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 Famous Blackface Minstrel Performers

Excerpts from Monarchs of Minstrelsy (1911)
by Edward Le Roy Rice (1871-1940) 

P. T. BARNUM, the great circus man, in the fall of 1836 while traveling with a small show of his own, had the misfortune to lose the services of Jim Sandford, one of his principal "cards," who was doing "nigger" business; but rather than disappoint his audience, Barnum "blacked up" and sang "Such a Gittin Up Stairs," and other songs that were popular that day. P. T. Barnum was born in Bethel, Conn., July 5, 1810; he died at Bridgeport, Conn., April 7, 1891.

EDWIN BOOTH, the great American tragedian, in 1850, at the court-house in his native town, gave an entertainment in which he blackened his face and sang negro songs, accompanied by the banjo and bones. This was one year after his dramatic debut in Boston. Edwin Booth was born in Belair, Md., November 13, 1833; he died in New York City, June 7, 1893.

E. BYRON CHRISTY was a son of E. P. Christy; he was a comedian, and best known for his stump speeches. He played with Sanford's Minstrels in Philadelphia in 1859, and with George Christy's Minstrels same year, after the latter's return from California. In 1865 "Christy's" Minstrels made a tour under his management. He died in New York City, April 6, 1866, aged 28 years.

WILLIAM A. CHRISTY, the younger son of E. P. Christy, was a comedian, and a fair end man. His greatest proficiency was in the delineation of the female character. Late in 186o "Christy's" Minstrels, under his management, toured for a brief season ; they closed, and on July 4, 1861, they reorganized and opened at the Athenaeum, Brooklyn, N. Y. William A. Christy died in New York City, December 8, 1862, aged 22 years.

GEORGE M. COHAN, It will not surprise many to know that this famous young  author-actor-manager-producer, etc., ever appeared in black-face; the year is said to be 1891, when he played Banty Bob in his father's production of "The Molly Maguires"; nor must it be overlooked that he was co-proprietor and part producer of Cohan and Harris' Minstrels, the first performance of which was at the Apollo Theatre, Atlantic City, N. J., July 27, 1908. George M. Cohan was born in Providence, R. I., July 4, 1878.

LEW DOCKSTADER (George Alfred Glapp), Minstrelsy didn't commence with Lew Dockstader, but Lew Dockstader commenced with minstrelsy, and has been associated with it ever since, always appearing in black face, a distinction enjoyed but by few burnt-cork artists. Mr. Dockstader's success is due to many things, the most conspicuous being his ability to ascertain just what the public wants and when it wants it; and then giving it to them. 

Mr. Dockstader's initial appearance dates back to 1873, when, in his native city he was a member of an amateur organization by the very minstrel name of Earl, Emmett and Wild's Minstrels. He gradually worked his way to New York, where in August, 1878, he formed a partnership with Charles Dockstader, doing black-face songs and dances; the alliance, which was known as the Dockstader Brothers, continued until the illness of Charles Dockstader caused a severance of their business relations in Philadelphia, in March, 1883. 

Dockstader's Minstrels opened as a permanent institution in New York City, where for more than three years he held forth, surrounded at all times with the luminaries of the minstrel world. Dockstader's Minstrels were next organized for a road tour and made their first appearance at Dayton, Ohio, July 23, 1891. They traveled successfully until February 20, 1895; on that date giving their closing performance in Cincinnati. 

Mr. Dockstader immediately entered vaudeville, and continued in it successfully until 1898, when in connection with George Primrose, a minstrel company bearing their names was organized. It traveled for five years during which time it gave universal satisfaction. 

In 1903 Mr. Dockstader again headed his own aggregation; each year since then successfully conducting it on lines that have long since made it synonymous with all that is best in minstrelsy. Mr. Dockstader does what no other black-face monologuist has ever attempted, namely, to give a different specialty every season, each one being an expensive scenic affair that requires generally a full stage to properly produce. Lew Dockstader was born in Hartford, Conn., August 7, 1856. 

