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 Minstrel Show.

McDermott writes:

"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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