SHAKESPERE'S "Othello" ... 'the Moor's of Venice' in
1603 was of the first Blackface Minstrel on stage and in theatre.
But we are really thinking here of the then popular Minstrel shows
of the 1800's. The Negro slave of the Southern States, toiling
in the fields of cotton, cane or corn, created an interest and
a sympathy. His songs and peculiar dances appealed to all classes
and the white man began to imitate him in his mannerisms. His
queer antics and style of vocalism sprang into popularity. The
instruments used by the slaves were very primitive. The banjo,
bones, tambourine and violin. Acts included many variations, dances
and dialogues of the colored Negroes. Most songs they used were
called "darkie songs" of that time.|
Some of these "Acts"
were very simple and others much more complex. Everything was
a close imitation of the Negro, his dialect being one of the essential
points necessary for a comedian to possess. Grimaces, contortions,
shuffling walks, very comic and ragged garments, large shoes,
small hats or battered high hats and old umbrellas, with strange
looking carpet bags were absolutely part and parcel of the comedian’s
outfit. In the middle 1850's he added grotesque female garments
for a lecture on “Woman’s Rights” or old military
clothes to show the return from the Mexican War, which began in
1846. He also became an orator on the questions of the day as
a stump speaker. This enabled the comedian to get off lots of
Before 1843 each circus had
one or two “Negro singers,” as they then designated
them. As well as the Medicine show would occasionally have a 'Darky
Act' as well. They performed on the banjo or violin, with bones
or tambourine, and imitated the (racial stereotyping) Negro in all his peculiarity of
dance or shouting songs. Notably among these circus singers were
Frank Brower, Dick Pelham, Billy Whitlock, old Dan Emmett, Wash
Donaldson, George Washington Dixon, Ben Mallory and Joe Sweeney.
Some of the musical theatre
and minstrel performers of the 1800s … from the beginnings
of the Jim Crow act by Thomas
Rice in Cincinnati … "Zip
Coon" performer George Washington Dixon … Dick
Pelham ... Edwin P. Christy, George Christy and the Christy’s
Minstrels … Ira Aldridge (as "Othello") ... Ralph
Keeler ... Thomas
D. Rice ... Charley White ... Dan Emmett ... G. Swayne Buckley,
... and Dan Bryant. Before women entered the field, the male actors
would dress 'en-transvestite' ( Not same as today) or
as the female role if one was used. The first lady to “black
up” and play with the minstrels is Mrs.
Harriet Phillips with the Virginia Serenaders
in May, 1848, in the burlesque of “The Bohemian Girl,”
in the Chestnut Street Theatre, Philadelphia. The first female
minstrels were presented by the Western
Sisters in their play of “The Three Fast
Men,” in which they presented a first part, March 9, 1857,
at the Boston National Theatre. In the 1846, William Henry Lane
( Master Juba)
and Thomas Dilward became the first African Americans to perform
on the minstrel stage.
Prior to the organization
of the first regular minstrel company in Boston on January of
1842. The idea was original; The cause of their organization was
simply to make up a combination of Negro stereotyping stuff for a one night
only show, which was expressly for the benefit of Pelham, who
at that time was dancing between the pieces at the Chatham Theatre.
Most of these performers would switch from one troupe to another
over time.... One day they are a Virginia Minstrel and next week
a Kentucky Minstrel and later a Christy's Minstrel, etc. The minstrels
made their own wigs—principally of curled hair from mattresses
or sofas. A few corks, burned at gas jets or incinerated in an
old tin pail, furnished the make-up. Sometimes they “blacked
up” with burnt paper. Later, a uniform of sorts was the
thing with high hats and coats with chinchilla material around
the collars and cuffs. As time went on, nearly all the troupes
had fine bands, though small in numbers. The salaries were moderate,
traveling by stage coach or railways was cheap, and hardly any
baggage to haul. The stage was decorated with a couple of curtains.
The profits were enormous for those days. Minstrelsy was a craze,
as there was no other entertainment to compete with it.
The bill was divided into
two parts. Part first, as “Dandy Negroes of the North,”
attired in black swallow-tail coats, with brass buttons; white
vest, tight black pants with straps that passed under the shoes.