EDWIN FORREST, America's first great actor, at the Globe Theatre, Cincinnati, Ohio, July 17, 1823, played Cuff, a Kentucky negro, in the "Tailor in Distress. In this play Mr. Forrest imitated the black man in dress, accent, gait, dialect and manner; and was said to be the first actor to do so. Edwin Forrest was born in Philadelphia, March 9, 1806; he died there December 12, 1872.

TONY HART (Master Anthony Cannon) was born in Worcester, Mass., July 25, 1855; he died there November 4, 1891. Mr. Hart was probably the best "genteel wench" that ever trod the boards. He appeared with various minstrel companies as a ballad singer.

J. H. HAVERLY (Christopher Haverly) began his theatrical career in 1864 in Toledo, Ohio where he purchased a variety theatre, and conducted until December, 1866. There are many to-day who think that the great showman, who was the first to place minstrelsy on a gigantic scale, began as a minstrel manager with Cal. Wagner in 1870. Such is far from being the truth.

The first performance of Haverly's Minstrels was given at Adrian, Mich., August 1, 1864; the season terminated at Ypsilanti, Mich., on the 25th of August, same year. On October 8, 1864, Cool Burgess and Haverly's Minstrels were inaugurated at Toronto, Canada, and November 1, it was again Haverly's Minstrels; it remained as such until December 27, following, when Charles Mallory, who had a minstrel company, formed an alliance with Mr. Haverly, and on the above date at Titusville, Pa., Haverly and Mallory's Combination Minstrels gave their first performance. 

In 1866 Haverly and (Dick) Sands' Minstrels toured for several weeks, and the following year Mr. Haverly assumed the management of Billy Arlington's Minstrels. Haverly's Minstrels were again organized, and at Peoria, IL., November 11, 1868, gave their initial performance; the season closed in the Summer of 1869.

In the Fall of 1870, he assumed the management of Cal. Wagner's Minstrels, and continued with them for three years, after which, in November, 1873, at Kansas City, Mo., Haverly's Minstrels began in earnest. Not satisfied with one minstrel company, he purchased an interest from Tom Maguire in Emerson's Minstrels in October, 1875; secured the New Orleans Minstrels in 1876, and Callender's Colored Minstrels in 1878. In the meantime he purchased the Adelphi Theatre in Chicago, in 1876; the first of the very many he ultimately owned or controlled.

October 21, 1878, he organized his famous Mastodons in Chicago; they opened in London, England, July 30, 1880, at Her Majesty's Theatre, where they played seventeen weeks. In May, 1884. they returned to London, and made a tour of the Provinces, where the final performance was given in Glasgow, Scotland, late in February, 1885. Haverly's MIinstrels continued for several years after that; the last company in which Mr. Haverly was directly interested began a season in the Summer of 1898. His last amusement venture began in Brooklyn, N.Y. May 11, 1901, where for a brief period he conducted a small museum. "Jack" Haverly was a fine man and a lovable character; none did more for minstrelsy than he, and some of the greatest names in theatricals were once associated with him. He was twice married ; his wives being the Duval (Hechinger) Sisters, well-known vocalists. Mrs. Sara Haverly died at Toledo, O., March 1, 1867; subsequently he married Eliza Duval, who died in New York, July 4, 1910. J. H. Haverly was born in Bellefonte, Pa., June 30, 1837; he died in Salt Lake City, Utah, September 28, 1901.

GEORGE HOLLAND, father of the late George. Holland, and of E. M. and Jos. Holland, and who was known as one of the great comedians of the old stock days, made his appearance with Wood and Christy's Minstrels in New York City, December 21, 1857, playing female parts in black-face, and remained with the company six months. The famous "little church around the corner" gained its name and fame through the death of this great old actor. George Holland was born near London, England, December 6, 1871; he died in New York City, December 20, 1870.

