minstrel show, one of the earliest indigenous forms of
American entertainment, developed in the 1840s, peaked after
the Civil War and remained popular into the early 1900s. The
minstrel show evolved from two types of entertainment
popular in America before 1830: the impersonation of blacks
by white actors between acts of plays or during circuses;
and the performances of black musicians who sang, with banjo
in city streets.
The "father of American minstrelsy" was Thomas Dartmouth
"Daddy" Rice, who between 1828 and 1831 developed a
song-and-dance routine in which he impersonated an old,
crippled black slave, dubbed Jim Crow. This routine achieved
immediate popularity, and throughout the 1830's Rice had
many imitators. Dan Emmett's Virginia Minstrels, the first
blackface troupe, which debuted at New York's Bowery
Amphitheatre in 1843.
During the 1840s the show was divided into two parts. The
first concentrated largely upon the urban black dandy, the
second on the southern plantation slave. Both featured
stereo-typed caricatures rather than genuine depictions of
blacks, and were usually demeaning. By the 1850s, however,
black elements had been reduced and moved to the concluding
section of a three-part show. Music of the "genteel"
tradition now prevailed in the first section, where popular
and sentimental ballads of the day and polished minstrel
songs supplanted the older and cruder dialect tunes. The
middle part consisted of the "olio," a potpourri of dancing
and musical virtuosity, with parodies of Italian operas,
stage plays, and visiting European singing groups. The high
point of the show was the concluding section, the
"walk-around." This was an ensemble finale in which members
of the troupe in various combinations participated in song,
instrumental and choral music and dance.
Mixed casts of white and African American performers were
forbidden by law in many parts of the U.S., but were
secretly included in some white companies. After the Civil
War, mixed and all-black minstrel companies toured America
and Great Britain. Most troupes were all male, using female
impersonators in the skits. In later years, some minstrel
troupes included women and an all-female group, Madame
Rentz's Minstrels, toured burlesque circuits in the 1870s.
By 1919, only three troupes remained in the U.S. Economic
reasons contributed to the decline, as did a growing craze
for gigantic minstrel shows, exemplified by Haverly's
Mastodon Minstrels, with over 100 performers and lavish
stage settings, and the famous Lew Dockstader's Minstrels,
who presented elaborate programs related to modern
vaudeville rather than to the older, simpler form.