This was supposed to be the refined part of the bill. Part second
was called "Plantation Darkies of the South." They
were attired as field hands, checked shirts, with large collars,
striped pants and big shoes. This consisted of plantation songs,
grotesque dancing, banjo songs, "Lucy Long," "Old
Bob Ridley," "The Cachucha dance", "Banjo
Lesson" and wound up with a festival dance for the whole
troupe, called a "Walkaround
or Grand Walkaround."
By the way, in the old days the bone player was the dandy coon
of the troupe. He assumed the female character if one was needed
and appeared in the then famous “Lucy Long” or "Miss
Fanny" specialty, or the “Cachucha” dance.
About 1845 J. P. Ordway organized
Ordway’s Aeolian's in Boston. This company also called themselves
the Cow-bell-o-gians, burlesquing the Swiss bell ringers, who
had created a furor throughout the country and especially in Boston.
The minstrels performed tunes on the cowbells. After Pell’s
death the troupe became known as the Morris Brothers’ Minstrels.
It was with this troupe that Fred Wilson introduced the Clog
dance for the first time with a minstrel troupe thus replacing
the Jig dance. Dick Sands, Tim
Hayes, Dick Carroll and Ben Goldsmith introduced the clog dance
with the minstrel troupes also. Dick Sliter, The
John Diamond's, Master Juba,
Jim Sanford, Billy Birch, Pete Lane, Dick Carroll, Mickey Warren,
Hank the Mason, Tommy Peel, Joe Brown, Williams and others where
all Jig Dancers.
The originators and inventors
of minstrelsy's Minstrel Troupes consisted of Dan Emmett, Frank
Brower, Billy Whitlock and Richard Pelham, calling themselves The Virginia Minstrels
and made their debut at the Franklin Theatre ( This was on 1/1843), and were received with deafening plaudits!. ! During
the same week they played one night at the Bowery Amphitheater.
Their performances here met with astonishing success, so much
so that they were secured at the Park Theatre for two weeks in
conjunction with the great dancer, John Diamond. Then they proceeded
to Boston for six weeks with wonderful success. Then returned
to New York at the Park Theatre.
Having now fairly introduced
their novelty they determined on a trip to England and they immediately
embarked for Europe. They were a huge success everywhere, with
all returning to the U.S.A. except for Pelham who stayed and opened
a saloon. Hence arose the various minstrel companies that were
to come into existence. The second troupe to form was the Kentucky Minstrels ( Originally
Frank Lynch, T. G. Booth, H. Mestayer and Richardson.) and
later said to become the Christy's Minstrels. Another group started
in Boston a few weeks after the Virginia Minstrels calling themselves
the " Ring and Parker Minstrels"
and went to Europe as well within a couple weeks of the Virginia
Minstrels. When the Virginia Minstrels returned from Europe, they
found, as they had anticipated, minstrel companies performing
their skits in abundance all over the country.
Christy Minstrels were actually the 5th company
to form, originally consisting of E. P. Christy, George N. Christy,
L. Durand, and T. Vaughn. This company organized in Buffalo and
traveled principally through the Southern and Western part of
the country. They at first called themselves the Virginia Minstrels
too. Soon after Enam Dickinson and Zeke Bachus were added to the
company; they then assumed the title of Christy’s Minstrels.
They first appeared in Palmo’s Opera House (late Burton’s
Theatre) in 1846. On their second appearance in New York, they
performed at the Alhambra on Broadway near Prince Street; and
from thence to the Society Library ( Later Appleton’s
Building), and afterwards at Mechanics Hall, 472 Broadway,
at which place they permanently remained from March 1847 to July
During the short time that
minstrelsy had been in operation, great improvements had been
made in a company known as the Ethiopian
Serenaders. They organized in Boston, came to
New York, and performed with immense success at the Chatham Theatre.
They consisted of Frank Germon, G. C. Germon, Tony Winnemore,
Quinn, Harry Pell, Moody Stanwood, Harrington, White and others.
