Who was Carolynne Snowden?
1900 - 1985
“Looking for Mabel”
January 29, 2011
Caroline Snowden was born in Oakland, January 16, 1900; her father is reported to have been a musician in the San Francesco area and Caroline began with singing at her local church and neighborhood lodges. She was in high school when approached by Fanchon and Marco production team to perform in area jazz clubs with Friaro Nick; she spoke in an interview, years later of never having lessons before becoming a professional but practicing dance step since she was a very young child in front of a mirror. Caroline changed the spelling of her first name to Carolynne (sometimes spelled Carolyn). Her first big break came when she appeared in the musical “Strutting Along” with Mamie Smith in a troupe of players traveling across the North West, the troupe went as far as Helena Montana in May of 1923. That year Carolynne was 23 she was a successful entertainer receiving top billing, top dollar and had a maid, chauffeured limousine, diamonds, furs and an expensive roadster. She was starring in jazz clubs although Carolynne had an ambitious dream of working in the movies.
She became a teacher of note, training Constance Talmadge, Bessie Love, among others in jazz dancing. One of her early triumphs occurred when she worked on an Erich von Stroheim picture, “The Merry Widow” in 1925. It maybe that Carolynne performed in more than the 14 feature films that are generally listed in her filmography (many times uncredited). Her most famous film was the1927’s “In Old Kentucky”, with Stepin Fetchit, which is sometimes confused with the 1935 Fox version starring Will Rogers.
During the day she worked in pictures and at night was producing and dancing in her own revue. She was working night and day with just 4 hours of sleep, being intensely interested in her work and never bored with labor; “I’d rather work than eat and it’s to the worker that the plum falls.”
While in Los Angeles she formed a dance ensemble that appeared in Culver City at the Frank Sabastians’ new Cotton Club on Washington Blvd. “Featuring the greatest Creole Revue in the West.” Carolynne was known as “California’s Josephine Baker” and was offered a spot in the Folies Bergere in Paris once held by Josephine Baker, herself however Carolynne doesn’t seem to have traveled to Europe. In 1926 she signed a five-year contract with John Stahl.
When the annual meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was held in Los Angeles in 1928, Carolynne staged performances to raise money for the organization and to entertain the attendees. In 1929, Carolynne performed at a party Mabel Normand held at the Montmartre. Carolynne Snowden’s film career ended in the 1930s. She stepped outside of the movies and opened a dance school in San Francisco. During World War II she performed in hospitals, military camps, on ships and at USO centers. Late in her life she became an active worker in the Episcopal Church. She remained a staunch advocate for African Americans in film until her death in 1985.
Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005)
Black Past.org, Boydston, Cassandra
The First Hollywood Musicals: A Critical Filmography of 171 Features, 1927 Through 1932 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, 1996).
Hue Magazine, March 1954; Carolynne Snowden, Hollywood's First Negro Queen pt 2
IMDb Carolynne Snowden filmography and biography
Motion Picture World, September 24, 1927 pg 220, “Miss Snowden Cast”
The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993)