AL JOLSEN (Albert Joelson) Seldom in the annals of minstrelsy has a performer risen to such heights, and achieved such success in the brief period that this brilliant young performer has accomplished. Three years ago he attracted the attention of Lew Dockstader, who saw him perform in the South on several occasions.

Subsequently the latter engaged him for his (Dockstader's) company, and in the Summer of 1908, Mr. Jolson made his first appearance with the latter's minstrel organization. His success was instantaneous and pronounced. He remained with Dockstader all that season, and part of the next; afterwards making his appearance in vaudeville, where if anything, he was even a greater hit. In the vernacular of the Rialto, Mr. Jolson was a "riot." Like everything and everybody, he had to have a beginning, and Mr. Jolson's first professional appearance was with Al. Reeves' famous Beauty Show. Subsequently with his brother Harry, and Joe Palmer, as Jolson, Palmer and Jolson, played vaudeville. Up to this period Mr. Jolson was working in whiteface. At Keeney's Theatre, Brooklyn, N. Y., he first applied cork ; and cork it has been ever since.

Mr. Jolson is a comedian by nature born ; his monologue, interspersed by clever whistling solos, fully merits the approbation it receives. Al. Jolson was born in Srednick, Russia, May 16, 1885.

MASTER JUBA (William H. Lane) was a colored man, and as a jig dancer it is said that the world never saw his equal. He played the tambourine with the Georgia Champions Minstrels in 1843, and several engagements with Charley White's Minstrels in New York. He went to Europe about 1848, and in the Spring of the following year played an engagement with Pell's Serenaders at the Surrey Theatre in London. He was lionized in Europe, and took the Britishers by storm. He married a white woman there. "Master" Juba died in London, England, about 1852; he was born in the United States about 1825.

THE ONLY LEON (Patrick Francis Glassey) was born in New York City, November 21, about 1840. Leon was a female impersonator; and none were more successful than he. 

In May, 1858, "Master" Leon joined Wood's Minstrels in New York ; the year following he was with Campbell's Minstrels. Shortly after Leon's return to America, he joined Haverly's Minstrels; he severed his association with that company in February, 1883. He then formed an alliance with Frank Cushman, and in April began an engagement with Barlow, Wilson's Minstrels. September 3, 1883, he opened with Birch's San Francisco Minstrels in New York. Leon and Cushman sailed for Australia about January 1, 1886; they played several months in Melbourne ; shortly after their return to the United States they separated, August, 1887. "Leon" began an engagement with Emerson's Minstrels January 19, 1889. Since then Mr. Leon has been identified in minstrel, vaudeville and concert work, until his retirement-about eight years ago. 

LITTLE MAC (Ebenezer Nicholson) was a dwarf scarcely more than three feet high. He took the name of Little Mac during the Civil War out of compliment to Gen. McClellan, who was very popular at that time. The major portion of his professional career was spent in New York with Bryant's Minstrels, where he made his first appearance, November 27, 1865. In the summer of 1869 with Hughey Dougherty, John Wild and Master Barney, he headed a minstrel company bearing their names. He subsequently returned to Bryant's, where he remained until late in 1871. Thereafter his engagements were desultory; his last regular appearance was with Daly Brothers in "Upside Down." He was a clever comedian, and was prominently identified with his "Essence" and "Big Shoe Dance." Little Mac was born in Brockville, Canada, July 11, 1844; he died in New York, April 7, 1890.

BILLY RICE (William H. Pearl) Minstrelsy knew no greater favorite than this once well-known comedian, who made his professional debut in Brooklyn, N. Y., in 1865, at Poole and Donnelly's Theatre, appearing in black-face, and assuming the name by which he was always identified. He continued in the variety business mostly until 1869, when he joined Newcomb's Minstrels.

