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Much space has been given to the old timers of minstrelsy, but were it not for the younger generation and the new blood from time to time injected into it, minstrelsy would have perished long ago. Many clever ideas and innovations were brought into it by the young and ambitious element. This began almost as soon as the older performers retired or passed away. The old timers in minstrelsy were a “close corporation” and did not welcome the young aspirant with much warmth. On the contrary, they frowned upon all innovations and were contented to stand pat.
Minstrelsy was not quite twenty years old when the Civil War began, and had been inaugurated by men in middle life. These, of course, could not hold out against time or innovations. Young singers, musicians, dancers, and comedians were knocking at the doors for admission and, as troupes were being enlarged, their services were welcome and timely. The banjo playing of the old-timer was something that would not be tolerated at present. It was banging and twanging and plunketty plunk, used probably for plantation songs of a hilarious or noisy order. The banjos were almost devoid of the fine tone of later years.
The first of the fine banjos were made by the Dobson Bros., who were also expert players. There was Charley, George and Frank, who were also teachers of that instrument. Charley played the banjo in the orchestra of Wallack’s Theatre, Thirteenth Street, corner of Broadway, early in the Civil War days, in an overture depicting camp life in our army. Jimmy Clark made some fine banjos, so did a Mr. Farnham, of Troy, N.Y. Frank B. Converse, an excellent banjoist, turned out some fine instruments also. From the rattling banjo playing, descriptive of a “coal cart and an express wagon racing,” came the more artistic playing of marches, waltzes and difficult selections. An idea may be gained of the banjo solo of early times when Billy Arlington used to take a common broom and use it as a banjo for his solo turn. He it was who first introduced feathers or rope for whiskers; deep-seated pantaloons, small hats, and boys’ jackets and vests. He was a clever all around comedian.
I have Sam Devere’s banjos, including the fine presentation instrument once the property of Horace Weston, the colored banjoist.Harry Stanwood performed difficult music on his banjo, and so did Billy Carter and Jim Roome. One of the greatest of players was George Powers of the firm of Johnson and Powers; but E. M. Hall, in his time, was the greatest of them all. Edwin French was a close second. Then there was Lew Brimmer who played the “Chimes” on his banjo and a march, called “The Seventh Regiment Coming Down Broadway.” There were also “Pickayune” Butler, Billy West, Andy Collum, Sam Sharpley, Frank Moran, Dick Little and others of the early sixties.
Hi Rumsey performed upon his banjo while standing up, and was called “The Lion Banjoist.” Dick Sweeney and Joe Sweeney were the earliest banjo players in minstrelsy. Among the very earliest comedians can be named the Original Four Virginia Minstrels, Frank Brower, Dan Emmett, R. W. Pelham, and Billy Whitlock. Then the Power Brothers, John and James; Earl Pierce, Matt Peel, George Christy, Ben Mallory, Jerry Bryant, Moody Stanwood, W. White, Frank Pell, Frank Germon, W. Harrington and S. C. Howard. Some of these were with Major Dumbolton’s “Ethiopian Serenaders,” who went to England in 1844.
Then came old Bob Sheppard, Eph Horn, Jim Sanford, Bill Laconta, George Kunkel, Mick Campbell, Billy Birch, Johnny Pell, Frank Moran, Sam Sanford, Swayne Buckley, George Christy, E. P. Christy, Lansing Durand, W. Porter, William B. Donaldson, Tom Briggs, Sam Wells, Edwin Deaves, Pop Jones, Billy Lom, and Charley Morris, Neil Bryant, Charley Reynolds, John Carle, J. G. H. Shorey, Pony Moore, Charley Backus, Joe Murphy, Ben Cotton, E. F. Dixey, Harry Lehr, Johnny Duly, Cool White and a few others that brings this list to the middle fifties. Then we have Tony Hernandez, John Mulligan, Max Irwin, J. H. Budworth, and W. S. Budworth, George Thatcher, W. W. Newcomb, Nick Bowers, G. W. H. Griffin, Marshall S. Pike, Master Floyd, and Ned Davis. Among the very earliest vocalists were: Nelson Kneass, Jack Herman, Max Zorer, Tom Christian, T. B. Prendergast, Ambrose Thayer, Warren White, John R. Hector, S. P. Ball, J. Lynch, William P. Collins, J. H. Rainer, and J. W. Raynor, J. P. Trowbridge, Doctor Ordway, Edwin Kelly, Sig. Gustave Bideaux, Sig. R. Abecco, Chas. F. Shattuck, J. R. Thomas, J. A. Basquin, Charles Henry, Charles Campbell (Templeton) and James Carroll.
On some early bills of the Buckleys will be seen the name of S. Samuels. This comedian was known later as S. S. Sanford, he having attached the name of Sanford to it. He was a very capable man, and was the manager of S. S. Sanford’s Minstrels in the old Eleventh Street Opera House from 1855 to 1862. Just a few years before the Civil War we find the names of the following singers on the bills: Sher Campbell, J. L. Carncross, Dave Wambold, Edwin Holmes, Jules Stratton, M. Ainsley Scott, Jack Hilton, George Washington Dixon, Rollin Howard, etc.
At one time the early minstrels affected beards or chin whiskers. These were worn by Frank Brower, S. S. Sanford, Sam Sharpley, Charles Henry, Cool White, Dave Wambold, R. M. Hooley, E. P. Christy, Johnny Booker, William H. Bernard, Sam Wells, Sam Gardner, Hank White and a few others. Then the style changed to the long thick mustaches that dropped down below the jaws. Billy Morris was the first to thus appear. Then came Cool Burgess, Nick Bowers, Charles H. Duprez, Edwin Holmes, G. W. H. Griffin, Frank Cilly, C. C. Templeton, William P. Spaulding, Mocking Bird Green, Ike Withers, Edwin Kelly, Hugh Hamill and E. M. Kayne. Charley Reynolds had a long strip on his chin, and he could make it wiggle to and fro. Archie Hughes also had a chin piece. Cool Burgess and a few others later tried side whiskers. Even Hughey Dougherty returned from South Africa with reddish side whiskers, but the boys “guyed” him until he had them removed.
An act that was quite popular for many years was “Old Bob Ridley,” and the representative of the aged colored individual. He needed a crooked cane and a red bandana handkerchief to mop the perspiration from the top of his bald head. Among the earliest was Eph Horn, in the “Power of Music;” then Ben Cotton, as Old Uncle Snow; J. P. Trowbridge, as the old Sexton. John Mulligan, Lon Morris and Bob Hart were fine old darkies. Then “Old Black Joe” found a representative in Marsh Adams, Billy Sweatnam, Sam Devere, Johnny Ray, Harry Bloodgood, Milt Barlow, Frank Cushman, Old Charley Howard, Harry Woodson, Lew Baker, George Thatcher, Golden and Hughes, Ralph Wray and Walter Bray.
The opening chorus of the troupes were: “Down the River, Down the Ohio,” “Joy, Joy, Freedom To-day,” “Dinah’s Wedding,” etc. The Buckleys introduced “Operatic Choruses” from the different operas. The Buckleys built the Opera House at 585 Broadway, but it did not long remain in their possession. White faces and female vocalists did not suit the minstrel patrons, and they vacated the place. At one era all the titles and songs in minstrelsy were of girls and sweethearts. They were praised an loved in the first verse, but then all died in the second verse. I dare say they could not stand the excessive praise and love-making. You will find this to be the theme in the following songs: “Nellie Was a Lady,” “Carrie Lee,” “Rosa Lee,” “Kitty Wells,” “Hazel Dell,” “Belle Brandon,” “Ellen Bayne,” “Nettie Moore,” “Kitty Clyde,” “Rosalie, the Prairie Flower,” “Gentle Annie,” “Lottie Lee,’’ ‘‘Sadie Ray,’’ ‘‘Jenny With the Light Brown Hair,” and a dozen others in the same strain. In recent years the authors picked all the mountains and rivers as subjects for songs. During the Civil War the songs were of the battlefield, home and mother, or dying for the flag. “When This Cruel War is Over,” “Marching Through Georgia” have outlived those stirring days. “Dixie,” the product of minstrelsy, lives as one of our national songs, and belongs to the entire country.
It would be impossible to mention the names of all the new talent coming into minstrelsy between 1860 and 1870. Many of the troupes were short lived, and many good amateur companies finally drifted into it and became part and parcel of the regular organized troupes. Very often troupes changed titles and re-appeared under other names, with a different “angel,” but always with the same membership. “Whitmore & Clark’s Minstrels” were very popular for years in the Eastern States. It was with this company that the first triple clog dance was introduced by Stiles, Phelps and Johnny Armstrong. Years afterwards Primrose, Goodyear and Whiting introduced a triple clog dance, also.
Late in the sixties and early in the seventies, I find Jerry Cohan (father of our George) with the Morris Bros. Minstrels and La Rue’s Carnival Minstrels. He is flourishing as an “end man” and doing the “Dublin Dancing Master” in the olio, or second part. Joe Norrie’s name appears on bills of Sam Sharpley’s Minstrels, also Frank Campbell. These names are mentioned to show the leaven working its way forward, and adding new vim and strength to minstrelsy. Such artists as M. Ainsley Scott, Gustave Bideaux, J. Brandisi, Edwin Kelly and Gonsalvo Bishop had become known in the late fifties.
Once in a while some little oddity appeared, such as “Japanese Tommy” or “Little Mac,” and added to the attraction. George Christy had been very clever and introduced some clever things on the minstrel stage, such as “Granny and Her Son.” The son was a stuffed figure in front of him. He was very popular as “Lucy Long,” and was the first to present the bloomer girl. This was a freakish sort of a Doctor Mary Walker dress, and created a sensation when worn by a Mrs. Bloomer. The wits seized upon it for ridiculous pictures and verses, and Christy impersonated the “Advanced” woman of that day, which we now call “Suffragette.” Cool White, Eph Horn and W. W. Newcomb delivered speeches, called “Woman’s Rights.”
The minstrel boys were among those pioneers, the men of ‘49 and spring of ‘50, who swarmed to the California gold mines. They went around the horn or across the Isthmus of Panama. All the well known names of the popular minstrels of the Eastern States are to be found upon the early programs of the San Francisco halls or hastily built theatres, such as the “Jenny Lind,” managed by Tom Maguire, the pioneer manager of the Pacific Coast, and the “Forest Theatre.” The name of Birch, Backus, Joe Murphy, William White (Bernard), Sam Wells, Charles Henry, Sher Campbell, Edwin Deaves, Charles Shattuck, Neil Bryant, George H. Coes, Frank Moran and a host of others who flocked to the new Eldorado.
In 1854 E. P. Christy took his entire company to the Coast. Early in the Civil War days “Lotta,” appeared with the minstrels. Her banjo playing, dancing, mimicking and grotesque humor were acquired from the minstrels, of course. She was a grand drawing card in the East in later years. Young talent went into the ranks of the California troupes. The names of Johnny De Angelis (father of Jeff) appears, also Fred Sprung, Johnny Mack, Tommy Bree, Tim Darling, William H. Barker, Tom Raleigh, Frank Hussey. The minstrel troupes would not he complete without alluding to Billy Emerson, who located there for many seasons in the eighties. From ‘Frisco came that talented comedian and stage producer, George Marion, who was an end man with Lew Dockstader’s Minstrels. Great names like Unsworth and Eugene now appear, also Master Adams, Tommy Gettings, T. J. Peel, George Charles, Charley Gardner, “Hop Lite Lou,” A. J. Talbott, George Gray, George Guy Sr., Louis Nevers, William P. Collins, and M. B. Leavitt, who is now a theatrical magnate, but was a clever minstrel comedian in the early sixties. Leavitt was the first to organize a female minstrel troupe, and called it “Madam Rentz’s Female Minstrels.” From this sprang all the burlesque shows in which females predominated.
The San Francisco Minstrels, headed by Birch, Wambold, Bernard and Backus, located at 585 Broadway in April, 1865, and became great favorites and successful in that once “Jonah” house. They removed uptown in the early ‘70s, and after awhile moved again to Twenty-ninth Street, corner of Broadway, from the place on Twenty-eighth Street, called St. James Hall (same block of the Gilsey estate). Here Beaumont Reed, Carl Rudolph, H. W. Frillman, William Dwyer and young singers, dancers and comedians began to bud and blossom into popularity.
Francis Wilson and his partner, Mackin, performed in songs and dances for a few seasons. “Ricardo” gained popularity here, so did Johnson and Powers, Bobby Newcomb, Add Ryman, Bob Hart, Joe Norrie and a host of others.
In 1866 Ben Cotton’s Minstrels had succeeded Cotton & Murphy’s Minstrels. They presented Jake Budd, Frank Campbell, C. H. Atkinson and Joe Norrie. Jake Tannenbaum was the musical director. Mr. Tannenbaum is now a celebrated theatrical manager down South, especially well known in Mobile, Ala.
