Remembering a Musical Sensation from Western Kansas
We're celebrating Black History Month by remembering a musical sensation from western Kansas. Lorenzo Fuller is not a household name today. But in his prime, this singer, performer and variety show host was a musical icon. Commentator Katie Keckeisen tells us the story of the man who, in many ways, outlived his fame.
(Fun Factoid: The singer, musician, composer and performer grew up in Stockton, Kansas. After graduating from the University of Kansas and the Julliard School of Music, Lorenzo Fuller hit the big time on Broadway and on television.)
Lorenzo Dow Fuller, Jr., was born in 1919 in Stockton, Kansas. His mother, Effie (Green) Fuller, was the child of Exodusters who had settled in Rooks County after the Civil War. His father, Lorenzo Dow Sr., was a local renaissance man who did everything from barbering to newspaper publishing. But where the Fuller family truly excelled was in music.
Lorenzo Sr. and his wife, Effie, toured the Midwest, Mexico, and Canada as the Fuller Concert Company. And when Lorenzo Jr. was old enough, he joined the family business.
By age 8, he had learned to play seven different instruments and was especially good at the harp. One profile of his father written in the 1960s said that his “happiest moments on stage came when he and his son Lorenzo Jr. played harp duets.”
When he was 15, Lorenzo Jr. became a music student at the University of Kansas. He received training in opera and performed the title role in KU’s production of “Emperor Jones” which won him the annual actor’s award. He performed regularly on KFKU radio and was the first African American to sing with the KU Symphony.
After graduating with a master's degree from KU, Fuller was awarded a fellowship at the Julliard School of Music in New York City. While there, he became the first African American to be awarded one of the school’s honor diplomas.
His musical abilities soon made him an in-demand performer, composer, and coach in New York. He was in the original Broadway casts of “Finian’s Rainbow” and Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me Kate”, where every night he brought down the house with his number “It’s Too Darn Hot”.
In 1947, almost a decade before The Nat King Cole Show, Fuller became the first African American to have his own network TV show when he began hosting NBC’s Musical Miniatures. He continued to work for NBC for the next five years, serving as musical director and writer on Young Broadway and the Jerry Lester Show.
In 1950, Fuller once again broke barriers when he co-starred on a popular children's TV show on WPIX in New York. Fuller was one half of the show Van and the Genie, alongside Rosamond Vance Kaufman. It was the first time a black man and a white woman were billed equally.
At the height of his career, with stage roles, coaching jobs, and television programs, Our World magazine dubbed this man from western Kansas “the busiest man on Broadway.”
Later in life, Fuller chose to live rather anonymously.
He would still take on the occasional performance coaching job and regularly played the piano at retirement homes in New York City. In 2003, his hometown of Stockton, Kansas, honored the star with a day of tribute.
His career is amazing not just for the number of groundbreaking achievements, but also for its lack of the stereotypical and highly exaggerated roles that were typically available to black men at that time.
Fuller died in New York City in 2011, at the age of 91.
Commentator Katie Keckeisen is a collections archivist for the Kansas Historical Society. She lives in Topeka.
Editor's note: The photograph depicted on this webpage is used by permission and is for sale by the owner: HistoryforSale.com