Real Shoeshine Man Leroy Daniels Danced With Fred Astaire In “The Band Wagon”
In the classic 1953 musical film, The Band Wagon, star Fred Astaire gets to do a lot of dancing. One of his partners, Cyd Charisse, was an accomplished dancer in her own right. And even his more rhythmically challenged co-stars, Jack Buchanan, Nanette Fabray, and Oscar Levant, proved very effective in comedic dance sequences with Astaire.
But the cast member who always catches my attention every time I watch the film is Astaire’s partner for a dance number set in a former 42nd Street theater turned amusement arcade.
The scene opens with Astaire stumbling across the outstretched legs of a man tending his shoeshine stand. What ensues is a joyous dance number called “A Shine On Your Shoes” in which the shoeshine man proves a worthy partner for Astaire. In fact, whenever I saw this scene, I always thought that the shoe polisher’s dancing was so good, he must be an accomplished show business professional. But since I couldn’t recall seeing him before, I decided to do some research to find out who he was. What I found is a story that, to my mind, is worthy of a Hollywood movie in its own right.
A real life shoeshine man
What makes that dance number so unique is the fact that the man who portrayed the shoeshine man and danced on equal terms with Fred Astaire was, in real life, a shoeshine man! Just days before, he had actually been shining shoes at his stand at Sixth and Main Streets in downtown Los Angeles.That man who polished shoes for a living, but who could dance like a professional hoofer, was 23-year-old Oklahoma native, Leroy Daniels.
Take a look for yourself:
VIDEO: Real shoeshine man Leroy Daniels dances with Fred Astaire
Finding a way to beat the competition
Although he had never performed professionally, Leroy Daniels had honed his dancing skills in front of some pretty tough audiences. The shoe shining business in downtown Los Angeles was extremely competitive. Jet magazine took note of the environment in its October 23, 1952 story about Daniels getting his big break:
Up and down the street were burlesque houses and risqué theaters, shooting galleries, penny arcades with myriad attractions, bars with sexily-dressed “B” girls, pawn shops, and numberless bold shoeshine boys who literally reached out and grabbed customers for their rag-popping ‘shine-’em-up’ routines.
The BeBop Bootblack
Leroy Daniels knew he needed something to set himself apart. So, he became, as Jet called him, the “BeBop Bootblack.” He acquired an old jukebox, which he stocked with jazz records, and with that music playing, he put on a show as he shined customers’ shoes. He created complex rhythms with his brushes, and would pop his polishing rag in time to the music. And, of course, he danced.
Leroy’s performances were so powerful, he become the inspiration for a song that in 1950 became a #1 hit for Country music singer Red Foley, “Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy” (Foley used “Chattanoogie” in his title in place of “Chattanooga”).
Leroy Daniels is “discovered” by Hollywood
The script of The Band Wagon included a shoeshine number that was to be danced to a song called “A Shine On Your Shoes,” and Fred Astaire was struggling with how to choreograph it. He asked Alex Romero, the film’s Assistant Dance Director, to help generate some ideas. According to Mark Knowles in his book, , Romero immediately thought of the man who had shined his shoes that morning. The Man Who Made the Jailhouse Rock: Alex Romero, Hollywood Choreographer
Alex Romeo had been thoroughly impressed with the show Leroy Daniels put on as he polished his customers’ shoes. In fact, he had deliberately stopped to get a shoeshine that morning because he was so intrigued with Daniels’ performance. So, when Astaire needed ideas, Romero told him about Daniels. As Mark Knowles relates the story, Astaire didn’t hesitate. “Get him,” he said.
Fred went out of his mind.— Alex Romero recalling Fred Astaire's reaction when he first saw Leroy Daniels perform.
So, the next day, Leroy Daniels found himself on the lot at MGM, meeting perhaps the greatest dancer the cinema had ever produced. And he didn’t seem to be intimidated at all. Romero suggested that Astaire have Leroy shine his shoes, and Leroy Daniels went into his customary performance. Romero later recalled that “Fred went out of his mind.”
Even though Daniels admitted that he had never had any training as a dancer, his natural ability was so great that, as the Jet magazine article put it, from the first rehearsal he didn’t miss a step.
There are different versions of how Leroy Daniels was discovered. Movie critic Roger Ebert was under the impression that the movie’s director, Vincente Minnelli, saw Leroy singing and dancing as he shined shoes at Penn Station in New York City, and brought him out to Hollywood to appear in the film. However, both the Jet Magazine article, which is a contemporary account, and the Mark Knowles book, which relates in detail how Alex Romero found Leroy, affirm that Daniels was discovered at his shoeshine stand in Los Angeles.
