by Edward Le Roy Rice (1871-1940)
The First Black-Face Performer
The late Laurence Hutton in "The Negro on the Stage," states that Shakespeare's Othello was one of the earliest black-face stage characters; giving the date of the appearance at the Globe Theatre, London, England, on April 30, 1610; Oronoko followed in 1696. But several hundred years before the jealous Moor's appearance, a couple of young men, named Cain and Abel respectively, did a brother act, though not necessarily a brotherly act, for the first-named gentleman one day in a fit of peevishness did smite Master Abel with such force that the breath did leave his body ; Cain was punished, as he should have been ; his complexion was changed from Caucasian to Ethiopian; this was the first black face turn. Anyway, that's how the story runs. With the reader's permission we will skip about 1,700 years, and come down to the comparative present.
The late Charles T. White, who made a study of minstrelsy all his life and was himself contemporaneous with it from its inception, stated that according to Russell's Boston Gazette of December 30, 1799, at the Federal Theatre, Boston, a Mr. Graupner sang a song called "The Negro Boy."
The next mention of a black-face performer, by Mr. White, was in 1815, when an actor known as "Pot Pie" Herbert sang "The Battle of Plattsburg" in Albany; Mr. H. D. Stone in the "Drama," published in Albany in 1873, credits one "Hop" Robinson as the singer of the song; while "Sol" Smith, a reputed eye-witness, in his (Smith's) autobiography, published in 1868, credits it to Andrew Jackson Allen, claiming that Allen sang it at the Green Street Theatre, Albany, 1815, playing a black-face character. Obviously there could be but one "first" and a period of fifteen years had apparently elapsed between the reputed appearance of Mr. Graupner and the last named gentleman; in other words, no claims have been made for others between 1799 and 1815. Nevertheless, there was an appearance between these dates, and by none other than Mr. Graupner himself, who, on September 4. 1809 (while "Daddy" Rice was an infant in swaddling clothes), appeared as the "Gay Negro Boy" in a circus at Taunton, Mass.; the honor then beyond any doubt is Mr. Graupner's ; and equally certain is the fact that he appeared in Boston, December 30, 1799. Black-face performers sprang up rapidly, and in earlier days no circus was considered complete without at least one of them.
The following were all popular performers preceding minstrelsy proper; unfortunately the dates of their deaths are practically shrouded in oblivion:
George Nichols; Bob Farrell, the original "Zip Coon"; Sam Tatnall, Barney Burns, Bill Keller, Horatio Eversell, George Rice (brother of T. D. Rice), William M. Hall, Thomas Blakely, Leicester, etc. Andrew Jackson Allen, already mentioned, was born in New York City in 1776, and according to Laurence Hutton was the costumer, dresser and personal slave of Edwin Forrest for many years; he was quite deaf, and was commonly known as "Dummy" Allen. He died in New York City, October 29, 1853. James Roberts, by the same authority, sang a song in negro character as early as October 7, 1824 ; he died in 1833.
George Washington Dixon sang "Coal Black Rose," the air of which was appropriated from an old ballad, as early as 1827. His first New York appearance was of the Lafayette Theatre, July 19, 1828. He later became notorious as a filibuster during the Yucatan disturbances, and died in New Orleans in 1861.
Some prominent early minstrel performers whose records and deaths were likewise lost in oblivion are: Charley Jenkins, Master Chestnut, Harry Mestayer, Neil Jamison and many more. There are others, too, of nearly every decade of whom the author has made every research to gather some knowledge, but without success.
Thomas Dartmouth Rice (1808-1860) was the original "Jim Crow," the story has been told in many ways, but the authentic version appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1867, and herewith is reproduced verbatim; it is from the pen of Robert P. Nevin.
