‘Gentlemen, Be Seated’ (1944)

The Pittsburgh Press (February 8, 1944)


Old-time minstrel show prospered for 60 years then faded out entirely

By Douglas Gilbert, Scripps-Howard staff writer

First of three articles.

This is the centenary of the minstrel show, and where is there one troupe to celebrate it? It is amazing that so vast an expression, which beguiled millions of Americans from 1843 to the turn of the century, should have left its mark nowhere in the contemporary theater.

Vaudeville still prevails, sometimes in revival, and in our nightclub floorshows, where a semblance of the old two-a-day theater exists. The circus still heralds New York’s spring. But no ghost in blackface haunts our stage. Nothing is left of the minstrel technique.

Minstrelsy, the only theatrical entertainment indigenous to the United States, has been dead for years. George M. Cohan rattled its bones in the season 1908-09 with the Cohan & Harris Minstrels. He took the troupe on tour and Charlie Washburn, his drumbeater, says it cost Cohan $100,000. In 1930, Kilpatrick’s Old-Time Minstrels played briefly at the Royale Theater. No producer brave, or stupid, enough has attempted a revival since.

Some phases of minstrelsy are surprising. Its entire presentation was based on blackface and the Negro’s folkways and songs. Yet the Negro had little or nothing to do with its form. It originated with and was developed by white performers.

Dixie is sole survivor

The late George H. Primrose, a blackface star for 50 years, said that the first production of a minstrel show was given at the Bowery Amphion, Feb. 6, 1843. The performers were Dan Emmett, Frank Brower, Billy Whitlock and Dick Pelham.

Only Emmett is remembered – through his song, “Dixie.” Even “Dixie” had nothing to do with the South except through the allusion in its lyric. Emmett wrote it in New York on a blustering winter’s day and he really meant the line, “I wish I was in the land of cotton.” He wrote the song for a “walkaround,” the invariable finale to the minstrel show’s first part.

Dan was 80 and had long lived in retirement on a small farm near Mount Vernon, Ohio, when Al G. Fields, a popular minstrel manager and performer, induced Dan to travel with his show in 1895. Dan rode in the street parade in an open barouche with banners on its side proclaiming, “Dan Emmett – Composer of Dixie.”

He was introduced to the audience after the first party walkaround, then the band played “Dixie” with the inevitable response while Dan bowed feebly. He was a good draw, but troublesome to care for on the road, and Fields only took him out that one season.

Fields evades New York

Fields was an interesting fellow, seemingly took delight in proving his amusing quirks. One of them was that he would never play New York. He always felt that New York audiences wouldn’t care for his style of playing, and he was right.

One season in the late ‘90s, he was persuaded against his better judgment to fill an engagement at the Grand Opera House. The attendance was miserable and on the last night, Primrose, Billy West, Lew Dockstader and several other prominent minstrels took a stage box to cheer him up. Before the final curtain, Fields stepped to the footlights and said:

Ladies and gentlemen, take a good look at me because you are not ever going to see me again.

They never did, in New York.

Neil O’Brien

Neil O’Brien, who at 75 is probably the oldest living minstrel, confirms Primrose’s statement that the first minstrel show was given in 1843 by Emmett, Whitlock, Brower and Pelham. He says they met at a boarding house and fixed up a musical act with songs and funny sayings and then worked the pubs for throw money. They were successful and the engagement at the Amphion followed.

Emmett was a fiddler, the others played bones, tambourine and banjo. Throughout its years of public presentation, the banjo has always been the musical symbol of minstrelsy – another curious phase of the entertainment.

That the banjo was the instrument of the Southern Negro – and thus the proper heritage of minstrelsy – has been disputed, and with authority.

Banjo idea disputed

I have seen the Negro at work and I have seen him at play. I have attended his cornhuskings, his dances and his frolics. I have heard him give the wonderful melody of his songs to the winds… I have heard him scrape jubilantly on the fiddle. I have seen him blow wildly on the bugle and beat enthusiastically in the triangle. But I have never heard him play on the banjo.