In 1874 he was with Emerson's Minstrels in San Francisco and on tour, remaining several months. January 29, 1877, Rice and Hooley's Minstrels opened in New York; later he rejoined Emerson, and the following year he became a member of Haverly's Minstrels, with whom he continued several seasons. In 1882 Rice and Hooley's Minstrels again was formed, terminating as Billy Rice's Minstrels the following January, when he opened with Thatcher, Primrose and West's Minstrels, and remained with them until 1887, when Sweatnam. Rice and Fagan's Minstrels were organized. Rice and Sheppard's Minstrels in 1888, and subsequently with Cleveland's Minstrels; Primrose and West's and a return to Haverly's Minstrels in 1898 practically completed the minstrel career of the great end man and stump-speaker. Mr. Rice married Blanche Carman, an actress, April 8, 1871, in Chicago. Billy Rice was born in Marion, N. Y., December 12, 1844; he died in Hot Springs, Arkansas, March 1, 1902.

WILLIAM HENRY RICE, made his first minstrel appearance September 9, 1859; "Daddy" Rice died exactly one year later. At this time and until 1865 he was known as Master Lewis, and later, W. FI. Lewis, the latter being the maiden name of his mother. Wm. Henry Rice was born in Philadelphia, June 1, 1844; he died there December 20, 1907.

JOE SWEENEY (Joel Walker Sweeney) was the "father of the banjo" and one of the earliest black-face performers.

Mr. Sweeney and two brothers traveled in a wagon through the South in the early 30'S, and certainly as early as 1838 when he was with a circus that played in Lynchburg, Va. He played many subsequent engagements with circuses, notably with the John Robinson Show. About 1843 he went to England, where he traveled with Cook's Circus. April 19, 1844, with Brower, Pelham and Emmett, he formed again the Virginia Minstrels; they played in Dublin two weeks, and several other cities, after which the quartette broke up; Pelham and Sweeney then performed in the principal cities of the United Kingdom, Sweeney returning to the United States about 1845.

He subsequently organized Joe Sweeney's Opera Troupe and traveled chiefly through the South at intermittent periods up to within about a year or two of his death. 

In April, 1852, he played an engagement with Charley White's Minstrels in New York. Up to the time of Joe Sweeney, the banjo, so-called, was made from a gourd and had four strings only; he took an old cheese box, cut it in half, covered it with a skin and added another string; the fine instruments we see to-day are the evolution of the crude affair just described; this was about 1830. Joe Sweeney was born at Appomattox, Va., 1813; where he died October 27, 1860.

BERT WILLIAMS, This truly great colored performer made his first appearance with Lew Johnson's Minstrels twenty odd years ago; the remuneration was $12.00 per week and "cakes" with an occasional chunk of pie. His next minstrel engagement was with Martin and Selick's Mastodons"salary no object. Mr. Williams decided on having a partner after this, and while in San Francisco met George Walker; the rest is fairly well known. Mr. Williams starred successfully in "Sons of Ham," "Bandanna Land" and "Mr. Lode, of Koal." The partnership terminated about 1909. Mr. Williams subsequently has played vaudeville, where he has been one of the most pronounced hits of years. Always working with corked features, he sings a song in a way that you always remember, especially is this true of "Nobody," which will always be associated with his name.

Mr. Williams is a truly unctuous comedian, and worthy and deserving of the distinction of having received by far the highest salary ever paid to any performer of his race. In New York in the Summer of 1910, he was highly successful in the "Follies of 1910." Bert Williams was born on the Island of Nassau, British West Indies, November 12, 1874.

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Blackface! -- Contents

Bert Williams

History of Blackface

Blacks in Blackface

History of Minstrel Shows

Minstrel Show Female Impersonators

Stephen Foster

Origins of Jump Jim Crow

Blackface Origins in Clowning

Blackface History Prior to Minstrel Shows

Excerpts from Monarchs of Minstrelsy (1911)

Famous Blackface Minstrel Performers

Blackface Around the World

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