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The Life of “Tiny” Bunch

September 24, 2020

Venmo: @bobbyswungover

John Bunch dancing at the Savoy in 1935, a photograph by Aaron Siskind as part of his collection, “Harlem Document.” Colorized digitally and contributed by Renata Wlaczyga.

Part 1

Every now and then you get lucky in research. It all began with an advertisement for an All-Black revue called “Harlem Express” we found. At the bottom, in the biggest letters:

That Wilkes-Barre part is the lucky part — Wilkes-Barre is a small, mostly-White Pennsylvania coal city equally just as far away from Philadelphia as it is from New York. (Locals have T-shirts that joke about all the ways the town’s name is pronounced — Wilkes-BERRY, Wilkes-BEAR, Wilkes-BAR…) And it just so happens the Whitey’s Lindy Hopper known as “Tiny” Bunch grew up in this small community, and their local newspaper published many stories on the dancer and his family throughout their lives, even updating advertisements like the one above, when their hometown celebrity did something they knew about.

“Tiny’s” real name was John Wesley Bunch, Jr.  He was born September 24, 1910. And today is his 110th Birthday.

Despite having only a tiny Black population, Wilkes-Barre is where “Tiny” Bunch’s father, John Wesley Bunch, Sr., came during his own Great Migration from North Carolina. John, Sr.’s mother and a few of his siblings seem to have eventually joined him, and they lived a few doors down from each other, all on a small, short street named Davis Place. (Born in 1862 in North Carolina, John’s grandmother was possibly born an enslaved person.) One of those siblings, Walter, would become a well-known local musician. John, Sr. himself would become a popular and well-loved man in the community. A tipstaff at the courthouse, he was known locally for giving school kids in-depth tours of the courthouse, and for his humor at community mock trials.

When John, Jr. was around five years old, his parents received a “black hand” letter threatening to kidnap the young Bunch. Though it understandably made his parents very anxious, it was ultimately believed to be a hoax and nothing seemed to have come of it.

Young John attended the mostly-White Coughlin High School, where he seemed to surprise everyone by taking a big interest in both Tennis and Football. As the football article linked shows, there seemed to have been the impression that John’s playing football was a joke, and he rode the bench a good deal of the season. But once he was finally put in the game, he stopped the offense cold.

Here he is among his fellow sophomore class in 1927 at James M. Coughlin High.

tiny bunch HS

John Bunch in his 1927 High School year book.

But the city wasn’t completely integrated. For instance, John was able to grow his passion as an athlete at the Young Men’s Christian and Industrial Association club, a Black YMCA-like organization John’s father helped found in the city — because the town’s already existent YMCA did not allow Black members.

John (back, middle) among fellow Black tennis players at the Young Men’s Christian and Industrial Association club, a Black YMCA organization John’s father helped found in the city.

From his later dancing we can see John loved to perform, especially humorously, and unfortunately with the times being what they were, an available performance outlet for a young Black man in his situation was in minstrel shows. He was part of a hometown minstrel group in 1929 and received rave reviews for his dancing:

The_Wilkes_Barre_Record_Fri__Mar_22__1929_

Wilkes-Barre Record, March 27, 1929.

This troop appears to have been his own high school’s official minstrel troop, comprised of both White and Black students. Here is a picture of the troop from the year before (without Bunch in it).

Though it’s merely conjecture on our part, one important reason for John’s sense of humor might have been as a defense mechanism to the way society treats people of heavier-than-average weight. As the sports articles above show, people of bigger size than average are often seen as bafoonish, un-athletic, and jolly. John might have leaned into humorous performing as a way to both gain acceptance socially while simultaneously subverting and disarming society’s stigmas.

In 1932, John Bunch, Sr., unexpectedly passed away from complications during an appendicitis surgery, and his death seemed to be a real blow to the community, with his obituary garnering almost a full page in the local paper. The young John was only 22 when he lost his father.

Despite his youth, John was, sadly no stranger to death. When John was 13, his family lost his infant brother. Around that same time, his uncle James, a New Yorker, had also died from “a disease of complication,” in his grandmother’s house next door. Another local uncle, William, died from pneumonia after a time of ill health a few years later. Then, a year before his father’s death, his musician uncle Walter succumbed to the “disease of complication.” 

By the mid 30s, several articles mentioned John as attending Philadelphia’s Temple University and being a part of the football team. The university was known for being among the more diverse mostly-White colleges at that time. And in the summer of 1934, John was back in Wilkes-Barre, where his tennis matches were being reported by the local paper, once again surprising people with his athleticism. 