"Thirty-six years ago a young' man, about twenty-five years of age, of a commanding height—six feet full. the heels of his boots not included in the reckoning—and dressed in scrupulous keeping with the fashion of the time, might have been seen sauntering idly along one of the principal streets of Cincinnati. To the few who could claim acquaintance with him he was known as an actor, playing at the time referred to a short engagement as light comedian in a theatre of that city. He does not seem to have attained to any noticeable degree of eminence in his profession, but he had established for himself a reputation among jolly fellows in a social way. He could tell a story, sing a song, and dance a hornpipe, after a style which, however, unequal to complete success on the stage, proved, in private performance to select circles rendered appreciative by accessory refreshments, famously triumphant always. If it must be confessed that he was deficient in the more profound qualities, it is not to be inferred that he was destitute of all the distinguishing, though shallower, virtues of character. He had the merit, too, of a proper appreciation of his own capacity; and his aims never rose above that capacity. As a superficial man he dealt with superficial things, and his dealings were marked by tact and shrewdness. In his sphere he was proficient, and he kept his wits upon the alert for everything that might be turned to professional and profitable use. Thus it was that, as he sauntered along one of the main thoroughfares of Cincinnati, as has been written, his attention was suddenly arrested by a voice ringing clear and full above the noises of the street, and giving utterance, in an unmistakable dialect, to the refrain 'of a song to this effect:
As his engagement at Cincinnati had nearly expired. Rice deemed it expedient to postpone a public venture in the newly projected line until the opening of a fresh engagement should assure him opportunity to share fairly the benefit expected to grow out of the experiment. This engagement had already been entered into : and accordingly, shortly after, in the Autumn of 183o, he left Cincinnati for Pittsburgh.
The old theatre of Pittsburgh occupied the site of the present one, on Fifth Street. It was an unpretending structure, rudely built of boards, and of moderate proportions, but sufficient, nevertheless, to satisfy the taste and secure the comfort of the few who dared to face consequences and lend patronage to an establishment under the ban of the Scotch-Irish Calvinists. Entering upon duty at the "Old Drury" of the "Birmingham of America," Rice prepared to take ad-vantage of his opportunity. There was a negro in attendance at Griffith's Hotel, on Wood Street, named Cuff—an exquisite specimen of his sort—who won a precarious subsistence by letting his open mouth as a mark for boys to pitch pennies into, at three paces, and by carrying the trunks of passengers from the steam-boats to the hotels. Cuff was precisely the subject for Rice's purpose. Slight persuasion induced him to accompany the actor to the theatre, where he was led through the private entrance, and quietly ensconced behind the scenes. After the play, Rice, having shaded his town countenance to the "contraband" hue, ordered Cuff to disrobe, and proceeded to invest himself in the cast-off apparel. When the arrangements were complete, the bell rang, and Rice, habited in an old coat forlornly dilapidated, with a pair of shoes composed equally of patches and places for patches on his feet, and wearing a coarse straw hat in a melancholy condition of rent and collapse over a dense black wig of matted moss, waddled into view. The extraordinary apparition produced an instant effect. The crash of peanuts ceased in the pit, and through the circles passed a murmur and a bustle of liveliest expectation. The orchestra opened with a short prelude, and to its accompaniment Rice began to sing, delivering the first line by way of introductory recitative:
Now it happened that Cuff, who meanwhile was crouching in dishabille under concealment of a projecting flat behind the performer, by some means received intelligence, at this point, of the near approach of a steamer to the Monongahela Wharf. Between himself and others of his color in the same line of business, and especially as regarded a certain formidable competitor called Ginger, there existed an active rivalry in the baggage-carrying business. For Cuff to allow Ginger the advantage of an undisputed descent upon the luggage of the approaching vessel would be not only to forfeit all "considerations" from the passengers, but, by proving him a laggard in his calling, to cast a damaging blemish upon his reputation. Liberally as he might lend himself to a friend, it could not be done at that sacrifice. After a minute or two of fidgety waiting for the song to end, Cuff's patience could endure no longer, and, cautiously hazarding a glimpse of his profile beyond the edge of the flat, he called in a hurried whisper: "Massa Rice, Massa Rice, must have my clo'se ! Massa Griffif wants me—steamboat 's comin' !"
