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By Dance Magazine
Dr. Harold "Stumpy" Cromer (right) with James "Stump" Cross
Courtesy American Tap Dance Foundation
One of the last remaining links to tap dance’s vaudeville era, Dr. Harold “Stumpy” Cromer died June 8. Though he was most known as a member of the two-man comedy team Stump and Stumpy, Cromer’s career spanned over 70 years with work in vaudeville, film, television, and theater.
A child of the Great Depression, Cromer began tapping on New York City streets to earn money to buy groceries for his family. He began performing at the Kit Kat Club in Harlem while still in high school, and appeared in the movie Swing! in 1938. He soon landed a role on Broadway, performing in the original 1939 production of Du Barry Was a Lady, along with cast members Betty Grable, Bert Lahr, and Ethel Merman. But Broadway jobs were rare for African-American performers, and Cromer jumped onto the vaudeville circuit.
He teamed up with James “Stump” Cross, replacing Eddie Hartman as “Stumpy.” The duo was a favorite at the Apollo Theater and they took their act to many theaters, nightclubs, and television shows. The show involved singing, dancing, and banter-filled skits, which all centered around their extreme difference in height. Stump (Cross), who was tall and languorous, provided a comic anchor while Stumpy (Cromer), who barely topped 5', darted in exuberant circles around his partner. These exhibitions of clowning, however, were built around crisp jazz-tap phrases. Cromer was even known for tapping on roller skates.
The duo performed on television variety shows like Milton Berle’s during the 1950s and 60s. And though tap was on the outs in those years, Cromer found work as an M.C. for concerts, introducing performers including Aretha Franklin, Bobby Darin, and Stevie Wonder. When tap re-entered the limelight in the late 1970s, Cromer returned to the silver screen. He appeared in American Dance Machine (1978) and The Cotton Club (1984), dancing in a killer cast of hoofers with James “Buster” Brown, Ralph Brown, “Sandman” Sims, and Jimmy Slyde. Cromer received an honorary doctorate from Bloomfield College in 2008.
Members of the Tap City Youth Ensemble honor Cromer at the 2013 Tap City Festival in NYC with a performance of his signature work "Opus."
Photo by Wallac Flores, Courtesy ATDF
In his later years, Cromer taught extensively. In a genre that was male-dominated for many years, Cromer was an advocate for female tappers, taking many under his wings—including Melinda Sullivan and Chloe Arnold—and pushing them to the front of the class. “He wanted us to show off,” says Sullivan, who was a “25 to Watch” in 2013.
Cromer was also known for sharing his mix of showmanship and musicianship with new generations, insisting, “you’re not just a tap dancer, you’re a dancer.” Sullivan remembers that something as simple as running an errand to the bank with him was a three-act show, complete with jokes in accents and tap phrases. “He was a ham. He loved the energy exchange of performing. You give energy and get energy back, and he got a charge out of that.” —Lauren Vanchina