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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Lillian Yarbo
Lillian Yarbough

(1905-03-17)March 17, 1905[1][2]
Washington, DC, United States
DiedJune 12, 1996(1996-06-12) (aged 91)[3]
Other namesCredited, prior to October 8, 1928, as Billie Yarbough,[4] and—from that point until her 1936 screen debut (at which point the stage name "Billie" would be shelved indefinitely)—as Billie Yarbo
Occupation(s)Actress, singer, dancer
Years active1927–1949

Lillian "Billie" Yarbo[5] (March 17, 1905 – June 12, 1996) was an American stage and screen actress, dancer, and singer.

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Early life

Born Lillian Yarbough[6] in Washington, DC,[2] Billie eventually made her way to New York, as did both her mother and at least one sister—though exactly when this happened and whether they made this pilgrimage all at once or separately and at different times, remains unclear.[7][8][a]



The 'Real' Billie
By her early 20s, Yarbo, credited prior to October 1928 as Yarbough,[9] was a rising star, both in Harlem night spots and on the Broadway stage.[10] Writing in The New Yorker, reviewing the Miller and Lyles musical, Keep Shufflin', a young Charles Brackett alerted readers:

There is a Miss Billie Yarbough, who must have been designed by Covarrubias and must be seen.[11]

With a style sometimes likened to that of her contemporary, Josephine Baker,[12] Yarbo was embraced by audiences and critics alike, beginning in the late 1920s and continuing until her 1936 screen debut.[11][13][14] As for her vocal stylings, just a few, fleeting, onscreen remnants exist (see relevant excerpt from The Family Next Door in External links). That said, Yarbo clearly did not lack for confidence, having once told trumpeter Buck Clayton, "To hell with Billie Holiday! Come down and listen to me, the real Billie."[15]


Twenty-Four Sheet' Lil
Yarbo appeared in at least two films in 1936 and one in 1937 before receiving glowing notices—and her first onscreen credit—the following year in the otherwise indifferently received Warren William vehicle, Wives Under Suspicion.[16][17][18] For that and her equally acclaimed performance in Frank Capra's hugely successful adaptation of Kaufman and Hart's You Can't Take It With You[19][20] (which, by virtue of the film's panoramic, full-cast billboard, also inspired a new nickname),[21][22] Yarbo was judged 1938's best Negro comedic actress by Pittsburgh Courier film critic Earl J. Morris.[23] In 1939, she was awarded that same distinction by the short-lived Sepia Theatrical Writers Guild.[24][25] Indeed, even prior to 1938, the then-as-yet thoroughly anonymous Yarbo—as Claire Trevor's maid in Alfred Werker's much-rewritten Big Town Girl[26]—caught the eye of one discerning reviewer.

... and a Negro lassie—inexcusably omitted from the cast list [emphasis added]—renders yeoman service and considerable comedy as the "countess' " maid.[27]

Awards and critical plaudits notwithstanding, and despite the sentiments ascribed to director King Vidor as early as 1937[28] (following Yarbo's sophomore screen turn, appearing uncredited with Barbara Stanwyck in Vidor's Stella Dallas), she continued to be routinely cast in bit parts, primarily as a maid, cook or otherwise low-skilled worker, often uncredited, appearing in at least 50 films between 1936 and 1949.

In the fall of 1943, amid an already setback-laden half-decade,[7][29][8] a potentially career-altering opportunity—being cast in a straight dramatic role opposite Canada Lee in what might well have become the definitive screen adaptation of Richard Wright's Native Son—failed to materialize when Orson Welles, who had directed Lee in the original Broadway production, proved unavailable.[30][31] Adding injury to insult, just weeks later, a near-fatal car crash put Yarbo out of commission for the first half of 1944.[32][33] She appeared in just one film that year, and over the next five—ending her screen career much as it had begun—averaged exactly two films a year, uncredited in all but one.

