It was in 1994 that a friend introduced Reggio to her grandfather, who turned out to be Ernest Brown – part of the celebrated Vaudeville duo Cook and Brown.
The meeting marked the beginning of a sixteen year friendship as well as something of a turning point for both men. Elements of Cook and Brown's reparté began to surface when McLaughlin and Brown appeared together. Their first collaboration, choreographing 'Tommy Parker's Black Minstrel Show' for the Chicago Theatre Company, was nominated for a Black Theatre Alliance Award. They continued to perform and teach together at workshops and tap festivals for many years.
In the process, they revived such beloved Cook and Brown routines and Copasetics numbers as the Cane Dance, the Chair Dance and the Soft Shoe.
In recognition of their unique artistic partnership, the Illinois Arts Council honored them in 2004 with the Ethnic and Folk Arts Master/Apprentice Award. They also appeared together in the PBS documentary "Juba - Masters of Tap." But for Brownie's passing in 2009 they might still be traveling the circuit, carrying on the traditions of the great tap duos.
Ernest "Brownie" Brown
An early photo of Cook and Brown
Ernest Brown was part of the comedy dance duo of Cook and Brown and a founding member of The Copasetics, an exclusive and storied group of men devoted to honoring the legacy of Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson. Brownie lived most of his adult life in New York, but he grew up and got his start in Chicago and returned there later in life.
Cook and Brown
Ernest Brown and Charles Cook were two friends who got their start in show business riding the crest of the Jazz Age from the national vaudeville circuit, back home to the Riviera Theatre on Chicago's South Side. It was there, during the late 1920s, that they began to develop the basis for a dance, comedy and acrobatic act that employed lowbrow humor and slapstick but was also sophisticated in its intricate choreography, subtle use of character dynamics and deft timing. Whether in these early days they sensed they had something unique or were simply idealistic and adventurous, they soon headed to New York looking for a larger stage.
Though barely teenagers when they arrived in Manhattan, Cookie and Brownie became a popular featured act at the Lafayette and the Apollo theaters. Meanwhile, at the Cotton Club in 1934, they took over a slot that had been vacated by the Nicholas Brothers when Hollywood beckoned. Brownie often said that after these early breaks they "never looked back" and it's hard to dispute; in the ensuing years they performed with Duke Ellington, Eartha Kitt, Count Basie, Lena Horn, Cab Calloway and other jazz legends. When they toured Europe, they danced at London's Palladium and Paris' Latin Casino.
While Cook and Brown are widely recognized as perhaps the greatest knockabout comedy team of their time, this label doesn't convey the range of their talents. Although comedic and slapstick elements were a prominent feature of their act, Cook and Brown were a fluid dance duo whose individual styles complemented each other perfectly. Cookie was tall, lithe and graceful. Brownie was short, impish and supple with a stage presence that was by turns hyperkinetic and regal. If their act featured the irresistible mayhem of a Tex Avery cartoon, it also included the richness, warmth and subtlety of well delineated human characters – characters played by men who could hold their own with the top dancers of their day and who were steeped in New York's jazz scene and carried in their bones the essence of swing.
In addition to working nightclub revues and variety shows, they appeared as featured dancers in a number of film soundies during the 1940s and in the 1948 Broadway Production of "Kiss Me Kate."
Both men were blessed with musical souls, impeccable timing, and inescapable charisma. Outside the act, Cookie played drums and trumpet and would draw on his familiarity with the jazz canon to create memorable dance numbers. Brownie seemed not only to love but to have completely internalized song and singing. A walking jukebox of classics and standards, he was known to burst into a musical refrain in the midst of a conversation whenever a word or phrase triggered a musical association.
Cookie and Brownie were also part of a close-knit group of New York show biz folks who, following the death of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, established The Copasetics. Taking its name from Robinson's signature expression, "Everything's copasetic," the group was an exclusive fraternity dedicated both to honoring Robinson's legacy and preserving the character and tradition of tap's golden era.
Though it may have been difficult to foresee at the founding in 1949, a decades-long period of eclipse was beginning. Not only tap but the performing ethos which had allowed it to flourish was slowly losing favor with audiences, producers and mainstream performers. For years to come it was principally the members of the Copasetics – through annual dance reviews, boat trips, fund-raisers and personal initiatives – who soldiered on and gained legendary status as keepers of an endangered art form.
As tap venues and performing opportunities declined and bookings became harder to find, one of Cook and Brown's last hurrahs was as cultural ambassadors. They joined a tour of Africa sponsored by the US State Department during the 1960s where the troupe performed for Haile Selassie. They re-emerged briefly during the mid-1970s when a tap revival began. This was led among others by Brenda Bufalino in whose pioneering documentary, "Great Feats of Feet," Cookie and Brownie appeared with a number of other Copasetics. Four years later, in 1979, they, along with Honi Coles, Buster Brown and Bubba Gaines were featured again as The Copasetics in two consecutive episodes of the Dick Cavett show.
Although the spotlight shone again briefly on the fraternal dance troupe during this time, it did not lead to steady work and many, including Brownie, returned to jobs unrelated to dance. After his wife Patricia died in 1989, Brownie moved back to Chicago, no doubt thinking he had hung up his dancing shoes for good – until Reggio came along.
In 2008, a year before his death, Brownie made one last trip to New York where Cook and Brown were inducted into the International Tap Dance Hall of Fame during a ceremony at Symphony Space on Broadway. As part of the program, Reggio led a rendition of the Cane Dance – which the dancers had just learned in a workshop he and Brownie conducted – as a tribute to the legacy of Cook and Brown.