(1873 – 1966)
John Walcott Cooper, Jr. was born in Brooklyn, NY. on February 17, 1873 to John Walcott Cooper, Sr. and Annie Morris. In 1881, at the age of 8, Cooper dropped out of school. His formal education never passed the third grade.
Both of his parents died before Cooper reached the age of 13. As a result, John went to work for the Sheepshead Bay Racetrack in Brooklyn. Young Cooper exercised the race horses.
While there, a white ventriloquist, whose name is lost to history, exposed Cooper to the art of ventriloquism. The ventriloquist tried to convince Cooper the horses could talk. It was this episode that many believe created John’s interest in voice throwing.
In 1886, Cooper began working with the Southern Jubilee Singers. The singers toured New England, Canada, and the Mid-Atlantic States for four years. While touring with the group, John began to create his own ventriloquism act. He wrote and performed his routines in front of mostly white audiences.
Cooper joined the Richards and Pringles Georgia Minstrels in 1900. The Minstrels had gotten their start in the 1830’s, before vaudeville or burlesque. They performed an overtly racist style of entertainment known as “blackface.” The members would paint their faces with black makeup and mock African Americans.
Although John was a part of the group, he was not a minstrel. He offered different performance style as a ventriloquist which contrasted the “blackfaced” minstrels.
Following this tour, Cooper became known as “the Black Napoleon of ventriloquism.” At the end of 1901, he then joined Rusco and Holland’s Big Minstrel Festival.
It was during 1901 that the White Vaudeville Union “The White Rats” went on strike. Performers could not reach an agreement with their managers. Cooper, being African American, was not held to this action. He ignored the strike filled the theatre’s desperate need for entertainment. As a result, he became a fixture on the vaudeville circuit.
His vaudeville appearances led to many radio shows. Among those was a weekly performance while touring with “The Major Bowes Original Amateur Hour.” It was during that time that Cooper performed under the alias Hezikiah Jones and worked with his figure Sam Jackson.
One of Cooper’s most famous acts was “Fun in a Barber Shop” which he first presented in 1902. The act took place in a barbershop for whites with black employees. The act featured five different puppets and Cooper provided each with different voices. John would act as the barber cutting the customer’s hair. His feet would operate the other figures, similar to the method ventriloquist Fred Russell used in his courtroom scene.
Besides the customer in John’s chair, two other figures played customers waiting their turn. There was also a manicurist who sang while doing the fifth figure’s nails.
In 1902 John was also recognized by the Daily Nonpariel, a leading entertainment magazine. They listed Cooper as the best ventriloquist of that era.
During the 1920s, Cooper was lead performer in “Father Quinn’s Entertainers.” They toured Catholic Churches in the United States for a decade. Cooper was again working with his figure Sam Jackson.
Sam claimed to be a “cousin” of Charlie McCarthy, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen‘s character. Both McCarthy and Jackson were made by Theodore Mack, of Chicago. In fact, Sam Jackson predates Charlie McCarthy, by as much as ten years, although the exact span of time is unclear.
Vaudeville’s decline by the 1930’s ended Cooper’s performances in clubs, halls, and theaters. He began to tour by himself with Sam Jackson. During World War II, Cooper and Sam performed in veterans hospitals as well as in USO camp shows across the country.
John also performed at private parties and nightclubs including the Kit-Kat and El Morocco clubs in New York. He also enjoyed entertaining the children in the hospitals of New York City.
In 1960, at the age of 86, John Cooper officially retired from show business. Over the course of his career he had been a member of the Negro Actors Guild of America and the Colored Vaudeville Benevolent Association. Cooper was also a proud member of the International Brotherhood of Ventriloquists.
John W. Cooper died in 1966 in Brooklyn, NY.
Cooper’s daughter, Joan Maynard, kept his figure, Sam Jackson. She continues to promote his legacy by setting up exhibits at the Brooklyn Historical Society.
Cooper taught ventriloquism to Shari Lewis, another member of the Ventriloquist Hall of Fame.
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