The next companies of note and styled themselves the Virginia
Serenaders (organized in Philadelphia,) consisting
of James Sandford, Cool White, Richard Myers, Robert Edwards and
others. Next we have another very clever company known as the Harmoneans, consisting
of L. V. Crosby, Frank Lynch, Pike, Powers. They traveled principally
through the Eastern states with very great success for a long
time. Next inline was White’s
Serenaders. They organized in 1846 and consisted
of C. White, R. White, F. Stanton, W. Smith, H. Neil, and Master
Juba. They performed at White’s Melodeon, White’s
Varieties, and White’s Opera House, all in the Bowery. They
remained here, continually playing, for a space of eleven years—a
longer active permanency than ever attained by any similar exhibition;
during which time, and at which places, many of the present prominent
performers graduated under the favorable auspices of Mr. White’s
Late in the 1850's the steamboat
would join the farce and one namely called the 'Banjo' steamship
had a troupe of minstrels that played the Mississippi River towns.
Ben Cotton, Jim Woodruff, Frank Cordella and Joe Mairs were the
principal members. By the 1860's, Minstrelsy had been steadily
improving, until it became firmly established among our standard
amusements of the day and was sought after as much as the opera
or drama; in fact, in some respects, far out-rivaling either in
point of patronage. Many of the Opera houses and it's dramatic
players were seeking, in vain, for positions in minstrel companies.
After the Civil war, the
public's interest started to wane in the previous Blackface Negro antics
on the stage. Many Minstrel shows, and they were many, tried to
stay afloat by offering gifts etc. to its patrons, but nothing
worked. Many more real Blacks were "Blacking Up" or applying burnt
cork to their faces at this time. In content, early black minstrelsy
differed little from its white counterpart. The public was now
flooded with this type of entertainment and was seeking something
different. So the minstrel shows were re-vamped to use different
music such as Marches, War Songs and Ballads and eventually tossing
the old Negro ditties altogether for Spirtuals. In 1859, a new
“variety” of entertainment became quite popular in
New York and halls formerly used by minstrel companies were leased
for these new "variety" shows.
With most of the original
performers now dead or retired, new owners and managers would
step in with new ideas and many fortunes were still to be made
by such clever men as Al. G. Field, Neil O’Brien, George
Evans, Lew Dockstader, George Primrose, John W. Vogel, J. A. Coburn and Guy Brothers. What didn't help either the earleir minstrel shows was a new female type of French entertainment was gaining momentum, such as Madame Rentz's Female Minstrels who ran with the idea, first performing in 1870 in skimpy costumes and tights and later Lydia Thompson and her British Blondes plus others. Minstrel shows continued, they just changed the players and the Acts. ... Medicine shows to Minstrel shows, then onto Varities and Musical Comedies, to Burlesques, to Vaudeville, to Big Productions like Ziegfeld, back to Female Burlesque, Nightclub dance acts, to Prologues / Idea's for the new movie theatres like Fanchon and Marco's, Strip-Tease (Like Minsky's) and so on.
Once movie houses came onto the scene and films were getting much more entertaining, the Minstrel player was all but dead, except in the movies and or "Prologues/Idea's" ( Intermission acts) with actors, dancers, comedians who portrayed them such as Buster keaton, Al Jolson, Shirley Temple, Amos and Andy etc. to name a very few.
Although the Minstrel show's created a stereotypical racial view of the negroe back in the day that still somewhat lingers today ... It did a lot to help the Black man and woman to make a decent, legal and prideful living as compared to many other forms of work available to him in those days. The Minstrel shows and the Cakewalk helped start a path out of poverty thru entertainment that was not otherwise available. Unknown at the time, The slaves of the past were learning how to become entertainers thru this venue, even at the cost of making racial fun of themselves by negatively stereotyping themselves and started learning that the white man would pay money for what they could do. Money can change a lot and some of these Black men and women made a very good living from it that moved their families out of poverty and generations / children to come in higher educations, wealth or business that were not affordable /attainable before. Some people down those that did this (because some were lucky enough to find other ways,) but in retrospec, they did not live during those times and should be hailed as pioneers rather than race traitors, however when the time came to extinquish this type of Performing/acting, it was rightfully so to put pressure on them to stop, but it took a lot of years to repair /erase the damage done to a great race of man... The Negroe!