Early in the Civil War, General Ben Butler coined a new word for the minstrels, which proved both funny and of interest. To all the Negro refugees who were flocking to Fortress Monroe, having escaped from their masters, he applied the term, “Contrabands of War.’’ The papers took up the phrase, and in fact everybody talked about it, and the word “Contraband” crept into our conversation. The minstrels were quick to attach the word to songs, nigger acts and speeches. “The Happy Contraband,” “Contraband From Dixie,” “Contraband’s Lament,” “Contraband Children,” “Contraband’s Adventures” and “Contraband Brothers” appeared on all programs, and furnished subjects for all kinds of songs and dances.
Another phrase used even at the present time relates to the same era. The term, “Hamfatter.” This was taken from a popular song called “The Ham Fat Man.” This is the chorus:
Almost any new applicant when asked, “What do you sing and dance?” would reply, “I can do the Ham Fat Man.” And hence was called a “Ham Fatter.” “The Contraband’s Adventures” related how a band of “abolitionists” took a colored brother to make him the equal of the white man. How they washed him, scraped him and nearly skinned him, to make him white, but failed. The concluding lines of the chorus tell the sad tale of the attempt:
It need hardly be said that this was greeted by yells from democratic listeners in those troubled times.
The expression “In the Soup” is taken from the minstrels, and is of vintage of 1860, possibly earlier. When the minstrel comedian flung his battered hat, torn umbrella, or old carpet bag into the entrances he would say, “Put them in the soup.” If one comedian would say to the other one, “Where’s my hat?” the reply would be “In the soup.”
Another incident much used in farce comedies was the individual thrown through a window and returning all “torn up,” clothing in rags, his face streaked with red paint and chalk, and, in fact, mangled almost to death. It is not a clever new idea of the farce comedy writer. It was used before the Civil War in “Skylight Adventures” and also in “Beasley’s Dog,” as any old timer will tell you.
In presenting a partial list of some of the minstrel troupes, with the names of members, a history of minstrelsy is not contemplated. It would consume too much space, and this article is intended to present the new faces and names of the younger element coming into the field. In the list of the companies, new names appear in addition to the older professionals, but it will be noticed they are gradually forcing the older ones aside. Here and there familiar names continue to appear for a few years, then the younger element are much in evidence. By glancing over a collection of old minstrel bills this will be clearly shown. For instance, when the San Francisco Minstrels opened No. 585 Broadway in April, 1865, they introduced several names new to the theatregoers of New York. Cooper and Fields were young clog dancers, Ira Paine was a new singer, who later in life became the champion rifle shot of America. William Henry Rice had left Cotton & Murphy’s Minstrels to join this new company. William Henry Rice had formerly been known as William H. Lewis. He was a grand burlesque actor, and became very popular with the “Friscoes.”
Whitmore & Clark’s Minstrels had the following young talent in 1866: Andy Wyatt, Johnny Armstrong, Thomas Maynard, Hank White, G. M. Clark, Boyle Brothers, J. B. Porter, etc., etc.
The minstrel world was stirred up considerably when a powerful confederation was formed by John Dingess, and called Burgess, Hughes, Prendergast & Donniker’s Minstrels. This was the longest title yet assumed by any troupe, although in the early ‘50s a troupe with a long title had toured for a short time. It was called “Shorey, Carle, Duprez & Green’s Minstrels.” It was shortly condensed to Shorey, Duprez & Green. Then Duprez & Green, and finally Duprez & Benedict. But “Burgess, Hughes, Prendergast & Donniker” (or later La Rue) was the longest titled troupe ever announced on modern billboards or walls.
They had in their company Paul Berger, O. P. Sweet, Frank Bowles, Dion De Marbelle, Henry French, C. S. Fredericks, A. C. Stone, J. Saxton, Dave Thompson and an orchestra, presided over by John Donniker. This musician was an excellent “solo violinist,” and performed also upon a peculiar instrument called the “melophone.” Very few performers ever mastered this instrument. Fred and Swayne Buckley were fine players on it, so was William H. Smith. Ned Catlin possessed one of them and I have another. These are probably the only ones in existence at the present time. Of the above confederation, Donniker dropped out, and D. C. La Rue’s name appears in his place as the proprietor. The names change until it becomes “Burgess & La Rue’s Minstrels,” then finally, “La Rue’s Carnival Minstrels,” and the name of H. W. Eagan appears on the bills, also Brandisi, Fredericks, Charles Church, S. S. Purdy, “Utica Boys,” Kanane and West, Ned Kneeland, etc.
In 1868 another stir was created by the organizing of Emerson, Allen & Manning’s Minstrels. They had in their company a great many “lured or borrowed” from La Rue’s Minstrels. They had Dr. Hanmer, C. S. Fredericks, E. S. Rosenthal, Charles Wheaton, Kelly and Holly, Master Eddie, Frank Bowles, C. A. Boyd, leader, and Willie Guy, and later Stevie Rogers. They opened at Tony Pastor’s Opera House, No. 201 Bowery, June 30, 1868. They remained but two weeks.
At one time Sandy Spencer was one of the best known men in New York City. He kept a saloon near the Theatre Comique, 514 Broadway---in a basement. This place was always crowded with theatrical people. Sandy ran afoul of the Sunday excise law and a Judge sent him to the county jail for one month. A minstrel wit who heard of it penned the following lines and fastened it to Sandy’s door: “Thirty days hath September, April, June and Sandy Spencer.”
In the old days, a gambler by the name of Dupree Dodge was well known to the circus, minstrel and theatrical fraternity. He was what might be called an old river “skin” gambler, depending upon marked cards for a sure thing. These cards were marked in a peculiar manner among the ornamental scrolls of the backs of the pasteboards. In the hands of a confederate or a victim Old Dodge could always tell what the person held in his “hand.” It seems that Dodge retired and opened an oyster saloon. Charley Backus called to see how the ex-gambler was getting along. He found Dodge in a small store, behind a counter, with just one bushel of oysters dumped upon it. Then entered a customer who called for a half dozen of Shrewsbury oysters. Dodge took and opened the oysters from the only pile on the counter. Another customer came in and called for Blue Points. Dodge took them from the same pile of oysters. Another entered and asked for Saddle Rocks, the old gambler took them from the same lot. Charley Backus could not stand it any longer, but blurted out. “Gee, old man! You can still tell them by the backs, can’t you?”
The march of the theatres and the places of amusement uptown in New York City was led by the minstrels. They were the first to “move up.” In 1866, George Christy opened his New Opera House on Twenty-fourth Street, near Broadway, rear of Fifth Avenue Hotel, as it then stood. George Christy advertised on all his bills: “The Only Place of Amusement Above Fourteenth Street,” and so it was. July 20, 1867, Horace Chase opened a Minstrel Opera House on the Southwest corner of Thirty-fourth Street and Eighth Avenue. He fitted up the second floor of the storage house with a stage and some scenery. It was a flat floor and had no gallery. The performances were given by “Chase’s Minstrels,” consisting of: Hughey Dougherty, S. S. Purdy, C. C. Templeton, George H. Coes, J. W. Hilton, Charley Church, Dave Reed, J. W. Clark, Charley Fox, John Sivori, W. L. Hobbs, Hi Melville, etc. They did not last three months.
George Christy’s Twenty-fourth Street Opera House was later called “The Madison Square Theatre.” In front of this place a shooting scrape took place after a matinee performance, in which Kelly, Leon and Sam Sharpley were implicated. Sam Sharpley’s brother Tom was killed and Kelly wounded. He was tried and acquitted. The row began over the engagement of Delehanty and Hengler by these rival minstrel managers. These dancers were popular, and much sought after. Sam Sharpley accused Kelly and Leon of enticing them from a contract engagement, and hence the ill feeling and shooting affair. Both troupes suffered by the unpleasant notoriety and hastened their closing in this city.
Jerry Cohan (father of “our George”) was in minstrelsy in 1867-68. He was an end man and comedian with the Morris Brothers Minstrels, of Boston. He introduced Irish dialect in his jokes and songs. He portrayed “The Dancing Professor,” “The Irish Dancing Master” and “Paddy Miles’ Boy.” He wrote many comic and sentimental songs. He was for a season with La Rue’s Carnival Minstrels. He was always ambitious and adding novel items to his line of business. He was for a time with Howarth’s Panorama of Ireland, as Barney, the guide. Then he drifted back into minstrelsy and later to the vaudevilles of that day. The night of Jerry’s wedding, in Providence, R. I., Dumont invited Jerry and his bride to witness the show. Not knowing the pair were united in marriage, the boys on the stage guyed them as they would a love stricken pair from the country.
Billy Emerson was the first man to ever present the “Hebrew” on the stage in dialect. He did it in an act called “The Old Clothes Dealer,” wherein he tried to sell a coat that did not fit, etc. This act is on the bill of the above troupe June 30, 1868. Dave Wambold was the very first black face Dutchman ever seen on the minstrel stage. He did this act with the Bryants in 185859. Johnny Allen withdrew from the Emerson, Allen & Manning Company. It was then called Emerson & Manning, and about 1872-73, Manning’s Minstrels.
Newcomb’s Minstrels for 1868 had “Chang” the Chinese Giant, Carroll (Jim) Johnson, Dave Wilson, Harry Robinson, C. C. Palmer, Myron Calice, J. T. Gulick, Charles Hudson, J. R. Dudley, C. W. Millard, N. D. Roberts, manager. In 1869, Morris Bros. Minstrels announced that during the “Peace Jubilee” they will perform in two different theatres at the same time (in Boston). This is in their New Opera House, opposite the Coliseum, and their old place opposite the old South Church.
Some of the clever clog and song and dance teams were: Hogan and Hughes, Fox and Ward, Cooper and Fields, Kanane and West, Carroll and Childs, Pankhurst and Collins, Henri Stuart, Johnson and Pendy, Cogill and Cooper, Jake and Willie Budd, the Guy Bros., Harris and Carroll, McKee and Rogers, Quilter and Goldrick, Utica Boys, Empire Boys, Buffalo Boys, Kerns and Thompson, and the great Delehanty and Hengler, Bobby Newcomb and Billy Emerson. Fred Wilson had introduced the clog dance on the minstrel stage several years before the Civil War. Then came Dick Sands, Tim Hayes, Mort Williams, and several very clever wooden shoe dancers as they called it then. Some later announced it as a “See-Ell-Oh-Gee” dance. Luke Schoolcraft’s first venture was in Dutch songs and dances until several hits as a “blackface” performer landed him in the minstrel ranks. There were several “Young Americans” in the early days. Hughey Dougherty was the most famous, and has outlived them all. At the present writing Hughey resides in Philadelphia, resting upon his laurels.
In 1870, Duprez & Benedict’s Minstrels went to San Francisco, being the first organized troupe to go over the Pacific Railroad, then just completed for through traffic. They were the first to present “four end men,” Benedict, Dougherty, Gleason and Reynolds. With this troupe were: Warren Richards, D. S. Vernon, Fred B. Naylor, Frank Dumont, Fox and Ward, Gonsalvo Bishop, and a full brass band and orchestra. Duprez was the first manager to introduce a brass band in conjunction with the minstrel troupe, and made a street parade. Other managers ridiculed this innovation, but they soon fell in and did likewise. Haverly was not the first to parade “Forty, Count Them, Forty.” Duprez paraded about “sixty” persons, mostly musicians, when Duprez & Benedict’s Minstrels performed in the Chestnut Street Theatre, Philadelphia, in the early seventies. He was the first to have the semblance of a uniform for a street parade. It was a dark broadcloth cape lined with red, the ends turned back. This with black pants and silk hats at least gave the parade a neat effect for those early times and attracted attention.
And while on the subject of correction, let me say that “Fox and Ward” are absolutely the oldest “Blackface” team on the American stage and are still in harness. Again, “Dixie” was not sung on the stage of Bryant’s Minstrels for the first time as chronicled; neither did Old Dan Emmett write it especially for the Bryants. Emmett sang “Dixie” some years previous down South and never denied it. Al G. Field is my informant and he positively knows.
Dumont was the first to sing “Silver Threads Among the Gold,” for whom it was written by H. P. Danks. He also first introduced “When You and I Were Young, Maggie” as the Duprez & Benedict’s Minstrels programs, dated, will show and the still living members of that celebrated troupe remember well.
While Duprez & Benedict’s Company was en route to the Coast, the troupe was reported to be attacked by the Indians, some killed and scalped and a few wounded. This was rumored to have happened near Elko, Nevada. I sent the report to The N. Y. Herald, which published it, creating a great sensation, until it could be “contradicted.” Meanwhile, Charley Reynold’s brother- in-law journeyed from Lowell, Mass., to Salt Lake City, Utah, to get his body and bring it East. Charley loved the red wine; and when brother-in-law came, he was paralyzed. The joke was that Charley had to pay his brother-in-law’s fare back East, as he had arrived in Salt Lake broke. Charley hunted for the author of the hoax and had he discovered the culprit there would have been blood on the face of the moon. Of course I remained under cover, Dougherty being the only one who knew about it but he kept the secret until the storm blew over.
