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Backus, Charles (20 October 1831–21 June 1883), actor and minstrel troupe founder, was born in Rochester, New York, the son of a prominent physician. His parents’ names are unknown. Backus’s grandfather Azel Backus was the first president of Hamilton College and a deeply religious man. Despite the Backus family plans of a literary or professional career for Charley, the young boy’s affinity for comedic imitation was apparent from his earliest school days. After completing his public school education, Backus made his acting debut in 1851 in the role of Jerry Clip in ...

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Bland, James Allen (22 October 1854–05 May 1911), African-American minstrel performer and composer, was born in Flushing, Long Island, New York, the son of Allen M. Bland, an incipient lawyer, and Lidia Ann Cromwell of Brandywine, Delaware, of an emancipated family. Bland’s father, whose family had been free for several generations, attended law school at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and in 1867 became the first black to be appointed an examiner in the U.S. Patent Office....

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Bryant, Dan (09 May 1833–10 April 1875), actor and musician, was born Daniel Webster O’Brien in Troy, New York, the son of Timothy O’Brien, a wood craftsman, and Margaret Duggan, a fiddlemaker. The youngest of three brothers, all blackface minstrels, Bryant made his debut in 1845 carried onstage in a sack at his eldest brother Jerry’s benefit at the Vauxhall Gardens in New York City. He appeared as a jig dancer in 1848 at the Pantheon Theatre in New York and at Thalian Hall a year later in the same city. In the early 1850s he performed with several minstrel troupes, including Charley White’s, Woods and Fellows, and Morris and Campbell’s. By 1856 he was comanaging the company known as Bryant and Mallory’s Campbell’s Minstrels....

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Christy, Edwin Pearce (01 November 1814–21 May 1862), blackface minstrel and manager, was born in New York City, the son of Robert Christy and Ruth Wheaton. Nothing is known about his education. It is reported that he was once an office boy to a New York lawyer, a hotel clerk, and a traveling shoe salesman. In the early 1830s he became a comic blackface singer with the Purdy and Welch Circus in New Orleans, claiming to have been inspired by the singing and dancing of slaves in that city’s Congo Square....

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Christy, George N. Harrington (06 November 1827–12 May 1868), blackface minstrel star, was born in Palmyra, New York, the son of Harriet Harrington, a tavernkeeper; nothing is known about Christy’s natural father. When in about 1842 his widowed mother married Edwin Pearce Christy...

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Dixon, George Washington (1801?–02 March 1861), blackface minstrel and newspaper editor, was born probably in Richmond, Virginia. Little is known about his parents other than that his father might have been a barber and his mother a domestic. One account claims that Dixon was educated in a charity school. Around age fifteen he became an apprentice in a traveling circus and subsequently performed with several such troupes throughout the 1820s. By 1827 Dixon was enjoying renown as a singer of popular stage songs, especially those of a comic nature, which allowed him to advertise himself as “The American Buffo Singer.” His leap to fame came in New York City in 1829, when he put on blackface makeup and sang “Coal Black Rose,” impersonating an African American. He was, thus, one of the very first to practice a genre of stagecraft that came to be called blackface minstrelsy....

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Dockstader, Lew (07 August 1856–26 October 1924), minstrel-vaudevillian, was born George Alfred Clapp in Hartford, Connecticut, the son of Chester Clapp, a bartender, and Harriet Gouge. Dockstader’s aptitude for the life of a minstrel appeared during his childhood years. He could play any musical instrument he picked up, yet until he was seventeen he confined his talents to an amateur minstrel band that brought him only local fame. He made his professional debut in 1873, joining the Earl, Emmet and Wilde Minstrels; at the same time he took the professional name of Lew Dockstader. A year later he toured the country with the Whitmore and Clark Minstrels, achieving great popularity with his song “Peter, You’re in Luck This Morning.” (Every minstrel show was a virtual potpourri consisting of softshoe dancing, comedy routines, brisk songs, and sentimental ballads. All of them were performed by white artists made up in blackface, who played on African-American stereotypes purportedly originating in the South.)...

