Despite the show’s success on Broadway and in Boston, other bookings were harder to come by. Blake recounted, “We had to jump all the way to Chicago—nobody else would take us. At the last minute we were let in by a lady who owned the Olympic, a rundown burlesque house. The audience was peeking around a lot of posts to see the show.” Nonetheless, the show was a smash success, running in Chicago from late November 1922 and ran through mid-February 1923. A reviewer in the African-American newspaper the Dallas Express reported on the show’s success: “Shuffle Along ‘shuffled’ into the Olympic theater … with a verve and a swerve which has made all Chicago sit up and take notice. That this stellar organization has lived up to all advance notices…is the opinion to be heard not only in the places where the “brethren” hold forth but all over this little town and the daily paper critics who have spelled death for so many shows this fall have been unanimous in their approval.
The newspaper noted that it was not surprising that “Colored Chicago” pronounced the show the “best ever” but it was the “downtown theatre” critics’ response that was so surprising: “Ashton Stevens of the Herald Examiner, the ace of critics here [reported]…’It is the real Colored thing: it is ETHIOPIA.’”
The arrival of the company in Chicago was itself an event: “[T]he sensations from Broadway…disembarked from their special train with 18 motor cars and numerous [bags] full of the latest in togs. Not for the stage, no bless you, but for the “stroll.” Sartorially the outfit has 35th and Indiana Avenue up on its tiptoes and gasping for breath and it’s a toss up which are the best dressed, the lads or the slinkers. Class and prosperity are sticking out all over them.”
The Chicago Defender reported that Lyles made a splashy entrance into town, driving his brand-new $18,500 (a little over a quarter million dollars in today’s dollars) custom Rolls Royce directly from Boston. The car was described as having an “ice box in the rear, four-wheel brakes, and a bed for reclining while touring.” The sight of a black man piloting such an expensive car was another sign of racial progress to the paper’s reporter.
The Dallas writer was particularly enthusiastic about Blake’s music and command of the show’s band, saying: “But I am sure there is . . . more music than that you will hear in Mr. Berlin’s most musical Music Box Revue. And it is very real music. It is a score that abounds in what…tin pan alley call ‘natural’ melodies. … They make you say that the tunefulness of the Colored man is more than superstition. Eubie Blake composed them, and he...is my idea of a star in the orchestra pit. He makes his fourteen bandsmen to play like forty when needs be…He sits at the concert grand juggling a cascade of ebony where it will do the least harm…Mr. Blake’s black bandsmen…[are] the life of the show.”
Chicago’s white critics also praised the show, assuring audiences that the production was “as clean as a hound’s dentistry” and that “any Caucasian producer who achieves an ensemble of such spirit and abandon would regard it as a triumph.” Clearly they wished to assure white Chicagoans that the show didn’t feature any “low” moments that would be disturbing to their families.
Underscoring the sophistication of the show’s creators, the African-American press gave favorable coverage to them even when they were not on stage. The Chicago Defender was quick to take note when Blake and his wife Avis attended a concert by Russian concert pianist Mischa Levitski. The correspondent praised Blake’s appreciation for classical traditions, as well as his skill as a composer: “His devotion to his art is apparent in his music which shows he has studied and absorbed it zealously and with success…in his ‘Love Will Find A Way,’ he uses an upward progression of ninth chords which would be disastrous in the hands of a novice, but under Mr. Blake’s deft finger they give an exotic colour [sic] to the numbers.”
As was typical of the black press, the highest praise was reserved for those black musicians who emulated white, European models. To “uplift the race,” it was believed that it was important to show that blacks were able to equal the white world.