Later career

On November 13, 1948, roughly four months after finishing work on what would prove to be her final film (and roughly 13 years since last having performed onstage), Yarbo returned to live performance. Perhaps inspired by having made, roughly two months prior, "one of her rare visits to a night spot,"[34] Yarbo, backed by Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy, performed at a benefit event staged at Club Congo (formerly Club Alabam)[35] by the Alpha Phi Alpha House Campaign Committee to "provide a much-needed housing [sic] and scholarship for 'forgotten' students."[36]

On May 19, 1949, The California Eagle's Gertrude Gipson reported that "C. P. Johnson on along with a six-piece combo, and Billy Yarbo, who has returned to dancing, will open at the Fairbanks in Alaska around the first."[37] Whether or not this actually came to pass is unclear, but if so, it would appear to be Yarbo's last documented public performance.

Similarly unclear is the matter of whether, during that same period, Yarbo had occasion to see some very nice notices greeting her penultimate screen performance (and final credited one), portraying "a giggling, singing, four-times-married little maid"[38][39] in Warner Bros.' long-shelved Night Unto Night (1949),[40] one more instance of Yarbo being one of the few reasons to watch—precisely as had been the case in her first credited role[16][18]—in an otherwise "sleep-induc[ing]"[41] picture:

Other characters include one who talks like someone out of a bad play, a couple of doctors, the heroine's sexy sister, and, fortunately,
Lillian Yarbo as Josephine, the maid of all work, who provides the only bright spot in the generally murky atmosphere.

Personal life

In 2006, NYU Professor of Media Studies Cathrine Kellison, speaking on the DVD commentary track of You Can't Take It With You (1938), briefly addressed Yarbo's known history: "Now Lillian Yarbo, here... she's... it's troubling how little information there is about her as a person. She was in probably 40, 50 films. Many of them, her name was not listed; she was uncredited." Kellison, who would die in 2009 with online newspaper archives still slim, did not live long enough to learn of Yarbo's illustrious pre-Hollywood heyday.

Yet taking into account the full scope of her career, it is curious that the close press coverage of Yarbo[32][42][34] halted in the fall of 1949. After over two decades, it could be surmised that this was requested by Yarbo herself. One reason why she might have desired less attention appeared in a 1928 interview which, despite its condescending tone, portrays Yarbo as someone who did not aspire to fame and who—somewhat akin to her celebrated not-quite-namesake[43]—genuinely valued her privacy.[44][b]

Having finally secured that privacy, and adroitly handled her finances,[46][47] Yarbo appears to have spent the remainder of her life in relative comfort in Seattle, Washington,[48] where she died on June 12, 1996.[3]

Stage work

Partial listing of stage work (as Billie Yarbo, except where otherwise noted):[49]

Opening date Closing date Title Role Theatre Notes
Jun 27, 1927 Jul 13, 1927 Bottomland [50] Chorus (as Billie Yarbough) Princess Theatre
Feb 27, 1928 May 26, 1928 Keep Shufflin' [51] Yarbo (as Billie Yarbough) Daly's 63rd Street Theatre Eye-catching caricatures by Al Hirschfeld, and by Vyvyan Donner in The New York Times,[10] plus brief but enthusiastic mentions in The New Yorker,[11] Variety.[13]
Jul 09, 1928 Jul 15, 1928 Follies of Paris[52][53] N/A Lafayette Theatre
Oct 08, 1928 Dec 15, 1928 Just a Minute [4][54] Mandy Ambassador Theatre
Mar 10, 1930 Mar 16, 1930 Fast Life [55][56] N/A The Alhambra
May 26, 1930 N/A Happy Feet [57][58] N/A The Alhambra
Oct 22, 1930 Dec 13, 1930 Blackbirds of 1930 [59] Performer, "(That) Lindy Hop" (as Billy Yarbo) Royale Theatre
Mar 16, 1931 Apr 05, 1931 Dave Peyton and His Regal Theatre Orchestra [60] N/A Gibson Theatre, Philadelphia Local coverage featured one of the very few pre-Hollywood photos of Yarbo, published in The Philadelphia Tribune (see first entry in Further reading).
Sep 15, 1932 Jan 25, 1933 Flying Colors [61] Performer, "Louisiana Hayride"; Performer, "Butlers" Imperial Theatre
Oct 07, 1933
Oct 21, 1933
Oct 13, 1933
Oct 27, 1933
Jimmy Lunceford and his Band [62][63] N/A Lincoln Theatre, Philadelphia
May 10, 1936 May 23, 1936 Harlem on Parade [64] N/A Follies Theatre, Los Angeles



