East Aurora High School Band Director John R. McMullen completed his PhD dissertation, “A History of Music in Aurora, Illinois,” in August 1955 for his degree in Music Education. As we reviewed the section for the time period from 1916 through 1928, as it related to Aurora’s east side schools, we found this intriguing passage:
“To raise money for uniforms, music, and instruments, the East Aurora High School boys staged a minstrel show. From one performance a year, it grew to two, and recently the auditorium has been filled to capacity three nights in a row. Band directors from all over the world have written to East High School asking how to stage such a minstrel show, and that alone tells the story of the fame the show has spread.”
Our first response to reading this passage in McMullen’s manuscript was one of laughter and derision. How hokey and small-town, we thought! We immediately went online to check out Wikipedia, to see whether we could learn anything about the history of minstrel shows. We knew that they pre-dated vaudeville, and that Al Jolsen had gotten his start this way – but we did not realize that this type of entertainment continued throughout the United States, well into the end of the 1950s.
Here’s what we learned from Wikipedia:
“The minstrel show, or minstrelsy, was an American form of entertainment developed in the 19th century. It was a form of entertainment that required payment to attend. Each show consisted of comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music, performed by white people in makeup or blackface for the purpose of playing the role of black people.
“Minstrel shows lampooned black people as dim-witted, lazy, buffoonish, superstitious, happy-go-lucky, and musical. The minstrel show began with brief burlesques and comic entra’actes in the early 1830s and emerged as a full-fledged form in the next decade. By 1848, blackface minstrel shows were the national artform, translating formal art such as opera into popular terms for a general audience.
“By the turn of the 20th century, the minstrel show enjoyed but a shadow of its former popularity, having been replaced for the most part by vaudeville. It survived as professional entertainment until about 1910; amateur performances continued until the 1960s in high schools and local theaters. As the civil right movement progressed and gained acceptance, minstrels lost popularity.
“The typical minstrel performance followed a three-act structure. The troupe first danced onto stage then exchanged wisecracks and sang songs. The second part featured a variety of entertainments, including the pun-filled stump speech. The final act consisted of a slapstick musical plantation skit or a send-up of a popular play. Minstrel songs and sketches featured several stock characters, most popularly the slave and the dandy. These were further divided into sub-archetypes such as the mammy, her counterpart the old darky, the provocative mulatto wench, and the black soldier. Minstrels claimed that their songs and dances were authentically black, although the extent of the black influence remains debated. Spirituals (known as jubilees) entered the repertoire in the 1870s, marking the first undeniably black music to be used in minstrelsy.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minstrel_show
Robb Winder, the Local History Research Librarian at the Aurora Public Library quickly undertook a search of the Aurora Beacon News archives to see if he could find more information about this eye-rolling (in our opinion) topic from our regional musical history. He discovered more than 50 articles, dating from December 6, 1886 through March 26, 1958, describing shows that had taken place at Bardwell School, East Aurora High School, the Strand Theater, Emmanuel Lutheran Hall, Brady School, Abraham Lincoln School, Oak Park School, the Aurora Women’s Club building, West Aurora High School, Holy Angels Hall, the Arcada Theater, Masonic Hall, Batavia High School, St. Charles Community Center, the Grand Theater, the YWCA, and Elgin State Hospital.
Sponsors and beneficiaries of the shows included the East Aurora Band, the Stephens-Adamson Social Club, the Knights of Columbus, the Knights of Pythias, the Aurora Kiwanis Club, the Emmanuel Lutheran Church, St. Peter’s Athletic Association, Wayside Cross Mission, the West Aurora Band Boosters, the Drum and Bugle Corps of the St. Charles American Legion, the Batavia American Legion, the LaKelvine Club, the Alamo Chapter of the Eastern Star, the Men’s Club of the Emmanuel Lutheran Church, Louise White PTA, Girl Scouts Troop 15, the junior class of nurses of St. Joseph Mercy Hospital, Kappa Gamma Beta, the Red Cross, the Juvenile Protective Home, the Child Welfare Foundation, and a fund for relief of the people of Ireland.
Local dignitaries from throughout the Fox Valley region took part in the performances. Many of the Beacon News clippings reviewing and advertising the shows indicated that they were popular annual events that played to packed auditoriums.
The programs followed the standard prescribed minstrel format, featuring an “interlocutor” or emcee who engaged in “repartee with ‘the colored end men,’” soloists, choruses, skits, tap dancing, and vaudeville acts, accompanied by a variety of musicians, along with “a colorful array of takeoffs on local folks.” Blackface was de rigueur, and two pictures of a costumed group in full makeup from the Men’s Club of the Emmanuel Lutheran Church appears in the February 2, 1950 edition of the Aurora Beacon News.
An article in the Aurora Daily Beacon News dated January 31, 1932 listed several numbers that would be featured in a minstrel show at the Arcada:
- Bells in the Lighthouse
- Can’t Stop Me From Lovin’ You
- River Stay Away From my Door
The author commented that, “John Gricunas will sing They Cut Down the Old Pine Tree in a way that will make a Kentucky hillbilly feel real proud of John.”
