Showman/ Producer/ Vaudeville Artist
Dapper and sophisticated with big, shining eyes, Leon Dunkins Claxton Sr., cut his showman’s teeth with circus magnates the Ringling Bros, the king of the carnival Carl J. Sedlmayr Sr and the father of the blues, W.C. Handy, to name a few, spinning his tutelage into gold on-stage and in the Tampa civic society before his death in 1967.
Born in April 1902 to Overton (O.C.) and Maggie Claxton, members of a renowned vaudeville family in Memphis, TN, Leon’s father was the talented blues drummer who brought W.C. Handy to Memphis to start a band on Beale Street. By the third grade, young Leon wanted to see things for himself and ran off to join Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus as a water boy for the elephants. By age of 16, he was a feature contortions act on Ringling Bros.
As the Twenty’s roared, Leon was making a name for himself as a renowned Chicago vaudevillian, producing ‘colored’ productions including the famed Cotton Club Showboat, which Claxton produced for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1934. His reputation was untouchable in the production of quality shows that presented brown-skinned entertainers to a nation divided by segregation. Claxton premiered his first sepia revue on Royal American Shows’ in 1935. The first venture of its kind, Claxton's revue rose to become the leading outdoor attraction in North America for nearly four consecutive decades.
Claxton married his leading soubrette, Gwendolyn Bates, in Saskatoon Canada in 1938. Leon and Gwen Claxton built the Claxton Manor Motel in 1965 and catered to top African American celebrities, top athletes and big name politicos of the time. One of Tampa's first black millionaires and the first African-American to find great success and infamy in the outdoor entertainment industry, Claxton reached the apex of his career with the triumph of HARLEM IN HAVANA and went onto enjoy a good deal of wealth and social distinction in spite of the immeasurable odds against which he contended as an uneducated, self-made, black entrepreneur.
Claxton was a distinguished noble member of Harram Temple 23 in Tampa. A great philanthropist and a pillar in the Tampa business community, Claxton founded the Tampa Big Buddy Club, and won Tampa Citizen of the Year in 1959. Claxton was an avid fundraiser for needy children’s organizations, Showman’s Leagues and a variety of other local charities.
Through the Harlem in Havana Project, his life and entertainment legacy will not be forgotten.