A few of the superstitions handed down from the old days still survive, although we do not generally admit it. For instance, no one wished to occupy room 13. In many hotels or dressing rooms the number is omitted. It was very unlucky to open an umbrella in a theatre. It was considered unlucky to walk under a ladder. I have seen an entire troupe, band and all, while parading on the sidewalk, suddenly come to a ladder. The entire troupe would circle out into the muddy street around the ladder and onto the sidewalk again. If you bragged of your health or any anticipated pleasure, you had to “knock wood.” The most dreaded person was a “Jonah”; old timers firmly believed in them. Woe to the musician who joined the show and displayed a yellow clarinet. Bad business would overtake the show and the “Jonah” had to be gotten rid of. A crosseyed man, a peculiar hat or an ancient carpet bag was a “Jonah.” Some poor devils had the reputation of being one and were always blamed for poor business and accordingly had to be dismissed. If you saw a wagon loaded with barrels, it was a good sign. You would have a good house that night. It was seven years bad luck to break a looking-glass in the old time “Opry House.”
A minstrel company in hard luck (with a “Jonah” somewhere) came to a town to remain “one night only.” Just as the doors opened for the night show, a most violent storm of wind and rain broke loose. The rain fell in a deluge. The minstrels all made up, peered through a hole in the curtain and saw one lonesome man in the parquet. The manager stepped before the curtain to address this man. He said: “My dear sir, you have ventured out in this terrific storm and you deserve to see a good show. We will not cut the program, but play it as if a thousand persons had assembled to see it.”
“All right,” said the lone man. “Hurry it up, for I’m the janitor and want to lock up and go home.”
November 16, 1884, Thatcher, Primrose & West had: McNish, Banks Winter, Chauncey Olcott, Frank Howard (author of many popular songs), Billy Rice, Harry M. Morse, Harry Talbert, John Daly, Willie Girard, Burt Sherrard, Will Raymond, Charles Noble (basso), George Edwards, Sam Weston, T. Ward, George Turner, W. Wood, J. P. O’Keefe, with Charles F. Warner as musical director. Almost the same time Haverly’s Mastodons announced: Carroll Johnson, Hughey Dougherty, Joe Garland, J. W. Meyers, Billy Richardson, Bobby Newcomb, Walter Hawkins, George Powers, Paul Vernon, the Three Gorman Brothers, Harry J. Armstrong, Dan Thompson, John S. Robinson, Seamon and Girard, W. H. Bishop and Charley Young.
McNish, Johnson & Slavin’s Minstrels created quite a stir in the minstrel world when they launched their enterprise in 1885. They had some startling novelties with their show and jumped into instantaneous popularity and success. They had then the youngest manager in minstrelsy, W. S. Cleveland. It was his first opportunity in that capacity and he stirred up everything and everybody. Cleveland is now the head of a vaudeville agency and the producer of high class acts. After the above venture he piloted the Cleveland & Haverly Minstrels and then his own company. He imported the Cragg Family of acrobats and they created a big sensation. He had a company of minstrel stars, the names of which are to be found in the Haverly or Emerson Companies. To return to the McNish, Johnson & Slavin troupe, here are the names of that confederation: Billy McAllister, George W. Powers, Bob Slavin, Frank E. McNish, Carroll Johnson, Frank Howard, Harry M. Morse, John Davis, W. W. Black, Raymond Shaw, George Hassell, Martin Hogan, Ernest Sinclair, William F. Holmes, Joseph Garland, Fox Samuels, Marcus Doyle, Willie Pickert, John Daly, Johnny Keegan, William Henry Rice, Henry Carmody, Larry McEvoy, Harry Long, John and Bob Morrissey, Mike Talbott, Dan Quinlan, master of transportation. Frank Bowles led the band and William Skuse was musical director; John Cressville, solo cornet. In the olio they had Nelsonia, a fine juggler; Fox and Van Auken, horizontal bar performers; the Selbini Family (five in number). They also had Charley Mitchel, the English Champion, and William Muldoon, Champion Wrestler of the World, in classic statue representation. Mr. Muldoon is the proprietor of a sanitarium in White Plains, N.Y. Charley Mitchell is in England. McNish is still popular in vaudeville, and Carroll Johnson now and then appears as a director or for his own amusement and is still sought after.
Frank Howard, one of the most popular composers and singers, was a feature with the minstrel troupes who were fortunate enough to secure his services. “When the Robins Nest Again,” “Only a Pansy Blossom,” “Sweet Alpine Roses,” “I’ll Await, My Love” were his best known ballads. He died at the home of his childhood, Greeley, Ia., December 4, 1914. Like many another he broke into the minstrel business with Happy Cal Wagner and then sang with the best troupes in the burnt cork line, including Barlow, Wilson, Primrose & West, McNish, Johnson & Slavin, and Cleveland’s Minstrels, writing new songs at frequent intervals. In ten years, from 1880 to 1890, his compositions netted him over $250,000. Then he married and settled down on a stock farm; but misfortune followed all his operations, lightning struck his stock barn in Dakota and killed sixty head of fine horses, and fourteen head of registered Jersey cattle, and he quit country life, and for a number of years managed a theatre at Jacksonville, Ill. Later he toured with several dramatic companies, singing his favorite ballads with much of his former skill and sweetness between the acts as a feature.
In 1884 the Standard Minstrels, in San Francisco, Cal., had: Carroll Johnson, Al. Holland, Franz Wetter, Charley Reed, W. J. Morant, Harry Wyatt, William Henry Rice, John Robinson, Tommy Bree, Hooley Thompson, Keegan and Wilson.
C. W. Vreeland’s Minstrels announced: George Hassall, soprano; Bassett and Cole, Arthur Deming, Harry Long, Hugh Franey, Billy Fries, Kennedy and Vonder, and George Dunbar.
Gorton’s New Orleans Minstrels (1906) had Jake Welby, Sam Lee, Arthur Fulton, Fred Long, A. D. Roland, Welby and Pearl, C. T. Bell and R. J. Howland.
Careful research gives the first song and dance as “Jump Jim Crow” as sung by Daddy Rice. He sang verses and danced a few grotesque steps between them. Of course this would come under the heading of Negro dancing. Master Diamond and Juba, the colored boy, also danced but their efforts were in the form of jigs. Later these jigs were danced under the titles of “Champion Jig,” “Rattlesnake Jig,” “Smoke House Jig,” “Grape Vine Twist” and “Virginny Breakdowns.”
There is no doubt that darkies danced upon the levees along the rivers, and in the absence of music they “patted” for the dancers, singing something like:
Darkies, as a rule, made their own poetry to suit the occasion and composed on the spur of the moment. From those crude dances came “Old Dan Tucker,” “Old Bob Ridley,” “Billy Barlow,” and “Old Aunt Sally.” Eph Horn danced the “Locomotive Darkie”; Frank Bower, “Happy Uncle Tom”; Ben Cotton, “Old Uncle Snow”; and Bob Hart, “Old King Crow.” All of these pave the way for “Hop Lite Loo,” “Ham Fat Man” and songs in use just before the Civil War on the same lines. Several verses with extravagant steps which were also part and parcel of the “Essence of Ole Virginny,” “Essence of Moko,” “Mississippi Fling,” etc., etc.
In 1839, T. D. Rice was performing at the Royal Pavilion, London, and appearing in the dramas when a nigger part was to be performed. His name appears in the drama of “Tom Tiller and Jack Mizen,” as Gustavus Alolphus Pompey.
After Rumsey & Newcomb’s Minstrels had performed in England, they crossed over to the continent and appeared in Germany. Their entertainment created quite a stir and pleased exceedingly. Unsworth and Eugene captivated them; but when the Germans found out that the troupe were composed of white men, “blacked up” and not the Simon pure article of Negroes, they were furious. They denounced the minstrels as swindlers and attempting to palm off as real darkies. The storm could not be allayed and, like the Arab, the Jolly Minstrels “folded up their tents” and skipped by the light of the moon back to a land where audiences are not so inquisitive and aggressive.
In the early seventies, Jack Haverly begins to loom up. His troupe has Charley Reynolds, Charley Pettingill, Sig. Brandisi, Gustave Bideaux, O. P. Sweet, Otis H. Carter and others. Later he becomes the manager of Cal Wagner’s Minstrels, with Canfield and Booker, Cal Wagner, Sam Price, Lew Hallett, George Wilson, Milt Barlow, C. C. Templeton, and Harry Robinson, who is billed for the first time as the “Man With the Silver Horns.” From this company springs the Barlow-Wilson, Primrose & West Company. Then the division of the partners. Then Thatcher, Primrose & West, and the separating of these companies also.
In 1870, Arlington’s Minstrels had Saxton, Lumbard, Charles Sutton, “Fostelle,” Ike Withers, Johnny Booker, Dick Gorman, and “Chang,” the Chinese giant.
The Buckley’s (1870) had Pete Lee, Hogan and Hughes, Joe Norrie, J. H. Murphy, Basquin Waterman, Cummings and Turner, and were located at the corner of Summer and Chauncey Streets, Boston, Mass.
In 1871, Hart, Ryman & Barney’s Minstrels had Harry Norman, D. S. Vernon, Harry Saynor, Sam Ricky, and Master Barney, John Jennings and Add Weaver.
In 1872 the Morris Brothers announce Barnardo, Charles Sutton, J. C. Campbell, Barlow Brothers, Frank Campbell, J. W. McPhall, E. W. Prescott, Edwin Holmes, Sig. Lavalee.
While the name of Edwin Holmes is before me I am reminded that once if any minstrel boy made a funny blunder or mis-step a cry of “Holmes” would greet him from his comrades. This word is now and then used even by the younger element. This is its origin: Edwin Holmes, while a good fellow and capital singer, was singularly unfortunate. He blundered into everything. He upset pails of water in the dressing rooms, stepped on his high hat, and hundreds of mishaps befell him. Each time a crash or a noise betokened a trivial accident everybody would roar “Holmes.” Once he was placed to guard a paper trap in the stage used for a skating scene and was warned to keep everybody away from it. When the scene was disclosed Holmes was nowhere to be seen. After the curtain fell on the climax, Holmes was discovered under the stage in a semi-conscious condition. He had himself fallen through the paper trap which he had been notified to guard others against.
There is a story that Holmes, disgusted, retired from the minstrel business and bought a milk route in Boston. The first day he went out the horse took fright and ran away. The milk cans were thrown out of the wagon, and horse and wagon ran over a boy, then became a wreck against a lamp post. This broke up Holmes in the milk business and he returned to minstrels, a penitent, but still able to furnish laughter to his comrades.
In the early seventies, Gustave Frohman piloted Callender’s Georgia Minstrels to fame and prosperity. To Charles Frohman’s clever business qualities and energy can be attributed the success of Haverly’s Mastodon Minstrels. Thus it will be seen that clever men like the Frohmans were identified with minstrelsy and placed their marks of business methods upon the troupes with which they were connected.
This reminds me that Chauncey Olcott, Eddie Foy, John C. Rice, Tom Lewis, Press Eldridge, William P. Sweatnam, Weber and Fields, Little Sam Chip, and many bright lights of the present time were with the minstrels of the Eleventh Street Opera House, Philadelphia.
Haverly’s Mastodon Minstrels—”Forty, Count Them, Forty”—created a tremendous sensation. All the other troupes had to expand or be wiped out. This brought a flood of young talent into minstrelsy—singers, dancers and comedians. Here is a partial list: Lew Spencer, James Fox, Pete Mack, Three Gorman Brothers, Three Crimmins Brothers, Frank Cushman, the Only Leon, H. M. Morse, Billy Arnold, Edwin Harley, Joseph M. Woods, E. M. Hall, Tom Sadler, Dan Thompson, Bob Hooley, E. M. Kayne, Eddie Collyer, Frank Casey, John Rice and almost everyone of any consequence was snapped up. Haverly at this time controlled theatres in almost every city of the Union and was rated the greatest manager America had ever seen. His tour to England began the undoing of all this, and his remaining days in late years were passed in a small museum in Brooklyn. Most of his staff of those prosperous days are theatrical magnates at present. Later, the Mastodons announced Adams and Lee, O. H. Carter, Johnny Booker, Billy Rice, George Roe, Barry Maxwell, Harry Kennedy and the Arnold Brothers. Haverly’s success induced Billy Emerson and R. M. Hooley to come into the field with their Megetharian Minstrels. The troupes were now digging up the fossilized remains of huge elephants, mastodons, mammoths and megetharians for titles to represent something huge and massive. Again the young talent had a chance to make good.
The following names appear with Emerson’s company: James A. Barney, E. M. Hall, Luke Schoolcraft, Arthur Cook, H. W. Frillman, Carl, Will and Rit Rankin, Harry Robinson, Seamon Summers and the Girard Brothers, Gibson and Binney, Walsh and King, Burt Haverly and Gibbs, Park and Donnavan, Lyons and Healey, Kelly and O’Brien, John Oberist and V. Rigby.
I am reminded that the minstrels had a millionaire in their ranks. Not exactly a millionaire, but he bore his name. This was a singer named George W. Rockefeller.
Hi Henry discovered a great deal of young and genuine talent while he toured with his company. Other minstrel managers took good care to “annex” all the good ones developed by Hi Henry. In 1873, Kelly and Leon had Charles Lester, Sam Holdsworth, Dave Wilson, Frank Converse, H. T. Mudge, John Latour, Cool White, George Guy, Edwin Stanley, W. D. Corrister and Little Jake, a dwarf comedian.