  1. ^ There is a "Yarbough, George; fireman," listed in the District of Columbia Directories for 1904 through 1906. Moreover, given Yarbo's seemingly genuine aversion to publicity (thus the very real possibility that even "Yarbough" itself might be her ever so slight variation on the actual birth name), the presence of "Yarebough, Lillian D." in the 1905 directory cannot be discounted.
  2. ^ Tone notwithstanding, the Daily Eagle portrait is lent credence by the person Yarbo cites to exemplify fame's dire consequences: her fellow Washingtonian and possible role model, the then-recently deceased Florence Mills, whose tragic, premature death had been the subject of nationwide headlines roughly four months prior to Yarbo earning her first glowing Broadway reviews.[45][13][6][11]


  1. ^ Smallwood, Bill. "Delightful Side". Los Angeles Sentinel. March 6, 1947. Page 17. "Billye [sic] Yarbo and Nat Cole both birthday on the 17th."
  2. ^ a b 1940 United States Federal Census Year: 1940; Census Place: Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California; Roll: m-t0627-00416; Page: 12A; Enumeration District: 60-362
  3. ^ a b "Washington Death Index, 1965-2014," database, FamilySearch ( : 13 July 2017), Lillian M Yarbo, 12 Jun 1996, King, Washington, United States; from the Department of Health, Death Index, 1907-1960; 1965-2014, Washington State Archives, Digital Archives ( : n.d.); Citing Washington State Department of Health.
  4. ^ a b "Just a Minute". IBDB. Retrieved 2 February 2021.
  5. ^ Johnson, Lillian. "Strictly Jive". The Baltimore Afro-American. May 14, 1938. Page 10.
  6. ^ a b "Billy Yarbo a New Mugger". The Pittsburgh Courier. March 10, 1928. Page 15.
  7. ^ a b "Billy Yarbo Makes Film As Kin Passes". The Chicago Defender. March 22, 1941. Page 20.
  8. ^ a b Rowe, Billy. "Rowe's Notebooks". The Pittsburgh Courier. March 20, 1943. Page 21.
  9. ^ Multiple sources:
  10. ^ a b Hirschfield, Al (2004). Hirschfield's Harlem. New York: Glenn Young Books. p. 18. ISBN 1557835179. See also:
  11. ^ a b c d Brackett, Charles. "Illicit Relations and Dark Dancers". The New Yorker. March 10, 1928. p. 33. Retrieved January 13, 2021.
  12. ^ Field, Rowland. "Both Sides of the Curtain". The Brooklyn Times Union. March 4, 1928. Page 103.
  13. ^ a b c Pulaski, Jack (as "Ibee"). "Legitimate; With Music: 'Keep Shufflin'". Variety. March 7, 1928. Page 52.
  14. ^ Multiple sources:
  15. ^ Clayton, Buck; Elliott, Nancy Miller. Buck Clayton's Jazz World. Wheatley, Oxon: Bayou Press, 1986. Page 81. ISBN 1-871478-55-3
  16. ^ a b "'Wives Under Suspicion' Is Marked by Good Acting; Lillian Yarbo Excels". Saskatoon Star-Phoenix. July 19, 1938. Page 4.
  17. ^ Grange, Marion. "At the Motion Picture Theaters". The Ottawa Citizen. June 27, 1938. Page 15.
  18. ^ a b "'The Rage of Paris' and 'Under Suspicion'—Circle". The Indianapolis News. July 16, 1938. Page 2.
  19. ^ "Capra Film Easily Best of Year". The Desert Sun. October 28, 1938. Page 8.
  20. ^ Lusk, Norbert. "Capra Feature Acclaimed as 'Best of the Season'". The Los Angeles Times. September 12, 1938. Page 38.
  21. ^ "'Twenty-four Sheet Lil'". Los Angeles Daily News. October 24, 1938. Page 8. Retrieved January 18, 2021.
