The Minstrel Show

I actually saw a real minstrel show, in the East Lansdowne Public School auditorium, of all places. My grandparents took me! It had a Mr. Bones and all. Very strange. It was at night, and there was a charge to get in. I don’t think the school had anything to do with it, except to provide the venue. In those days, the local schools often served as a gathering place for its citizens.

What brought this all to mind was a news report of a policeman who posted a photo of himself in black face on Facebook. (Of course, he was fired.) The newscaster said something about black face was commonly used in minstrel shows, but the closed caption wrote it as a “menstrual show.” Big difference.

For you younger people, a minstrel show was a variety show hosted by a line of about 20 players sitting in a semicircle of chairs. The leader was the “Interlocutor,” who sat in the center and was dressed especially fancy: a white tuxedo with sequins and a similar top hat. He often joked with the “end men,” one at either end of the line of chairs, often white men in black face, Amos-and-Andy style. One was Mr. Bones, the other Mr. Tambo. Mr. Bones played the bones and Mr. Tambo the tambourine as their reason for being onstage, although the real reason was to joke with the Interlocutor. The format developed in the early 1800s and reached a peak of popularity in the 1840s.

The theme of a minstrel show was ridiculing the pretensions of black men who were portrayed as bumbling simpletons, happy-go-lucky, childlike darkies who loved to sing and dance and gamble. Jim Crow and Zip Coon were actual characters. (An old Irish fiddle tune was given words Old Zip Coon and was performed in early minstrel shows. Later it was  reworded to Turkey in the Straw. Today, it is mostly performed as an instrumental.) Many of the stereotypes we have today originated in the early minstrel shows, and I think of that whenever someone claims race relations have not improved over the years. At least we no longer have minstrel shows.

Sound strange? It was, but a minstrel show was an accepted format for a variety show. I was about 10 years old, and a minstrel shows were already old-fashioned. The one I saw was probably one of the last. Racial protests had little to do with their decline. The format was replaced by vaudeville, and the minstrel format seemed dated. Just introduce each act, as Ed Sullivan eventually did.

The Interlocutor introduced the acts that usually came from those seated in the chairs, but they could also come from off-stage. The banter between the Interlocutor and the end men was often to kill time for the back-stage preparations. The Interlocutor was always white and the end men usually black, but the actual performers could be actual blacks, actual whites, or whites in black face (never blacks in white face).

About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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