The words are those of Joel Chandler Harris.

One of the great and most popular shows in the history of minstrelsy, George Christy’s Minstrels, featured the banjo. Christy, a pioneer, lasted for years and made much money. His was the first minstrel troupe to invade England. The British took to the entertainment at once and minstrel shows were a pronounced success in England for years.

It is too easy, across the years, to disparage the minstrel show. Against the speed and sophistication of our own revues and musicals, it was a doddering, awkward entertainment with silly grimaces and sillier jokes.

But its bombast was good-natured, its jubilation sincere. Throughout its 80-odd years of life, it was a family show. Indeed, its performers accented its appeal to children with gawdy uniforms, the blare of brass in the time-honored 11:45 a.m. parade, and with nursery jokes of the why-did-the-chicken-cross-the-road type.

Shady jokes rare

Its entertainment was couched, not to the morals of its times, which were no better than ours, but to the mores, which were vastly different. A respectable woman of the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s publicly exposed two anatomical parts – her hands and her face. In the legitimate theater, allusions to the female form were sparse and guarded.

In the minstrel show, they scarcely existed beyond the mention of “a pretty girl.” No women appeared in the strict form of the minstrel show, it was masculine nonsense solely. Moreover, minstrels, playing to a mixed audience that included children, were forced to keep it clean. Eventually this became the tradition. A “blue” joke or sexy double entendre in a blackface show was rare.

Because of its crazy quilt hit-or-miss pattern, the minstrel show developed an amazing assrtoment of curious characters, some of whom could do nothing else but clown in blackface. Charlie Reynolds was unique.

Reynolds, who worked for Simmons & Slocum Minstrels, could neither sing nor dance and he was tone deaf. He could never learn more than a few words of any song. He could handle neither tambourines nor bones, and when telling a story, he collapsed helplessly before reaching its point.

Arresting personality

But he had an arresting personality and an irresistible humor and his sway over an audience was complete. His dialogue, method and style, as old-timers recall them, were infantile, sometimes insane. But he was a popular performer. He died in Vineland, New Jersey, 40 years ago in the poorhouse.

Lew Simmons was one of the friendliest and best-liked men in the profession. It may surprise most baseball fans that Lew, not Connie Mack, was the first manager of the Philadelphia Athletics. The fact is commemorated in an old song by H. Angelo called “The Baseball Fever,” which was published in 1867.

The humor of any situation was the first thing Lew saw, even if the joke was on him. He was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, and there he died on a visit – struck down and killed by a beer truck. Doubtless Lew drew a celestial chuckle out of that. He was a great guzzler.

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The Pittsburgh Press (February 9, 1944)


Old minstrels used cigar boxes, tin cans to make instruments

By Douglas Gilbert, Scripps-Howard staff writer

Second of a series.

A panel from a minstrel song cover (“Going Ober de Mountain”) dated 1843, the inauguration year of minstrelsy in America. It probably caricatures an act from the Virginia Minstrels, the first organized troupe. The song cover is a superb lithograph and a collector’s item.

Who devised the peculiar formation of the minstrel show’s first part, as the opening was called – the semi-circular arrangement with the performers (“40-Count-‘Em-40”) banked in tiers – is not known. Doubtless it was a gradual development. Certainly, it was a logical grouping, for the stages of the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, the decades when the minstrel show was most popular, were small and poorly lighted.

The late Brander Matthews, one-time professor of dramatic literature in Columbia University, offered an interesting theory as to the origins of Bones and Tambo, the end men, and the pompous interlocutor, or middleman.

For his originals, Mr. Matthews went back to 16th-century Paris and the dialogue between Mondor, the quack, and his comic foil, Tabarin, buskers of the period, or, in the true sense of the word, minstrels.

Setting up a pitch in the marketplace, Tabarin would inquire of the doltish quack:

Master, tell me which is the more generous, man or woman?

