Rusco & Hockwald’s Famous Georgia Minstrels were the last of the big-time shows to appear- Courier.George Primrose

Rusco & Hockwald’s Famous Georgia Minstrels were the last of the big-time shows to appear- Courier.George Primrose

The Minstrel Shows

Cranbrook's relationship with "blackface entertainment" in the early years of the 20th Century.

Jim Cameron

“I knew a man Bojangles and he’d dance for you…”/Jerry Jeff Walker

Consider the following black racist stereotypes:

“Mammy” — wise, self-sufficient, full-figured and wearing a bandana;

“Zip Coon” — leaning towards arrogance and flamboyancy and full of puns, malapropisms and a general misunderstanding of the English language;

“Uncle Tom” — white-haired, kind, gentle and religious;

“Buck” — large, loud and proud with an eye for women;

“Pickaninny” — young with bulging eyes, unkempt hair, poorly dressed and a love of watermelon;

“Jezebel Wench” — a temptress, typically portrayed by a male in female garb;

“Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones” — dancing, joyous musicians.

Do any of the above sound familiar? If so, welcome to the Minstrel Shows of yore and the characters to which they gave rise, doubtless playing a large and unfortunate role in the white vision of black America, a very bigoted vision that, for decades, comprised one of the most popular professional and amateur entertainments in North America.

Long after its on-stage partner vaudeville had disappeared, community groups relied on an evening of blackface entertainment to attract crowds.

Cranbrook was no exception. The combination of music, humour and dance continued to work its questionable magic from the earliest days well into the 1960s. Although the professional traveling minstrel show was effectively finished by the First World, the burnt-cork blackened face and exaggerated white lips lived on in communities until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s managed to shut things down, more or less..

The minstrel show itself generally consisted of three acts: The first, in which the entire troupe danced onstage, sang and traded wise-cracks; the second, a series of variety acts highlighting the skills of the individual performers; and the third, a slapstick musical production involving a plantation or a parody of a well-known play. Not too far removed from what we now refer to as an evening of television.

The first authentic minstrel show to hit Cranbrook was Willis’ Coontown 400 — “The Premier Colored Organization of America in a Rag Time Operatic Burlesque” — in February, 1900. They travelled by rail, as was common, and played for two large crowds in the Forrest Opera House (later the Wentworth Opera House/Edison Theatre and now the Baker Street-10th Avenue intersection). The local paper reported it as “a most creditable performance … clean from beginning to end.” As opposed, say, to the McKanlass Minstrel Show that came through the following year and gave an after-show (a performance following the main performance for men only) that “was a disgrace to any civilized community … the outfit should be run out of any town where they put up such a sensual and demoralizing entertainment. The jokes were rank, the references were vile and the entire program of that part seemed to be arranged for the purpose of catering to the lowest order of mankind.” It was likely well-attended.

Within a month a local group performed Cranbrook’s first amateur minstrel show to raise funds for the fire brigade, a show that was decidedly on the “clean” side, played to a packed house and hit the road for a show at Fort Steele.

Although minstrel shows before the American Civil War consisted primarily of white performers (sometimes black performers imitating white performers imitating black performers) by the late 1860s the professional touring shows were almost exclusively black performers in blackface. Many companies incorporated the term “Georgia Minstrels” as with Richards and Pringles big production in August, 1901. The show featured fifty popular colored minstrel and vaudeville entertainers, the cleverest “end men” [sitting at the end of the line and engaging the interlocutor/announcer in banter]; the Alabama quartet; a novelty act entitled “The Black Watch Drill”; Shields, the king of aerialists and the “Realm of the Mikado” with the entire company in Japanese costumes. A street parade included imported English dog carts drawn by Kentucky thoroughbred horses and two brass bands. How was the show? No way to tell. There was no mention of the actual event. Nonetheless, it gives an idea of the breadth of the general entertainment involved. Richards & Pringle shows definitely did, in fact, perform in Cranbrook a number of times over the next ten years, as did many others.

The shows expanded as the years went by: big street parades, orchestras, open air concerts, modern melodies, electric surprises, gorgeous costumes, dancing contests, ten members, twenty members, fifty members, all the original thing and each one “better than the rest”; Alabama blossoms, Ethiopian queens, southern suffragettes, minstrel kings, anything and everything that spoke of the old south and all that it entailed.