Leroy gives a powerful performance in the film
The “Shine on Your Shoes” dance has become a classic. And Daniels definitely holds his own with Fred Astaire. Famed movie critic Roger Ebert certainly was impressed. He named the number as his favorite musical piece in the film, and said of Daniels:
He's a gifted performer, his timing as precise as Astaire's, and perhaps because he's the real thing, we sense a freshness and joy.
In fact, Daniels’ performance was almost too good. As Mark Knowles records in his book:
Alex said that Daniels’ full routine with the brushes and rags was so wonderful that Astaire eventually decided to cut Daniels’ part in the number down because he was afraid it would steal too much focus.
Leroy Daniels gives up his shoeshine stand and goes into show business
After you’ve danced with Fred Astaire in a major motion picture, how can you go back to polishing shoes on the streets of LA? Leroy Daniels certainly couldn’t. He closed his shoeshine stand, and started a nightclub act, which was very successful. When Alex Romero went to see the act, Daniels introduced him to the audience as “the man that’s responsible for me working with Fred Astaire.”
Leroy & Skillet
Daniels, who acquired the nickname “Sloppy,” eventually teamed up with Ernest Mayhand to form a comedy team called Leroy & Skillet. They released numerous comedy albums during the 1960s, and established friendships with some of the greatest African American performers of the era. That paid off for the duo when their friend Red Foxx got his own television show, Sanford and Son, in the early 1970s. Leroy & Skillet appeared on the show a number of times during its second and third seasons.
Leroy Daniels also performed in several movies, including Handle With Care (1964), Petey Wheatstraw (1978), Disco Godfather (1979), Rude (1982), and Avenging Angel (1985).
Did MGM treat Leroy Daniels fairly?
From a 21st century perspective, there are definite issues with the way Leroy Daniels was treated by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the studio that produced The Band Wagon.
First, Daniels’ dance with Astaire remains one of the most memorable parts of the film. After more than 60 years, it is still talked about and still appreciated. Yet Daniels was paid very little, and was not given any recognition by the studio.
Daniels worked on The Band Wagon set for a week, and in the final cut of the film is on screen with Astaire for more than three and a half minutes. He was paid $350 for his efforts. The arcade machine that Astaire kicks during his dance, causing it to erupt with music and flags, is on screen for about 20 seconds. It cost the studio $8,800.
Despite the undeniable impact he had on the film, Daniels was given no screen credit (he is not listed in the credits that roll at the end of the film). That may have been because he was not then a member of the Screen Actors Guild, which had rules about who could be listed in a film’s credits. But when a non-union production designer on the film was denied screen credit for the same reason, producer Arthur Freed made a special effort to get union membership for him so he could be acknowledged in the credits.
Was Leroy Daniels was treated fairly by MGM?
The aspect of Daniels' appearance in the movie that has received the most scholarly attention in the ensuing years is its racial symbolism. Daniels is the only black face in the arcade, and his role there is clearly subservient. At several points during the dance routine Astaire towers over him, sometimes with Daniels on his knees. Then, as one critic noted, Astaire’s character goes off to translate those same dance steps into fame and fortune on Broadway. The shoeshine man stays in the arcade.
Does it matter?
These are all valid issues. But, in my opinion, they should in no way detract from our appreciation of the film, or of Leroy Daniels’ role in it. Here’s the bottom line, as I see it.
It was 1953.
Given the realities of the time, the treatment accorded Daniels by MGM raised no eyebrows. As far as I’ve been able to discover, Daniels himself never voiced any complaints. Rather, he was glad for the opportunity, which forever altered the course of his life. The contemporary article in Jet, a magazine with a mostly African American readership, did not raise any issues of maltreatment, but celebrated the fact that the “BeBop Bootblack” had become a celebrity among his peers.
The Band Wagon gave Leroy Daniels his big break in life, and launched him on a successful show business career. I think that’s a story that ought to be celebrated every time the movie is seen.
Leroy Daniels (birth name, Wilbert Leroy Daniel), was born on November 15, 1928 in Idabel, Oklahoma and died on December 11, 1993 in Los Angeles.
NOTE: The screenshots used in this article are taken from a copyrighted film. The copyright is thought to be owned by the studio that produced the film. It is believed that use of these web-resolution screenshots for critical commentary and discussion of the film qualifies as Fair Use under United States copyright law.
© 2015 Ronald E. Franklin