In a review titled, “Packed House Enjoys Dixie Minstrel Show,” appearing in the Aurora Daily Beacon News dated March 23, 1934, the writer recounts a bit of dialogue between Leonard Applequist, acting as interlocutor, addressing Dr. Elroy Cigrand, one of the end men:
“Elroy I have heard that you are having trouble with your glasses.”
“Yassuh, boss,” Elroy answered, “I am having so much trouble with them lately that I can’t see the people I’m dreaming about.”
Applequist then inquired of Millard Tobias why it was that he had given up his dog, to which Millard replied, “Well, suh, you see it was like this. Everything was all right until she started littering up the place.”
Millard Tobias was the final soloist of the evening, singing, “Oh Dem Golden Slippers,” and rattling the bones (to play the dice? to tap dance?) to the accompaniment of the orchestra which played “Happy Days are Here Again.” Tobias was called back three times.
The review also recounts this bit of dialogue:
Interlocutor Applequist then asked Archie MacDonald, end man, in what capacity he served on the railroad.
“I is de conductor,” replied Archie, “de man who takes the fares.”
“Tell us about it,” said Applequist. “Do you ever have any funny experiences?”
“Yessuh, the other day a lady and a little boy got on the train and the lady asked me if the little boy had to pay full fare. I told her no, those with long pants pays full fare and those with short pants only pays half. Just then an old colored mammie sitting across the aisle yells, “Hot Dawg, I see where I don’t have to pay any fare today.”
And, one last bit from this show. Applequist then asked Herbert Gilbert what had become of his wife.
“Oh, she died, boss, and she said if I married again she would dig herself out of the ground and murder me,” was the reply.
“Did you marry?” asked the interlocutor.
“Oh, yassuh, I buried her face downward so I don’t care how much she digs,” was the answer that brought a burst of applause from the bid audience.”
In the second annual minstrel show given by the Order of the Eastern Star, the following characters appeared in a piece entitled, “A Study in Black and White”: Vitamin D, Winer, Sulphur, Corn Pone, Grape Nuts, Bon Ami, Shinola, Molasses, Dina Mite, and Bill Childs.
An interesting opinion column (no author identified) appeared in the Aurora Beacon News on September 2, 1922, reminiscing about minstrel shows and claiming,
“The minstrel show was a training school from which graduated hundreds of American actors.
“It seems to be a vanishing institution, not that its popularity has waned, but because a burnt cork genius isn’t permitted to work long as a minstrel end man. Vaudeville and big musical shows grab him. A typical case is Al Jolsen – one of the best minstrels since Press Eldridge – who rose to fame as an end man.”
According to Wikipedia, “Minstrel shows were popular before slavery was abolished, sufficiently so that Frederick Douglas described blackface performers as
“…the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens.”
“Among the appeals and racial stereotypes of early blackface performers were the pleasure of the grotesque and its infantilization of blacks. These allowed – by proxy, and without full identification – childish fun and other low pleasures in an industrializing world where workers were increasingly expected to abandon such things. Meanwhile, the more respectable could view the vulgar audience itself as a spectacle.”
After finding an article in the Beacon News about the Aurora Kiwanis Club’s sponsorship of the 1925 “Minstrel Chuckles” performance, we contacted Cheryl Vonhoff, a past president of the Aurora Kiwanians, who is working on a history of the club, in commemoration of their 100-year anniversary. She was able to provide two programs from the Kiwanis archives, both from the 1930s.
The minstrel shows at East Aurora High School began in 1935 and continued at least through 1958: 23 years. Proceeds from the shows benefited the band and the Boys Club. Performers included boys in blackface and members of the football team dressed as girls who made their way through the audience “leaving lipstick and surprised expressions on bald headed men.” (Aurora Beacon News, February 28, 1947).
Karen had the opportunity to talk to Ellen Neupert, a retired Aurora high school social studies teacher, who graduated from East Aurora High School in 1949 and later taught at both East and West Aurora High schools. She remembered the minstrel shows very well, and said that they were popular with all the students, including those who were African-American. She did not recall any opposition to the shows, and thought they were intended to be fun-filled entertainment. She believed that the shows used existing “formula material,” rather than representing original writing crafted by the students. Ms. Neupert commented that, as she remembered it, minstrelsy was performed throughout the United States as a light-hearted type of escapism. Ultimately, the minstrel shows gave way to standard variety shows.
We wonder what the African-American community, small as it was, thought about this. Did they share the view that the Fox Valley’s attachment to minstrelsy was just an innocent way of having fun? Was this an example of the naivete and unworldliness of our region? Or, were people’s feelings really hurt? Was the idea of entertainers performing in blackface considered demeaning and insulting by those who actually were black? We’re hoping to find people who were part of this world who would be willing to tell us what was really going on in their minds.
Topic: Minstrel Shows in the Fox Valley Region
Researchers: Karen Christensen; Robert Winder, Aurora Public Library
- Aurora Beacon News Archives at the Aurora Public Library
- History of Aurora Kiwanis Club – 100-year anniversary – Cheryl Vonhoff
- Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minstrel_show
- Interview with Ellen Neupert, retired Social Studies teacher and graduate of East Aurora high School