Mondor replied:

Ah, Tabarin, that is a question often debated by the philosophers of antiquity and they have been unable to decide which is truly the more generous, man or woman.

Tabarin said, briskly:

Never mind the old philosophers. I can tell you.

What, Tabarin, do you mean to say you can tell us which is the more generous, a man or a woman?


“Pray do so then,” said Mondor.

The judgement? Shush

Then Tabarin would announce his judgment which, unfortunately, is too ribald to be printed today but which, in picklock Paris of the 16th century, was greeted with guffaws by the unsqueamish crowd about the quack doctor’s platform.

Although this smacks a bit of the medicine show, Matthews’ analogy is not too farfetched. The minstrel interlocutor was as fatuous as Mondor, and the end men as glib, if not as bawdy, as his Tabarin.

“You ask me, Mr. Bones, why did the chicken cross the road. And now, I ask you, why did the chicken cross the road?” Thus, the minstrel interlocutor. Eventually he was answered and the laugh (and the audiences really laughed at this) was on the pompous interlocutor.

Personal jokes

Sometimes the comedy was personal, even to the use of the performers’ real names. And sometimes either one of the end men, instead of the interlocutor, was the butt of the joke.

The San Francisco Minstrels, one of about 50-odd minstrel troupes in the late ‘80s, was headed by Billy Birch, Dave Wambold, Charlie Backus and Ad Ryman. The latter was the interlocutor; Birch and Backus were end men.

During the First Part (this designation was always capitalized), Birch would tell Ad Ryman of how Backus tried vainly to impress a pretty girl at a party.

Birch would say:

And do you know, Ad, she turned to him and said, “Mr. Backus, is that your real mouth or do you use glove stretchers?”

Backus had a mouth like a cavern.

Two ran for 40 years

This bucolic flavor was essentially minstrel and its greatest exponents were Carncross & Dixey’s Minstrels. In a bandbox theater in 11th Street below Market in Philadelphia, they established an unusual reputation – for 40 years they prospered.

Prospered, that is, in the same place and with the same organization. J. L. Carncross, the interlocutor, had a light tenor voice splendidly adapted to plaintive ballads – “The Low-Backed Car”, for example, or “When the Corn Is Waving.”

E. F. Dixey, his partner, was the bone end and his forte was “bone” solos played with two clappers of bone of ebony in each hand. He imitated barbers, woodchoppers and shoemakers and closed with a rousing interpretation of the race between Dexter and Goldsmith Maid, two famous trotters of the period.

Refinement of art

Dixey’s bone solos were a refinement of the art. The earliest end men used the jawbone of a horse. They rattled a rib bone between its forks to produce rolls and single and double clacks. Often, they accompanied an ancient bit of doggerel recalled by Jack Murphy, old-time vaudeville star:

Jawbone walk, jawbone talk,
Ain’t goin’ to work no more.
Jawbone eat with a knife and fork,
Ain’t goin’ to work no more.

Rain little, snow little,
Ain’t goin’ to work no more.
Hailstorm! Blind hawg,
Ain’t goin’ to work no more.

The bone solo was virtually a Carnegie Hall interlude for the minstrel show. Performers used many freak instruments, mainly of their own devising. Murphy & Mackin, an outstanding team, perpetuated the greatest novelty of minstrel times. They played a reel on the ribs of a human skeleton, and rigged it so the skeleton danced the last few bars.

Cigar boxes used

Fiddles and banjos made of cigar boxes were common. But a performer named Dilks played a tune on a tomato can. This also was a feat. He attached a string to the can, held the can between his feet and vibrated the string by scratching it with a rosined stick. He accomplished the musical scale by changing the tension of the string.

Then a team named Huber and Glidden developed the idea. They make a fiddle and banjo out of oyster cans. In those days, oysters were packed in tins about the size of a two-pound candy box. The team was so successful they billed themselves as the “Oyster Can Mokes.”

