What a great man and what a great full life. This is by no means a current story, but it’s new to me, and probably to you. Farewell Mr. Bates.
Peg Leg Bates, One-Legged Dancer, Dies at 91
www.nytimes.comÂ |Â By JENNIFER DUNNINGÂ |Â December 8, 1998
Clayton (Peg Leg) Bates, a one-legged tap dancer who became a star, died on Sunday in Fountain Inn, S.C., where he was born. He was 91.
Mr. Bates was being honored by Fountain Inn and had danced there on Saturday in an event to raise money for a life-size sculpture of himself to be placed at City Hall. He was given the Order of the Palmetto, the state’s highest honor.
Mr. Bates lost his leg at age 12 in an accident at a cottonseed-gin mill where he worked. He had been dancing for his own pleasure from the age of 5, ”before I even knew I was tap dancing,” he told Rusty E. Frank in an interview for Ms. Frank’s 1990 book ”Tap!” ”After losing the leg, for some unknown reason, I still wanted to dance,” Mr. Bates told Ms. Frank. ”At first, I was walking around on crutches, and I started making musical rhythm with them.”
He began dancing again after his uncle whittled him a wooden leg. ”See, I did not realize the importance of losing a leg,” he recalled. ”I thought it was just like stubbing my toe and knocking off a toenail that was going to grow back.”
Mr. Bates went on to become one of the most popular tap dancers in the nation, an irrepressible performer who was as much acclaimed by his fellow dancers as by his audiences. He performed from the 1920′s through 1989 in a career that included vaudeville and clubs, stage musicals, film and television.
Unlike many tap dancers, Mr. Bates did not specialize in any one genre. Hard-working as well as ubiquitous, he mastered a variety of styles and pyrotechnical flourishes, reinventing everything for a wooden leg whose half-rubber, half-leather tip gave Mr. Bates’s tapping an unusually deep and resonant sound.
”Well, I’m into rhythm and I’m into novelty,” he told Ms. Frank. ”I’m into doing things that it looks almost impossible to do.” One reason he had mastered so many styles, he said, was to surpass two-legged dancers, adding that he often did.
At 15, Mr. Bates began drawing attention and entered amateur shows, where he regularly won first prize. A black performer, he moved on to minstrel shows and then carnivals, later joining a circuit that took black performers to black theaters throughout the United States.
One of those houses was the Lafayette Theater in Harlem, where Mr. Bates was seen by Lew Leslie, the producer of the ”Blackbirds” musical theater revues. He was signed to perform on Broadway in ”Blackbirds of 1928” and went on to travel to Paris with the revue in 1929. After the revue closed, he performed in the Keith, Loews, and Fanchon and Marco vaudeville circuits. He appeared in major New York theaters like the Paramount, the Roxy and the Capitol, and played such Harlem clubs as Connie’s Inn, the Cotton Club and Club Zanzibar. In 1938, Mr. Bates played the Tivoli circuit in Australia, the only black performer in the shows.
Many leading tap dancers performed with the big bands of the 1930′s, becoming associated with several of the bands. Mr. Bates topped them all, dancing with the bands of Jimmy Dorsey, Charlie Barnet, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Erskine Hawkins, Jimmie Lunceford, Claude Hopkins, Louis Armstrong and Billy Eckstine. He also danced in a command performance for Britain’s royalty.
Also during the 1930′s, he met Ed Sullivan, then a newspaper columnist, and danced as the opening act for the touring Ed Sullivan Revue. In the 1950′s, he performed on ”The Ed Sullivan Show” 21 times, more than any other tap dancer.
He opened a resort in the Catskills, the Peg Leg Bates Country Club in Kerhonkson, in the 1960′s and ran it through the 1980′s. The resort catered to a predominantly black clientele, a novelty in that largely white, Jewish resort area. ”At first the natives were resentful,” Mr. Bates said in a 1969 article in The New York Times. ”But now everything is kosher, beautiful.” He leased the club in 1989, after the death of his wife, Alice, in 1987. His survivors include a daughter, Melodye Preston.
Mr. Bates performed frequently for the disabled, first in the 1940′s in Army and Navy hospitals. He would imitate a dive bomber, leaping high into the air and coming down on his wooden leg, and then tell the applauding soldiers and sailors that with that kind of encouragement he would be happy to break his other leg. After all, he told his cheering audiences, he had more legs in his dressing room. There were 13, one to match each of his suits. After his retirement from the stage in 1989, Mr. Bates continued to perform for the handicapped, as well as children and the elderly.
Correction: December 9, 1998, Wednesday An obituary of the dancer Peg Leg Bates yesterday misstated the name of his surviving daughter. She is Melodye Bates-Holden of Kerhonkson, N.Y., not Melodye Preston.