The appeal was fruitless. Massa Rice did not hear it, for a happy hit at an unpopular city functionary had set the audience in a roar in which all other sounds were lost. Waiting some moments longer, the restless Cuff, thrusting his visage from under cover into full three-quarter view this time, again charged upon the singer in the same words, but with more emphatic voice: "Massa Rice, Massa Rice, must have my clo'se! Massa Griffif wants me—steamboat's comin'!"
A still more successful couplet brought a still more tempestuous response, and the invocation of the baggage-carrier was unheard and unheeded. Driven to desperation, and forgetful in the emergency of every sense of propriety, Cuff, in ludicrous undress as he was, started from his place, rushed upon the stage, and laying his hand upon the performer's shoulder, called out excitedly: "Massa Rice, Massa Rice, g:' me nigga's hat—nigga's coat—nigga's shoes—gi' me nigga's t'ings! Massa Griffif wants 'im—STEAMBOAT 'S COMIN'!!''
The incident was the touch, in the mirthful experience of that night, that passed endurance. Pit and circles were one scene of such convulsive merriment that it was impossible to proceed in the performance; and the extinguishment of the footlights, the fall of the curtain, and the throwing wide of the doors for exit, indicated that the entertainment was ended.
Such were the circumstances—authentic in every particular—under which the first work of the distinct art of Negro Minstrelsy was presented.
Next (lay found the song of Jim Crow, in one style of delivery or another, on everybody's tongue. Clerks hummed it serving customers at shop counters, artisans thundered it at their toils to the time-beat of sledge and of tilt-hammer, boys whistled it on the streets, ladies warbled it in parlors, and house-maids repeated it to the clink of crockery in kitchens. Rice made up his mind to profit. further by its popularity: he determined to publish it. Mr. W. C. Peters, after-wards of Cincinnati, and well known as a composer and publisher, was at that time a music dealer on Market Street in Pittsburgh. Rice, ignorant himself of the simplest elements of musical science, waited upon Mr. Peters, and solicited his co-operation in the preparation of his song for the press. Some difficulty was experienced before Rice could be induced to consent to the correction of certain trifling informalities, rhythmical mainly, in his melody ; but, yielding finally, the air as it now stands, with a pianoforte accompaniment by Mr. Peters, was put upon paper. The manuscript was put into the hands of Mr. John Newton, who reproduced it on stone with an elaborately embellished title-page, including a portrait of the subject of the song, precisely as it has been copied through succeeding editions to the present time. It was the first specimen of lithography ever executed in Pittsburgh.
Jim Crow was repeated nightly throughout the season at the theatre ; and when that was ended. Beale's Long Room, at the corner of Third and Market Streets, was engaged for rehearsals exclusively in the Ethiopian line. "Clar de Kitchen" soon appeared as a companion piece, followed speedily by "Lucy Long," "Sich a Gittin' up Stairs," "Long-Tail Blue," and so on, until quite a repertoire was at command from which to select for an evening's entertainment.
Rice remained in Pittsburgh some two years. He then visited Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, whence he sailed for England, where he met with high favor in his novel character." Before he sang "Jim Crow," Rice was considered only a mediocre performer. Jos. N. Ireland. in his "Records of the New York Stage," says that he drew more money to the Bowery Theatre than any other performer in the same period of time. His appearances were generally with dramatic organizations, where he usually performed between the acts. His minstrel performances were comparatively few, and mostly confined to Charley White's Serenaders; though he played a star engagement at Wood's Minstrels in August, 1858, also in New York. At the Bowery Theatre in the Metropolis, he appeared with much success for several weeks as Uncle Tom, commencing January 16, 1854. He was the author of several early negro farces, the most popular being, "Oh, Hush!" "The Mummy" and "Bone Squash.' The first New York performance of "0, Hush" was given August 15, 1832. He was noted for his eccentricity of dress; the buttons on his coat and vest were five and ten dollar gold pieces, which he would give away indiscriminately as souvenirs. He married a Miss Gladstone in England, June 18, 1837. "Daddy Rice was born in New York City, May 20, 1808. He died there September 19, 1860.
