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Hogan, Ernest (1860-12 May 1909), minstrel show and vaudeville entertainer and songwriter, was born Reuben Crowder (or Crowders) in the African American "Shake Rag" district of Bowling Green, Kentucky. Nothing is known of his family or early youth, but by his early teens he was supporting himself as an actor, singer, dancer, and comedian. He appeared with a traveling "Tom show"--a repertory company presenting Uncle Tom's Cabin on the road--as a young child, and he was a member of such traveling tent shows as Pringle's Georgia Minstrels in his middle teens. A versatile youth, he excelled in all aspects of minstrelsy, and by 1891 he had found a distinct theatrical identity. In about that year he took the stage name of Hogan because the Irish were the most successful comedians of the time, and with a partner founded a company of his own, Hogan and Eden's Minstrels, in Chicago. Within a few years he graduated from stylized minstrel acts and found success in solo performances in New York City vaudeville. A singer, improvisational dancer, and comic with his own distinctive style, Hogan was described by poet James Weldon Johnson as "expansive, jolly, radiating infectious good humor, provoking laughter merely by the changing expressions of his mobile face" (p. 177).
In 1895 Hogan published his first song, "La Pas Ma La," based on a comic dance step he had created as the "pasmala" while still with the Pringle troupe. Featuring a jerky hop forward followed by three quick backward steps, it met with a warm reception in the African American community. The next year, however, Hogan became a national star with the song for which he was to be known for the rest of his life, "All Coons Look Alike to Me." Adapted from a song he had heard in a bar in Chicago and written for the white show Widow Jones, it was the hit of the season, ultimately selling over a million copies. The word "coon" was not yet universally heard as a racial slur--as late as 1920 the Victor record company's catalog defined "coon song" as an "up-to-date comic song in Negro dialect"--but the image of African Americans as licentious and lazy as presented in the popular genre was becoming socially unacceptable by the end of the century, and Hogan was widely criticized among blacks for the song, which, according to Arnold Shaw, "did not embody the prejudicial stereotype implied by its title" (p. 41). Though the song made him famous and paid him well, he was to have mixed feelings about his association with it for the rest of his life.
With this sensational hit to his credit, Hogan quickly became one of the country's leading black entertainers. In 1897 he was the comedy star and master of ceremonies of Black Patti's Troubadours, for which he wrote some of the music and all of the comedy routines. The next year he played the leading role and edited the script of Clorindy: or the Origin of the Cakewalk, the first African American musical to appear in a Broadway theater. With music by noted composer Will Marion Cook and script by poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, it ran the entire summer season and was a major breakthrough for African Americans in show business. As Cook was to observe,
Negroes were at last on Broadway, and there to stay. . .. We were artists and we were going a long, long way. . .. Nothing could stop us, and nothing did for a decade. (Theater Arts, September 1947, p. 61)
Following this triumph, Hogan returned to Black Patti, billed as "The Unbleached American," for a season, and after that began a tour of Australia and Hawaii with Curtis's Afro-American Minstrels. Costarring with minstrel Billy McClain in My Friend from Georgia, a musical comedy that he cowrote, he was warmly received throughout the run.
In 1900 Hogan worked with youthful singer Mattie Wilkes, fifteen years of age at the time, in The Military Man in New York City. He and Wilkes were reportedly married for a short time. Hogan was said to have been later married to a woman named Louise (maiden name unreported), who worked with him in organizing concerts in New York City in 1905. The dates of these marriages are unrecorded, and there were no children from either.
Hogan's activities extended beyond the writing and performing for which he was famous. In 1901 he was one of one of the first African Americans to buy a home in New York City's Harlem. On returning from his Hawaiian tour he and his costar, Billy McClain, organized the Smart Set Company, a highly successful black road show, which produced Enchantment in 1902. In 1905 he and his wife Louise established an orchestra called the Memphis (or Nashville) Students who presented a "syncopated music concert" at Hammerstein's Victoria Theater on Broadway that ran for a hundred performances and went on to tour Europe as the Tennessee Students.
That year he starred in a musical comedy considered by many to be his crowning achievement, Rufus Rastus, for which he wrote the script and cowrote the music. Immensely popular, it toured the country for two years after its successful New York run. In 1907 he and comedian Bert Williams were instrumental in the formation of the Colored Actors' Beneficial Association, a professional union for black performers. During that year Hogan prepared his last musical vehicle, The Oyster Man, but fell ill with tuberculosis and collapsed during a performance. The troupe was dissolved when he withdrew in March 1908, and Hogan died the next year in Lakewood, New Jersey.
The most popular African American entertainer of his time and the first to star in a Broadway production in New York City, Ernest Hogan was a transitional performer whose career spanned minstrelsy, vaudeville, and musical theater. He was a major influence in popularizing the emerging musical styles. He is credited with coining the term "ragtime" for the strongly syncopated rhythm that became the pop-music rage of the 1890s, and his songs were the first to feature the word "rag" on their sheet music. Hogan did much to bring African American music styles to a larger audience and to open the doors of mainstream American theater to later African American performers.
The career of Ernest Hogan is discussed in all histories of American minstrelsy and of African Americans in musical theater. See especially James Weldon Johnson, Along This Way (1933); Tom Fletcher, 100 Years of the Negro in Show Business (1954); Marshall and Jean Stearns, Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance (1968); Henry T. Sampson, Blacks in Blackface: A Source Book on Early Black Musical Shows (1980); Arnold Shaw, Black Popular Music in America (1986); Henry T. Sampson, The Ghost Walks: A Chronological History of Blacks in Show Business, 1865-1910 (1988); Alan L. Woll, Black Musical Theatre: From Coontown to Dreamgirls (1989); Mel Watkins, "On the Real Side," Chicago Tribune, 6 March 1994; and Errol G. Hill and James V. Hatch, A History of African American Theatre (2003).
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Dennis Wepman. "Hogan, Ernest";
American National Biography Online April 2010.