Opinion

Arthur Duncan, Barrier-Breaking Tap Dancer, Is Dead at 97

Arthur Duncan, whose exuberant tap dancing carried him from the streets of Pasadena to Betty White’s variety shows in the 1950s as one of the first Black regulars performing on television, and then to “The Lawrence Welk Show,” where he helped bring the art form to millions of viewers for almost two decades, died on Jan. 4 in Moreno Valley, Calif. He was 97.

His wife, Carole Carbone Duncan, confirmed the death.

There were more renowned tap dancers during his long career — Bill Robinson, Sammy Davis Jr. and Gregory Hines, among them — but only Mr. Duncan had a regular national television showcase like the one he had on Saturday nights on the popular if square Welk show, from 1964 to 1982.

“‘Lawrence’ was not the hippest show around,” Mr. Hines told The Daily News of New York in 1989, when he was headlining “An Evening of Tap” at Carnegie Hall with Mr. Duncan and other dancers, including Bunny Briggs, Brenda Bufalino and Savion Glover. “But I’ll tell you, when nobody was home, I’d tune in, hoping to catch Arthur.”

He added, “He’s one of the most underrated dancers around, and a lot of that has to do with the association of the show. But other dancers know he’s great — and for a while he was the only one keeping tap in the public eye.”

By the late 1980s, Mr. Duncan had been a professional dancer and singer for more than 40 years. He got his big break in the early 1950s on Ms. White’s daytime variety show, “Hollywood on Television,” which aired in the Los Angeles market, then received national attention in 1954 as a guest and then as a regular on its network successor, NBC’s “The Betty White Show.”

“He did a number almost every day, and he could always count on knocking me out when he did ‘Jump Through the Ring,’” Ms. White wrote in her 1995 autobiography, “Here We Go Again: My Life in Television, 1949-1995.”

But broadcast during the Jim Crow era, some Southern stations threatened to boycott the show because of Mr. Duncan’s presence on it, a response that came as a “frightfully ugly surprise,” she wrote.

In the 2018 documentary “Betty White: First Lady of Television,” Mr. Duncan said, “People in the South resented me being on the show, and they wanted me thrown out.”

But Ms. White did not yield.

“I’m sorry, but, you know, he stays,” she recalled saying to NBC. “Live with it.”

The show had trouble reaching an audience — its time slot was changed several times — and was canceled at the end of the year. Mr. Duncan said he had been unaware of the controversy over his role on the show until he read Ms. White’s memoir.

Mr. Duncan in an undated photo. After he was hired to appear on Betty White’s nationally broadcast variety show, some Southern stations threatened to boycott the show to protest the appearance of a Black performer on it. Credit…via Carole Carbone-Duncan

In the next decade, he performed at clubs and theaters in the United States, Australia and Europe (Switzerland was his base of operations for a while), entertained troops on U.S.O. tours with Bob Hope and appeared on television. When he performed with Lionel Hampton’s group at the Basin Street West nightclub in Los Angeles, Sam Lutz, Mr. Welk’s personal manager, asked him to audition for the Welk show.

He soon joined the program, with its bubbly brand of schmaltzy Champagne music.

“Lawrence had a uniqueness about him,” Mr. Duncan once told OETA, the Oklahoma public television network, in an interview. “He knew his public. He was one of the smartest men I’ve ever met. He knew what he wanted, and he served it up.”

Arthur Chester Duncan was born on Sept. 25, 1925, in Pasadena, Calif., to James and Corabel (Lamar) Duncan. He did not begin dancing until he was in the eighth grade, when friends persuaded him to perform with them at a junior high school event. One taught the others a basic time step, and Arthur was soon tapping. He improved with tap lessons and danced on local street corners, picking up $13 or $14 a day to help his parents with the expense of raising 13 children.

For a while, working in a drugstore motivated him to study to be a pharmacist at Pasadena City College, but he eventually left the school for show business.

Mr. Duncan and the actress Georgia Engel at a 2018 panel discussion about the documentary “Betty White: First Lady of Television.” Mr. Duncan got his first big break in the 1950s on Ms. White’s daytime variety shows.Credit…Chris Pizzello/Invision, via Chris Pizzello, via Invision, via Associated Press

“And I auditioned everywhere,” he told The Californian, a newspaper in Salinas, in 1997. “Sammy Davis told me, ‘Perform in front of an audience as often as you can. You never know who’s out there that can help you.’”

Mr. Duncan performed long enough to be part of a tap dance boomlet in the 1980s and ’90s inspired in part by Mr. Hines’s performances in the Broadway musicals “Sophisticated Ladies” and “Jelly’s Last Jam,” which also featured Mr. Glover, who later choreographed and starred in the Broadway dance musical “Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk.”

Mr. Duncan performed in the 1989 film “Tap” with Mr. Hines, Mr. Davis, Harold Nicholas and Howard (Sandman) Sims, and in the short film “Tap Heat” (2004), a story told in dance steps, without words, in which Mr. Duncan, then in his late 70s, and the young tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith challenge each other.

“Arthur was deceptively energetic,” Mr. Smith said in a phone interview. “I’m pulling out some of the toughest steps and moves and phrases, and he’s throwing them back at me. He isn’t afraid to dance with anyone of any generation; he had a willing, fiery, fearless spirit.”

In addition to his wife, Mr. Duncan is survived by his stepson, Sean Carbone; two step-grandchildren; two sisters, Mabel Duncan and Eleanor Starr, and a brother, Michael. His previous marriage, to Donna Pena, ended in divorce.

Mr. Duncan danced into his 90s; his final onstage performance was last June with Reginald (Reggio the Hoofer) McLaughlin at the Old Town School of Music in Chicago.

“Once he got back into the atmosphere of what we do, he was back in his zone,” Mr. McLaughlin said by phone. “He didn’t have the speed he once had, but he could still carry a step.”

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