Sunday, March 18, 2018

Entertainer "Jolly" John Larkin 1936 Everygreen Cemetery

John Larkin (November 25, 1877 — March 18, 1936) was an African American stage and screen performer, as well as songwriter, whose acting career extended nearly four decades — from the late 1890s through his last acting roles in the five films released the year of his death. A scrapbook preserved at Atlanta's Emory University indicates that "he was billed as “The Rajah of Mirth” and “The Funniest Colored Comedian in the World."[1]


Larkin was seen in minstrel shows, vaudeville and, during his final six years, at the start of the sound film era, in major Hollywood studio productions, accumulating nearly 50 film credits between 1930 and 1936.[2]

Over half of his film appearances were uncredited and, consistent with casting mores prevalent during the era, his roles consisted of shoeshine men, servants, porters, janitors, stablehands and slaves. He was, however, continually employed, averaging from six to eleven films per year. A story in a 1933 issue of the Los Angeles-based African American newspaper, California Eagle, stated that he "is reported to be the highest paid Negro actor in Hollywood."[3]

Comedy and musical performer starting in 1898

Born John Larkin Smith, he first performed as a professional entertainer during the last years of the 19th century. The Internet Movie Database lists his year of birth as 1877 and his birthplace as Wilmington, North Carolina, while the Emory University archives, which bought his scrapbook in 2000, indicate the birth year as 1882 and the place of birth as Norfolk, Virginia.[4]

In 1898, under the stage name "Jolly" John Larkins, he and his wife, singer-dancer Ida Larkins, toured with the Champion Cake Walkers Co. and, in 1900, with Boom's Black Diamond Co., where he was both stage manager and principal comedy performer. His wife left the show in 1901 and Larkin revised the act as Larkins and Patterson, with performing partner Dora Patterson with whom he starred, during 1902–03, in the musical A Trip to the Jungles,[2] with the 1904 edition directed by W. C. Craine.[5] In 1902 he also joined, on a part-time basis, the African American musical and acrobatic performing troupe, Black Patti Troubadours, singing and writing songs for the troupe's acts.[6] Sheet music held by the Library of Congress depicts the cover, with Larkin's smiling face, of one such song from 1907, "A Royal Coon," published in Chicago by Will Rossiter.[7]

Larkin's biographical entry (as John Larkins) at Library of Congress describes him as "a minor figure in black music in the early part of the 20th century" who "ran "Jolly" John Larkin's Company and employed James Reese Europe as its musical director from 1906–07". The entry also indicates that "in 1910 he produced and starred in A Trip to Africa" and that "his other credits include Royal Sam (1911) and Deep Central (1932)."[8][9] In 1908, A Trip to the Jungles was revised as a vehicle for Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones, whose stage name was "Black Patti."[10] Renamed A Trip to Africa, the show played from 1908 to 1911 with Larkin as the star comedy performer.[11][12]

For a decade or longer, during periods when the Black Patti Troubadours did not perform, Larkin organized tours of his own performing troupe, the "Jolly" John Larkins Co., also billed as the "Jolly" John Larkins Musical Comedy Co, which had irregularly scheduled shows during various periods from about 1905 to about 1917.[6] As in the case of James Reese Europe in 1906–07, Larkin's show Royal Sam, which toured during the 1911–12 season, employed as music director another African American composer who gained historical renown, H. Lawrence Freeman.[13]

Leader of minstrel shows from the late 1910s through the 1920s

As America entered World War I in 1917, Larkin, at the age of 40, assumed the leadership of the long-established touring group Dandy Dixie Minstrels which had performed, on a number of earlier occasions, with the Black Patti players. In 1919, about a year after the Armistice of 11 November 1918 and, over the following ten years, Larkin took the group on a number of world tours which included performances in London and other European cities, China, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.[14][15] While in Australia, he established a relationship with costume designer Rachel "Rae" Anderson and they became the parents of two daughters, Olga, born in 1921 and Joan, born in 1924. Since interracial marriage was, at the time, illegal in Australia, Larkin ultimately returned to America.[16][17]

Film career (1930–36)

In the wake of the Wall Street Crash of 1929, acting companies struggled to survive and, while touring in Southern California during 1930, Larkin, now in his early fifties, was cast in his first film, Man to Man, released by Warner Bros on December 6, 1930. His stage name, appearing at the bottom of the cast list, was Johnny Larkins, but by the time of his second feature, MGM's The Prodigal, released the following February, the credited name, still billed at the bottom of the list, had been revised to "John Larkin," a form which would continue for the remaining five years of his life.

