Blogging Along the Brandywine: Surprise at Rolling Green

If I told you that the creator of the Moon Walk was buried in Rolling Green Memorial Park in West Chester, some of you younger readers might be quick to point out, “Hey- Michael Jackson’s buried in Los Angeles.”

But the smooth backwards dance move is in fact 90 years old.

Pearl Bailey's grave in West Chester.

I started out to write about Pearl Bailey, the internationally famous African-American actress and singer who died in Philadelphia on Aug. 17, 1990 and was buried in Rolling Green Memorial Park on Route 3 in West Chester. The energetic jazz singing, big band leader Cab Calloway was one of her pallbearers. Recently, I revisited her grave on the anniversary of her passing. Her modest flat marker is about 100 yards just inside the gates of the large cemetery immediately to the left in the Meditation Garden.

Don’t look for Bailey, but for Bellson, as Pearl Mae Bailey became Mrs. Louie Bellson when she wed the legendary jazz drummer in 1952.

But a few feet in back of Miss Bailey’s marker is another one. Her older brother Bill Bailey (1912-1978). I wanted to learn more about him and got a surprising twist to my story.

In the early 1930s it was Bill who pressed his younger sister to enter a contest at a theater in Philadelphia. She won and was offered a chance to perform there for two weeks. From there she began singing in Philadelphia’s black nightclubs and later with the USO. By 1946 she was on Broadway and by the 1950s in the films “Carmen Jones” and “Porgy and Bess”.

As famous as Pearl Bailey was in singing and acting, brother Bill was her equal in dancing. He had in fact once studied with Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson. If you’ve ever seen the 1935 Shirley Temple movie, “The Little Colonel,” you’ve seen a 7-year-old Shirley tap dance down a flight of steps with the master — Robinson.

In the late 1920s, while still a teen, Bailey had created a step he always called “the back slide.” As the motion picture industry was still in its infancy, he wasn’t filmed doing the backslide until he appeared in the 1942 movie “Cabin in the Sky” starring Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne and Ethel Waters.

Bill Baily, Pearl's brother is also buried in West Chester. He was the originator of the moon walk.

At the Apollo Theater, in New York City in 1955, he was filmed displaying his famous trademark, “backsliding” into the wings at the end of his routine.

Here’s the clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZHS-JKRuzw.

Pay attention at time marker 2:02. And please remember, this is life 64 years ago, and serves only to illustrate Bailey’s backslide, the original name of the moonwalk.

In the meantime, others like Cab Calloway had started performing Bailey’s backslide as early as 1932 (he called it “The Buzz”), and in the 1950s, the French mime Marcel Marceau used it in his routine “Man Walking Against the Wind.”

History tells us Michael Jackson learned the backslide from Jeffrey Daniel when he saw him performing on Soul Train in 1982. Daniel had been performing the move on TV as early as 1974. But Jackson renamed it “The “Moonwalk” and in 1983 made it an international phenomenon when he performed “Billie Jean” on the televised “Motown 25.”

Rolling Green Memorial Park can be seen from Route 202 northbound, and is easy to access immediately after you exit onto West Chester Pike. Pearl and Bill need visitors.

In the next few months, I’d like to tell you about more notables you probably didn’t know were buried in Chester County. Stay tuned.

 

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About Sally Denk Hoey

Sally Denk Hoey, is a Gemini - one part music and one part history. She holds a masters degree cum laude from the School of Music at West Chester University. She taught 14 years in both public and private school. Her CD "Bard of the Brandywine" was critically received during her almost 30 years as a folk singer. She currently cantors masses at St Agnes Church in West Chester where she also performs with the select Motet Choir. A recognized historian, Sally serves as a judge-captain for the south-east Pennsylvania regionals of the National History Day Competition. She has served as president of the Brandywine Battlefield Park Associates as well as the Sanderson Museum in Chadds Ford where she now curates the violin collection. Sally re-enacted with the 43rd Regiment of Foot and the 2nd Pennsylvania Regiment for 19 years where she interpreted the role of a campfollower at encampments in Valley Forge, Williamsburg, Va., Monmouth, N.J. and Lexington and Concord, Mass. Sally is married to her college classmate, Thomas Hoey, otherwise known as "Mr. Sousa.”

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2 Responses to “Blogging Along the Brandywine: Surprise at Rolling Green”

  1. brandywinebard says:

    Thank you Bonnie! I was really hesitant to include the clip, which is why I put in the qualifying sentence. Not because it definitively proves Bill created the dance step, but because it’s from a different time and mindset. Thanks again for reading.
    ~Sally

  2. brandywinebard says:

    Thanks Kayta!
    Hope you read my new blog just posted on Jim Croce. I know you’ll remember him.

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