Vardry McBee III was a xylophone prodigy, a vaudevillian, an almost-famous musician. The great-great-grandson of Greenville's founder learned his skills not at his father's knee, but in his orchestra pit.
Musical – or at least show business – talent evidently ran in the family, since both his uncle, Hamlin, and his father, Vardry ("Ham" and "Turk" to stage audiences), had toured the nation for more than 20 years with leading minstrel shows. (His grandfather, Luther, president of the Vardry Mill, had the more traditional McBee talent of making money.)
Turk and his pal, Ed Curdts, jointly owned the Bijou Theatre on Main Street, where a small orchestra provided sound effects for the silent films of the time. His son, naturally called Turk, Jr., was 5 in 1917, when his father decided that it was time to put him to work in the orchestra pit below the screen, learning to play the drums and xylophone.
It was not hard labor. According to James Thompson, a longtime Greenville Piedmont reporter whose son, Bobby, published a collection of his father's columns in "Confessions of a Newsman," the Bijou was a "hilarious hangout" for Greenville youngsters in the 1920s. "They swarmed into it on Saturdays, clutching their passports to paradise – nickels, dimes or quarters – for a whole day's fun of watching their favorite heroes and heroines on the magic silent screen, enthralled by the action, while gorging on peanuts and popcorn and swilling soda pop."
McBee gave his oldest son the task of learning trap drumming with veteran drummer Miller (Shorty) Smith, a wizard with drums and cymbals. The pit also contained a small xylophone. The youngster soon displayed a remarkable ear for music and particular dexterity on the "melodious xylophone."
When he was 10 years old, he was ready for his first public performance. His father chose the venue – the grand stage of the Greenville Opera House, then in its final days. The audience was thrilled. The "haunting music" the hometown boy produced on his favorite instrument "brought the audience to its feet and tears to the eyes of his two mentors standing back in the wings."
When minstrel show impresario J.C. Coburn, in whose troupe Turk Sr., had once performed, heard the child xylophonist with the nimble fingers, he offered to adopt him and send him on tour. His uncle and father, who had coached and tutored him, refused. Two years later, however, circumstances changed.
Two days before Christmas 1923, the boy's mother, Marie Goldsmith McBee, was killed in an automobile accident on Augusta Road; his father, who was driving, was seriously hurt. Three sons under the age of 12 had to be cared for. When Coburn renewed his offer to adopt the xylophone prodigy in 1924, the family agreed.
Young Turk soon became a full-fledged star. When he was 13, he appeared with the Keith Vaudeville Troupe for the first stage performance at the handsome new Carolina Theatre. According to James Thompson, who attended the inaugural event, "his performance was exquisite. His sensitivity and complete rapport with the instrument enthralled a packed house and the applause was thunderous." He stole the show, says Thompson, from the troupe's magician, torch singer, comedians and dancers.
Although a family history written in 1925 says that he was touring "accompanied by an educator," Turk's formal education stopped with grammar school. But he learned new skills on the road. Within a year, he had played "one-night stands from Boston to Atlanta, from Kalamazoo to Timbuctoo" (surely not), and "the whole world of vaudeville was his oyster."
When he appeared in Atlanta with the Dan Fitch Minstrels in 1927, "Drum Topics" magazine labeled him "King of the Xylophones" and noted that "this boy has everything – personality, pep, and skill—and big things are predicted for his future."
His drumming improved, and he became something of a singer (Billboard called him a "natural-born singer") and a nationally-recognized black-face comedian. A Ziegfield Follies star taught him to tap- dance while he played the xylophone.
During a year and a half engagement with the Dan Fitch Minstrels at the New York Hippodrome in the late 1920s, he shared billings with the great stars of the era – Laurel and Hardy, Gene Autry, Ukelele Ike – and he met Jack Benny, Clara Bow (the "It Girl"), Bette Davis and Lionel Barrymore.
But mostly his performances were one-night stands in the big cities and small towns of the South and Midwest and constant travel with different minstrel troupes. He toured with Coburn, Dan Fitch, Al G. Fields, among others. Between 1924 and 1941, he traveled the same roads that his father and uncle had known a generation earlier.
But Turk McBee was born too late. Minstrel shows were dying. They were mortally injured by movies and radios, but the Great Depression delivered the final blow. And it was past time. Although they were one of the few indigenous American art forms, the shows were blatantly racist. White performers in exaggerated black makeup parodied African-Americans as ignorant, superstitious, lazy, but, of course, joyous and musical. These shows gave us black-face musician-comics like Al Jolson – and Turk McBee.
He had known fame and some fortune as a child prodigy, and he still played frequent one-night stands, but by 1941, McBee was a tall, skinny (almost 6 feet, 130 pounds) 29-year-old who sensed that it was time to get off the merry-go-round. Both he and his younger brother, Kirk, joined the military. He was assigned first to the 13th Armored Division, but then transferred to Special Services and entertained troops throughout the war. His brother, stationed on the U.S.S. West Virginia, was killed at Pearl Harbor, the first Greenvillian to fall in World War II.
The years afterward were not kind to him. His father died 1945, his uncle in 1946. Although he launched a comeback, "Dixiana," a "vodvil revue" with famous black-face comedian Emmett Miller in 1948, it had only a brief nostalgic success. He produced road shows in later years, but after he was diagnosed with emphysema in 1970, he came home to Greenville. The music ended on April 5, 1986.
(Thanks to Erlene Nicholls, who shared with me her treasured copy of James Thompson's collected columns.)