William McClain was an African-American acrobat, actor, and comedian. He is well-known for his appearances in minstrel shows before World War I. He also wrote, produced, and directed major stage and outdoor extravaganzas. However, despite his great ability, he was handicapped by prejudice against African-Americans during his time.
McClain was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1866. As a young boy, he played the cornet in Bell’s Band. His first public appearance was in 1881, and he later joined The Adam Forepaugh and Sells Brothers Circus in 1886 for a tour of the Hawaiian Islands. McClain is noted as being the first black player with the circus during its time.
In 1887, he moved on to work with the Gigantic Comedy Company. In 1895, McClain was hired by Nate Salsbury to produce a show called Black America. The show was performed outdoors in various cities including New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC. McClain later moved to Paris, France from 1906 to 1913. He played in London and Paris with Fred Karno’s comedy troupe.
By 1931, McClain had moved to Los Angeles, California and landed a job with the Pasadena police department as a physical trainer. In August 1931, he appeared on stage for the first time in 21 years in a benefit performance, playing the two leading roles from Uncle Tom: Uncle Tom himself, and the slave owner Simon Legree.
Films McClain appeared in included Nagana, the short Rhapsody in Black, in which he sang four “southern melodies,” and Dimples. McClain died in 1950 when the trailer he was sleeping in caught on fire.