THE FIRST MINSTREL PERFORMANCE
There has always been considerable discussion as to the exact date when this interesting event took place ; two things are certain, and have never been disputed; that it actually did occur, and that the initial presentation was in New York City, between January 31 and February 17. 1843.
That the idea of amalgamating the respective talents of the original four, Emmett, Brower ,Pelham and Whitlock, was conceived by the latter, there is no doubt ; the following was furnished by him many years before his death. "The organization of the minstrels I claim to be my own idea, and it can-not be blotted out. One day I asked Dan Emmett, who was in New York at the time, to practice the fiddle and the banjo with me at his boarding-house in Catherine Street. We went down there, and when we had practiced, Frank Brower called in by accident. He listened to our music, charmed to his soul ! I told him to join with the bones, which he did. Presently Dick Pelham came in, also by accident, and looked amazed. I asked him to procure a tambourine and make one of the party, and he went out and got one. After practicing for a while we went to the old resort of the circus crowd—the `Branch,' in the Bowery —with our instruments, and in Bartlett's billiard-room performed for the first time as the Virginia Minstrels. A program was made out, and the first time we appeared upon the stage before an audience was for the benefit of Pelham at the Chatham Theatre. The house was crammed—jammed with out friends; and Dick, of course, put ducats in his purse."
The house on Catherine Street was No. 37, and was kept by a Mrs. Brooks. The "Branch" was a hotel opposite the Bowery Amphitheatre.
On January 31, 1843, Dick Pelham did have a benefit, but the performance was of the ordinary nature; nothing unusual, such as a quartet of black-face per-formers appearing at one time, which would have caused considerable stir; thus may we eliminate January 31, 1843, as the date of the first performance in public.
The following announcement appeared on February 6:
THE VIRGINIA MINSTRELS
Being an exclusively minstrel entertainment combining the banjo, violin, bone castanets and the tambourine, and entirely exempt from the vulgarities and other objectionable features which have hitherto characterized Negro extravaganzas.
BILLY WHITLOCK was a typesetter on the New York Herald, and appeared at various theatres in the evening, while retaining his position during the day.
He made his first appearance in New York City in 1835, as Cuff in "0, Hush." He resigned from the Herald in 1837, and went with a circus; he re-turned to New York, and in the Winter of 1839 was engaged by P. T. Barnum to play the banjo for John Diamond, the great dancer. Mr. Whitlock was the first to return to the United States after the dissolution of the original company; he arrived about August, 1844; subsequently appearing with various small organizations and circuses.
For many years he traveled as a Yankee comedian, and was also an actor at the Bowery Theatre about 1853; he was the composer of "Lucy Long," one of the great songs of early minstrelsy. His last appearance was with Dan Rice's Circus in 1855. His daughter married Edwin Adams, the great actor.
It is a strange thing that no one seems to know where Mr. Whitlock is buried. Billy Whitlock was born in New York City, 18'3; he died at Long Branch, N. J., March 29, 1878.
November 14, 1842, he appeared at the Franklin Theatre in New York, and on January 16, 1843, he had a benefit at the Amphitheatre, on which occasion he appeared in sixteen songs and dances, and played in the farce "Negro Assurance ;" yet we think continuous performances are of recent origin. After the dissolution of the original four in England, Mr. Pelham played an extended engagement at Sadler's Wells Theatre in London. April 22, 1844, in conjunction with Dan. Emmett, Frank Brower and Joe Sweeney, they reorganized their little band and opened in Dublin, Ireland ; at the Theatre Royal, afterwards, appearing in Cork, Belfast, Glasgow and Edinburgh, after which they disbanded.
