his fourth wife in 1945, Norma Amato, an aspiring opera singer, He bought a home in the area that was then known as “Sugar Hill” where his friends and neighbors included Louise Beavers, Hattie McDaniel, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, the Dandridge sisters, Dooley Wilson, Fayard and Harold Nicholas, Nicodemus Stewart, Clarence Muse, Mr. and Mrs. Bill Robinson, Frank Sinatra and Basil Rathbone.

After appearing in the Paramount movie, Eddie announced the opening of his new movie production/television studio Sepia Productions, Inc. He revealed that rehearsals had begun on his new movie Mr. Atom’s Bomb and that they would be held at his production/television studio on Western Avenue in Los Angeles. In a newspaper article in the New York Age in 1946 Eddie was quoted as saying, “That the fast growing field of television offers a fertile one for Negro performers.”. He said that his motion picture firm had interested advertising agencies in having their sponsor’s product sold to the millions who view television via the singing and dancing route. Eddie claimed that his firm would “Deliver the message in a way sure to keep viewers from turning the dial.”

It is not known how Eddie’s advertising plans for television panned out. It is known that in regard to Mr. Atom’s Bomb Eddie was forced to change the name of the movie to Mr. Adam’s Bomb. The movie, written, directed, and produced by Eddie, starred Eddie, Gene Ware, Mildred Boyd, Jessie Grayson and Leslie Mumford. It was copyrighted as a young girl’s coming out party. The plot is that an upstairs boarder, Adam Jones, is suspected of building a bomb in his room and Eddie is the investigator invited to the young lady’s coming out party to find out what Mr. Adam Jones was up to. Three years after it was announced the movie premiered in New York the first week of April, 1949 at the Apollo theater. The movie showcased dancing girls, a comedy routine and a song performed by Margaret Westfield titled “You Can Always Believe Your Heart”, written by Eddie. Mr. Jack Lait Jr. of the Brooklyn Eagle referred to Eddie in a 1949 article as “One of Hollywood’s newest producers.

By May Eddie’s friends and associates discovered he was “beating off an illness”. There was a noticeable change in his voice over the radio and they had reached the conclusion that he worked too hard, what with his production studio, his frequent benefit appearances and his radio work. During this time Ed Gardner made a decision to take his Duffy’s Tavern radio program to Puerto Rico. Ed and his family and Eddie and his wife and their two-year old daughter all moved to Puerto Rico. While there in September of 1949, Eddie suffered a heart attack. It was thought at the time that the heat was too much for him. He took some time off and returned to the radio program in December under the care of a doctor. In May of 1950 due to poor health Eddie was forced to retire from show business. On May 5, 1950 the Green’s arrived back in New York City. On September 19, 1950 at the Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, Eddie Green died of hypertensive heart disease caused by high blood pressure.

Billy Rowe of the Pittsburgh Courier printed: “It was just about four months ago that the guys who knew him best stood at the foot of the bed of Eddie Green on the tenth floor of the Theresa Hotel and spoke words of encouragement in regard to his health. Their words were shallow and their emotions were deep because within their hearts, they knew that the funny man was running this way for the last time. Just a few days ago Eddie departed this life and his death added to the sadness of the world.”

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For the complete story of legendary Eddie Green, please see the book Eddie Green The Rise of an Early 1900s Black American Entertainment Pioneer, a biography written by his daughter Elva Diane Green, for which she has been named the Foreword INDIES 2016 Bronze Book Award Winner in the non-fiction Performing Arts and Music category. The book is published by BearManor Media. Information can be found HERE, HERE, and HERE.