By April of the next year, however, he had moved to Harlem and was already performing as a Lindy Hopper touring with Jimmy Lunceford.

This did not likely happen simply over a few months. John had several aunts and uncles in New York, and as Harlem is only 130 miles away from Wilkes-Barre, he had probably often visited the mecca of Black American culture to visit his family. If that’s the case, it’s possible that on those visits he was entertaining the dance floor at the Savoy and caught the eye of Herbert White.

New York’s nickname-loving community is probably who ironically dubbed John “Tiny.” He was such an obvious headliner that Whitey gave him his own group to run early on, according to Frankie’s book.

John’s early life was an experience likely very different from his fellow Whitey’s dancers. As a 6’1″, young Black man of larger-than-average size, he had to navigate being very recognizable in a mostly-White community. He didn’t appear to have shied away from the attention, performing both on the stage and on the athletic field, and the White hometown reporters, or friends visiting New York, were excited to mention when he later appeared in movies or in stage shows. But of course it wasn’t all kind. He was even used as a community punchline, like when a reporter mentioned one race horse was so good he could win with Wesley Bunch as his jockey

At some point in the mid-1930s, he married. He returned home to Wilkes- Barre to MC dances and congratulate Black hometown high school graduates. But family tragedy struck again when his mother passed away at the age of 48 in May of 1936. In June, he and his wife Sarah apparently either bought or sold property in his hometown (in a time when everyone’s financial business was for some reason published in newspapers). It’s possible they were selling his family’s house, which had been deeded to him. Thus, Bunch had lost both his parents before he was 26. And his grandmother Alice, the Bunch matriarch, would pass away the next year.

During these hard times, his professional success as a performer, leading a dance troop, and appearing on stages across America and in films might have been a bright spot.  Here he is dancing up a storm at the Savoy in 1938. This photo was taken by Morgan and Marvin Smith — identical twins who specialized in capturing life in Harlem, and as a rule swore they never knew which one of them took a picture.

tiny bunch 2

John “Tiny” Bunch and unknown partner performing an air step at the Savoy Ballroom in 1938. Photograph by Morgan and Marvin Smith.

Many people have gotten the mistaken impression that “Tiny” Bunch was the solo dancer at the beginning of a Day at the Races. That dancer was Troy Brown, Sr., a Hollywood actor. Where you will find “Tiny” Bunch is in Radio City Revels and Manhattan Merry Go-‘Round. Here is his dancing in those films:

Please note: We most likely mistakenly named Tiny Bunch’s partner  in the video above. (There are three different “Dots” in the Whitey’ Lindy Hop world.) According to the appendages of Frankie’s book, thoroughly researched by Cynthia Millman, “Tiny’s” partner was Dorothy “Dot” Moses.

We haven’t found any info yet on what happened to John during the 1940s. His last dancing in film we know of was 1937’s Manhattan Merry-Go ‘Round. According to his 1940 draft card, he was living in Philadelphia with Sarah by that time, and did not list an occupation.

And in 1951, records show that John passed away at the age of 41, his life cut in half.

John “Tiny” Bunch’s story brings to light a few things the modern community should always keep in mind. First, if you look around at the modern scene, you might notice there’s not a wide variety of body types. John’s story should remind us all that this dance is open to all, and all should be actively welcomed to this dance. To help the scene live this experience, make it a point to ask people to dance whose body type might be leading people to ignore them when asking for dances. 

Second of all, “Tiny” Bunch’s life experiences should be a potent reminder to us of how careful we need to be when watching the old footage and the submerged messages of the dancing. “Tiny” Bunch had literally done comedic minstrel dancing before performing as a comedic Lindy Hopper. How did one relate to the other? If you were to replicate his dancing today, what parts would be problematic? What other pioneer’s dancing might have been affected by expectations of minstrelsy? It’s a vital part of being a responsible Lindy Hopper to try to answer those questions for yourself. 

It will require a good, long look at our pioneers’ dancing through the lenses of time, place, and background. On the plus side, you get to watch a lot of incredible dancing. 

flourish

We call this story “Part 1” because there’s almost always more to find out, new perspectives to see it through, and more of the web of history to explore.

HUGE THANKS to great researcher, and friend, Lewis Orchard for all of his help in researching John Bunch. Huge thanks as well to Shani Brown for her insight in preparing the article, and to Jessica Miltenberger for helping edit.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Bartosz permalink
    September 25, 2020 10:15 pm

    Thanks! Great read. Very much needed :)
    Always wanted to know more about Tiny! <3

Trackbacks

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