Mr. Pell subsequently organized Pell's Serenaders, and played all the large cities in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. His last appearance was at Birmingham, England, August 19, 1856.
Dick Pelham was born in New York City, February 13, 1815; he died in Liverpool, England, October 8, 1876.
Mr. Emmett first blacked up at the age of sixteen, and two years later joined Sam. Stickney's Circus. At the age of twenty-five, he learned to play the banjo, and traveled with Angevine's Circus until he reached New York, in 1842.
In 1843, after leaving his three associates in England, he performed at Bolton, Lancashire ; he rejoined Pelham and Brower in Dublin, Ireland, April 22, 1844, and played with them and Joe Sweeney for several weeks.
Returning to the United States, he appeared with various circus and minstrel companies,
Emmett's Minstrels opened at St. Paul, Minn., April 26, 1858; he was also associated with Frank Brower in a minstrel company in the 50's.
Mr. Emmett joined Bryant's Minstrels in New York City in 1858, and remained several years; after Dan Bryant's death in 1875, he accepted a position as leader in the Star Varieties, Chicago. In the Fall of 1881 he went out with Leavitt's Minstrels, where in conjunction with several old timers, they gave a reproduction of the original Virginia Minstrels of 1843.
His last engagement was a tour of the country with Al. G. Field's Minstrels about ten years ago.
An account of the famous song of "I Wish I Was in Dixie," will be found elsewhere.
After the separation of the original minstrel company in London in 1844, Mr. Brower traveled with Cook's Circus in England; and in the Spring of 1844, with Pelham, Sweeney and Emmett, they gave their old performance, opening in Dublin, Ireland, April 22, 1844, and playing engagements in Cork, Belfast, Glasgow and Edinburgh, after which he returned to America and played with some of the principal minstrel and circus organizations.
In 1851 he revisited England, appearing as clown with Welch's Circus. February 28, 1856, he opened at Sanford's Minstrels in Philadelphia.
His last engagement in minstrelsy was with Tunnison's Minstrels in Philadelphia, November 2, 1867; and his last appearance on the stage was in the same city, November 22, 1867, at the Walnut Street Theatre, in "The Lottery of Love."
Mr. Brower's "Happy Uncle Tom" was as perfect a piece of acting, it has been said, that has ever been seen on any stage. He was original to a degree, and never stooped to vulgarity in any form. Frank Brower was born in Baltimore, Md., November 20, 1823; he died in Philadelphia, June 4, 1874.
were originated and first organized by Edwin P. Christy, and after that gentle-man retired from the profession, a few years later, part of his old company organized and went to Europe, giving their first performance there August 3, 1857; they were called the "Christy" Minstrels. From this company several others sprung, and for a great many years all minstrel organizations in England were called "Christy's."
E. P. Christy had a "card" on his program for many years, stating that his was the first minstrel company organized, the date given as 1842. In support of this at one time gave a statement of receipts covering a period of six months in 1842, and up to January 1, 1848.
It is a noteworthy fact that Mr. Christy's "card" did not appear until after Wood's, likewise Campbell's—two permanent minstrel organizations like his own in New York City, had prospered and made their presence felt.
As has been stated elsewhere, black-face performers there were a-plenty long before the original four gave their first joint performance ; they played chiefly in circuses and dance houses, and it was in one of the latter that Mrs. Harrington, mother of George Christy, and subsequent wife of E. P. Christy, kept, where these performances were given, and were very common occurrences at that time, and this was the only basis that Mr. Christy had of ante-dating the original company. There is no doubt that after the intelligence reached Buffalo of the success of Pelham, Whitlock, Emmett and Brower, that Mr. Christy, like scores of others, formed a company and called them Christy's Minstrels; the date of this interesting event has never been made public, if indeed it was ever recorded. The first record of the company that the author has been able to find was in Albany, N. Y., May, 1844. On Sunday, August 17, 1845, R. M. Hooley is said to have led the orchestra for them at the Assembly Room in Buffalo, N. Y.
