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Victor label for 78rpm recording "Bootleggers' Ball"; famous dog logo is pictured on label
Victor's label for "Bootleggers' Ball"

The Bootleg Ball: A Rare Glimpse of the Black Variety Stage of the 1920s

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The following guest post is by David Sager, Reference Assistant, Recorded Sound Center, Library of Congress.

Beige paper cover of the music to "Bootleg Ball"; lyric by Rogers; music by Roberts.
Cover of the published edition of “Bootlegger’s Ball.” (Music Division, Library of Congress)

Eddie Hunter (1888-1974), playwright, songwriter, and producer of musical shows, was a fixture and seminal figure on New York’s Black variety stage during the 1920s.  Born in New York City to mixed-race parents—his mother was white—Hunter became interested in show business after seeing the great Bert Williams onstage.  His career began in 1906 at a storefront Harlem nickelodeon, the Nickelette.  From there, he went into vaudeville, writing and producing comedy sketches for small ensembles.  After years of success in vaudeville, Hunter became active as a theatrical manager and playwright, in addition to being a performer.  His biggest Broadway success was “How Come?,” produced in 1923, in which he took the starring role.  Hunter retired from the stage in the mid-1930s and subsequently managed 26 apartment buildings in Harlem.[i]

Also, in 1923 Eddie Hunter recorded six published titles for the Victor Talking Machine Company, in collaboration with two prominent, now legendary figures, Alex Rogers and C. Luckyeth “Luckey” Roberts.  Rogers (1876-1930) was a playwright and lyricist who had a large hand in creating many of the productions headed by Bert Williams and George Walker.  In fact, Rogers penned the lyric for Williams’ signature song “Nobody.”  Luckey Roberts (1895-1968) was a pioneering ragtime and jazz pianist, remembered as the composer of the pop hit “Moonlight Cocktail.”

“Bootleggers’ Ball” and its companion title, “I’m Done,” were released in February 1924 and appear to have been removed from the catalog by October 1926.[ii]  These sides represent a remarkable and rare gathering of Black show business luminaries.  Moreover, they perform their routines in a relaxed, unabashed manner, not expressly for white audiences, although that is to whom these discs were marketed.  Rather, these provide a peak into Black comedy meant for Black audiences; one that is less caricature and more genuine.  In the words of musician and historian Colin Hancock, sounding, “as if it is from the community rather than a portrayal.”[iii]

78rpm Victor label for "I'm Done"; dog logo is at top of label.
               Victor’s label for “I’m Done”

“Bootleggers’ Ball” is likely part of the bootlegger’s sketch that Hunter had been developing over several years and ultimately used in “How Come?”  However, contemporaneous reviews and credits do not mention Rogers or Roberts as performers or creators.

Nevertheless, let’s listen to Hunter, Rogers, and Roberts, performing “Bootleggers’ Ball,” recorded on December 17, 1923.  The transcription combines the recording with a published print version:

Hunter:  Hey, Mahalie – Come on down here and open up this door.

Rogers:  The door ain’t locked, come on in.  (door slam)  Oh, look at your head!

Hunter:  Now what would I want to look at it for?

Rogers:  Where did you come from honey?  Where did you get all them bandages ‘round your head?

Hunter:  Ain’t none of your business; I got ‘em in a hospital.  Where ya think I got ‘em?  Let me lay down here somewhere, my head feels like it weighs a hundred pounds.

Rogers:  Oh, look at this extra knot on the back here; looks like a little house!

Hunter:  Take your hand off it; that ain’t nuthin’ to play with!

Rogers:  But honest, honey, what in the world did happen to ya?  C’mon, rest yourself on the sofa here and tell Mama.

Hunter:  Well, you see, honey, it was just like this:

Ninety-nine and nine new members’ names were listed on the call.
And so, Bill Bullit’s club decided that they’d better hire a hall.
To initiate and a celebrate with a high-class free-for-all.
Where each person brings his own liquor.  An eighteen-carat bootleg ball.
When they opened the hall on the night of the ball, here’s what happened before the dance started at all …

Rogers: Describe it to me, honey!

Hunter:  Bill Bullit bounced a billiard ball off Bob, the barber’s big bald bean.
Sneaky Steve stabbed Slapstick Sam and shut off Slapstick Samuel’s steam.
Kid Kutler carved Kal Kummins keenly, kausing [sic] Kalvin cops to call.
Then the bull’s big billies broke bad big bullies.
At bad Bill Bullit’s big bootleg ball.

Rogers: Go on, honey, that’s interestin’.

Hunter:  You could hear the brass knucks moanin’ and a groanin’ through the air.
You could hear the nightsticks ringin’ and a-singin’ everywhere.

Kind of a concert.

Hunter: Bullet’s sizzin’ and a whizzin’, same as in the big war zone.

Rogers: Kind of a moving picture.

Hunter: Blackjacks swing and a playing same as any xylophone.

Rogers: Close harmony!

Hunter: Every human there got either hit, cut or shot.
Everybody enjoyed themselves quite a lot.

Rogers:  What tune did they play on your head, honey?

Hunter:  Bill Bullits bounced a billiard ball off Bob, the barber’s big bald bean.
Sneaky Steve stabbed Slapstick Sam and shut off Slapstick Samuel’s steam.
Kid Kutler carved Kal Kummins keenly, causing Kalvin cops to call.
And the bull’s big billies broke bad big bullies
At bad Bill Bullit’s big bootleg ball. (alarm sounds)

What’s that? The Police wagon?

Rogers:  No, that’s the ambulance.

Hunter:  Mahalie, lock that door, I said lock the door!  And if they ask for me tell them I’m not here.  Oh, honey my head.  Get me some ice.  That bootleg ball…

Hunter & Rogers:  Ummp, ummp, ummp …UMMMP!


Description blurb from Feb. 1924 Victor supplement advertising the recordings.
Descriptive blurb from a February 1924 Victor supplement. (John Secrist Collection, Recorded Sound Research Center, Library of Congress)


The other published recording by the trio, “I’m Done,” can be heard at .

For information on the Library of Congress’ Recorded Sound Collection, please visit the Recorded Sound Research Center website, at .


[i] Bernard L. Peterson, Jr, Profiles of American stage performers and theatre people, 1816-1960. (Westport, CT : Greenwood,2001), 132-133.

[ii] They recorded several more titles for Victor, none of which were released.

[iii] Conversation with Mr. Hancock.

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