There were, of course, some truly brilliant entertainers amongst the many who plied their trade in Cranbrook, perhaps none more so than the legendary George Primrose, often credited with inventing the soft-shoe, who brought his travelling show into town in May, 1915. What was once low-comedy and African-American song and dance was now highly refined with only the end men and Mr. Primrose himself in black face, “Rusco and Hockwald’s Famous Georgia Minstrels — Forty People, Band and Orchestra — The most novel and only attraction of its kind in the world”, played the old auditorium on 10th Avenue in January, 1924, the last of the professional minstrel shows to appear in the city.

Cranbrook has seen its fair share of performers over the century, most of them long gone with little trace. There are, however, some who have risen to great fame and glory. One in particular is certainly worth a mention, a man who literally changed the face of Hollywood movies. In fact, according to his publicity he changed it one-thousand times. It is most fitting that he make an appearance next week to honour All Hallow’s Eve.

Just Posted

1914
It happened this week in 1914

May 9 - 15: Compiled by Dave Humphrey from the archived newspapers… Continue reading

Doses of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine are seen being prepared on Wednesday, May 12, 2021, in Decatur, Ga. Hundreds of children, ages 12 to 15, received the Pfizer vaccine at the DeKalb Pediatric Center, just days after it was approved for use within their age group. (AP Photo/Ron Harris)
One death, 60 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health

The death is connected to the outbreak at Spring Valley long-term care in Kelowna

The Salmon Arm RCMP seize hundreds of grams of drugs in a raid in Sorrento on March 20, 2021. (Black Press file photo)
RCMP have suspect identified in rash of local thefts

Police have a suspect in a rash of recent thefts from local… Continue reading

Rotary Way is being repaved from 4th Street South to the second bridge, just past St. Mary’s School. (Barry Coulter photo)
Rotary Way being repaved along Joseph Creek

The Rotary Club is having a portion of its namesake trail repaved.… Continue reading

The Libby Dam on the Kootenai River in Montana. The dam created the Koocanusa Reservoir, which straddles the B.C./Montana border. (photo courtesy Wikipedia)
Outflow at Libby Dam to be increased

Volume increase to aid migration and spawning conditions for endangered white sturgeon in the Kootenai River

Prince Rupert was one of the first B.C. communities targeted for mass vaccination after a steep rise in infections. Grey area marks community-wide vaccine distribution. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
B.C. tracks big drop in COVID-19 infections after vaccination

Prince Rupert, Indigenous communities show improvement

The bodies of Carlo and Erick Fryer were discovered by a local couple walking on a remote forest road in Naramata on May 10. (Submitted)
Kamloops brothers identified as pair found dead near Penticton

The bodies of Carlo and Erick Fryer were discovered by a local couple walking

Municipal governments around B.C. have emergency authority to conduct meetings online, use mail voting and spend reserve funds on operation expenses. (Penticton Western News)
Online council meetings, mail-in voting option to be extended in B.C.

Proposed law makes municipal COVID-19 exceptions permanent

A nurse prepares a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in Kelowna on Tuesday, March 16. (Phil McLachlan/Black Press)
British Columbians aged 20+ can book for vaccine Saturday, those 18+ on Sunday

‘We are also actively working to to incorporate the ages 12 to 17 into our immunization program’

The AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine. (AP/Eranga Jayawardena)
2nd person in B.C. diagnosed with rare blood clotting after AstraZeneca vaccine

The man, in his 40s, is currently receiving care at a hospital in the Fraser Health region

Brian Peach rescues ducklings from a storm drain in Smithers May 12. (Lauren L’Orsa video screen shot)
VIDEO: Smithers neighbours rescue ducklings from storm drain

Momma and babies made it safely back to the creek that runs behind Turner Way

Signage for ICBC, the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, is shown in Victoria, B.C., on February 6, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
$150 refunds issued to eligible customers following ICBC’s switch to ‘enhanced care’

Savings amassed from the insurance policy change will lead to one-time rebates for close to 4 million customers

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Most Read