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

Nicholas Sammond, Author

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Minstrels in Vaudeville

Vaudeville was celebrated by many of its contemporary critics as the epitome of American democratic mixing, the melting pot in action. These observations usually concentrated on the mixing of the classes and the chance for European immigrants to integrate into an imagined ideal American culture. Less was said about how vaudeville's easy play with race and ethnicity—in its "Dutch," "Irish," and "Hebrew" acts and its blackface performers—both challenged and reinforced racial hierarchies.

Both African-American and ostensibly white performers deployed a stereotyped “blackness” into their vaudeville acts. Popular white performers such as Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson gained famed as blackface minstrels and went on to successful film careers, while black vaudeville troupes such as the Georgia Minstrels (who were also popular and successful in their day) had to avoid the South, where one of their members was lynched in 1902.

It was no accident that minstrelsy found its way onto the vaudeville stage. Both burlesque and vaudeville had borrowed structural elements from blackface minstrel shows  At its height in the 1800s, the minstrel show usually was divided into three parts. In its opening act, the entire ensemble performed dances and songs, then arranged itself in a semicircle. At the center sat the interlocutor and the two "end men," Tambo and Bones (named after their instruments, the tambourine and bones) anchored either end of the arc. This part of the show centered on verbal interplay, malapropisms and misinterpretation. Next came the "olio," in which a succession cast members performed variety acts. The highlight of this section was the "stump speech," a dialect monologue built of puns and double entendres that engaged with the political issues of the day. The final act was a burlesque of a popular play or piece of literature, sometimes set on a plantation.

Burlesque borrowed the three-act structure of the minstrel show (at least until the rise of the striptease in the 20th century) and vaudeville it's olio. The banter between Tambo, Bones, and the interlocutor also continued in vaudeville, in two-comedian acts in which the seemingly smarter half was constantly undermined by their partner's confusion.
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