San Francisco History

Among the Merry Men of Minstrelsy

by Walter J. Thompson

San Francisco was for many years the home town of negro minstrelsy, the profession that has long since been on the wane and is now practically in the “lost chord,” gone but not forgotten class. The ghost of the old-time burnt cork artist now and then flits through a vaudeville programme even as the Black Friar haunted the house of Amundeville and would not be driven away. When the argonauts came here in the golden days the star of negro minstrelsy was just rising over the horizon of popular entertainment. It had not yet reached the era of glory when Stephen Foster, Bobby Newcomb and others poured forth those weird and winning melodies which set the world to singing and jigging. But all the elements which were later developed along the line of melody and motion were abroad and became distinctive features in the amusement market dating from the time when that rollicking band called the Philadelphia minstrels gave a performance in Bella Union Hall, October 22, 1849. The minstrelsy of that time was of the slap-dash, hoe-it-down and tear-it-up sort, and it usually besprinkled the olio of vaudeville as pepper does a pan roast. It was supposed to depict life of the slave section of a plantation in the Sunny South or on the Mississippi levees. There was much rolling and tumbling about, plunkety plunketing of banjoes and shuffling of feet in hoedowns and whooping of voices in plantation glees and choruses, with perhaps a touch of sentiment centering around old Black Joe with his wig of white wool, his feeble footsteps supported by a cane and his cracked voice dilating in trembling accents upon the ruinous condition of some little old log cabin in a lane which he shared with a dog as decrepit as himself. It was a species of entertainment that appealed to the ever-growing, unsettled population of the town which in the excitement of carving out new careers, sought to dispel the clouds of haunting longings—for home faces and abandoned ideals by basking in the sunshine of merry moments which radiated from negro minstrelsy. And it grew and flourished. Soon it broadened into a field of its own, and while the many variety halls included it with other acts, it took a higher plane and occupied the stage on a self-supporting basis of its own with no extraneous accompaniment.

When the Metropolitan Theater was opened in 1853 and later Tom Maguire built his opera house around the corner of Montgomery on Washington street, both places were dedicated to the legitimate drama, but often, so popular had minstrel shows become, these temples resounded with the clatter of the bones and tumpety-tump of the tambourine, while Jim Crow jumped and swung his “long-tailed blue.” It was a profitable sandwich game for the managers.

In a very short time a line of special artists was developed or imported and they gave the business a boost that supported it thereafter until the days of decadence came. A number of them banded together and became known as the San Francisco Minstrels. They had a special home of their own on Montgomery street between Pine and California in the building that was later occupied by the Pacific Stock Exchange. There those wizards of minstrelsy, Charlie Backus and Billy Birch, held down the ouds of that burnt cork are and rattled and joshed in original strain between the singing of such songs as “Oh, Nicodemus,” and “Oh, Susannah,” until the house rocked with applause and laughter. There, too, Ben Cotton gave his impersonation of “Poor Uncle Ned who had no wool on the top of his head,” etc. With what a vim did Billy Birch reel off his anecdote about “Mistah Noah and the Ark,” which described the solicitude of “Mistah Noah” for the stubborn man whom he offered to take in out of the wet, and told how the stubborn man was so proud of his new umbrella and told “Mistah Noah” that he wasn’t afraid of a little water, and he didn’t think it was going to be much of a shower, and, anyway, he had an umbrella.

There was real mourning in town when that bunch of merry-makers took a trip to New York and earned fresh laurels. They came back, though, bringing the new melodies, such as the “Old Folks at Home” and “Massa Is in the Cold, Cold Ground,” which knocked “Old Dan Tucker” and “Oh, Susannah” off their pedestals.

A yet brighter day was to dawn here for the burnt-cork artists, and the tambo and the bones were to be manipulated by even greater talent. A showhouse had been built on Bush street, just below Kearny and opposite the Alhambra, afterward called the Bush-street. The new shrine was called Shiels’ Opera-house, after its owner, Dr. Shiels. As the home of opera it cut no spectacular figure. In fact, its entranceway seemed to be set right within the frost belt, and shivers were in order whenever one approached it.

Then along came one who brought a basket of sunbeams which he scattered around as freely as he afterward scattered glittering twenty-dollar gold pieces, and Jack Frost picked up his white carpet and jumped the neighborhood. The newcomer had come out of the East and brought with him a rare, sweet tenor voice, a supple figure and trained legs and a new song written by Bobby Newcomb, “I Feel Just as Happy as a Big Sunflower,” which he had sung with great success all the way from St. Louis. His stage name was Billy Emerson, his real name being Redmond, and in disposition he was the embodiment of his song. With the advent of Emerson, a new and distinctive character was turned out in the minstrel line. He was the originator of the “gallus” or natty burnt-cork minstrel and took the place of the old Jim Crow plantation hand with overalls drawn under his arms, a wide “lay-down” collar and big heavy boots. Billy played the role of a dandy, dressed in loud but natty clothes and—my! he could sing and dance, and the town soon found it out.