Unlike his contemporaries, Stepin Fetchit, who was used primarily as comedy relief, or Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, whose scenes were mainly focused on singing and dancing, Larkin was given few opportunities to display his skills as singer, dancer or as a comedian and was employed for the most part as a character actor. Also, in contrast to the star billing he received during the years he was a theatrical headliner, his film credits usually placed him at the bottom of the cast list or omitted his name altogether. The extent, however, to which his name and reputation was valued in the entertainment industry may be judged by the article which appeared in a March 1933 issue of California Eagle in conjunction with the release of MGM's Gabriel Over the White House, one of the eight features in which Larkin had parts that year. Although his role as Sebastian, the president's valet was uncredited, the Eagle ran a story, "Hollywood Respects Larkin as Real Star of the Film," alongside a photograph with a caption, "High Pay Man," stating that he was earning a greater salary that any other black performer in film.[3]

Between 1931 and his death in March 1936, Larkin appeared in at least 45 films for nearly every studio in Hollywood which, in addition to Warners and MGM, included RKO (1931's Men of Chance, 1933's The Great Jasper), Paramount (1934's The Witching Hour), Universal (1935's A Notorious Gentleman) and Republic (1936's Frankie and Johnny).


Smart Money (1931)

Stranger in Town (1931)

Sporting Blood (1931)

Washington Merry Go Round (1932)

Bed of Roses (1933)

The Witching Hour (1934)


John Larkin died in Los Angeles from a cerebral hemorrhage. The first of the 1936 productions in which he was featured, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, premiered on March 13, five days before his death, while four others — The Great Ziegfeld, Frankie and Johnny (which was filmed in 1934), Hearts Divided and The Green Pastures — were released posthumously.

Larkin's tombstone is at Los Angeles' Evergreen Cemetery which, unlike most other cemeteries, permitted the burial of African Americans and includes graves of such performers as Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Louise Beavers and Matthew "Stymie" Beard, whose careers partially overlapped the period of Larkin's activity. The tombstone features a photograph of Larkin and the years 1882–1936, which would indicate his age as about 54 at the time of death. However, since programs indicate that he was performing with his wife as early as 1898, when he would have been 15 or 16, the year indicated by the Internet Movie Database appears to be the more likely one.[2] Thus, his 58th birthday, four months before his death, would have been in November 1935.[16]


1. Sawyer, Suzanne. "Preserve and Protect: The Benefits of Polyester Encapsulation to preserve the John Larkin Smith (1882-1936) Scrapbook" (Emory Libraries and Information Technology / Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, December 3, 2013)
2. Poster {with photograph} for John Larkin (billed as John Larkins) in 1903's A Trip to the Jungles {includes biographical write-up} (ipernity website)
3. "John Larkin Is Highest Salaried Of Group In Movies, Writer Says / High Pay Man" (California Eagle / Associated Negro Press, 1933) {photograph included}
4. "Jolly" John Larkin scrapbook, circa 1914–1932 at Emory University Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library
5. John Larkin at the University of Kentucky Libraries' "Notable Kentucky African Americans Database" (mentioned under entry for performer/director W. C. Craine)
6. Peterson, Bernard L. Profiles of African American Stage Performers and Theatre People, 1816-1960 (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001) ISBN 0313295344
7. "A Royal Coon" sheet music cover / song with lyrics by Jolly John Larkins and music by James R. Europe / published by Will Rossiter, Chicago, 1907 (Library of Congress)
8. Brief biographical entry for John Larkin at the Library of Congress website (listed under one of his earlier stage names, John Larkins)
9. Peterson, Bernard L. A Century of Musicals in Black and White: An Encyclopedia of Musical Stage Works By, About, or Involving African Americans: An Encyclopedia of Musical Stage Works By, About, or Involving African Americans (ABC-CLIO, Oct 25, 1993) ISBN 0313064547
10. "Black Patti 1869-1933" (Basin Street) {includes photographs and mentions of John Larkin — clipping from Times and Democrat - February 7, 1911}
11. Sampson, Henry T. Blacks in Blackface: A Sourcebook on Early Black Musical Shows (Scarecrow Press, Oct 30, 2013) ISBN 0810883511
12. ""The Black Patti Show" Coming Here Aug. 25th" (The Ogdensburg Journal, August 19, 1910, p.5)
13. Gutkin, David and Newland, Marti. "H. Lawrence Freeman and the Harlem Renaissance" (American Music Review / The H. Wiley Hitchcock Institute for Studies in American Music / Conservatory of Music, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, Volume XLV, Number 1, Fall 2015, p.2)
14. "Theatre Royal. To-Night! To-Night! at 8 o'clock. Jolly John Larkin. Jolly John Larkin. Jolly John Larkin. And his Happy Folks Company In Great Minstrel and Vaudeville Programme…" (Asburton Guardian {New Zealand}, 19 October 1921)
15. "Dandy Dixie Minstrels American variety group performing in New Zealand in 1922, headed by Jolly John Larkins and including Rosa and Violet Hawthorne, Irene Ross, Billy Sumner, David de Francis, Norman West and W. Huntly-Spencer. See review in New Zealand Herald, 6 June 1922, Page 9"
16. John Larkin "Jolly John Larkin" Smith at Find a Grave (2011)
17. "The Tale of Jolly John" (Beneath Los Angeles, May 18, 2017)

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