Skiff and Gaylord’s Minstrels, organized by Coal Oil Johnny, presented at one time the Albino Minstrels. They attired in white, wore white wigs and whitened their faces. The end men represented clowns. Bideaux, George Primrose, Goodyear Whiting, Lew Gaylord, Harry Talbott, John Lang and J. T. Gulick were with the Albinos; which, however, did not last long but returned to burnt cork. Later they had John Purcell, Con T. Murphy, Kelly and Holly, Joe Maiers, Ricardo, J. H. Carle, Mackin and Wilson, R. T. Tyrell, Andy McKee, Stiles Phelps, and Armstrong, Jim Gaynor, Johnny Howard, John Barsby, and the Masterson Brothers.
Simmons & Slocum’s Minstrels, 1872 to 1874, presented many new faces and clever young performers. There was: Billy Manning, William Henry Rice, Primrose and West, William Hamilton, Shattuck, J. H. Stout, Matt Wheeler, Fred Walz, J. J. Kelly, Charles Stevens, Justin Robinson, Billy Sweatnam, J. L. Woolsey, William Dwyer, Welch and Rice, Charley Reed, George Thatcher, James G. Russell (the ventriloquist), Alexander Davis, and others. Quite another stir was made by Harry Robinson about this time. He called himself “the man with the silver horns,” and he announced that he would not have any bills or posters on the walls. His war cry was “no paper on the walls.” He antagonized all the billposters and those affiliated with them. For a season he triumphed, but had to fall in, same as the rest. He had with him Alf Miles, Billy McAllister, John E. Henshaw (now a noted comedian), Billy Ginevan, J. T. Simpson, George and Millie Guy, Johnny Shay, Tom Sadler and some fine young singers. John F. Henshaw is billed to sing and dance “Old Black Joe,” and do a song and dance with Ginevan.
In 1878, Thatcher, Primrose & West announced Ed Marble, Lew H. Hawkins, Ben Collins, George Powers, John Daly, Eddie Marks, Hi Tom Ward, Fred Matthews, George Lewis, J. H. Davis, Bob McIntyre, Fred Oakland, Harry Constantine, Master Edward, Clipper Quartette, F. T. Ward, George Campbell, Bob McIntyre and Al Hart. Mr. Hart is now a very popular comedian in musical comedies. There was also Mack Mentor, Fred Herting, Eddie Macey and the proprietors.
About the same time, George Wilson announced Shattuck, Will Walling, W. E. Nankeville, John Davis, Tommy Donnelly, Fulton Brothers, Andy Rankin, Dan Quinlan, William Henry Rice. In 1890, Wilson had Ramsa and Arno, Hi Tom Ward, John T. Keegan, Howe and Wall, Fulton Brothers, Dan Quinlan, J. D. Daniels as manager, and William Rowe in a pedestal clog dance.
While on the subject it would be well to mention the greatest dancer and producer of dancing tableaux and novel groupings, Barney Fagan. He was a genuine “find” to minstrelsy and his methods are copied to this day in all dancing numbers. He was especially attentive to the young element and made great dancers of them.
In 1880 the San Francisco Minstrels had: Arthur Cook, W. F. Bishop, T. B. Dixon, Frank Dumont, Harry Wyatt, H. W. Frillman, Arthur Moreland, Johnson and Powers, George Thatcher, Edwin French, Harry Kennedy, Ricardo, Charles Gibbons, Carl Rudolph, etc., etc.; W. S. Mullaly, leader.
On the bills of different troupes, the names of the following appear: E. D. Gooding, Buck Shaffer, Bob Slaven, R. Jean Buckley, Dick Ralph, Ned Davis, Ned Turner. Emerson and the Big Four Minstrels (1879-80) had: Harry Stanwood, James and Barney Kine, Harry Armstrong, Theodore Jackson, Charles Heywood, Edwin Stanley, Weston Brothers, Sam and Morris, and the proprietors. This company introduced a banjo quintet by Stanwood, Kine Brothers and Weston Brothers. It was a novelty and was a big success. Burt Sheppard and Fred Walz joined this troupe also.
Barlow & Wilson Co. announced in 1884: E. M. Hall, Crawford and McKisson, Hughey Dougherty, Griffin and Marks, George Gale, Stanley Vernon, J. M. Woods, the Great McNish, Ed Talbert, Sam Bradbury. And for a while Dumont directed the company until the bill ran smooth. (The reader will note the new names and the young element in the above company.) In 1884, at the Standard Theatre, San Francisco, Cal., were: Carroll Johnson, Al Holland, Charley Reed, Franz Vetter, W. J. Morant, Hooley, Thompson, Keegan and Wilson, William Henry Rice, Harry Wyatt, John Robinson and Tommy Bree. Singers with phenomenal voices about this time were: Stanley Gray, Dick Jose, J. M. Woods, Charles Heywood and T. B. Dixon.
In 1888, I. W. Baird’s Minstrels had Billy McAllister; Bryant and Sharpley’s musical act; Billy Melville; Major Gorman, military drill expert; Fred Russell; Bartell; Brassell; Thomas Prosho; Conway; and Gardner.
C. W. Vreeland’s Minstrels had: George Hassell, a remarkable soprano vocalist; Bassett and Cole; Arthur Deming; Harry Long; Hugh Franey; Billy Fries; Kennedy and Vonder; and George Dunbar.
In the eighties, Jack Aberle was induced to put out a minstrel show, as his name sounded much like Jack Haverly. In this company were: Billy Bryant, Bobby Newcomb, Joe Norcross, Dave Reed, Alf Holland, Joseph A. Kelly, Watson and Levanion, Three Crimmins Brothers, Foster and Hughes, Saunders, Morosco, Burke, Wright, and George W. Wood. The show did not travel very far in the East, as Aberle soon lost faith in it after counting the puny receipts.
Some of the phenomenal voices in minstrelsy were possessed by the following young talent: Rolin Dana, H. S. Thompson, Robert T. Tyrell, Banks Winter (White Wings), Charles F. Shattuck, Frank Howard, Carl Rudolph, William Dwyer, George Gale, Carl Rankin, William H. Frillman, Stanley Grey, Rayman Moore, Julius P. Witmark (a Madrigal boy singer with the San Francisco Minstrels, now of the firm of Witmark & Sons, music publishers), J. M. Woods, Dick Jose, T. B. Dixon, James G. Russell, Will Oakland, Edwin Harley, Beaumont Read, Leo Fagan, Fred Jarvis, Arthur Russell, the Great Millner, Fred Malcolm, William H. Windom and W. H. Nankeville. George B. Frothingham, the basso, of the Bostonians, who died about the middle of January, 1915, was for several seasons at the Eleventh Street Opera House, Philadelphia, before joining the operatic forces. Gus Williams, who died about the same date, often blacked up in his younger days or was added to some minstrel company as an extra attraction.
Al G. Field’s Minstrels were organized in 1886, and gave their first performance at Marion, Ohio, October 6, 1886. It met with instant success and popularity and has been the leading troupe ever since. When the office of Klaw & Erlanger was called up and asked to name the best theatrical trade mark, the answer came, “The Al G. Field Greater Minstrels,” and there is a reason for this. Al. G. Field had presented a new show every season, full of novelties, special acts, costumes and new scenery. He never fails to present an entertaining and amusing performance and is ever concocting new episodes of fun to add to his grand show. Even while spending a vacation on his farm (Maple Villa Farm), fourteen miles from Columbus, Ohio, surrounded by everything to make the farmer’s heart glad, he is plotting and planning something out of the ordinary to place in his entertainment. That he succeeds is amply proved by the capacity business enjoyed everywhere by this great popular troupe, made so by his hard work and unremitting attention to all details. Al G. Field is the importer and owner of the great coach stallion, “Epernay,” from France. It is the finest one in America and, as the war will prevent importations, in will become valuable indeed.
Here is a partial list of the graduates of the Al G. Field’s Minstrels, furnished by Mr. Field himself to the writer: “Billy Van made his first appearance with my show and was here several seasons. Jimmy Wall did his first monologue with my company, also worked in a musical act, first as Howe and Wall, then as Howe, Wall and McLeod.” Harry Shunk began his minstrel experience with this show. Billy S. (Single) Clifford began his career with this show, first as a drummer in the band, then as a song and dance man, and then as a comedian. Bernard Granville began his career with this show, in the bugle corps and as a song book seller, graduating into one of the brightest end men and neatest dancers in the country. Doc Quigley, one of the most versatile minstrel men of any age, began his career with this show. In fact, he was never with any other minstrels than the Al G. Field Minstrels, where he was a reigning favorite along the route for more than twenty years. Among his first minstrel engagements, Arthur Rigby was with the Al G. Field Minstrels. Harry Bulger began his stage career with the Al G. Field Minstrels as a drummer in the band, and a song and dance man, afterwards a comedian. The Diamond Brothers, Lawrence, Lew and Matt, began their minstrel careers with this company. John Russell was introduced to the minstrel stage by the Al G. Field Minstrels. West “Bud” Avey and Joe Coffman gained their minstrel experience here. Of the noted minstrel singers, Will L. Collins began his stage career with the Al G. Field Minstrels as tenor soloist. Collins is now Signor Toliona, of the Metropolitan Opera Company. Reese Prosser, another minstrel singer of note, began his career with this show, as did Jack Richards, Birch Logan and Harry Frillman. Charles Graham, the song writer, composer of “The Picture That Was Turned Toward the Wall,” “Two Little Girls in Blue,” etc., composed his most successful songs while a member of the Al G. Field Minstrels. Mr. Graham was the first stage manager of the company. He made his first appearance in minstrelsy with this company, as did also Gus White, Charley Greer, Eddie Harley, Charles Wilbur, Ed Munger, Ed Brown and Mr. Eldredge. Nearly all of these singers have made their marks in opera since graduating from the minstrel stage.
For the past few seasons the principal comedian has been Bert Swor. He has created characters new to the minstrel stage and is a most realistic impersonator of the real Southern darkie as he is. There is also West “Bud” Avey, with the comedy legs [who] is some dancer, as all critics express it. Eddie Uhrig is a fine dancer also. Boni Mack is an impersonator of colored belles. Joe Coffman is a real comedian, young and energetic. Jack Kennedy, a quaint fellow, is very funny. Ed Hughes and William Argall are a pair of fine vocalists. Herbert J. Leake, Billy Busch (band leader), Thomas E. Roper (director of the orchestra), Jack Richards, Denny O’Neil, John Morland, Adam Kessner, Sherman Dearn, Herbert Willison, Murphy and Terrill, Harry L. Frillman (solo basso), Harry Shunk, Frank Brown, William Wachsman, Charles L. Smith, Thomas Dent, Paul La Londe (vocal director for more than twenty years), Henri Neiser (animal impersonator), Frank Miller, Charles Markert, Edward Fisher, J. Lester Habercorn, John Carrmell, Ralph R. Scott, Harry W. Young, Birch Logan, J. W. Pickens, George Denton and Daniel Ryan. Eddie Conard is the manager and Al G. Field, the grand engineer of the throttle of this wonderful and speedy minstrel engine with H. W. Bedwards as advance agent.
In 1908, when Cohan & Harris ventured into the minstrel field, they created a tremendous stir. They had an immense company of the foremost talent to be found in America. Julian Eltinge was the great feature in a bill of startling novelties. George “Honey Boy” Evans, Eddie Leonard, Frank Morrell, John King, Vaughn Comfort and a grand singing and instrumental contingent comprised the troupe. The next season the company was called “The Honey Boy Evans Minstrels,” with George Evans as the card. For a while Jim Corbett “blacked up” and appeared as the interlocutor. John L. Sullivan had done the same thing years previous in the Lester & Allen & John L. Sullivan’s Minstrels. With Evans were Comfort and King, Sam Lee, Eddie Cupero, Le Roy White, John P. Rogers, Tommy Hyde, Eddie Barton, Arthur Rigby, William H. Thompson, Paul Van Dyke, Jim Doherty, James Meehan, Harold McIntyre, Willie Newsome, Eldon Durand, Charley Ufer, Billy Cawley, Dan Shea, etc.
Since writing the above, I regret to chronicle that death has claimed Mr. Evans. For the past two years, George Evans had been in poor health, suffering from a stomach trouble, but the George Evans “Honey Boy” Minstrels successfully toured the country, in spite of the fact that illness forced Mr. Evans to miss a number of performances from time to time. He died March 5 in Baltimore, Md. The first McIntyre and Heath Minstrel Company was organized in Atlanta, Ga., December 18, 1878, and toured the South with John Steele, McIntyre and Heath, proprietors; Sugarfoot Smith, manager; Dick Turner, banjoist; Jim Librand, comedian. They had eighteen performers, mostly of the young element.
The second minstrel company was organized in St. Louis, Mo., in 1880, Matt Leland, Billy Monroe and McIntyre and Heath, proprietors; Senator Ed Wilson, end; Charley King, banjo and end man; the Great Rosselle, female impersonator; Adonis and Nun (Adonis was Johnny World), George Nun, of the Nun Bros., song and dance men; San Francisco Quartette: John Hall Greaves, first tenor; Charley Ukon, second tenor; Tom Ross, baritone; Frank Meader, bass.
