Minstrels America's Unique Gift to Theater
CINCINNATI, Sept 16.-Walter L. Main, of
Geneva, O., passes on an interesting clipping from a recent issue
of The Cleveland Plain Dealer, in which William F. McDermott,
veteran dramatic critic, recounts something of the origin of the
"The Minstrel Show is probably the only unique contribution of
America to the arts of the theater.
"They are peculiarly American and they have emerged from the
special circumstances of time and manners in this country, which
existed no-where else in the world.
"There are many theories and disputable ideas about its beginning,
but the general notion if that it had its origin about 1829 with
Thomas D. Rice, who was an actor in Louisville and had a dressing
room which overlooked a stable. He had frequent occasion to watch
a Negro slave who was an eccentric and peculiar personality, given
to singing words to an unfamiliar tune "Rice took this tune,
rewrote the words and tried to reproduce the same character
between the acts of a play on the Louisville stage. His success
in this personation was immediate and enormous. That may have
been the beginning of the Minstrel Show.
"Not long afterward it was developed into a full company
performance by such people as Dan Ennett who claimed to be, and
might have been, the first person ever to organize what your
father knew as a Minstrel Show.
"They came into immense popularity. At one time in the middle of
the last century there were more than a dozen theaters presenting
Minstrel shows in New York alone, and they ranged the countryside
in great numbers until not so long ago. When I first started
writing about the theater the opening show of the season was
usually an Al Fields Minstrel Show, or a comparable show starring
Lew Dockstader, Neil O'Brien or a dozen others.
"That kind of enchantment (found in the Minstrel Show), which was
very real in its day, has passed out from the Minstrel shows in
the epoch. Sambo and Rastus an Bones are no longer suitable to
the times. What accompanied these simple Minstrel shows is still
heard under the titles of Way Down on the Swanee River, The Old
Folks at Home or Nelly Bly.
"There was wonderful stuff in these old show, but their
arrangement, their attitude and their comedy, I suspect, is not
suitable to these more harassed and tough-minded days."
Article - Sept. 16,
1953 - The Billboard
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