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Emmett, Daniel Decatur (29 October 1815–28 June 1904), minstrel, stage performer, and composer, was born in Mount Vernon, Ohio, the son of Abraham Emmett, a blacksmith, and Sarah Zerrick. His brother Lafayette Emmett achieved prominence as the first chief justice of Minnesota. Coming from sparsely populated Knox County in central Ohio (frontier land in 1815), Emmett had little schooling but apparently gained a substantial degree of literacy in his early teens through his work as an apprentice for two newspapers, the ...

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Hart, Tony (25 July 1855–04 November 1891), actor and singer, was born Anthony Cannon in Worcester, Massachusetts, the son of Anthony Cannon and Mary Sweeney, both of whom had emigrated from Ireland. He put on amateur performances as a child, but a pattern of delinquency began with disruptions at school and culminated in the near murder of a rival during a performance; his parents placed him in the Lyman School (a state reformatory at Westborough, outside Worcester) in 1865. He escaped several months later and traveled to Boston, where he supported himself as a singer, a bootblack, and a newsboy, and then to Providence, where he sang and danced in saloons and was dubbed Master Antonio by a saloon keeper. He joined a touring circus, and then Billy Arlington’s Minstrels; in 1870, at age fifteen, he joined Madame Rentz’s Female Minstrels. Dressed as a little girl, he evoked tears with a sentimental song, “Put Me in My Little Bed.”...

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Haverly, Jack H. (30 June 1837–28 September 1901), minstrel showman, was born Christopher Heverly in Boiling Springs (later known as Axemann), Pennsylvania, the son of Christopher Heverly, whose occupation is unknown, and Eliza Steel. After schooling in Axemann, Heverly moved to Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, in 1854 as a tailor’s apprentice. A dispute with the tailor led to a thirty-day jail sentence for Heverly, who soon left for Ohio. Many of the details of his next few years are obscure, though he apparently performed a number of jobs, including “baggage smasher” on the railroads. By 1864 he was well settled in Toledo and opened his first variety theater. A printer’s misspelling of his name on a batch of huge colored posters—one of many trademarks of his later work—was more cheaply left uncorrected and Heverly became Haverly. He had married Sara Hechsinger, one-half of the singing Duval Sisters, probably by 1864. She died in 1867 in Toledo, and he married her sister Eliza Hechsinger that same year. He had no children....

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Hogan, Ernest (1860–12 May 1909), minstrel show and vaudeville entertainer and songwriter, was born Reuben Crowder (or Crowders) in the African American “Shake Rag” district of Bowling Green, Kentucky. Nothing is known of his family or early youth, but by his early teens he was supporting himself as an actor, singer, dancer, and comedian. He appeared with a traveling “Tom show”—a repertory company presenting ...

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Miller, Emmett (02 February 1900–29 March 1962), minstrel entertainer, was born Emmett Dewey Miller in Macon, Georgia, the son of John Pink Miller, a mill hand and later a fire department driver, and Lena Christian Miller. He started school at Alexander Elementary School in Macon in 1905 and went on to Lanier Junior High School in 1914. Fascinated by minstrel shows from his early youth—according to a contemporary article in the ...

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Stratton, Eugene (08 May 1861–15 September 1918), music hall artiste, was born Eugene Augustus Ruhlmann in Buffalo, New York, the son of George Ruhlmann, an Alsatian saloonkeeper, and his wife Mary (maiden name unknown). Stratton’s American career was typical of its era. In later life he recalled attending the Christian Brothers school and working as a telegraph messenger, practicing acrobatics and dancing “five or six hours daily” (quoted in Barker). At age ten he teamed up with “a great big fellow” named Lesley, who would toss him around during their burnt-cork act, “The Big and the Little of It,” at Dan Shelby’s Saloon. Stratton next soloed as Master Jean, dancer and tumbler, and by age thirteen reckoned he had become “something of a champion in a small way.” Before he was fifteen he had played in a ...