The third company was in 1881, McIntyre and Heath and Jack Nugent, in Omaha, Neb.; George Costello, advance agent; Alf Barker, end man; Sam Yeager, leader of band; Blackford and Bye, musical act and end men; Latchow Bros., banjoists and clog dancers; Cummings and Clark, song and dance men; Lyons and Grayhill, song, dance and clog; Col. Bim Hall, second advance; Charley Herman, bass; Charley Lawrence, tenor; Nat Halstead, second tenor. On November 8 of the same year, Nugent sold his interest to Charlie Belmont, who purchased a sleeping car, the Pontiac which was the first car used by an organized minstrels to live in on the road.
The next McIntyre & Heath’s Minstrels was in 1885 and 1886 with W. J. Gilmore, of Philadelphia, Ed Rosenbaum, managers; James Armstrong, treasurer; E. M. Kane, stage manager. Harry J. Armstrong and Lew Benedict, McIntyre and Heath on the ends; De Witt and Kerwin, musical team; Barlow Bros., Lewis and Stone, song and dance men; Davy Christy, tenor; Delhower and Guyer, contortionists; Jack Fielding, solo tenor; Graham, shadowgrapher; Clipper Quartette: George Gale, first tenor; George Campbell, second tenor; Frank (Pop) Ward, baritone; F. A. Howard, bass.
McIntyre & Heath, Primrose & West’s Minstrels, 1886-87, Henry J. Sayers, manager, opened in Youngstown, Ohio, in July. On the end: Harry J. Armstrong, Milt G. Barlow, Hi Tom Ward and McIntyre and Heath; George Stout, stage manager; Four Emperors of Music, Howard and Jack Burgess, added features; Markey and Hughes, song and dance; Prof. Gleason performing dogs; Talbot, Russell and Seeley.
McIntyre & Heath Minstrels, 1887-88, organized in Kenosha, Wis.: Al. Martin, proprietor; John Vogel, manager; George Osterstock, treasurer; J. L. Summers, stage manager; Billy Buckley, Milt G. Barlow, McIntyre and Heath, on ends; Old Hickory Quartette---Horace Rushby, tenor; Prof. Bushnell, performing dogs; Beatty and Bentley; Healy Bros.; Byron and Hogan; Lew Wells; Clifford and Hicky; the great “Stuart,” female impersonator; Jule, the human bat (ceiling walker); and Prof. Abt, stereopticon views.
McIntyre & Heath’s Southern Minstrels, in 1878, included: McIntyre and Heath, Senator Ed Wilson, Aldens and Nunn, the Great “Roselle,” San Francisco Quartette; Fred Thatcher, first tenor; John Wilson, second tenor; Tom Ross, first bass; Frank Meader, second bass.
Richards & Pringle’s Georgia Minstrels began operations in 1866, being founded by Mr. Spragueland, and four years later taken over by Orrin E. Richards and Charles W. Pringle. This would make this organization the oldest minstrel troupe still in existence. When the change of management took place, the title of Richards & Pringle was added to Georgia Minstrels and it has remained ever since. Still with the company is a tenor soloist, John A. Watts, now in his seventy-fifth year, a performer who has been connected with this company for twenty-eight years. Both Mr. Pringle and Mr. Richards have passed to the Great Beyond but their fame goes marching on. Sidney Kirkpatrick, dubbed the Black Billy West, has been interlocutor of this organization twelve years. Clarence Powell, leading comedian, has been with the company fourteen years. William Israel, double bass and tuba player, has been here ten years. David C. Smith, a brother-in-law of Billy Kersands and an able comedian, has been here six years. Billy Kersands was with this organization for many years before starting his own company. E. H. Dudley, well remembered with Gus Hill’s Smart Set, first won recognition with this company. Fred W. Simpson, the greatest colored trombone player in the world, known from coast to coast as the Black Pryor, has had charge of the band for fifteen years, but owing to illness is temporarily absent. Two young comedians with this company who are rapidly winning recognition are Manzie Campbell and Chicken Reel Beaman. The company is now under the management of J. J. Holland and E. C. Filkins. They are very popular in the West and are at present on the Pacific Coast.
About six years ago Lew Dockstader’s Minstrels went on tour under the management of Jim Decker. It was the last tour under that title. In the company were Neil O’Brien, Al Jolson, Eddie Mazier, Happy Naulty, Pete Detzell, Eddie Cupero and some fine singers and dancers engaged personally by Lew Dockstader. They opened in Binghamton, N. Y. and created a furor by their up-to-date, lively performance. After the second performance, Decker made many “improvements” in the show. He discarded the fine first part costumes for the black coats, white vests and black pants worn since 1846. He introduced the “Jockey Clog Dance” and the “Cane Dance,” which other troupes had cast out years previous. The show closed before the Christmas holidays and ventured out again after New Year’s week. The show had been so renovated that in a few weeks it went into cold storage. Prize fighters are not the only men that can’t “come back.” No blame whatever could be attached to Lew Dockstader, as his entire company can testify. The members of his troupe scattered to the Honey Boy Evans Company and Neil O’Brien’s new troupe. Neil is not only a fine and popular comedian but is progressive, energetic and capable, with a real manager like Oscar F. Hodge to aid him. They seek young talent at all times; and bear in mind that this is 1915.
This season (1915) the Guy Brothers Greater Minstrels, under the management of George R. Guy, has the following company: Charles Guy, Edwin Guy, Harry Toledo, Charles Cameron, Eddie Miller, Berlin and Urban, Bob McLaughlin, Steve McCarthy, Francis Blake, Rollin Webster, Harry Prince, Ansel and Hill, Billy Rush, Paridi Papanti, Ray Dion, Ed Wort, B. Proctor, Joe Wolfe, E. Volk, F. Nichols, J. Buckner, Charles Donahue, P. Hilligan, Andy Spoffard, Dean Lea and Clyde Ford. Bob McLaughlin is a young and ambitious comedian, rapidly forging to the front.
Neil O’Brien’s company comprised the following names since he began under that title: Eddie Mazier, Harry Van Possen (monologist), Black Face Eddie Ross (banjoist), Pete Detzell, Major Casper Nowak, Less Copland, Happy Naulty, John King and Eddie Leonard. The bass singers are: David Morris (the greatest since Frillman), Al Fontaine and Fred Hodges. The interlocutors were: William H. Hallett, Leslie Berry and Walter Wolff. Orchestra leaders were Eddie Cupero and Frank Fuhrer, an excellent musician. The female impersonators: George Peduzzie and Walter Lindsay. The following vocalists: James Barardi, Master Georgie Hagan, Jack McShane, Joe McAnallan, Ward Barton, Winnie Williams, William Curran, Charles Wright, Jonathan Haw, Harry Ellis, William Oakland and Manuel Romaine, each and everyone a superb singer and popular. The dancers in past seasons were all young fellows: Du Ball Bros., Harry, Fred and Willie; Joe Marriott, Eddie Simms, Eddie Thurman, Ben Evans, Charles Ward, James Quinn, James Doyle, Harold Dixon, Jack Girard, Harold McIntyre, Jack Cochran, George Martin.
The dancers with Neil O’Brien this season are: Pete Detzell, producer; Charley Strong, William Doran, George Faust, Joe Mullen, James Monahan, Steve Werher, Lew Bligh, John Brennan, Charles Hodges, Joe Marinette and Eddie Dowling. Oscar F. Hodge is Neil O’Brien’s manager and is the youngest manager in minstrelsy. He has had ample experience with the best of companies, including Lew Dockstader’s Minstrels. He is now guiding Neil O’Brien to fame and prosperity.
On July 15, 1905, the De Rue Brothers organized a fine minstrel company and have been touring annually ever since. They had some of the best young element in their employ, many of whom have made their mark. Billy and Bobby De Rue are the principal comedians and have kept the show up to the standard. Both are skilled musicians. Bobby conducts a fine brass band and is considered a first class cornet soloist. They have had with them Walter Gassens; Happy Jack Lambert; Carl W. Ritter, an eccentric dancer of great merit, and who possesses a real coon dialect; Low Vanis; Joe Hill; Harry Young; George Adams; Jerry Le Roy; Fred Hill; Louis Tracey. The past two seasons, a double voiced vocalist, Arthur Russell, has been very prominent and rated as the most talented female impersonator in minstrelsy. William Sadler is an excellent tenor from Fort Jervis, N. Y. Russell Windenor is a grand basso; the Great “Millnor” is a clever impersonator; Walter K. Hearn, tenor; Willie Bawn, musical moke; the Fox Bros., two clever dancers; H. P. Savin have been leading members of De Rue Bros.’ Minstrels in the past five years.
J. A. Coburn’s Minstrels are very popular in the Southern and Western states. Manager Coburn’s company comprises many of the younger element. The following is this season’s roster: J. A. Coburn, owner and manager; Clayton L. Mix, business manager; Ted Galbraith, agent; Charles Gano, director and producer; Guy V. Risher, musical director; Fred Stowe, band director; Lester Lucas, interlocutor and basso; Joe McGuire, baritone; Claude Manvers, tenor; Donald Wilson, alto; Justin McCarthy, tenor; William Church, tenor; Shelby Baber, tenor; Archie Milton, tenor; Charles Scott, stage carpenter; Dan Kelly, properties; Joe Stirk, electrician; Nick Glynn, Tom Post, Charlie Vermont, Carl Hellman, Ollie Dillworth, Edward Powers, John Arnold, Carl Cameron, Evart Gavin, H. B. McBee, William Cover, Albert Morgan, Henry Whitman, William Porter.
Ralph Wray, of Los Angeles, Cal., and Billie S. Garvie, of Hartford, Conn., send me a few additional names of young talent who became well known: Frank Lawton, Eddie Horan, John Scott O’Hara, John Rooney, Fred Black, Sam Johnson, Joe Kelly. Sam Johnson is now in the hotel business in Willimantie, Conn. Joe Hooper, with Guy Bros.’ Minstrels; Harry Boyd, Billy Beard, Andy McKee, Swor and Mack, and Billy Clark, of Grand Rapids. Al Fostell sends the following names of young minstrel talent: Sam and Wash Drane, Happy Reilly, Mike Dowd, Ad Hoyt, Greg Patti, Frank Golden, Hines, Lemar and Marron, Held and Cameron, F. E. Hughes, Jack Kennedy, Murphy and Terrill.
Lew Dockstader and George Primrose re-united for a tour season of 1913-14. The Six Brown Brothers were the musical feature of this combination. George Primrose, for the season of 1914-15, took George Wilson for a partner and then toured under the title of George Primrose and George Wilson’s Minstrels. They had a good company in which the younger element predominated. They closed unexpectedly in Monmouth, Ill., January 7, 1915. They had with them: Earl Burgess, manager; comedians George Primrose, George Wilson, Happy Jack Lambert, Eddie Coe, Johnnie Bliss, Billy Sandy, F. Y. Grimley, Ray Hartigan, Jack Wier, Joe Hill, Dick Barton, Harry Horton, Steve Fenton, Harry Greve; vocalists Lawrence J. Williamson, Fred C. Holmes, William G. Hayne, Harry F. Sievers, O. Sidney, Thomas Alton, Walter Remington, H. W. Robinson, Cal Douglas, L. M. Flaherty, Ed Neary, Newton Jones, Franklin, Carlyle and Walter Lawser.
From time to time articles or histories of minstrelsy have appeared in publications. These are mostly extracts or taken bodily from Charley White’s “History of Minstrelsy,” published by the New York Clipper in 1859, and Col. T. Allston Brown’s “History of Minstrelsy,” written also for the New York Clipper, which are notable. Both of these authors knew the early minstrels personally; saw them perform, and received from their own lips the story of their early careers. Naturally their histories are reliable and accurate and furnish all that a reader on the subject may need. Col. Brown is the only living authority on minstrelsy or the American stage.
John W. Vogel is one of the minstrel kings and began his show career in March, 1882, with Sells Brothers’ Circus. He joined Thatcher, Primrose & West’s Minstrels in November, 1882, at Cleveland, Ohio. One of the bitterest fights ever known was between Barlow & Wilson Minstrels and Thatcher, Primrose & West’s Minstrels—the latter playing at the Euclid Avenue Opera House and the former at the Park Theatre.
Abe Erlanger assisted Vogel to bill Cleveland at that time. He has been identified with the following attractions in a managerial capacity since: Primrose & West’s Minstrels; Primrose & Docksteder’s Minstrels; McIntyre & Heath’s Minstrels; McNish, Ramza & Arno’s Minstrels; McNish, Johnson & Slovin’s Minstrels; Dominick Murray’s “Right’s Right” Co.; Harry Blooda- ood’s “Happy Thought or Rose” Co.; George S. Knight’s “Over the Garden Wall”; Al G. Field’s Minstrels; the Original Adam Forepaugh’s Circus; manager Fifteenth Street Theatre, Denver, Colo.; Thearle & Cooper’s “Siege of Sebastopool”; Cliffside Park, Huntington, W. Va.; (lessee) “Darkest America”; John W. Vogel’s Afro-American Mastodon Minstrels; John W. Vogel’s (all white) Big City Minstrels, now in its twentieth year. He has several fine farms in Fairfield County, Ohio, on which there are a number of oil and gas wells. He is owner of the Gem Cigarette Roller and interested in numerous other business enterprises.