For contrast, Glidden would then play a real banjo. But Huber kept to his freak role. As Glidden strummed in orthodox manner, Huber played a whisk broom obligato all over Glidden, all over his banjo and all over the chair Glidden sat in.

Minstrel comedy musical acts ran the gamut, stopped nowhere. Performers made “musical” instruments out of crockery, bottles, flowerpots. One team even used top hats for tonal effects by stiffening them with shellac and spanking them with a paddle.

Johnny Saunders devised an act with eight beer kegs which he tapped for tunes with a bungstarter. He tuned the kegs with water, exactly as musical glasses. Fields & Hoey played “The Last Rose of Summer” on eight cowbells. And Jack Keating, of Keating & Sands, actually played a tune of his face. He played the “Carnival of Venice” by forcing the wind across his lips with a bellows. It sounded like a far-off steamboat whistle.

Tops in freak minstrel music, though, was Swain Buckley. He billed himself as “The One-Man Band,” and it was no understatement. Buckley tied a brass drum to his back, held cymbals between his knees, fastened bells to his head and ankles, fixed a harmonica on racks close to his mouth, held an accordion in his hands and strapped a snare drum about his waist.

Playing the accordion and using every joint and muscle in his body, he managed to play a march and several popular melodies of the day.

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Minstrel shows may have disappeared early in the 20th century in the United States, but for reasons I can only speculate about, Britain’s state broadcast network, the BBC, introduced a TV version in 1958 that lasted until 1978!!

The Black & White Minstrel Show

I almost certainly saw this show at least a few times in my early childhood (we emigrated in 1967), although I have no memories of it.

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The Pittsburgh Press (February 10, 1944)


Old minstrel headliners made fortunes on road and Primrose saved his

By Douglas Gilbert, Scripps-Howard staff writer

Last of a series.

Lew Dockstader, one of the last great minstrel comics. His monologues were topical kidding and among those he ribbed, and impersonated, was Teddy Roosevelt, who enjoyed Lew’s characterization.

Minstrel entertainment was juvenile, yet its bucolic tomfoolery developed a number of eminent actors and vaudeville comics, all of whom began their careers in blackface. Among them were Joe Jefferson, Francis Wilson, Honey Boy Evans, Chauncey Olcott, Eddie Leonard and a score of others.

Few stuck strictly to minstrelsy, and these – Jack Haverly, George Thatcher, George Primrose, Billy West, Lew Dockstader and Neil O’Brien were some – prospered greatly in the heydays of trouping (in passing, Joe White, who became the Silver Masked Tenor of radio, sang for Neil O’Brien a number of seasons).

George Primrose, whose specialty was soft-shoe dancing, was one of the most popular minstrels throughout the ‘90s, with Dockstader, with whom he later teamed, a runner-up. Each made fortunes, and the thrifty Primrose saved his. He settled in Mount Vernon, New York, in a gingerbread mansion and the grateful town named a street after him.

It is generally believed that Primrose began his career with McFarland’s Minstrels in Detroit in 1868, but his widow, the former Katherine Trueblood, says he teamed up with Billy West and danced in a Chicago free-and-easy, as low dives were then called.

George Primrose and Billy West, regarded by some old-timers as the greatest team in minstrelsy. Primrose was tops as a soft-shoe dancer, now largely a lost art.

Later they formed their own company and, as Primrose & West, achieved astonishing success. In 1893, celebrating their 25th anniversary in Madison Square Garden (then in Madison Square), they put on perhaps the largest minstrel show of all time – 300 performers. Primrose asserted that one day’s receipts totaled $12,000 which is more like a fight gate.

A sob in a song

It was through the medium of Primrose & West that Edward B. Marks, the music publisher, exploited “The Little Lost Child” or “A Passing Policeman.” This was the first of the illustrated slide songs which Marks wrote to the music of his then partner, Joseph W. Stern. It was a sobber about a girl whose finding by a policeman led to the policeman’s reunion with his estranged wife.

