African-American dancer Leonard Harper is acknowledged as the father of cabaret. In the 20’s and 30’s, Harper and his dancing Harperettes were an international sensation.
Leonard Harper started off performing in medicine shows (shows that included the selling of various medical remedies during intermissions) as a child. As he got older, he started working with the T.O.B.A., which stood for Theater Owners Booking Association, but was nicknamed “Tough on Black Asses.” Harper and his wife, dancer Osceola Banks, proved their worth by putting together the show Plantation Days.
As a result, Harper was made a producer with the Shubert Circuit and given an unlimited budget. He trained more Harperettes and took the group overseas. When he returned to Harlem, Harper created a show that combined the medicine show with the cabaret. His performances included acts like Snake Hips Tucker or Jazz Lips Richardson, the torso-twister.
Harper’s talent opened for the biggest clubs in the country, including New York’s legendary Cotton Club. The Harperettes performed in notable shows like Connie’s Hot Chocolates on Broadway in 1929. That same production introduced Louis Armstrong and his hits “Ain’t Misbehavin” and “Black and Blue.”
Harper met Duke Ellington at a boarding house they both lived in and introduced him to the Cotton Club where Ellington raised the stage. He also coordinated sets with Armstrong, Count Basie, Cab Calloway and many other fixtures of the Harlem Renaissance.