Ernest “Brownie” Brown, a legendary tap dancer who was part of the Cook and Brown duo and the traveling Copasetics dance troupe, has died in suburban Chicago. He was 93.
Brown died Friday at a nursing home in Burbank, Ill., according to Scott Stearns, who is completing a documentary on the tap dancer.
As one half of the comedy act Cook and Brown, Brown shuttled across the country in trains and automobiles to perform alongside Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Lena Horne on the vaudeville circuit.
Known for slapstick comedy and high-energy dancing and acrobatic numbers, Brown was the diminutive mischief-maker to Charles “Cookie” Cook’s lanky straight man from London’s Palladium to New York’s Apollo Theater. Last year, the duo was inducted into the American Tap Dance Foundation’s tap dance hall of fame.
In 1949, Brown and 20 of the country’s best tap dancers formed the Copasetics, created to keep alive the tap dancing art form.
Stearns, whose documentary will chronicle Brown’s later work with a younger tap dancing partner, said he was shocked by the vitality shown by the dancer known for his trademark cane dance. “He was such a buoyant, irrepressible spirit. He just lit up whatever space he was in,” Stearns said.
Standing 4 feet 9 inches, Brown learned at an early age how to stand out in a crowd. Born April 25, 1916, in Chicago, he showed a flair for dancing at an early age, performing on street corners. After winning a talent show, Brown was recruited into the vaudeville circuit and at 12 began touring the country, Stearns said.The young performer was educated on the road by tutors and kept away from the sometimes bawdy atmosphere of vaudeville life, Stearns said.
In the early 1930s, Brown teamed with Cook, combining comedy with highly stylized dance routines and acrobatics that seemed more akin to Olympic gymnastics.
The pair headlined clubs all over the world: Radio City Music Hall, the Latin Casino in Paris and, perhaps the world’s most famous jazz venue, the Cotton Club. While many acts suffered indignities of performing on vaudeville’s “chitlin circuit,” Brown never complained, happy to live his dream of performing before crowds. The duo continued to perform into the 1970s. Cook died in August 1991.
Brown helped found the Copasetics after the death of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. He and other group members performed across the country, hoping to keep tap’s legacy alive.
Though he lived many years in New York City, Brown settled back in Chicago in the 1990s, where he continued to perform. In recent years, he worked with tap dancer Reggio McLaughlin. The pair taught at tap exhibitions around the country, including a 2005 stop at the L.A. Tap Festival at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Culver City.
Brown is survived by a daughter, Barbara Junkins; a sister, Marie Arrington; three grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.