  22. ^ Poole, Edwin E.; Poole, Susan T. Collecting Movie Posters: An Illustrated Reference Guide to. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company. 1997. ISBN 978-1-4766-0502-9.
  23. ^ Morris, Earl J. "1938 Banner Year for Negro Movie Industry". The Pittsburgh Courier. January 21, 1939. Page 21.
  24. ^ ANP. "Colored Actors in Four of Year's Ten Best Pictures". The Pittsburgh Courier. January 21, 1939. Page 39.
  25. ^ LaMar, Lawrence F. "News of the Theatres: First Annual Sepia Screen Poll". The Phoenix Index. December 30, 1939. Page 7.
  26. ^ "'Big Town Girl'". Motion Picture Reviews. December 1937. p. 4.
  27. ^ Martin, Mildred. "'Big Town Girl' Proves Diverting Comedy". The Philadelphia Inquirer. December 4, 1937. Page 8. Retrieved January 11, 2021.
  28. ^ Patton, Bernice. "The Sepia Side of Hollywood". The Pittsburgh Courier. April 10, 1937. Page 19. "Realizing her dramatic-comedy ability, director Vidor is moving heaven and earth to give the sepia Broadway lass that certain 'oomph' so essential to making good for keeps. Hear tell, he went up to the wardrobe department and selected a pretty French dress, slippers to match, and the last word in accessories for her new role."
  29. ^ Smallwood, Bill. "The Delightful Side". The California Eagle. February 12, 1942. Page 5.
  30. ^ ANP. "Gossip of the Movie Lots". The Chicago Bee. October 17, 1943. Page 15. "Billy Yarbo is moaning about the shortage of work for sepians. She recalled past years when she played long runs with Rochester, Willie Best and in individual assignments."
  31. ^ Calvin, Dolores. "Seein' Stars". The Chicago Bee. December 5, 1943. Page 17.
  32. ^ a b Smallwood, Bill. "The Delightful Side". The Los Angeles Tribune. February 14, 1944. Page 15. "Billie Yarbo is still on the critical list. She has a fractured skull, badly bruised ribs, a partially paralyzed right side and impaired eyesight! But she can still smile, being the person she is. Thumbs up, Billie."
  33. ^ Gipson, J.T. "Candid Comments: Scannin' the News Tickertape; Snappy Comeback". The California Eagle. July 20, 1944. Page 12.
  34. ^ a b Gipson, J. T. "The Gipson Gossip". The California Eagle. September 16, 1948. Page 15. Retrieved January 19, 2021.
  35. ^ "Stars to Help Raise Funds to Send Kiddies to Camp". The California Eagle. February 19, 1948. Page 20. Retrieved January 19, 2021.
  36. ^ "Margaret Baskett Will Present Top Show at Alpha House Party". The California Eagle. November 11, 1948. Page 16. Retrieved January 19, 2021.
  37. ^ Gipson, Gertrude. "Candid Comments". The California Eagle. May 19, 1949. Page 16. Retrieved January 17, 2021.
  38. ^ Martin, Mildred. "'Night Unto Night' Opens on Boyd Screen". The Philadelphia Inquirer. May 19, 1949. Paqe 18. Retrieved January 20, 2021.
  39. ^ a b 'Mae Tinee'. "Most Useless in This Film Is the Film Itself". The Chicago Tribune. May 17, 1949. page 17. Retrieved January 20, 2021.
  40. ^ 'Brog'. "'Night Unto Night'". Variety. April 20, 1949. p. 11. Retrieved January 20, 2021.
  41. ^ Lindeman, Edith. "Sleep Inducer Is Showing at Colonial". The Richmond Times-Dispatch. June 8, 1949. Page 21. Retrieved January 20, 2021.