With Vogel’s Minstrels this season, there are: Edwin De Coursey, James Conroy, Lew Denny, Al and Don Palmer, Ted Godfrey, Arthur Crawford, Tom Miller, Billie Mack, Harley Morton, Fred Miller, William Rowe, Ed Ewald, Jack O’Malley, Clyde Chain, Raymond Henry, Albert Petty, Carl S. Graves, F. S. Nagle, John Goodrich, George C. La Furroo, George C. Nunn, James S. Finning, Harry Baker, Newton Garner, George Van, “Zella” (the frog impersonator), Mack (the musical artist), Fred L. Day and Lee Mitchell, all splendid comedians, singers and dancers.
The old Eleventh Street Opera House, Philadelphia, was, prior to 1854, Dr. Wylie’s Church. Sam Cartee leased it and opened it with a troupe he called Julian’s Serenaders and Opera Troupe. In fact, nearly all the troupes called themselves Burlesque Opera Troupes, in addition to the title of Minstrels. Ben Cotton and E. F. Dixey were the comedians. Early in 1855, S. S. Sanford assumed the lease and called it Sanford’s Opera House. He remained there until 1862, when Carncross & Dixey began their career as a permanent institution. Carncross remained there until 1896, when Dumont assumed the management and remained there until four years ago. The neighborhood had become a mercantile district, without traffic after dark. Dumont looked around and selected the old Museum, corner of Ninth and Arch Streets, and moved into it, thus continuing Dumont’s Minstrels. The building had been erected by Carncross, Dixey and Simpson for the new home of Carncross & Dixey’s Minstrels, but they fluked at the last moment and Simpson had to assume control. For years it had a varied experience, dramatic, vaudeville, freaks, curiosities, etc., under various titles. Simpson lost the building and after years of litigation again became its owner.
Four years ago it became what it had originally been built for---that is, minstrel purposes. It became “Dumont’s,” and has been successful and flourishing. It is the only located troup*e in the world and in the only city in America supporting its own minstrel company. Dumont has the proud distinction of not only being the oldest minstrel manager still in active life but the proprietor of the only located minstrel opera house in the world.
The following young talent became identified with Dumont’s Minstrels in Philadelphia and have achieved popularity: Vic Richards, Alf Gibson, J. M. Woods, J. M. Kane, James McCool, Charley Dooin (a baseball favorite), Gilbert C. Losee, Walter Johnson, Fred Jarvis (a phenomenal soprano), Fox and Ward (the oldest black face team), John E. Murphy, Charley Turner, Jordan and White, Evans and White, Happy Naulty, Leo Fagen, J. A. Dempsey, Vaughn Comfort, Edwin Goldrick, with eighteen years’ service. Most of the members have been here for years: Tom Waters (the pianologist), Major Casper Nowak, Tom O’Brien, Eddie Akin, Carroll Johnson, George Wilson, Dan McGarrigan, Bennie Franklin, Harry Hoster, George Bradley, Ted Kahnar, Matt Wheeler, Billy Bowers, Jerry Cunningham, Harry C. Shunk, Arthur Yule, John Haney, Patterson and Titus, Eddie Cassady (and a clever fellow he is). Then there is Will Lawrence; and a rising young comedian progressing rapidly called Charley Boyden, whom Dumont has entrusted special comedy parts; John Lemuels, a character “coon” from the South; Joe Perry, Earl and Will Dixon. R. P. Lilly, the musical director, has been with Dumont for twenty-eight years.
As I write these lines, Joe Norcross and Sam Holdsworth, the two oldest minstrel vocalists still in harness and performing in town this week, are looking over my shoulder. And Joe says: “Put us down for a couple of kids, for we’re just starting in all over again.” The staff has been connected here for many years also; Howard M. Evans as business manager, John E. Besslin as treasurer.
With this final list of young names, it is fitting and proper to bring this article to a close, having shown the great strides, changes and innovations created by the Younger Generation in Minstrelsy.
An article recently printed in the Clipper, written by Edward Le Roy Rice, revived pleasant memories of my minstrel days and nights, and started my thinking machine into activity, resuscitating many delightful incidents and associations of the vanished “good old days of yore.”
In my opinion the ancient and honorable pastime of negro minstrelsy met its severest blow—I might almost say crushing blow—when the late J. H. Haverly placed on the market his Mastodon Minstrels, and this not alone from a business point of view, but artistically as well. From the instant the curtain rose upon this organization, the bell tolled the requiem for our old time favorite, and the characteristics of the plantation Negro, the quaint antics of the river roustabout, and the unique genius of the darkie swell, went glimmering “down the corridors of time.”
In place of these time honored, popular and enjoyable features, there came into the spotlight “Forty, Count ‘em, Forty,” embracing sixty or seventy people, exhibiting “mammoth” songs and dances, huge squads of electrically lighted acrobats in gaily caparisoned drills and marches, sumptuous silken draperies, gorgeous transformation scenes and daily parades, that rivaled an Oriental Durbar in clamor and display. If “Old Bill Jones” had been on earth at that time he would have reared up on his hind feet and openly declared that anybody who could possibly discover even a remote resemblance to negro minstrelsy in this entire production was a cowboy, a horse thief, and a two-story ding-bat liar, by gosh! And while the black face spectacular invasion—mixed occasionally with a small assortment of white face—was not negro minstrelsy by some sixty thousand miles, it appeared to be exactly what the public wanted and was willing to pay for, and this public got it and a lot more of it in copious doses.
When other energetic and ambitious managers heard the noise and observed the consequent amazing financial results, they promptly adopted the advanced spectacular proposition, and zoological dictionaries were searched with microscopes in digging up long and hard names to bestow upon new and big bunches of burnt cork crusaders. Among them came the “Megatherium” Minstrels, which “Dick” Hooley and “Billy” Emerson pushed out, and which sunk money in massive lumps, and the “Gigantean” Minstrels, which M. B. Leavitt organized, and when he became tired of the adventure, the wrong side of the ledger exhibited a loss of something close to one hundred thousand cold American dollars. In three or four years these exaggerated minstrels petered out and old time negro minstrelsy went with them—completely erased from the public mind, never again to attain its former welcome and general popularity.
Two hundred dollars daily was a rather heavy expense for an old time minstrel company to assume, and it is only requisite to compare this figure with the daily expenses of the spectacular shows to discover another “severe blow” to the old art far more effective than its desertion by a few performers for white face drama.
In January, 1865, I leased Bryan Hall, on Clark Street, Chicago, for a season of twelve weeks, and organized and played a company of twenty-two people under the name of the Empire Minstrels, with a salary list of much less than five hundred dollars weekly. There was nothing spectacular about this show or its expenses, but just a plain, old time negro minstrel company, with the “coon” element predominating, yet in the twelve weeks I cleared several thousand dollars, closing only because I was under contract to go in advance of the Adam Forepaugh’s Show.
How long a period would a similar company exist in New York at present, and in this era of circus minstrelsy? Yet with this company there appeared for stated periods: Eph Horn, Sher Campbell, Sam Sharpley, Ben Cotton, Billy Manning, Johnny Allen and Unsworth and Eugene.
And it was here that Billy Emerson, Johnny Allen and Billy Manning organized and started Emerson, Allen and Manning’s Minstrels, one of the most popular organizations of its kind ever placed before the public. This was, indeed, a splendid minstrel company, and met with great prosperity and this very great prosperity caused its final dissolution, which began in internal dissensions between the owners and ended in fisticuffs and separation. This “agreement to disagree,” however, was not phenomenal, since it really appears as if the minstrel boys of ability, from that day to this, were all equally well developed in the art of “slugging.” And no minstrel company was ever organized, in which performers were owners, that failed sooner or later to develop prolific internal dissensions that often resulted in first class fights and finally in separation.
From the Mastodons there graduated Barlow, Wilson, Primrose & West’s Minstrels, which, because of disagreements, caused separations and reorganizations until no less than six different companies followed in quick succession, and all met with considerable success until family fights “busted” them. For such results there were, of course, many reasons; but I think the principal cause was an overdose of sudden, brain-affecting prosperity—something that few men, even ordinary men in other walks of life, find it difficult to assimilate with equanimity.
Because a number of talented black face comedians left minstrelsy to gain additional fame and dollars in drama, most assuredly redounded to the credit of the old art, since it conclusively proved that the actors on the minstrel stage were men of no ordinary ability. I have always thought there was a wide difference between the negro minstrel, the delineator of the quaint Negro character, and the black face comedian, exemplifier of “every old thing” to win a big laugh or “kill ‘em dead”; and nearly all of the corkonians of the past, present and probably future, come under the latter definition. Some of these, too, are really fine performers, talented, artistic, humorous and most original, while the fact still remains that the coat of cork often leads to great success when the identical exhibit done in white face would probably be pushed down into the cellar.
Much publicity has been given to the names of many who moved from minstrelsy into the dramatic firmament; yet there is one name I have never seen printed in this connection---the name of one of our most illustrious actors. Indeed, I believe he was the most versatile and accomplished actor the American stage has ever known, a man who could act Sir Giles tonight, Hamlet tomorrow, Richelieu the next, and follow these with a black face song and dance or an “essence” that had but a single rival—Cool Burgess. I refer to E. L. Davenport, whose memory among many old departed friends is the best of all to me.
It would appear that anybody who covers his face with cork at once becomes a negro minstrel; but I cannot see it that away, since few, if any, ever pretend to imitate the colored race. Even Sweatnam, one of the most original and talented black face artists that ever lived, is not a negro minstrel, and Thatcher, Dockstader, George Wilson or George Evans, with scores of others, calling themselves such, are simply eccentric comedians. Billy Emerson’s strongest effort was a rollicking Irish song, “Moriarity,” and Carroll Johnson made an immense hit with Ken- nedy’s Irish Song, “I Owe Ten Dollars to O’Grady,” while Sweatnam’s end song and greatest hit was celestial to the last degree, “Little Ah Sid”—a gem of the very first water, but quite some distance from anything of a Negro character.
An exhibit of Irish, Hebrew, Italian, Chinese and other foreign characters in black face make-up has helped some in putting negro minstrelsy into its little bed, and even in “vodvill” the true Negro is mighty scarce. Where, oh where, can we find the prototype of Billy Manning in his inimitable “Mrs. Dittmus’ Party?” Where will we find another “Boy, Go ‘Way from Dat Dar Muel,” of McAndrews?
I think that more substantial talent was embraced in the Leavitt show than in any similar company ever organized, which, en passant, embraced several of the talented people named by Mr. Rice in his Clipper article. Among these were three famous quartettes---the musical group of Woods, Beasley and the Weston Brothers; the great acrobatic song and dance team of Leaman, Somers and the Girard Brothers, known as “The Grotesque Four,” doubtless the strongest act of its kind ever seen upon the stage; and that constellation of true negro minstrel talent, called “The Old-time Quartette,’’ who gave an exact reproduction of the “Virginia Serenaders,” the original of all minstrel presentations.
In this act appeared one of the veritable founders of minstrelsy, Dan Emmett, who organized and rehearsed the act, which, besides himself, included Sam Sanford, Dave Reed and Archie Hughes. As I watched this act night after night, for I was the manager of the company, its unique quality, its absolute originality, its artistic versatility and its general excellence impressed me greatly; and I thought then, and still believe, that its associations and superb production made it by far the most interesting act the minstrel stage has ever seen, or ever will see.
Yet fine as was this act it never “caught on” with the public, for even then “old time” minstrelsy had gone glimmering. Only upon a single occasion did the act win large applause and this occurred in Atlanta, Ga., while even then the applause went out for Dan Emmett. The house was crowded, and as the curtain rose upon the Virginia Serenaders an enthusiast in the balcony shouted in a great big voice:
“Three cheers for the author of Dixie!”
Although it happened many years ago, I seem yet to hear the tumult, the volcanic noise of that vocal tornado, and can imagine as I saw him then, Emmett standing and bowing low while his hand grasped the back of his chair for support. After the show that night, Emmett and myself consulted about the act, seeking a reason for the light impression it usually made, when he suggested that its present form be dropped and in its place to introduce the entire company in a huge “walk around,” just as it was done at Bryant’s Minstrels, presenting “I Wish I Was in Dixie,” with the author as the leading character, and with an appropriate moonlight cotton plantation scene as a background. This idea was promptly accepted; but was never completed for the interesting reason that a few days later Mr. Leavitt visited the show and “fired” me unceremoniously with the emphatic assertion that I was not worth a “continental——.” This little pas de seul forever terminated my association with that energetic gentleman, my position being assumed by J. H. Surridge, and I sailed for New York.
Hardly had I landed in the metropolis when a messenger brought me a letter saying that J. H. Haverly desired to have me call upon him at the Fifth Avenue Theatre, to which I gave no attention.
The following morning Bob Filkins came to me and said “the governor” wanted me to come right up and see him on a matter of large importance; but I told Bob, who was a prince among good fellows, that “the governor” had mechanics at his service who could put in plain typewriting what intelligence he desired to convey. My reason for this was that but recently I had “bucked” the Haverly show and had “lambasted” it as hard as I knew how; and I did not care to have a “gabfest” with another minstrel king so quickly after the Leavitt matinee.
