When Larry Wilmore begins his act Saturday night at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, he’ll have a fan sitting at Table 130 cheering him on—someone who more than anyone else in the Washington Hilton ballroom knows what it’s like to have such a tough gig. That will be the man who had the gig 70 years ago, forever breaking the dinner’s color barrier—and, for good measure, desegregating a major Washington hotel.
At the 1946 dinner, he was billed as “Frankie Sugar Chile Robinson, the seven-year-old Negro piano-playing prodigy from Detroit.” He was known in his many performances and appearances in movies back in the 1940s for his enthusiastic and vigorous attacks on the keyboard. When he returns to the dinner this week as the guest of the Association and National Journal, he’ll be a 77-year-old retired man recovering from recent medical challenges but still reveling in the memories of that long-ago dinner.
He was the first African American to perform at the annual dinner. Wilmore, host of Comedy Central’s The Nightly Show, is the 18th. Between 1946 and 2016, entertainers have included Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Dizzy Gillespie, Aretha Franklin, Godfrey Cambridge, Mahalia Jackson, Count Basie, Sinbad, Ray Charles, Cedric the Entertainer, Wanda Sykes, Oscar Papa Celestin, the tap-dancing Step Brothers, drummer Samuel Baby Lovett, and blues singer Julia Lee.