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Early History of Minstrel Shows: Civil War - 3

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  • 1843 Virginia Minstrels created, the first full-length blackface minstrel show, produced by Dan Emmett. 
  • 1843 Christy's Minstrels formed, created a three-act performance
  • 1844 William Henry Lane, an African American performer and dancer known as "Master Juba" won a dance contest in front of an all white audience, opened doors for other black performers
  • 1844 Ethiopian Serenaders perform at the White House
  • 1840s Troupes visit southern cities, New Orleans
  • 1850 Minstrel shows banned in some southern states, because the prominent slavery themes.
  • 1850 Ten major minstrel show houses in New York City
  • 1852 Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, a staunchly anti-slavery novel using and inventing blackface types, is published.  Many acts use characters from the novel in their skit.
  • 1857 Bryant's Minstrels first performed at Mechanics' Hall on Broadway
  • 1860s Troupes travel to western United States, California
  • 1861-1865 American Civil War
  Dan Emmett Creator of the Virginia MinstrelsVirginia Minstrels

Blackface minstrel shows started as small aspect of entertainment but quickly became full-length shows. The Virginia Minstrels, created by Dan Emmett, were the first to create the first full-length minstrel performance giving audiences an entire evening of entertainment.  Their show featured skits, music, and dance and was a success in America and abroad.  Other minstrel troupes followed suit. 

One troupe in particular, Christy's Minstrels, standardized their performance into three acts.  The first act opened with a song then featured wisecracking banter between the straight-man master of ceremonies (interlocutor) and the more comic and silly music performers.  Christy's MinstrelsThis chitchat act later lead to duo-type performances between "Mr. Tambo" (tambourine player) and/or "Mr. Bones" (bones or spoons player).  The second act featured a fractured play (often Shakespeare) or a dance performance with a featured guest of high talent like William Henry Lane or John Diamond.  The third act usually opened with a pun filled stump speech and a large musical number using all the dancers and musicians.  This show pattern can be seen in variety and talk shows to this day, such as the opening monologue, music performances, and banter between the bandleader and the host.

Music was a central aspect of the minstrel show.  For many white northerners, the minstrel shows were their only glimpse into black southern slave life, music, food, and culture.  Though skewed and unrealistic, the performances brought issues of slavery to the hearts and minds of white Americans. Popular musical instruments such as the banjo, tambourine, and bones (like spoons) taken from Black-American culture were fashionable due to the popularity of minstrel shows.  The melody, lyrics, and structure of many songs used in minstrelsy were assimilated from slave spirituals and African-American cultural expression.  Some shows, like Ethiopian Serenaders, attempted to keep to clean and inoffensive material.  The focus of their show was to feature talent rather than slapstick and bawdy jokes.   However, most shows featured grossly distorted characters of African-Americans being stereotyped as lazy, superstitious, and happy-go-lucky.  Skit and song subjects often featured a grossly inaccurate depiction of slave life and using a humorous view of the mistreatment of slaves.  A common song theme featured a runaway or freed slave missing his master. 

Dance OffDance became an important element of the minstrel show.  For example, the cakewalk was a dance invented by slaves imitating the white slave owners.  Amused by the dance, slave owners liked this dance and held cakewalk dance competitions, where the winner would win a cake, aka take the cake.  These dances were appropriated and exaggerated by minstrel show performers.  Later black performers danced the "cakewalk" dance and were told to make in more "authentic" by exaggerating body movements.  JubaWilliam Henry Lane, an African American performer and dancer known as "Master Juba", used both African-American dance and Irish-immigrant dance with an emphasis on footwork to create his routines.  William Henry Lane and John Diamond, who both worked in multiple minstrel troupes and used dance steps from African, Irish, and English culture had multiple dance-offs in the 1840s.  John Diamond, who was white, danced both with and without blackface make-up.

 

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