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Thursday, May 5, 2016

The 1951 Kiwanis Minstrel Show

Monday, November 15, 2010

The original Christy Minstrels, ca. 1847.
People regularly donate heirlooms to the High Plains Museum in McCook. Recently one of the donated items that arrived at the museum was a copy of the "Riverboat Minstrels, A Jack Adair Production," performed by the McCook Kiwanis Club in 1951. This show proved to be one of the most popular amateur productions in McCook, in 1951. It played to almost 1,200 patrons over two performances. The production was a tremendous hit, and left the audience laughing and happy. It was a show that today we would call "Politically Incorrect." Indeed, it was a show that would be impossible to present today, though the Kiwanians of that day presented the show in good faith, and were not out to offend anyone, in any way.

The genre, Minstrel Shows, is America's lone contribution to the realm of musical performances. They got their start in the United States in the closing years of the 1700s. They consisted of comic skits, variety acts, and musical numbers, with original songs and dances. They were a precursor to "Vaudeville," but what made the minstrel shows unique were that they were performed by white persons, or black performers (after the Civil War) -- but always in blackface. They generally lampooned the black race, and portrayed black people as comic, lazy, buffoonish, and superstitious, and most of all, musical, both in singing and dancing.

The minstrel show was usually presented in three acts. In the first act, known as the "Walkaround," the actors danced their way onto the stage, and then engaged in a series of wisecracks, songs, dances and funny stories. This exchange was presided over by an "Interlocutor," who attempted to keep the actors in order and the show moving smoothly along. One of the popular dances was the "Cakewalk." Audiences loved the Cakewalk, but did not realize that the actors were making fun of the master of the plantation, imitating the way he walked.

Act II consisted of a "stump speech," which was comically delivered by a black-face performer who attempted to explain a political or social issue, using malapropisms (for instance, "she's as headstrong as an allegory (alligator) on the Nile River," "What a terrible "cats after me" (catastrophe). Nonsense sentences and puns (lots of puns) were a strong part of the stump speech, delivered in what the actor imagined as the "Black Vernacular Speech."

Though these speeches were delivered as pure nonsense, and showed the performer's complete lack of understanding of his subject, they often allowed social commentary on subjects that would be considered taboo to talk about under ordinary circumstances. This was a forerunner of the modern "stand-up comedian."

The third act was a parody of a popular current play, or a take-off of a story of the old plantation. There were stock characters in these shows, the poor country boy, the dandy, and the smart aleck, who regularly, in his own slow, comic way, outwitted the authoritarian figure. There was the "Mammy" character and the "heart-breaker." The female roles were regularly played by males.

Right from the beginning, the minstrel show was viewed in different ways. The shows were attended, and well received, by patrons in all walks of life, in every economic layer, and by all ethnic groups, including blacks. Some saw it as a way for the public to see into the Negro culture. But the segregationists maintained that the shows falsely portrayed black slaves as happy, while at the same time making fun of them.

Some of the most popular songs in our culture got their start as part of the Minstrel Shows -- "Dixie," the National Anthem of the Confederates, "Oh Susanna," "Camptown Races," "Swanee River," "Blue Tail Fly," "Old Folks at Home," "Polly Wolly Doodle," "I Dream of Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair," all songs by Stephen Foster, the most famous US songwriter of the 19th Century.

Minstrel Shows remained popular into the 20th Century, and obviously were still being performed in 1951 but the emphasis gradually shifted from depictions of slave life to more contemporary representations. There were even Minstrel Shows which made fun of other ethnic groups, namely the Irish and the Italians.

Though Minstrel Shows gradually gave way to Vaudeville, and black-faced actors were not as prominent in the 20th century there were still personalities that carried out that image. Al Jolson, a white actor/singer, made black-face an integral part of his act. His rendition of "Mammy" was hugely popular and still imitated by artists to the present day.

Stepin Fetchet was a black actor who portrayed the dim-witted, slow moving black through some 54 movies between 1925 and 1976. He was a great friend of Mohammad Ali and Will Rogers. Rogers and Fetchet (real name Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry) appeared in several movies together. He became a millionaire and has his star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But at the same time he drew the wrath of civil rights leaders because of his stereotypical portrayals of blacks.

In the McCook Minstrel Show, the principal performers, and even members of the chorus appeared in black-face. The fun was mainly poked at local politicians, business men and their wives. A performer in black-face apparently got away with saying things about the Mayor that would have been out of place otherwise.

In 1951, there were 77 members of the Kiwanis Club, all men, and included many of the leading businessmen in McCook. The lone survivor of that group is Jack Rogers, who at that time was an announcer at Radio Station KBRL and sang in the chorus. Most, if not all, of the members of the club, and the 15 members of the College Circle K Club participated in the Minstrel Show, either as principal performers, or in the chorus.

Music was a big part of the '51 Minstrel Show. The club was blessed with a fine piano player in Charles Richter, music instructor, who carried the musical portion of the show. Some of the numbers that the Chorus sang that night were "Come on Down South," "Lil Liza Jane," "That Sentimental Gentleman From Georgia," "We'll Have a Jubilee In My Old Kentucky Home," "Camptown Races," "Dixie," "Waitin' For the Robert E. Lee" and "Oh Susanna." The show ended with "This is My Country."

Robert Rouch, another music instructor, sang a solo, "My Journey's End." Asa Wolfe and Jack Sheidt joined together for the novelty number, "Two Blackbirds." Cliff Smith, Mens Clothing, and Lafe Cook, Barber, performed a Dance Routine and played the "Bones." Circle K member, Dale Walters, sang the solo, "Tuck Me to Sleep In My Old Kentucky Home," accompanied by the entire chorus. The quartette of Bob Rouch, Up Dawson, Hervey Porter, and Bob Bauer, teamed up for "Southern Melodies." Ralph von Riesen soloed, accompanied by the chorus, in "Doxology." Ray Search appeared as "Impresario Virrtuoso" and Charles Richter played a piano solo.

All in all, it was a grand evening. The Minstrel Show uncovered a wealth of hidden local talent, and the Kiwanis members greatly enjoyed bringing the show to the public. And that public greatly enjoyed their efforts --all in good fun. A bit of history, another time, different attitudes -- never to be repeated in this day and age.

Source: Kiwanis records, Riverboat Minstrel script, Blackface Minstrels, a history.

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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By