Louis Douglas

The multitalented Louis Douglas toured Europe for thirty years as a dancer, actor, director, comedian, choreographer, singer, writer, and producer. He achieved the pinnacle of his genre- and continent-spanning career in Weimar Berlin, his home from 1926 until 1932.

by Deborah Pomeranz
The dancer Louis Douglas in Berlin, ca. 1932.
© University of New Hampshire | Photo: Lotte Jacobi

From Plate Juggler to Star

Louis Douglas was born on May 14th, 1889 in Philadelphia (Pennsylvania, USA). Although his mother pushed him towards an in her eyes more respectable career, a young Douglas followed in the footsteps of his entertainer father, juggling plates in local theaters. As a fourteen-year-old he was hired to join a group of African American singers for a European tour. He stayed in Europe after the group broke up, touring as a singer, dancer, and comedian, until the First World War began and he moved to London.

Louis Douglas and Marion Cook, 1927. From: Das Illustrierte Blatt 15, 1927, p. 410.
Stadtmuseum Berlin Collection | Photo: Baruch.
Douglas was, if anything, more successful in London, and became known as a local audience favorite. In 1919 he met the dancer Marion Cook, who had come to England from New York with the “Southern Syncopated Orchestra,” and the two married and had a daughter. Cook and Douglas began performing together, traveling between London, New York, Buenos Aires, and Paris.

In 1925, Douglas took on a particularly multifaceted job: to work as the male lead, choreographer, assistant director, organizer, and translator for a new revue set to open in Paris. His opposite onstage was none other than Josephine Baker, in the European debut that would propel her into stardom.

The Berlin Years

The revue was a runaway success, and Douglas and Cook, who was in the ensemble, accompanied it on tour. After shows in Berlin in 1926, they settled in the city, where Douglas quickly made the rounds of the theater scene. By the end of the year he had choreographed for the respected director Erik Charell, reported for culture magazines, given interviews, and staged his own revue in the Metropol Theater.

The Metropol Theater, Postcard, 1924-1929.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin

Douglas modeled this revue, which he titled “Black People”, on the show with Baker. Its cast was a who’s who of the most renowned Black actors and musicians in Europe at the time, including Sidney Bechet, Arabella Fields, and Louis Brody. The revue borrowed liberally from racist and exotifying theatrical tropes, presumably both as parody and in the interests of commercial success.

Douglas was in the cast of Charell’s revue “Von Mund zu Mund” [Word of Mouth]. Program, Berlin 1926.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin
theatrical tropes, presumably both as parody and in the interests of commercial success.
While “Black People” toured Europe and parts of North Africa, Douglas and Cook remained sought after dancers in Berlin, working with some of the biggest names in performance, including Claire Waldoff, Max Reinhardt, and a young Marlene Dietrich.

In 1929 Douglas wrote another Black revue, “Louisiana,” which premiered in Berlin with Cook as the lead. He once again organized an extensive tour for the show while keeping up with the nonstop obligations in Berlin, which now included film work.
After dancing in “Einbrecher” [Burglars] in 1930, he played one of the main characters in the 1931 antiwar film “Niemandsland” [No Man’s Land]. As a multilingual performer drafted into the trenches, his character makes otherwise unlikely relationships possible and illuminates the tragic hypocrisies of modern Europe.

Douglas always stayed up to date on African American cultural developments, especially in New York, where he had extensive professional and personal contacts. From Berlin, he participated in the lively exchange between Europe and the Harlem Renaissance, the Black American intellectual and cultural revival. Douglas embodied the movement’s self-confidence: he believed that Black culture was so powerful, and its immense value so obvious, that it could even overcome racism.
Louis Douglas im Film „Niemandsland“, Aushangfoto, 1931.
Sammlung Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek


In the face of the National Socialists’ growing power and increasing racist agitation, Douglas and Cook left Berlin in 1932 and settled in Paris. Though Douglas continued to work on revues, he never again attained the success of his Berlin years. Ever more Black performers were fleeing the continent, shattering his network of local collaborators. A 1937 Italian tour ended in disaster after Cook fell ill and couldn’t perform. Unable to pay the production costs of the cancelled shows, the family left Europe impoverished. Douglas would live in New York for just two years before passing away on May 19th, 1939, five days after his fiftieth birthday.