When Ben Vereen Wore Blackface to Reagan’s Inaugural Gala – Pete L’Official / The New Yorker

On January 19, 1981, a number of prominent entertainers gathered at the Capital Centre, just outside of Washington, D.C., for the All Star Inaugural Gala, saluting the country’s new President, Ronald Reagan. Among them was the Tony Award-winning actor Ben Vereen, who, a few years before, had been nominated for an Emmy for his performance in the enormously popular miniseries “Roots.” For his contribution to the gala, Vereen staged an homage to the legendary black vaudevillian Bert Williams, one of the most popular entertainers of the early twentieth century. The tribute, which he performed with Ronald and Nancy Reagan seated regally near the stage, consisted of two parts. First, Vereen sang the popular show tune “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee.” He did so dressed as Williams, wearing coat and tails, and, as Williams would have—as was required of African-American theatrical performers of Williams’s era—wearing blackface, too.

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