TAMPA — Redd Foxx and Chuck Berry were two of the most famous Black entertainers of their time. Each got a big break in front of white audiences performing for a Black producer whose fame once eclipsed theirs.
From the 1930s through 1960s, Leon Claxton’s Black variety shows were celebrated throughout the United States and Canada as part of the traveling carnival and state fair circuit.
When Claxton took a break from the road, home was Tampa, where he was a businessman who might have been the city’s first Black millionaire.
“He was one of our biggest celebrities,” said historian Cheryl Rodriguez, 69. “He played a role in our African American identity. He provided us a belief that we could accomplish anything. But his significance has been forgotten.”
That’s why Leslie Cunningham, Claxton’s granddaughter, produced a documentary about him.
It is now streaming for free at JigShow.com.
The documentary’s title is JIG SHOW: Leon Claxton’s Harlem in Havana.
Harlem in Havana was the most popular version of his show. And “jig show” is how Claxton described his form of entertainment.
“Jig show is an uncomfortable term today,” said Cunningham, a 56-year-old resident of Durham, N.C. “It’s a racist slur. So, that’s one of the things I address in the documentary. Why did he use it?”
The reason, the documentary explains, is because it was not initially deemed offensive. Claxton stopped using the term when it became a slur.
For 10 years, Cunningham, who never met her grandfather, traveled the United States to interview family, Claxton’s former performers, historians and fans to piece together the story.
“This documentary is the story of a jig show that rose above segregated shows and achieved mainstream international recognition,” Cunningham said. “It’s a story about what he meant to this country.”
A 1965 profile of Claxton in the Tampa Times described him as “the classic rags to riches tale.”
According to the article, he was raised in Memphis, three blocks from where the circus and carnivals held tent shows. His father was a percussionist for W.C. Handy, the self-proclaimed “father of the blues.”
After his family moved to Chicago, Claxton joined the Ringling Bros. Circus, where he learned to be a contortionist, the article says. That skill earned Claxton his first taste of celebrity.
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“Leon Claxton is a contortionist of amazing talents,” reads an article in Canada announcing a show in which he was starring in 1927.
“An acrobatic dancer and contortionist of recognized standing,” is how a Vermont newspaper described Claxton in 1928.
He later branched out on his own, producing a traveling Black variety show that was a featured attraction at the Chicago World Fair in 1934, according to the Tampa Times profile.
A year later, Royal American Shows, which produced the sideshows for state fairs and carnivals, hired Claxton.
“They needed him to manage the failing Black attraction,” Cunningham said. “He ended up making enough money that he took over the show but stayed with Royal American.”
Each April through October, Royal American Shows traveled 25,000 miles on a tour of Southern and Midwestern U.S. cities and western Canada, according to news archives.
Royal American Shows was headquartered in Tampa. So, in the 1930s, according to the documentary, Claxton made Tampa his home, where he continued to produce shows during the carnival and state fair off season.
Tampa newspaper articles list different names for his troupe, such as Leon Claxton’s Brownskins, Leon Claxton’s Hep Cats and Leon Claxton’s Swingland Minstrel Revue.
The documentary says that in 1946, his show took on the sole identity of Harlem in Havana, named for the influence Tampa’s Cuban culture had on Claxton. He continued to seek out talented Black musicians, dancers and comedians, but also hired entertainers from Cuba.
“It was just so exciting to watch,” said Rodriguez, who is in the documentary. “There was nothing else like it. That was part of our experience in Jim Crow land. It’s what I call a Jim Crow memory.”
Back then, Tampa’s Black residents could only attend the Florida State Fair on “Negro Day.”
Still, Harlem in Havana regularly sold out shows for all-white audiences, too.
“It was the top attraction because it had the best talent,” Cunningham said. “He recognized top young talent” like Foxx, Berry, Fontella Bass and Dinah Washington “before anyone else recognized their talent.”
Elvis Presley was a fan who implored his state fair audiences to watch Claxton’s show, Cunningham said, and Joni Mitchell wrote her song Harlem in Havana after seeing the show in Canada.
But neither Claxton nor his performers were sheltered from racism. The documentary tells of white people tossing rocks and screaming threats at their train car as it made its way across the United States.
Those experiences are likely why, in 1965, Claxton opened the Claxton Manor, one of the city’s first integrated hotels, Cunningham said.
Located between Lois Avenue and Westshore Boulevard, the two-story hotel had 40 units, according to news archives, and guests that included boxer Joe Louis and the Cincinnati Reds when the team was in Tampa Bay for Spring Training.
Claxton also owned a home in West Tampa that was among the largest in the city, where he employed a personal chef and driver.
The hotel and home are why he is thought to be the city’s first Black millionaire, Cunningham said. “That’s what people say, but I have not been able to prove it. He had to be at least among the first if he was not the first.”
Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution changed Claxton’s show. He could no longer recruit performers from Cuba, according to the documentary, and Claxton changed the name to the Harlem Revue, fearing Havana would link him to Communism.
The show folded after Claxton died in 1967 at the age of 65.
“People my age and older from Tampa remember him,” Rodriguez said. “But there is a whole generation of people here who did not have the Harlem in Havana experience. Tampa has not done a good job of reminding people about that experience.”
Cunningham hopes her documentary is the first step in turning her grandfather into a celebrated part of Tampa history.
“He was an amazing showman,” she said, “maybe the best of his time.”