Arthur Duncan, who kept tap dancing visible and relevant across the country on television when most had relegated it to the past and who also blazed a trail as a black artist, has died at the age of 97.
Duncan was best known for his 18-year run on “The Lawrence Welk Show” as the only black cast member, and is widely regarded as a pioneer of a mainstream television variety show. His varied career included appearances on other television shows, in movies, and in major theaters around the world.
Duncan died Jan. 4 at a care facility near his Moreno Valley home. Several days passed before the news of his death was known, due to complications related to a stroke and pneumonia.
It wasn’t just Duncan’s presence on Welk’s show from 1964 to 1982 that mattered, but what he did: a virtuoso tap dance at a time when the art form had become all but invisible. The tap greats were still around, but the jobs had long since dried up.
Duncan honed his skills as big bands, which often hired tappers, gave way to rock bands, and jazz musicians, who often made their rhythmic inventions alongside hoofers, moved to smaller venues and more musical forms. experimental for which tap dancers do not need to apply. Tap was no longer the dance of the streets, concert halls or Broadway.
“During the 1960s, there were only two television shows where you could see tap dancing every week: Fridays at ‘The Mickey Mouse Club’ for Talent Round-Up Day, and Sundays with Arthur Duncan with a featured dance on ‘The Lawrence Welk Show,’” said dance historian Rusty Frank, author of “Tap! The greatest tap stars and their stories 1900-1955”. “These were the days before digital recorders, streaming TV and YouTube, so if you wanted to watch tap dancing, you had to sit in front of that TV at the specific broadcast time.”
Author and dance critic Brian Seibert wrote that “when Welk introduced Duncan as ‘the young man who keeps tap dancing alive,’ the epithet was based on fact.”
Having to continually develop new routines, Duncan “generally followed a standard recipe of solid rhythm and big finishes, but the variety of steps was impressive,” Seibert wrote in “What the Eye Hears,” widely regarded as tap’s most authoritative history.
In one number, Duncan borrowed the idea of dancing on top of a piano, something he had seen performed by acrobatics Nicholas Brothers and rhythm pioneer John Bubbles. Duncan’s daring edge-to-edge slides clearly made the pianist nervous.
Before Welk’s show, Duncan had a semi-regular gig on the relatively short-lived “The Betty White Show” in 1954. White, who became a lifelong friend and later starred in “The Golden Girls,” pointedly rebuffed Welk’s demands. Southern affiliates. get Duncan off her show.
“There were audience members who weren’t thrilled to have a black person on the show,” which also toured across the country, said Ralna English, a longtime dancer and lead singer with the Welk troupe. “I know that. I heard that. Some of these older people were so prejudiced.”
Duncan chose to overlook the racial slights.
“I had a lot of pride,” English said. “He always dressed to the nines. I never had a bad word to say about anyone. He got to his feet. He always a gentleman.
Dancer, teacher and entertainer Skip Cunningham used to admire Duncan from afar on weekly broadcasts.
“It was safe for them and for us,” said Cunningham, who is also Black and later became a friend of Duncan’s. “They couldn’t have picked a better person like that. It wasn’t hard for him to do it.”
Duncan was born on September 25, 1925, in Pasadena, the sixth of 13 children born to Corabel LaMar and James Alfred Ernest Duncan, who worked as a merchant marine before settling in Southern California, according to family members and Duncan himself during a interview in August.
James Duncan later worked for a local oil company, Duncan recalled, and the family became part of a tight-knit black community in the Pasadena area that valued hard work, thrift and education.
“Our parents were very concerned about education and welfare,” Duncan said.
While his brothers pursued other careers – the military, banking, education, firefighting – young Arthur found the arts irresistible, and was ecstatic when a couple of grade school classmates recruited him to join their prospective team. of dance.
Soon she was studying formally, getting a discount because her father volunteered to help out in the dance studio. She made money selling newspapers on a street corner; she would get extra change for taking a few steps.
He would use the newspaper job to get into good restaurants, where the patrons included artists from the Pasadena Playhouse. Sometimes they were interested in outgoing and assertive young people who, by the way, were available to dance and sing. A woman who ran a local nightclub gave him a chance.
“I would go in and do my part and leave. Go home and count the two dollars that you had in your pocket,” she recalled.
“You wouldn’t call it dancing,” she said of her early efforts. “I was aggressive and curious and got in the way. So they had to help me get rid of me. So everything worked out, but nothing happened overnight.”
As a young man, Duncan also delivered prescriptions and took a few pharmacy classes at Pasadena City College, but his heart wasn’t in it. He also served in the Army, where he spent much of his time performing for the troops, receiving his discharge in 1946.
Meanwhile, he was rushing to give dance concerts.
His early supporters included famed choreographer and director Nick Castle, who tried to keep him working, and Henry Mancini, who created musical arrangements for his routines for free.
Duncan always went where the work was: “I went to Australia on a 10 day job. I ended up coming home four years later. Is that how it works.”
After Welk’s show ended, his roles included starring in the Broadway touring company of “My One and Only” with Tommy Tune, said actor Joe Hart, who also had a prominent role in that cast.
On film, Duncan initiated the famous challenge scene in the Gregory Hines film “Tap” (1989), in which the great old men showed off their skills.
Duncan’s television guest spots included dancing with Dick Van Dyke in the 1992 TV movie “Diagnosis of Murder.”
Along the way, Duncan eventually became an important bridge for generations of tappers, including through master classes, after it seemed serious tapping might cease to exist, said respected Chicago tapper and teacher Reggio “The Hoofer.” McLaughlin.
Duncan didn’t like to talk about overcoming racism, his personal life, and his age. He preferred to marvel at his good fortune, give credit to everyone who helped him, and emphasize tenacity and hard work. And he was always focused on the next concert.
He was married twice and had no children. His first marriage, to Donna Pena, ended in divorce in 1973. In 2019, he married his friend and partner Carole Carbone. His survivors include his wife, his stepson Sean Carbone and his siblings Michael Duncan, Mabel Duncan and Eleanor Starr.