Their first metropolitan appearance was at Palmo's Opera House, April 27, 1846; they subsequently played at the Society Library Rooms and later at the Alhambra, all in the same city.
But it was at Mechanics Hall, 472 Broadway, New York, that the name of Christy's Minstrels became famous; they opened there on February 15, 1847, and remained until July 15, 1854. On September 20, 1854, the company sailed for California; they played a few weeks at Pratt's Hall in San Francisco, but were not overly successful.
Such is the story of E. P. Christy's Minstrels; the original company consisted of E. P. Christy, George Christy, Tom Vaughn and Lansing Durand; the careers of most of these performers, also their portraits, will be found elsewhere.
It was the withdrawal of George Christy from E. P. Christy's Company that caused their dissolution. EDWIN P. CHRISTY was best known as a ballad singer, although he played the banjo acceptably and played parts in his entertainments; he made a specialty of singing Stephen C. Foster's songs. He returned from California early in 1855, and never appeared again professionally; nor did he ever play in England, although his name is a household word there yet even to this clay.
Edwin P. Christy was born in Philadelphia, November 28, 18t5; he died (suicide) in New York City, May 21, 1862.
GEORGE N. CHRISTY (Harrington), is conceded to have been one of the greatest performers that ever graced the minstrel stage; he was versatile by all the term applies; had he deemed to use his talents otherwise, his name might have been enrolled as one of America's great actors. His career began at Buffalo, N. Y., in 1839; although he had not yet entered his teens, he was rated a fine jig dancer.
He was associated with E. P. Christy a few years before the latter organized his minstrel company. George Christy was with Christy-'s Minstrels in New York from February i5, 1847, until October 29, 1853, during which period he played every conceivable part; male and female equally well ; he was a great endman and as a bone player ranked with the best.
Owing to a misunderstanding, he left E. P. Christy on October 29, 1853, and two days later he joined forces with Henry Wood at 444 Broadway, where as Wood and Christy's Minstrels they held forth many years.
During the 5o's Wood and Christy took the house vacated by E. P. Christy, put a show in there and run both establishments for several months; Billy Birch and Christy played on the ends in their respective houses, after which each would go to the other theatre and contribute to the rest of the entertainment.
December 2, 1854, "444" was destroyed by fire, and the company after a brief tour, resumed at "472." "444" was rebuilt and reopened October 1, 1855. Subsequently the company opened at Wood's Marble Palace, 561-563 Broad-way, which was especially built for them, October 31, 1857; the other houses were then closed.
Christy withdrew from Wood on May 1, 1858, and went to California, opening at San Francisco under the management of Torn Maguire, June 7; the company was known as Christy's Minstrels; they remained in California several months; subsequently Christy and R. M. Hooley formed a partnership and returned to New York, opening at 444 Broadway, May 23, 1859. Christy had previously signed an agreement with Henry Wood not to appear within too miles of New York for a period of eighteen months, commencing May 1, 1858.
When George Christy attempted to perform, he was enjoined from doing so by Wood ; Christy then took the road until the time limit had expired, opening at Niblo's Saloon, November 7, 1859; he played here about one year, and subsequently moved opposite to 585 Broadway.
In 1864 he was with J. W. Raynor's Company; and on September 4, 1865, he began an engagement with Hooley in Brooklyn ; a year later he opened with Kelly and Leon's Minstrels at 720 Broadway; this was the initial performance of the latter company in the metropolis.
January 16, 1867, with G. W. H. Griffin, he organized Griffin and Christy's Minstrels, opening at the Fifth Avenue Theatre (late Madison Square Theatre) ; they closed June 27, went on tour and reappeared in New York, July 29, at Union Hall, Fifth Avenue and Twenty-third Street; they closed on September 23 and went traveling.
His last appearance was with Hooley's Minstrels, May 2, 1868, in Brooklyn, N. Y.
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