Marks asked Primrose if he would permit the minstrel tenor, Allan May, to sing the song to illustrations that he (Marks) would provide. Primrose was indifferent, but West said definitely no, held that such monkey business didn’t belong in minstrels.

Can’t say no

You just don’t say no to Ed Marks, and he finally gained grudging consent to put it on his way at a Wednesday matinee in the Grand Opera House, 8th Avenue and 23rd Street. The slides had been made from photographs by George H. Thomas, a competent photographer when working with a Niagara Falls backdrop, but completely lost in this new medium.

The original shots were authentic. Marks brought Thomas out to the Lee Avenue (Brooklyn) police station, and with the cajolery characteristic of all music publishers induced a real cop and an equally real urchin to pose in the setting of a bona fide precinct house.

Thomas transferred his negatives to slides and Marks, elated at the chance and feeling sure it would go over, awaited the forthcoming matinee. It came soon enough. At the Olio, Allan May stepped out on the stage as Thomas took his post in the balcony at the sputtering stereopticon machine.

Now Jim Fisk had owned the Grand Opera House (it still stands) and the admiral of the Fall River and Bristol lines always did everything in spades, doubled, with Technicolor. His Grand Opera House had two of everything and twice as big.

Thomas flashed his first slide. It pictured a policeman 15 feet tall standing on his head, and West, incensed, chased Marks and Thomas out of the theater. Undaunted, Marks rehearsed Thomas, who eventually got the knack. Then, with Primrose’s aid, Marks got West to consent to one more performance at the Saturday matinee.

It not only stopped the show – it started exploitation that sold more than a million copies of “Little Lost Child.” It also influenced others to make slide songs, among them Joe Howard, who similarly presented Marks’ song, “My Mother Was a Lady.”

Before she went trouping with her husband, Mrs. Primrose operated a stenographic office in a St. Louis hotel. In the early 1900s, when Primrose was playing that city, his box-office girl and bookkeeper fell ill. Miss Trueblood was recommended and she got the job for the St. Louis engagement.

Primrose’s Minstrels went on to Nashville and there the sick girl died. Primrose promptly wired Miss Trueblood to come on and join the troupe. She did, and finished out the season – the first of many for her.

Primrose married at 65

Long a widower, Primrose one day said to her:

I am growing old and I need a companion. I don’t know anybody I’d rather leave my name with than you. I don’t expect you to love me. I just want kindness.

They were married to Rochester, New York, when Primrose was 65.

Mrs. Primrose has devoted her life to keeping her husband’s memory alive. In 1918, she put on a blackface act, a sort of miniature minstrel show, and took it out on the Loew circuit. In white face and evening gown, she acted as interlocutor, probably the only woman ever to assume the role in the history of minstrelsy.

Primrose was an ardent poker player, but his wife would only allow him $10 a week for the game. One midnight in Knoxville, Tennessee, Primrose (with George Thatcher, Billy West and some others) entered their private car and started a game.

As Primrose dealt, a policeman, under a magistrate’s orders, arrested the players and subsequently they were fined a total of $100. Seems they were violating an ordinance against gambling. Earlier in the day, Primrose, grateful for the support of Knoxville patrons (the troupe had played to standing room) had taken out a large “thank you” ad in the local papers.

Arrest called an insult

Recalling the incident years later, Primrose observed:

And the advertisement ran the next day right alongside of the story of our ignominious arrest.

The Mayor was so indignant at what he termed “an insult to a great performer and friend of Knoxville,” he ordered the fine remitted and sent the money to Primrose, then playing Louisville. Primrose promptly returned the sum, asking that it be credited to some local charity.

Minstrelsy was never an art. It was a rowdy-dowdy, lampblacked harlequinade with music and song, awkward, yet genial, a sort of bucolic friendliness reflecting the spirit of homespun days that, in the speed and madness of contemporary times, is as fated as a comic valentine.

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