Thursday, February 2, 2017

J.C. Lincoln's Sunny South Minstrels in Alabama in 1936

First appearing in the 1830's, minstrel shows are perhaps America's oldest original contribution to theatrical popular entertainment, but they are a very problematic one. The productions included comedy, dancing and music and initially featured white performers in "blackface". The material made extensive use of black people as objects of hilarity, grotesque stereotypes and ridicule. Troupes with black actors and performers began to appear as early as the 1840's. Minstrel shows featured numerous stock characters and a three-part structure with various characters and acts in each part.

Despite some controversy, minstrel shows were wildly popular across America until the late 19th century when vaudeville, musical comedies and other entertainments began to erode their audience, especially in the North. Minstrel shows managed to continue finding audiences in smaller towns of the South and Midwest into the 1930's. One or two companies toured very rural areas into the 1950's. 

Despite their controversial nature, minstrel shows have had tremendous influence on popular music and comedy that continues today. The quick gags and sketches of much modern comedy are descendants. Many influential black performers such as W.C. Handy, Ma Rainey, and Bessie Smith worked in minstrel troupes. Many films such as The Jazz Singer [1927] and Minstrel Man [1944] contain recreated minstrel routines. The Wikipedia article linked above has an extensive history of the shows and long lists of the films and further reading. 

As far as I know, the history of minstrel shows in Alabama remains to be written. However, during his visit to Alabama in 1935 and 1936 famed photographer Walker Evans took several photographs that tell us something about these travelling shows in the state in the 1930's anyway. 

The first two photographs contain advertisements for "J.C. Lincoln's Sunny South Minstrels". According to a comment on the Shorpy site, a man named Harry Palmer organized the show and first put it on tour "under canvas" in 1927. Several trucks were probably required to carry the tent and other equipment. 
According to one source, the group was also known as "J.C. Lincoln's Mighty Minstrels".

What could the audience expect at the Sunny South show? An advertisement recently for sale in a Hillcrest Books catalog gives us some specific information: "Featuring the Famous New Orleans Brown Skin Models. See ALVINA the Fan Dancer. Free Street Parade. World’s Greatest Mammoth Minstrel Review. Sweet Singers, Fast Dancers, Funny Comedians."

The information given at Shorpy indicates the show last toured from Dothan in 1934. If that's the case, the ads in the first two photos below were a year or two old when Evans took them. I have no idea who J.C. Lincoln was--perhaps a master of ceremonies for the show.

The third photo here features an advertisement for the "Silas Green Show", known in early decades as "Silas Green from New Orleans". Organized in 1904, the production toured the South in various forms until 1957. Time magazine gave it a review in its April 29, 1940 issue. "Silas Green" combined elements of the minstrel shows with the musical and comedy revues of vaudeville.

The show was originally written by vaudeville performer Salem Tutt Whitney, and sold to the only African-American circus owner in the U.S., Ephraim Williams. Williams developed and expanded the show and toured extensively with a tent that seated 1400 patrons. In the early 1920's Williams sold half interest in the production to Charles Collier. After Williams' death in the mid-1930's, Collier owned the show until it ceased touring. 

The final two photographs show another ad for each show. Comments continue below.

Photograph taken by Walker Evans in August 1936. You can view it in ultra large format at the wonderful Shorpy site. This photo may have been taken in Selma, although Evans visited other places, such as Marion, that same month.

Taken by Walker Evans in Selma in December 1935. This poster tells us the J.C. Lincoln troupe appeared on October 28 and adult admission was a quarter.

Source: Photogrammar at Yale University

That day Evans also photographed the shop next door with a poster advertising the Silas Green Show, which had appeared in town on Thursday, October 31--although not necessarily in 1935! That poster looks pretty weathered. 

Source: Photogrammar at Yale University

These two photographs are identified on the Library of Congress site as being taken by Evans in January 1936. No town location is given. Further research would be required to determine just when and where Evans took these various photos. 

Source: Library of Congress

Buck Jones was a major star of mostly western movies of the period. This film had been released in July 1935. 

Source: Library of Congress

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