In a new character he had to have new songs, and beside the sunflower ditty, he sang about “Rip-tearing Johnny,” “Nicodemus Johnson,” and “Josephus Orange Blossom.” The new ballads possessed neither sentiment nor thought, or any particular melody, for that matter, but they had a peculiar swing that went well with the rhythm of dancing steps.

When Billy opened up in his own name and under his own management, Dr. Shiels’ frost-bitten opera-house and called it the Standard Theater, he was patronized night after night and year after year by the appreciative people of San Francisco. Emerson’s minstrel show became one of the fixtures of the city. The golden shower poured upon Billy Emerson and his company for seven years, increasing in volume as he sang new songs, such as “Mary Kelley’s Beau,” “Moriarity,” “Muldoon, the Solid Man” and “McCarthy’s Fourth of July,” all songs, however, which were at wide variance with the old songs and melodies of negro minstrelsy. Then he took a partner and the town applauded and went into ecstasies over the quaint and original antics of Charley Reed, who was a home product and had made quite a reputation on the local variety stage. Charley Reed was more of a comedian than a minstrel. He was different from Emerson in his style and stage manners. The black on his face was not necessary to his line of entertainment. It was hardly suggestive of negro minstrelsy while he sang songs in other dialects and carried out his comical work on a diversified human interest platform, wherein a white face would have served as effectively as a blackened phiz. He warbled about topics close to the people of the city and the events of the day. Whether his ballad was eulogistic of the nutritive qualities of the “hot chicken tamale,” which then was sold on every street corner, or exploited the wonderful things that were to happen “in 1901,” or told of gay society doings in “Sweet Mooneyville by the Sea,” it was all the same. They hit the public in the right spot and “it was to laugh.”

The gay nights at the Standard finally began to wane and at last the business succumbed before the onslaught of that monarch of minstrelsy, Jack Haverly, who swept the country with his famous band of forty-stars. He absorbed Billy Emerson into that galaxy of talent which he embodied. Poor Charley Reed fell into physical decline, and the curtain suddenly fell for the last time upon his comicalities.

Jack Haverly gave the town several seasons of gorgeous minstrelsy. Under his able direction minstrelsy reached a high degree of success. Who was funnier on the ends of the magic arc than plump Billy Rice and Frank Cushman. How we laughed with Rice as he confidentially unbosomed himself to the interlocutor of his adventure with a supposed footpad on the dark, foggy morning; how he eluded, as he thought, a hold-up by flashing at the supposed footpad approaching in the fog and yelling “How do you like your eggs?” and then dodging; how twenty years later in the same spot and in the same kind of a fog a suspicious figure approached him and before he could make a strategic move, the figure yelled out, “I like ‘em fried,” and then vanished.

Who sang more sweetly than Tommy Dixon, with “Baby Mine” and “Sally in Our Alley”? Who gave a better temperance lecture and banged the table harder with his dilapidated umbrella than Hughey Dougherty, who still lives in an Eastern home? Who could plunk the banjo with more vim than San Devere? Ah, they did make up a grand galaxy.

One last anecdote of Emerson who was so beloved here. The “prince of minstrels” made and lost several fortunes in his career. He came back after a tour of the world and again opened a temple of minstrelsy in the Bijou Theater on Market street. Again he brought out some new songs of a sentimental tenor, like “Eyes of Blue, Tender and True,” etc. Again did it look as though he was to repeat his Standard success. But, he often disappointed his audiences by not appearing. His gallery admirers knew where to locate him, and one night as he stood in a poolroom wagering bright twenty-dollar pieces with the poolmakers on the morrow’s races, two typical gallery gods approached Billy, who was immaculately dressed as ever in patent leathers, light overcoat, nobby hat and a diamond-studded tie.

“Say, Billy,” said one of the gods in a loud voice, “aint you goin’ on tonight?”
Billy glanced at them, laughed and shook his head negatively.
“So you aint goin’ to sing ‘Mary Kelly’s Beau,’ nor any of the others?” was the next query.
“No, sonnies,” said the minstrel; then holding out a dollar to them, he added, “there, go and see the other fellows play.”
“We don’t want to see ‘em. We want you, Billy. Keep your money, for we’re goin’ to cut yer show. See!”
And Emerson “got the laugh” then and there. Also a few weeks later the show went broke and Billy began working for wages again.

But Emerson and Reed and all the many minstrel boys will live long in memory and annals in San Francisco. Their work was so linked with the life of the city as to make it classical from a local viewpoint.

They were, as a rule, sunny dispositioned, liberal and careless with the money they earned, but a faithful, whole-souled lot in their line of work, and they carried originality to an extreme point in their efforts to please. Their dispositions were cast in the same mold as the words of Emerson’s song:

“I feel just as happy as a big sunflower
That nods its head in the breezes,
And my heart is as light
as the wind that blows
The leaves from off the treesses.”

Source: San Francisco Chronicle. 12 November 1916. 28.

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