Friday, October 30, 2009

Minstrel Shows in Los Angeles

Yes, scary, huh? On October 29, 1901, a minstrel show was performed at the Elks' Hall by the "Native Sons" and "Native Daughters" of Los Angeles. Pick your poison; there are so many ways to be offended!

It was followed by a vaudeville performance of "professional talent", although the quartet that sang was made up of afore-mentioned Native Daughters. The Natives Sons/Daughters of the Golden West still exist as a statewide organization involved in preserving California history and doing charitable good works. They no longer espouse racist ideas and would definitely distance themselves from minstrel shows.

But back then in the halcyon days of yore...

Read about it here, as it was reported in the Los Angeles Herald. The names of performers are given; presumably all white (with names like Adoph Ramsch and Herman Lichtenberger, I think the assumption is valid). The Times did not cover this show, but there are plenty of notices and reviews about other minstrel shows in the 19th and 20th century. Billy West's Minstrels, for example, played at the Los Angeles Theatre in mid-October to rave reviews. Of their star, Billy Van, the Times said: "Billy of the limitless range, many tongued cymbal voice and the gutta percha countenance [I have no idea what that means]. . . the audience laughs and keeps on laughing. He is such a good thing that he ought to be patented."

I did my masters thesis on minstrel shows (that's why I happened to have a copy of the above announcement of a minstrel show in Sacramento, in which Christy's Minstrels performed and gave the box office take to one Lewis Mairs, a famed blackface, female impersonator) and I have a strong opinion that we should not forget them. They are racist, immoral, and an embarrassment, but here's the kicker: They were once, and for decades, the most popular form of entertainment in America.

Scary, right? We should remember that, and know how easily we as a crowd/mob/audience can be made to laugh at abominations.

3 comments:

LAkompany said...

Yes, now that IS SCARY! Thanks for posting.

Art in Torrance said...

Agreed, a scary part of L.A./American history. It wasn't so long ago that L.A. had race-based restrictive covenants too.

Also, I think "gutta percha countenance" means "man of a 1000 faces" (someone with lots of expressions). Gutta percha is an inert, rubbery material that has been used for golf ball cores and is still used to fill in root canals.

Vix said...

Thank you for the trivia--gutta percha. I've never heard of it before! Just wait till I spring it on my brother in Scrabble...