The following morning a carriage landed at my door and Mr. Haverly was before me and offered me an exceedingly liberal business proposition, after which he asked why I had left Mr. Leavitt. I replied that Mr. Leavitt had “fired” me in cold blood and said to me right out loud that I was not worth a “continental——.”
“That’s a mighty good reason,” said Mr. Haverly, and on the following afternoon, at Harrisburg, Pa., I became manager of Haverly’s Mastodon Minstrels, superseding Joe Mack.
Negro minstrelsy has been forgotten, is not understood, while black face comedians, and a vast number who think themselves such, have flooded “vodville” with alleged acts and wildeyed eccentricities to such an extent that interest in cork has been pretty well eliminated. Even the few traveling minstrel troupes that are still in existence venture an entire week in New York with no little timidity. I am glad to acknowledge that I always was, and always will be, fond of minstrelsy; and indeed it is about the only kind of an entertainment that, in these times, can induce me to leave my home at night. When George Evans brings his actors to the “City of Churches,” in which I am permitted to live, I never fail to go back on the stage, sit on a real working trunk, and proceed to enjoy a talk with a minstrel, as well as the familiar sight of burnt cork and its fragrance. I think it stimulates the circulation of the blood and has an excellent effect upon my system, for the man who has once lived upon this “health food” never forgets its stimulating qualities; and although more than a quarter of a century has flown since I dropped the reins, I confess that whenever I hear the strains of a brass band I want to get out and lead the parade. Tom Moore was just about right when he sang:
I recall the important fact that once upon a time I wrote a burlesque for production in black face, my topic being national in theme, the Credit Mobilier scandal, which destroyed the aspirations of James G. Blaine for the presidency. It was a magnificent example of literacy ability, this burlesque of mine, full of action, witticisms, topical hits and songs, and loaded with sarcastic “jabs” at politics and politicians. I sent the manuscript to Charley Backus, who read it, submitted it to Birch, Wambold and Bernard, and then returned it to me with but a single word of comment—”Funk.”
Did I toss the dainty thing into the fire? No, sir. Did I rip it up? No, sir. Did I store it away for future ages to enjoy? Nein, Mein Herr. I mailed it to my friend, Pony Moore, in London, who, by return mail, thanked me very much and assured me he would give it consideration. About fifteen years later, while Pony and myself were enjoying a pleasant hour at Gatti’s, I happened to remark:
“Say, Pony, do you remember that fine burlesque I sent you, and which you said you would consider?”
“Of course I do, and very well indeed,” he replied.
“Well, what became of it?”
“I’m considering it yet.”
The wall of my library holds a large and handsome crayon portrait of myself, made when I was a “corking” good looking young fellow, and every time I see it I am reminded of an incident which occurred in St. Louis. On the day the Mastodons opened at the Olympic Theatre, photographs of the company in a group and myself alone were made by Fox, a well known photographer of that city. Seven months later, when we again appeared in St. Louis, I was leisurely strolling along Fourth Street when my eye caught sight of a greatly enlarged crayon portrait of myself in the window of Fox. It was superbly made, and I stepped inside and inquired the price. A beautiful little girl, some ten or twelve years of age, said she thought it was not for sale, as her papa had taken great care in making it; but she would inquire, and went upstairs for this purpose. I seized the advantage of the moment, lifted the picture from the window and carried it outside. Just as I stepped into the place the child came down stairs and said emphatically that it was not for sale at any price. I bid her good-bye, had the picture carefully boxed and shipped to my home. That night Mr. Fox came to the theatre in a towering rage, accused me of stealing the picture, threatening everything he could devise from a “punch in the jaw” to imprisonment for life. In all my experience I have never seen a man so thoroughly angry, so ferociously threatening; and yet, in half an hour the matter was amicably settled by paying him fifty dollars. The beautiful little girl mentioned is now known as Della Fox.
About the best “send off” that ever decorated my manly form emanated from this same good old St. Louis, and occurred while I was manager of Haverly’s Mastodon Minstrels. A coterie of friends were assembled in the smoking room of the Planters Hotel when a letter was brought to me; and at once recognizing the writing of the address, and oblivious to my surroundings, I kissed the envelope. Just then a dozen hoots and guffaws broke out, and Charley Spaulding said:
“Now, look here, Kit, that won’t do. Too spooney for anything. Confess now, your wife didn’t write that letter?”
“No, she didn’t,” I replied. “It’s from my best girl.”
We all sat down and chatted a bit, when Pat Short said: “It s no use, Kit, you’ve got to read that letter to us. We want to know all about her.”
“So you shall,” I answered. “There it is,” and I gave the precious missive to Spaulding to read.
“I guess not,” said Spaulding. “We like to chaff a little, but I hope we are gentlemen. The young lady would hardly care to have her letter read by this crowd.”
“But I insist upon it,” I declared, “there’s nothing to be ashamed of, barring the spelling, that is a trifle shaky, I admit. Read it, Charley.”
Thus urged, Spaulding opened the letter and read it. There were only a few words. First he laughed, then swallowed suspiciously, and as he finished, threw it upon the table and rubbed the back of his hand across his eyes as if troubled with dimness of vision.
“Pshaw!” he exclaimed, “if I had a love letter like that----” and then he was silent.
“Fair play,” cried one of the party.
“I’ll read it to you, boys,” said Spaulding, “and I think you’ll agree with me that it is a model love letter.
And this is what he read: “Mi OWEN deer Pa Pa---I say mi prairs every nite and WEN i kiss yure pikshure i ask god to bless you. good bi Pa-Pa youre best girl, Elma.”
Among those present was Tom Garrett, dramatic critic of the Republican, who decorated this incident with laces, frills and jewels of language until it filled a column, and it promptly went the rounds of the American press, headed “Kit Clark’s Best Girl,” while instantaneous and universal fame became mine. It was an affecting incident, to be sure, but was marred by a trifling error; because at that time I had no daughter named Elma. In fact I had no daughter of any name, was not married, and of course received no such letter, while Spaulding and Short were not in the party, and, as a climax, no such party had ever assembled. Garrett had invented the entire outfit; but it was a fine legend, anyway, went on its journey just the same, and I saw it in scores of newspapers.
The entire existence of the circus agent in those days might be correctly described in a single word, “hustle” and don’t stop for a minute; and if any competition shows up, go at it with big guns. Yellow quarter-sheets in vast quantities flooded the land, and the grade and quantity of general and personal abuse those contained were invariably red hot and always sizzling. I still preserve two examples of such that are perhaps the most disreputable specimens of printed and openly circulated personal vilification, scandalous abuse and shameful adjectives that have ever been distributed. And they were written by W. W. Durand and Andrew Haight, both past masters of the art, in an effort to “down” our show. I went after these gentlemen and when I got through they and their show were wrecked and the two were in jail at Rock Island, Ill., where, after allowing them a few days to cool off, they were released and advised to “go and sin no more.”
But the admonition was a failure, for not long afterwards they, with George W. De Haven, organized a “fly-by-night” affair, called the “Great Eastern,” etc., etc., a very inferior little show with a huge and impressive title; and meeting the Forepaugh Show in Indiana, they again began a campaign of dirty yellow literature. Once more instructions came to me to chase them and never let up. I did so and followed them for weeks until they were swamped at Ogdensburg, N. Y., and skipped into Canada, where they were execution-proof. And yet, the crowd, outside of these villainous methods, were a mighty fine lot of men; but they cut out an immense amount of hard work for the opposition agent and just made him “hump” every minute, day and night.
I was agent for the Forepaugh Show until the Autumn of 1870, when I made a verbal agreement with W. C. Coup to go in advance of the newly organized Barnum Show on its inaugural tour in 1871. In November of that year, at the printing office of Clary & Reilly, No. 10 Spruce Street, New York, I met John O’Brien, a circus owner from Philadelphia; and during a quiet conversation I made an insignificant remark that reflected upon the illiteracy of Mr. Forepaugh. O’Brien returned to Philadelphia, met Forepaugh, magnified my remarks to such an extent that Adam sat down and wrote me a letter, which, for villainous abuse, I have never seen equaled. I still preserve this wonderful literary effort, and refer to it occasionally when I require a stimulant, since a reading does me far more good than half a dozen hot “sodas.” Eliminating a splendid array of cuss words and vile phrases, the letter reads something like this:
This offer was accepted by telegraph, as it was more salary than I had ever been paid before; and I remained with Adam Forepaugh seven years longer.
In 1884 Haverly’s Mastodon Minstrels returned from England to the happy land of Klaw and Shubert. Aboard the ship, between stacks of chips, nausea and deck-chairs, I maintained a series of continuous thinking matinees; and after much mental argument reached the decision that it was about time, after twenty-five years of marauding, to bring my criminal career to an harmonious conclusion. This determination induced me to select a nice girl and marry her and then settle down in the peaceful lanes of commerce.
To give up the active and nervous career of the wandering showman for the quiet, grinding details of a commercial career was a more difficult task than I had conceived; but I always had a mania for “sticking,” and eventually became acquainted with “time” and “terms,” Bradstreet and Dunn, and above all, the certain reward of carefully negotiated discounts, short margins and speedy returns. Since then I have been happily interested in the career of an assortment of “kids,” and once in a while lay back in my easy chair and ruminate over the past, and invariably conclude that if I could again live through the former years I would certainly choose the same career. They were good years to me, filled with happiness, romance, pleasure, friends, good health and hard work, and these are the greatest blessings that can come to a human being.
Of all the varied and manifold kinds of theatrical entertainment negro minstrelsy is the one which is absolutely native to these States and which could not have come into existence anywhere else in the civilized world. Here in America alone has the transplanted African been brought into intimate contact with the transplanted European. Other nations may have disputed our claim to the invention of the steamboat and the telegraph, but negro minstrelsy is as indisputably due to American inventiveness as the telephone itself. Here in the United States it had its humble beginnings; here it expanded and flourished for many years; from here it was exported to Great Britain, where it established itself for many seasons; from here it made sporadic excursions into France and into Germany; and here at last it has fallen into a decline and a decay which seem to doom it to a speedy extinction. Its life was little longer than that vouchsafed to man, threescore years and ten, for it was born in the fifth decade of the nineteenth century and in the second decade of the twentieth it lingers superfluous on the stage with none to do it reverence.
Time was when the negro minstrels held possession of three or four theatres in the single city of New York and when a dozen or more troupes were traveling from town to town; and now they have long ago surrendered their last hall in the metropolis and only two or three companies wind their lonely way from theatre to theatre throughout the United States. The few surviving practitioners of the art are reduced to the presentation of brief interludes in the all-devouring variety shows or to the impersonation of sparse Negro characters in occasional comedies. The Skidmore Guards who paraded so gaily at Harrigan and Hart’s are disbanded now these many years; Johnny Wild, of joyous memory, is no more; and Sweatnam, bereft of his fellows in sable drollery, is seen only in a chance comedy like “Excuse Me” or the “County Chairman.” George Christy and Dan Emmett and Dan Bryant have gone and left only fading memories of their breezy songs, their nimble dances, and their flippant quips. Edwin Forrest and Edwin Booth blacked up more than once, Joseph Jefferson and Barney Williams besmeared themselves with burnt cork on occasion; but it is not by these darker episodes in their artistic careers that they are now recalled, and the leading actors of today think scorn of negro minstrelsy whenever they deign to give it a thought. And yet it must be noted frankly that when Lambs wanted to raise money for their new clubhouse they did not disdain the art of the negro minstrel; and more than two score of them went forth to conquer willingly disguised in the uniform blackness assumed long ago by George Christy and Dan Bryant.
It is to be hoped that some devoted historian will come forward before it is too late and tell us the history of this very special form of theatrical art, the only indigenous to our soil. Indeed, now that our American universities are paying attention to the drama, what more alluring theme for the dissertation demanded of all candidates for the doctorate of Philosophy than an inquiry into the rise and fall of negro minstrelsy? In the late Laurence Hutton’s conscientious and entertaining volume on the Curiosities of the American Stage there is a chapter in which the subject is treated historically, although the chronicler wasted much of his precious space in considering the succession of sable characters in the regular drama---Shakespeare’s Othello, Southerne’s Oroonoko, Bickerstaff’s Mungo, Boucicault’s Pete (in the “Octoroon”), Uncle Tom, Topsy, Eliza, and their companions (in the undying dramatization of Mrs. Stowe’s story). These were all parts in plays wherein white characters were prominent. The first performer of a song and dance, that is, of a sketch in which the darky performer was sufficient unto himself and was deprived of any support from persons of another complexion, seems to have been “Jim Crow” Rice--the title of whose lively lyric survives in the name bestowed upon the cars reserved for colored folk on certain Southern railroads. Rice found his pattern in an old Negro who did a peculiar step after he had sung to a tune of his own contriving:
Rice carried Jim Crow to England and he made a specialty of dandy darkies. But he was not the discoverer of negro-minstrelsy, as we know it, although he blazed the trail for it. Indeed, it was quite probably due to the influence of Rice and his darky dandies that the negro minstrels confined their efforts to the imitation of the town Negro rather than of the plantation Negro, the field hand of the Uncle Remus type. Rice first impersonated Jim Crow in the late twenties, and it was in the middle of the thirties that he went to England. And it was in the early forties that Dan Emmett, Frank Brower, Billy Whitlock, and Dick Pelham happened to meet by accident in a New York boarding-house and amused themselves with songs accompanied by the banjo, the tambourine, and the bones. Pleased by the result of their exercises, they appeared together at a benefit; and negro minstrelsy was born. At first there was no differentiation into interlocutors and end men; they all took an equal share in the more or less improvised dialogue; they sang and they played and they danced the “Essence of Old Virginny.”
