By Joseph Green-Bishop
Texas Metro Correspondent
The very first African American tap dancer to appear weekly on a nationally televised variety program has died. Arthur Chester Duncan, who performed as a featured performer on television for more than twenty years, beginning in the 1960s, was 97 years old. His wife, Carole Duncan, said that he died January 5th in Moreno Valley, California after suffering a stroke.
Born in California, Mr. Duncan had twelve siblings. He learned to tap dance in junior high school. When he became proficient at his craft, he began to earn money performing on the streets of his hometown. While dancing to entertain others he made about ten dollars each day which he gave to his parents to help with living expenses.
In high school Mr. Duncan, who performed during eight decades, worked for a pharmacist who encouraged him to pursue pharmacy as a profession. After a few years of academic training, he left school to pursue his dream of becoming a full-time dancer.
As his reputation grew, he performed in entertainment venues throughout the country. During an international tour he thrilled European and North African audiences, dancing in London, Paris, Beirut, and Cairo among other places.
In 1957, Mr. Duncan became a featured performer with the world touring USO show that entertained military personnel throughout the country, and the world. Mr. Duncan was the first African American entertainer to join the group which was led by the comedian Bob Hope.
For two decades Mr. Duncan was a featured performer on ‘The Lawrence Welk Show,’ becoming the first African American star on a weekly television broadcast. Each week he performed before millions of television viewers who came to admire and his grace, his dignity, and his ability.
Welk, acknowledged as one of the nation’s leading big band leaders, said that Mr. Duncan was an ‘exceptional’ artist. “He was one of the smartest men I have ever met,” Welk said when asked to describe Mr. Duncan.
In addition to appearing on stage, Mr. Duncan acted in several Hollywood motion pictures, including “Tap” with dancers Gregory Hines, Sammy Davis Jr., and Harold Nicholas. He also starred in a short film entitled “Tap Heat.” In that he exchanged dance move with a much younger man. Mr. Duncan was 78 years old when the film was released.
One of Mr. Duncan’s closest allies in a racially biased entertainment industry was the late entertainer Betty White who included him as part of a variety show that she hosted in the early 1950s. When some viewers in the southern United States protested his presence and threatened to boycott the show. Undaunted, Ms. White informed them that Mr. Duncan would continue to appear on her show despite their objections.
Mr. Duncan is survived by his wife, Carole Duncan; his sisters, Mabel, and Eleanor; his brother, Michael; his son, Sean, and two grandchildren.