  42. ^ Smallwood, Bill. "Coastin'". The People's Voice. February 13, 1943. Page 26. "Billie Yarbo will step off the 20th Century Ltd. any morning now. The Super Chief's out from LA to see her ailing sis in NY. Her current turn before Columbia's cameras is being rushed so she may make the trip minus being harried or hurried. Billie's topnotch folks, and we love her." Retrieved January 31, 2021.
  43. ^ Bainbridge, John. "The Braveness to Be Herself: In Private Affairs or in Public, Garbo Ignores the Opinions of Others". Life. February 7, 1955. Pages 112-113. Retrieved January 31, 2021.
  44. ^ "Billie Yarbo; She Didn't Want None". The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. May 6, 1928. Page 69.
  45. ^ "Blood Transfusion Failed to Save Florence Mills". The Baltimore Afro-American. November 5, 1927. Retrieved January 27, 2021.
  46. ^ Gipson, J.T. "Candid Comments; Billie in real estate". The California Eagle. November 18, 1943. Page 10. Retrieved January 31, 2021.
  47. ^ Morris, Earl. "Grand Town, Day and Night: Billie building up her economy for reconversion". The California Eagle. October 12, 1944. Page 12. Retrieved January 31, 2021.
  48. ^ Shedwin, Danny. "ERI Promo excerpt" (three-paragraph reminiscence w/ a number of later-life Yarbo quotes). Mediafire.
  49. ^ "Billie Yarbo". IBDB. Retrieved 2 February 2021.
  50. ^ "Bottomland". IBDB. Retrieved 2 February 2021.
  51. ^ "Keep Shufflin'". IBDB. Retrieved 2 February 2021.
  52. ^ America's Leading Colored Theatre, The Lafayette; Next Week, Beginning Monday, July 9: 'Follies of Paris'"
  53. ^ America's Leading Colored Theatre, The Lafayette; Now Playing, Up to Sunday, July 15: 'Follies of Paris'. The New York Age. July 7, 1928. Page 5. Retrieved 22 February 2021.
  54. ^ Lillian Yarbo at the Internet Broadway Database. Retrieved 2 February 2021.
  55. ^ "At The Alhambra Theatre: Next Week, Starting Monday". The New York Age. March 8, 1930. Retrieved February 2, 2021.
  56. ^ "At The Alhambra". The New York Age. Mar 15, 1930. Retrieved 2 February 2021.
  57. ^ "At The Alhambra Theatre". The New York Age. May 24, 1930. Retrieved February 2, 2021.
  58. ^ "At The Alhambra". The New York Age. May 31, 1930. Retrieved 2 February 2021.
  59. ^ Norton, Richard C. (2002). "1930-1931 Season". A Chronology of American Musical Theater. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. p. 628. ISBN 0-19-508888-3.
  60. ^ "Peyton Presents Cyclonic Symphony & Jazz Treat at The Gibson: Peyton's Band Panics Them At Gibson's Prominent Guests, Brilliant Acts and Packed House Mark Opening". The Philadelphia Tribune. March 19, 1931. p. 7.
  61. ^ "Flying Colors". IBDB. Retrieved 2 February 2021.
  62. ^ "Lincoln Theatre: Beg. Sat., Oct. 7; One Week Only, Jimmie Lunceford and His Band". Philadelphia Tribune. October 5, 1933. Retrieved 2 February 2021.
  63. ^ "Amusements - - - At the Theatres: Lincoln". Philadelphia Tribune. October 19, 1933. p. 12. Retrieved 2 February 2021.
  64. ^ "Harlem on Parade Ends 2-Week Run". The Chicago Defender. May 30, 1936. Retrieved 2 February 2021.

Further reading

External links

This page was last edited on 20 October 2023, at 23:17
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