Harold J. Cromer, Vaudeville Duo’s Stumpy, Is Dead
By BRUCE WEBER
Published: June 13, 2013
Harold J. Cromer, a hoofer and comedian who as Stumpy, half of the vaudevillian duo Stump and Stumpy, performed antic dance routines in clubs around the country after World War II and later on television, died on June 8 at his home in Manhattan. He was in his early 90s.
Nan Melville for The New York Times
His death was confirmed by his great-granddaughter Chelsea Phillips.
Stump and Stumpy were among the top comedy teams to play the black theater and nightclub circuit — including the Apollo Theater in Harlem and the Moulin Rouge in Las Vegas — from the 1930s into the 1950s. They also appeared at the Paramount Theater and the Copacabana.
James Cross was Stump, who towered over his partner, Stumpy (initially played by Eddie Hartman), and their act played off their differences in height — Mr. Cromer was 5-foot-2 — and their contrasting levels of sophistication. (Stumpy was the sharper-witted.)
They sang and danced, and they clowned with great precision, often to the music of jazz orchestras, frequently performing on the same bill with the likes of Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. Mr. Cromer took over the Stumpy role in the late 1940s or early ’50s.
With the emergence of television in the 1950s, the pair appeared on the Milton Berle and Steve Allen variety shows and occasionally in dramatic series, including “Dragnet” and “Gunsmoke.” Their slickly choreographed high jinks are said to have inspired those of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin.
Mr. Cromer was a self-taught dancer who was known early on for tapping on roller skates. As a teenager he appeared on Broadway in the Cole Porter musical “Du Barry Was a Lady” (1939), which starred Ethel Merman and Bert Lahr, and in which Mr. Cromer had two dance numbers with a leggy young ingénue, Betty Grable.
He stayed with the show after it went on the road (with Gypsy Rose Lee in the Merman role), and, in 1943, he appeared in another Broadway musical, “Early to Bed,” with music by Fats Waller. But his mainstream stage career was stalled by a lack of opportunities for black performers. He didn’t return to Broadway until 1978 in “The American Dance Machine,” a show named for a touring dance company that specialized in reviving dance numbers from musicals of the past.
“There was no advancement,” he recalled about his early theater days in a 2001 interviewwith the Web site Talkin’ Broadway. “I did that and that was it. I went out on the road and continued to do ‘Du Barry Was a Lady.’ After that, what’s next, little man, when your show closes in Columbus, Ohio? I came back to New York and nothing was going on. That’s when I started to get into vaudeville.”
Mr. Cromer was born in Manhattan and grew up in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of the West Side, and in Harlem. His father, William, a railroad worker, and his mother, the former Hattie Bell DeWalt, were transplants from South Carolina.
Always coy about his age, Mr. Cromer would acknowledge only that his birthday was on June 21. Public records report the year to be anywhere from 1921 to 1923, and Ms. Phillips, his great-granddaughter, said it might have been 1920. He was one of nine children, including a twin sister.
Mr. Cromer said he was inspired to dance when he saw a movie in which Bill Bojangles Robinson tapped down a flight of stairs. Through his early teens he helped support his family by dancing on the street (sometimes on skates) for change and winning groceries in dance competitions. During high school — he never finished — he danced at a night spot called the Kit Kat Club. He sang and danced in the 1938 film “Swing!,” directed by Oscar Micheaux.
Mr. Cromer appeared in other films over the years, including “The Cotton Club” in 1984. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, he was the M.C. for touring rock ’n’ roll shows produced by Irvin Feld, introducing performers like Paul Anka, Bobby Darin, Bill Haley and His Comets, Aretha Franklin and a young Stevie Wonder — to whom, according to Ms. Phillips, he gave a harmonica. (Mr. Wonder returned it decades later, she said.)
Mr. Cromer outlived two wives: Gloria Freeman, whom he married in 1939 or 1940 and who died in 1971, and Carol Carter, whom he married in 1980 and who died in 2000. In addition to Ms. Phillips, his survivors include a daughter, Dierdre Graham; a son, Harold Jr., known as Poppy; a brother, Raymond; five grandchildren, eight other great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren.
In later years Mr. Cromer performed in Off Broadway revues and traveled widely as a teacher, often using his own choreographed piece “Opus One,” as a textbook. “Aside from ‘Opus One,’ danced to the Tommy Dorsey tune, there’s not a huge body of choreography that Harold left behind, but that one work, with its swinging rhythms and classic vernacular moves, was a classic primer in rhythm tap,” Constance Valis Hill, a tap historian and professor of dance at Hampshire College, wrote in an e-mail. “He kept the tradition alive for younger dancers. His life in entertainment — as a busker tapping for pennies, a vaudevillian, song-and-dance man, comedy tap dancer bringing that black vernacular style to Broadway — is iconic, representative of his time. If you saw him singing and dancing ‘Mr. Bojangles,’ you’d know his story.”