Probably Emmett began early to provide new tunes for them. He was the composer of “Old Dan Tucker” and the “Boatman’s Dance,” of “Walk Along, John” and “Early in the Morning”; and one walk-around which be devised in the late fifties for Bryant’s Minstrels, “Dixie,” was introduced by Mrs. John Wood into a burlesque which she was playing in New Orleans just before the outbreak of the Civil War. The sentiment and the tune took the fancy of the ardent Louisianians and they carried it with them into the Confederate army, where it soon established itself as the war song of the South. And then when Richmond had fallen at last, Lincoln ordered the bands of the victorious army to play “Dixie,” with the wise explanation that as we had captured the Southern capital we had also captured the Southern song. And “Dixie,” which had begun life so humbly as a walk-around in a minstrel show in New York, bids fair to survive indefinitely as the musical testimony to the fact that the cruel war is over and that these States are now one nation.
It was only a year or two after the quartet of Emmett, Brower, Whitlock and Pelham had shown the possibilities of the new form of amusement that troupes of negro minstrels began to supply an entire evening’s amusement. The regulation “first part” was devised with its row of vocalists, instrumentalists, and comedians. The dignified interlocutor took his place in the middle of the semicircle and uttered the time-honored phrase: “Gentlemen, be seated. We will commence with the overture.”
Bones captured the chair at one end and Tambo preempted that on the other; and they began their wordy skirmish with the middle-man, in which that pompous presiding officer always got the worst of it. This device for immediate and boisterous laughter, this putting down of the middle-man by the end-man, the negro minstrels appear to have borrowed from the circus, where the clown is also permitted always to discomfit the stiff and stately ringmaster.
But although the minstrels may have taken over this effective trick from the circus, with which some of the earlier performers had had intimate relations, the trick itself is of remote antiquity. The side-splitting colloquy of the end-man with the middle-man may be exactly like the interchange of merry jests between the clown and the ringmaster, yet it is far older than the modern circus. It existed in Paris, for example, in the sixteenth century, when the quack-doctor was accompanied by his jack-pudding. Many of the dialogues heard on the Pont-Neuf between Mondor and Tabarin have been preserved; and their method is precisely that of the dialogues ringmaster and clown, interlocutor and end-man, even to the persistent repetition of the question which contains the catch. “Mister,” Tabarin would begin, “can you tell which is the more generous, a man or a woman?” And the quack-doctor would solemnly reply: “Ah, Tabarin, that is a question which has been greatly debated by the philosophers of antiquity, and they have been unable to decide which is truly the more generous, a man or a woman.”
Then Tabarin would briskly retort, “Never mind the old philosophers. I can tell you.” And with great contempt the ponderous quack-doctor would return, “What, Tabarin, do you mean to say that you can tell which is the more generous, a man or a woman?”
Tabarin promptly responds that he can.
“Then,” asks Mondor, “pray do so. Which is the more generous, a man or a woman?”
And thereupon, to the great disgust of Mondor, Tabarin would proffer his ribald explanation. Unfortunately the explanation he gave is frankly too ribald to be given here, for nowadays we are more squeamish than the idlers who gathered around the quack-doctor’s platform in Paris three or four centuries ago. The dialogues of Mondor and Tabarin were brief enough, but they often made up for their brevity in their breadth.
This kind of catch-question was known in England under Elizabeth as “selling a bargain”; and it is not infrequent in the plays of the time. It will be found more, than once in earlier plays of Shakespeare; for example, when his “clowns” (as the low comedy characters were then called) were allowed to run on at their own sweet will. Not a little of the dialogue of the two Dromios is closely akin in its method to interchange of question and answer between the interlocutor and the end-man. We may be sure this method of evoking laughter was employed also by the improvising comedians of the Italian comedy of masks, with which negro minstrelsy has other points of resemblance. It must have been popular in the rude middle ages; and now that negro minstrelsy is disappearing, and now that our circuses have burgeoned into three rings under a tent too vast for any merely verbal repartees, it has not departed from among us for it still survives as the staple of the so-called “side-walk conversationalists” who swap personalities in our superabundant variety shows.
We do not know with historic certainty how soon the first part crystallized into the form which has long been traditional—the opening overture, the catch-questioning of end-man and middle-man, the comic songs of Bones and Tambo in turn, the sentimental ballads by the silverthroated vocalists, and the final walk-around. The rest of the evening’s entertainment never took on any definite framework, although the final item on the program was likely to be a piece of some length, often a burlesque of a serious drama then popular, and this little play “enlisted the whole strength of the company.” Between the stately first part and the more pretentious final sketch the minstrels presented a variety of acts in which the several members exhibited their specialties. A clog-dance was always in order, although the mechanical precision of this form of saltatorial exercise was wholly foreign to the characteristics of the actual Negroes whom the minstrels were supposed to be representing. A stump-speech was certain of a warm reception, although this again departed from the true Negro tradition and indeed often degenerated into frank burlesque, wholly unrelated to the realities of life. Sketches, like those which Rice had earlier composed for his own acting, were likely to have a little closer relationship to the genuine darky.
Yet here again the negro minstrel was not avid of overt originality. He was willing to find his profit in the past and to translate into Negro dialect any farce, however ancient, which might contain comic situations or humorous, characters that could be twisted to suit his immediate purpose. He seized upon the ingenious plots of certain of the pantomimes brought to America from France half a century ago by the Ravels. And on occasion he went unwittingly still farther afield for his prey. There is in print, in a collection of so-called “Ethiopian Drama,” an amusing sketch entitled the “Great Mutton Trial”; and the remote source of this is to be sought in the oldest and best farce which has survived in French literature. “Maître Pierre Pathelin” is now acted occasionally by the Comédie-Française in Paris in a version which preserves its original flavor; but in the eighteenth century an adaptation, made by Brueys and Palaprat, and called “L’Avocat Pathelin,” was popular. It is this later perversion which served as the basis of an English farce, entitled the “Village Lawyer”; and the “Great Mutton Trial” is simply the “Village Lawyer” transmogrified to suit the bolder and more robust methods of the negro minstrels.
And here we may discover the real reason why negro minstrelsy failed to establish itself. It neglected its opportunity to devote itself primarily to its own peculiar field—the humorous reproduction of the sayings and doings of the colored man in the United States. To represent the Negro in his comic aspects and in his sentimental moods was what the minstrels pretended to do; but the pretense was often only a hollow mockery. Even the musical instruments they affected, the banjo and the bones, were not as characteristic of the field-hand or even of the town darky as the violin. Indeed, the bones cannot be considered as in any way special to the Negro; they were familiar to Shakespeare’s Bottom, who declares, “I have a reasonable good ear in music; let us have the tongs and the bones.” And the wise recorder of the words and deeds of Uncle Remus declared that he had never listened to the staccato picking of a banjo in the Negro quarters of any plantation.
“I have seen the Negro at work,” so Harris once asserted, “and I have seen him at play; I have attended his cornshuckings, his dances, and his frolics; I have heard him give the wonderful melody of his songs to the winds; I have heard him give barbaric airs to the quills (that is to say, to the Pan’s pipes); I have heard him scrape jubilantly on the fiddle; I have seen him blow wildly on the bugle and beat enthusiastically on the triangle; but I have never beard him play on the banjo.” Mr. George W. Cable thereupon came forward with his evidence to the effect that although the banjo was to be found occasionally on a plantation it was far less frequently seen than the violin. It will be noted that Harris was speaking of the Georgian Negro and that Mr. Cable was talking about the Negro in Louisiana; and perhaps the true habitat of the banjo is to be found further north and nearer to the border States. At any rate, there is a footnote to one of Thomas Jefferson’s “Notes on Virginia,” published in 1784, which informs us that the instrument proper to the slave of the Old Dominion is “the banjar, which they brought hither from Africa, and which is the origin of the guitar, its chords being precisely the four lower chords of the guitar.”
Now and again some one negro minstrel did make a serious study of a Negro type; such a performer was J. W. McAndrew, the “Watermelon Man.” But the most of them were content to be comic without any effort to catch the special comicality of the darky; and some times they strayed so completely from the path as to indulge in songs in an Irish brogue or in a dislocated German dialect. Now, nothing could well be conceived more incongruously inartistic than a white man blacked up into the semblance of a Negro and then impertinently caroling an impudent Irish lyric. Yet the general neglect of the opportunities for a more accurate presentation of Negro characteristics is to be seen in the strange fact that the minstrels failed to perceive the possible popularity of rag-time tunes and failed also to put the cake-walk on the stage. Even at the height of its vogue in the sixties negro minstrelsy did not copy its own field and did not try to raise therein the varied flowers of which they had the seed.
Instead of cultivating the tempting possibilities which lay before them and devoting themselves to a loving delineation of the colored people who make up a tenth of our population, they turned aside to the spectacular elaboration of their original entertainment. The clog-dance became more intricate and more mechanical and thereby still more remote from the buck-and- wing dancing of the real Negro. The first-part was presented with accompaniments of Oriental magnificence of variegated glitter. The chorus was enlarged; the musicians were multiplied; the end-men operated in relays; and at last the bass drum which towered aloft over Haverly’s Mastodon Minstrels bore the boastful legend: “40. Count Them. 40.” And when the suspicious spectator obeyed this command he discovered to his surprise that the vaunt was more than made good, since he had a full view of at least half a dozen performers in addition to the promised two score.
At the apex of his inflated prosperity Haverly invaded Germany with his mastodonic organization; and one result of his visit was probably still further to confuse the Teutonic misinformation about the American type, which seems often to be a curious composite photograph of the red men of Cooper, the black men of Mrs. Stowe, and the white men of Mark Twain and Bret Harte. And it was reported at the time that another and more immediate result of this rash foray beyond the boundaries of the English-speaking race was that Haverly was for a while in danger of arrest by the police for a fraudulent attempt to deceive the German public, because be was pretending to present a company of negro minstrels, whereas his performers were actually white men. It should be recorded that while the vogue lasted there did come into existence sundry troupes of minstrels whose members were all of them actually colored men, although they conformed to the convention set by those whom they were imitating and conscientiously disguised themselves with burnt cork to achieve the sable uniformity temporarily attained by the ordinary negro minstrels.
Perhaps the most obvious parallel of the blacking up of veritable colored men to follow the example of the white men who pretended to imitate the Negro is to be found in the original performance of “As You Like It,” when the shaven boy actor who impersonated Rosalind disguised himself a lad, and then had to pretend to Orlando that he was a girl. For the decline and fall of negro minstrelsy it is easy to find more than one sufficient explanation.
First of all, it may have been due to its failure to devote itself lovingly to the representation of the many peculiarities of the darker people. Second, it is possible that negro minstrelsy had an inherent and inevitable disqualification for enduring popularity, in that it was exclusively masculine and necessarily deprived of the potent attractiveness exerted by the members of the more fascinating sex. And in the third place, its program was limited and monotonous; and therefore negro minstrelsy could not long withstand the competition of the music hall, of the variety show, and of the comic musical pieces, which satisfied more amply the same tastes of the public for broad fun commingled with song and dance.
Whatever the exact cause may be, there is no denying that negro minstrelsy is on the verge of extinction, however much we may bewail the fact. It failed to accomplish its true purpose; and it is disappearing, leaving behind it little that is worthy of preservation except a few of its songs. This at least it has to its credit, that it gave Stephen Collins Foster the chance to produce his simple melodies. Perhaps we might even venture to assert that the existence of negro minstrelsy is justified by a single one of these songs—by “Old Folks at Home,” which has a wailing melancholy and an unaffected pathos lacking in the earlier and more saccharine “Home, Sweet Home,” based on an old Sicilian tune. After Foster came Root and Work; and “My Old Kentucky Home” was succeeded by “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the Boys Are Marching.” and by “Marching Through Georgia”—which last lyric now shares its popularity only with “Dixie” as a musical relic of the Civil War.
It would be pleasant to know whether it was one of Foster’s songs and which one it may have been that once touched the tender heart of Thackeray. “I heard a humorous balladist not long ago,” the novelist recorded, “a minstrel with wool on his head and an ultra-Ethiopian complexion, who performed a Negro ballad that I confess moistened these spectacles in a most unexpected manner. I have gazed at thousands of tragedy--queens dying on the stage and expiring in appropriate blank verse, and I never wanted to wipe them. They have looked up, be it said, at many scores of clergymen without being dimmed, and behold! a vagabond with a corked face and a banjo sings a little song, strikes a wild note, which sets the heart thrilling with happy piety.”
Last modified October 2005.