Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Minstrel Show

I have said I must be among the last people to have acted in blackface in a minstrel show.  I must have been about 6 or 7 years old, so make it 1959 or 1960. Looking into the matter, small communities in the northeast seem to have had minstrel shows for a few years after that; the latest I can find is 1965. I confess I have not looked into it deeply, so there may be many later ones I simply missed. But I think they lasted longest in places where there were vanishingly few black people, and that is not accidental.

I don't think these were the bigoted travesties of racial prejudice second only to lynch mobs that they are now perceived to be. The minstrel show was but one variant of a style of entertainment that made fun of types. Just like we do today.  We just design our feelings of superiority along political and personality lines now.  We are no kinder. That particular variant brought into focus why all the other ethnic humors were wrong.  So we dumped that and turned our meanness elsewhere almost immediately.  "All In The Family" for example.

My father was a community theater actor, usually but not always in comic roles.  I remember the show being performed at what was then Chelmsford High School, but this is almost surely wrong.  I must be confusing it with "The Steadfast Tin Soldier," which he played there another time. Yet I am certain it was a raised stage, with theatrical lighting enough to darken the audience to the players but not render them invisible.  It was something of a big deal.  I was in a silent skit, of a street bum or hobo trying to eat a sandwich on a park bench, but continually interrupted.  I, a sad boy looking hungrily at the sandwich, was one of the interruptions, the others being a thief, a policeman, and an attractive, parading woman. Decades later I learned that this latter was a stock character called the Yaller Girl. Very broad comedy, with double-takes and exaggerated expressions and gestures.  The Wyman wheelhouse, I now know.

I remember only that bit, and that the entire program was something of a variety show. It was all very similar to the other community variety shows I saw as a boy:  "Hicks In The Sticks" in 1966, in which I was the MC with stage whiskers and overalls, "Kiwanis Kapers" in 1969, which included that routine with guys' stomachs painted like a face whistling while "Bridge Over The River Kwai" was played - a laff riot, as always; skit night at camp 1960-69; "Irish Eyes," on the Central High stage in 1963 or 64, replete with early teens pretending to be sloshing ale and staggering about. People used bad accents and rank stereotypes a lot - German, Irish, Hillbilly, Texan, English, Southern, Italian, Mexican, French (but not French-Canadian, those were told privately), New Yorker, Chinese. It was just a traditional community performance which played up its old-fashionedness quite intentionally. It takes awhile before people finally go "Y'know, we really shouldn't be making fun of Negroes this way.  Even if there aren't any within twenty miles and none of them will ever see it, it's just kinda low and mean."  And the next year, it would just be a variety show, with some stray German doctors or bowing Chinese for awhile, and then those would fall out too.

Not all of it was unkind, even when stereotyped.  More importantly, not all of it was stereotyped, even when unkind.  It was necessary only that somebody be the butt of a joke because they were stupid, for any reason.  That was what eventually pushed that penguin off the ice, I think. The scripts had gotten less racist over time, making fun of a generic stupid person on stage with the same lines that had been used since early burlesque (at least), but there was no getting around it.  Once you put on blackface (or a sombrero and serape) you were pretty much including the whole group in the accusation, even if there was nothing specifically Negro about the type of stupidity.

You can see both at work here: the blackface and accents are pretty rank. But the jokes themselves could be just anyone.

Notice that when people kept the format after 1967 or so they could find only one group to be made fun of safely - Scandinavians.  Think Laugh-In's Arte Johnson, the Muppet Show, Prairie Home Companion.  Other ethnic groups were mocked only in the gentlest manner, and most not at all.*  Relatedly, Foster Brooks and Frank Fontaine as Crazy Guggenheim dropped like a stone. Though Craze was something of a subtler type, showing innocent wisdom in his damaged thinking. You couldn't do those routines now.

The petty meanness has not fled, only changed its costume.  We do think we are morally superior now, but it isn't so. We just like congratulating ourselves on how we're not racist - which we prove by finding racism in others. It's a great disguise to keep us from looking at our own new and improved bigotries.

*There was a major exception, in being able to make fun of Hillbillies, but they often participated in same (Hee Haw, Minnie Pearl at the Grand Old Opry).  That could turn mean, though, from other whites wanting to kick someone. Still does.


Dubbahdee said...

Chichester did minstrel shows 2 years in a row at the Grange Hall on Main St. I would guess around 1974-75. I sat in the front row with my friends. Laugh!? Til out guts busted, and I'm sure half the jokes went right over my head.

Donna B. said...

I have never seen a minstrel show or anyone in blackface in a live performance. Perhaps those were never quite as popular in the west, southwest, or south where I've spent my life.

There is nothing in my life that allows me to "get" what you're posting about here even though we were probably born within months of each other in the same nation.

james said...

Nor I. By the time I was old enough to have any possible interest in such things, we were in LA, and then Africa--neither congenial to blackface shows.

I vaguely recall Flip Wilson doing some humor based on types--not the old stereotypes, though. One routine had him talking alternately to his woman and to a rival, with dramatic changes in cadence and pitch.

Michael said...

The discussion of minstrel shows came up with Bethany's in-laws recently. They both grew up in greater Boston and remembered such events. I then broke into a chorus of "Bring Back those Minstrel Days" which I still remembered word for word from my participation in the Freshman Chorus at my Catholic high school in Lowell, MA. The annual minstrel show was a social highlight in Lowell for 40 years and would play to packed houses for two nights every spring at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium. Alas, the school closed after the 1969-70 school year, so the last show was spring 1970. I have to admit that I do not recall if the "end men" actually performed with black face. As in your clip, the interlocutor was certainly not in black face. And I know that the chorus members were not.

Texan99 said...

One of the funniest SNL skits I ever saw was a black man in white-face on a bus. At first, there is a mix of black and white passengers, and the white passengers sit around all prim and glum. One by one the black passengers get off, until there are only white passengers and our black guy in white disguise. The white passengers look around, check to see that they're alone, and start having a riotous party with music, dancing, jokes, booze, and food. It was a great spoof on how black America must see WASPs.

Sam L. said...

I have only seen black-face on TV--TCM movies, Al Jolson, Boston Blackie movies, to the best of my recollection.

Did you ever see "Watermelon Man", with Godfrey Cambridge?