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The 1920s Musical Hit SHUFFLE ALONG — Now on Broadway and Re-Imagined — Has Philly Roots

Philadelphia has long been known as a theater tryout town, but one show that many have forgotten is the first mainstream African American hit Shuffle Along. Now, a documentary revision of the 1921 jazz musical is back and is a big Broadway hit.  The Philadelphia Inquirer's David Patrick Stearns examines its local roots.

"The show launched songwriter Eubie Blake and gave career starts to Josephine Baker and William Grant Still."

David Patrick Stearns: Sitting in the Shuffle Along audience at Broadway's Music Box Theater, I kept seeing Philadelphia locales popping up, though places I'd never heard of, like the Dunbar Theater at Broad and Lombard streets. Where are they now? Goodness knows, Philadelphia doesn't tear down buildings so much as it waits for them to collapse. But the Dunbar?

Jack McCarthy: It's now a parking lot and it's the parking lot to the city health building.

DPS: That's Jack McCarthy, the Philadelphia archivist and music historian recounting a lost world, a remarkable African American enclave grouped around Broad and South streets that showed how Shuffle Along hardly rose from a vacuum.

JM: There were, in that little stretch of five or six blocks, three major theaters catering to black audiences at that time in the '20s. So, Philadelphia at that time has this enormous and growing and diverse black culture.

DPS: The audience was African American workers who had migrated from the south around World War I, those who had been in Philadelphia for generations, and even white people. Impresario John Gibson catered to them all, says McCarthy.

JM: He actually also had whites and blacks on the same bill a lot, so white audiences were coming to his shows.

DPS: That's one explanation why Shuffle Along came to appeal across demographic lines that perhaps weren't so impenetrable in Philadelphia. Once in New York, the show launched songwriter Eubie Blake and gave career starts to Josephine Baker and William Grant Still.  How often has something so light and breezy been so revolutionary?