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Birth of An Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation

Nicholas Sammond, Author

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Animation on the Stage

An important antecedent to the animated film, lightning sketches became popular on the vaudeville stage around the end of the nineteenth century. The lightning-sketch artist performed a narrative monologue while drawing on a large easel, creating images that rapidly transformed. Some of the earliest animated films captured these performances, adding film tricks such as double-exposure and stop motion, to create imagery that seemed to come to life and interact with the real world.

These performances were an international phenomenon. As early as 1896, French magician and music-hall performer George Méliès filmed himself doing a lightning sketch, using cinematic tricks to transform the finished sketch into a living human. Here is an example, from 1904, of Méliès' groundbreaking film wizardry, The Living Playing Cards.

Donald Crafton has suggested that James Stuart Blackton might have seen Méliès’ film and been inspired to create his own lightning-sketch films. Blackton honed his talent on the New York vaudeville stage, sometimes performing in drag. His first lightning sketch films, like Méliès', were filmed drawings with stop motion, a precursor to more elaborate drawn animation.

For a time, the filmed sketches and their predecessors on the vaudeville stage coexisted. In 1906, Winsor McCay, another fledgling innovator of animation, performed his lightning sketch routine twice daily, earning an astounding $1000 a week. In the emerging mass-media market at the turn of the twentieth century, there was considerable cross-fertilizations between entertainment forms. So, the minstrel tradition found a home on the vaudeville stage, and on those stages informed the emerging entertainment of animation (as in the Fleischer brothers homage to vaudeville, performed by Max and by Ko-Ko The Clown).
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