James Carl Harrington Jr., later known by his professional name Hamtree, was born in Columbia, South Carolina. His father, James Carl Harrington Sr., was a rigid fundamentalist preacher. Of his mother little is known, except that she was an attractive woman of Native American origin. Young Harrington was a spirited and imaginative boy who found the strict discipline of home and school more than he could bear. When barely fourteen, he ran away from home to join a traveling carnival. Working as a roustabout, he earned his keep by helping pitch tents and performing assorted menial jobs. The work was hard but exciting, for there were always performers he could watch. In spare moments he would sketch for his own amusement. With his natural aptitudes, it was not difficult for Harrington to learn the barber's trade, and although quite able thereafter to earn more as a barber than as a roustabout, he never abandoned his fascination for show business. During the early 1900s, he carried both his trade and his love of the stage to New York City.Small of stature, neat, personable, and handsome, Harrington soon captured the heart of Edna Murray, a chorus girl. She could out-dance all the others on her chorus line and became an onstage showpiece in much the same way as her close chorus-line friend Josephine Baker. In Harrington, Murray saw the makings of a good comic. The large eyes he used so naturally and effectively were made to order for the burnt cork pantomime artistry made popular by Minstrelsy and noted performers such as Bert Williams. As the first black performer to be featured in the legendary Ziegfeld Follies, Williams was acclaimed for his superb stagecraft. Murray wrote the script for Harrington, most of it pantomime. It featured the quaking, eye-rolling terror of the black comic figure walking alone through a graveyard in the dead of night. The theme delighted white Americans; many blacks also found it screamingly funny. Harrington's show business career was on its way up. Shortly thereafter, Harrington won acclaim in another skit in which he stole a ham, hid it in a tree, and thereby earned the name by which he became so well known.In June 1922 Henry Creamer and Turner Layton's musical, Strut Miss Lizzie, reached New York via Chicago, Illinois, with Harrington in the role of the blackface comedian. That same year promoter Lew Leslie's Plantation Revue, starring Florence Mills, moved from a New York nightclub to the 48th Street Theatre. Again the comedy was handled by Harrington, who, working under cork, was the perfect foil for the ladylike dancing and singing of Mills. At the close of the show, vaudeville awaited Harrington's talents. He teamed with Cora Green, a stately, honey-colored singer from Baltimore, Maryland. Again the exquisitely groomed loveliness of the singer against Harrington's raucous blackface antics established the team of Harrington and Green as one of vaudeville's favorites. They captivated audiences in Europe, and in the United States they worked this nation's foremost vaudeville houses, along with Harlem's famed Cotton Club and Connie's Inn, where the orchestras of Edward Kennedy (“Duke”) Ellington and Cabell (Cab) Calloway provided music.For more than a decade, fame and a measure of fortune came to Hamtree Harrington. But he was not completely happy. He found it degrading to work under cork as an eye-rolling, razor-wielding caricature of a black man. To offset his discomfort, he turned to drawing and painting, which he did backstage between shows. He haunted the art galleries of every major city he worked in, and he cultivated friends among the gifted artists of Harlem, where he lived. Among the latter was Archie Joseph Jones, a fellow comedian, whose exceptional talent for painting enabled him to exhibit with the black professional artists in a 1933 national show presented by the Harlem Foundation. Harrington boosted Jones's ability and took pride in their close association.During the early 1930s, Harrington saw an exhibition in Baltimore of local painter Elton Fax, who at that time was still young. The two met, liked each other, and Harrington invited the younger man to visit with him and his family in New York. There, Harrington introduced Fax to sculptor Augusta Christine Fells Savage and her circle of friends in the arts.Meanwhile the autumn of 1933 opened a memorable theater season for Hamtree Harrington. He and Ethel Waters were paired to do a satirical skit in As Thousands Cheer, one of America's all-time great musicals. Irving Berlin and Moss Hart wrote it, and Marilyn Miller, Clifton Webb, Helen Broderick, and Ethel Waters were its stars. Opening at New York's Music Box Theater on October 2, it enjoyed a long run. Harrington performed his comedy in Cheer without cork, greasepaint lips, and all the other demeaning props he had been required to use in the past. He had finally emerged from his hated cocoon. Subsequent appearances in You Can't Take It with You (1937), and in a film, His Woman (1931), starring Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert, gave him straight comedy to do. Just as he seemed to be finally free of the old tradition he fell victim to one of the ironies of progress.Radio and television were replacing live shows. Vaudeville was dead, and Harrington read the signs accurately. Work fell off, and he grew desperate. But vanity induced him to scorn and refuse to seek work in the Works Progress Administration federally supported theater of the 1930s, because he believed the low pay would ruin his reputation as a high-priced comedian. Harrington therefore retired from show business in 1938 to open a photography studio in Harlem just above the famed Apollo Theater, upon whose stage he had so often performed. But Harrington was no businessman, and he soon abandoned photography to return to the bit parts that were infrequently offered him. Younger black comics were on the rise, and Harrington's star was descending. A copy of Playbill for Shuffle Along for May 8, 1952, lists him in the cast of this vain attempt to resurrect the bones of a long-dead and dated musical hit of the 1920s.In 1956 Harrington, at age sixty-seven, made one more effort to rise to prominence. The U.S. government had signed him to travel with a unit booked to entertain troops in Europe and Asia. Every detail was completed except his medical approval. In New York City the examining doctor had shocking news: arteriosclerosis had reached an advanced stage, and he could not approve Harrington's joining the troupe. The aging performer was stunned. According to his son, Harrington returned to obscurity in Harlem and was dead in a matter of weeks.Sources include Variety (June 29, 1938); Playbill (February 6, 1939, for Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1939; October 2, 1933, for As Thousands Cheer); the New York Herald Tribune (February 12, 1939); Flash, Newspicture Magazine (February 15, 1939); and the New York World-Telegram (July 20, 1932).From Dictionary of American Negro Biography by Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston, editors. Copyright © 1982 by Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston. Reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
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