Minstrel Shows

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Grand Opening of Cleveland, Gorman, and Bayard’s Minstrels at Washington, ca. 1895. Colored lithograph. Graphic Arts Theater Collection.
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Minstrel shows featured white actors wearing blackface in a standard three-part musical comedy show. The popular American entertainment had its start in the 1840s and continued through the turn-of-the-century, when they were overtaken by Burlesque.

Late in the nineteenth century, many companies of black performers were also touring the country, offering minstrel shows of their own. One of the best was W. S. Cleveland’s Colossal Colored Carnival Minstrels run by William S. Cleveland (1860-1923).

The original company consisted of forty performers including the composer and performer James Bland (1854-1911), who dropped out of Harvard University to pursue a career in music.

There is an interesting moment when the white and black companies merge to produce mammoth spectacles. On August 27, 1895, Cleveland’s company played Washington D.C.’s Academy of Music and the Washington Post reported, “Cleveland’s latest effort in the amusement line is a sort of combination of burnt cork and genuine negro minstrelsy [sic] … For the opening attraction, Mr. Cleveland promises one of the largest minstrel companies that has ever visited Washington.”

“The first part is said to be a distinct innovation. When the curtain rises a complete minstrel show of white performers, including orchestra, &c., is seen; a second curtain is drawn disclosing a complete troupe of colored performers; the third curtain brings to view a troupe of eleven Arabs, while the fourth and last curtain brings to view a troupe of ten Japanese, making a total of eighty-one performers in all.”

The finale was declared “excruciatingly funny.”