Blackface

Discuss the historical aspects of magic, including memories, or favorite stories.
Jack Shalom
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Blackface

Postby Jack Shalom » March 1st, 2019, 9:31 am

After thinking about the numerous Caucasian magicians who performed magic as "Oriental" conjurers in yellow face, it occurred to me that it would be a very good bet that there were magicians who performed in blackface. Given the popularity of minstrelsy as popular entertainment throughout the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, and the fact that minstrel shows often devoted the second half of the show to variety arts acts, it would be surprising if there were not a number of white magicians who performed in blackface.

Any leads here? Clearly both blackface and yellow face are offensive, but I'm wondering if the relatively greater taboo against blackface in modern times has obscured the knowledge of some performers it would be historically interesting to know about.

Brad Henderson
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Re: Blackface

Postby Brad Henderson » March 1st, 2019, 9:43 am

Not exactly what you are asking, but I have a piece in my collection - from Germany - the effect of which is that a white man leaves the room (or ducks under a table) and returns a black man.

Jack Shalom
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Re: Blackface

Postby Jack Shalom » March 1st, 2019, 10:09 am

Thanks, Brad--that kind of thing was popular in the movies and vaudeville as a gag; you can see that in a few Buster Keaton movies and it is pretty cringe inducing.

Hmm...now i'm questioning my own premise; if magic is about power, then maybe the attribution of power to a Black man would in itself be taboo. Such attribution of power to Asians wouldn't be as threatening to the white power structure as that power could be attributed to the "Mysterious Ways of the Orient," that is, sufficiently exoticized to neutralize the threat.

If what I'm thinking is true, then perhaps more in keeping with minstrelsy archetypes, there might have been depictions of magicians in blackface, but those would be comic portrayals, the butt of their own jokes, magicians whose magic fails or turns against themselves.

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Re: Blackface

Postby Jonathan Townsend » March 1st, 2019, 10:37 am

*hot button topic alert*

Vagabond entertainers were mentioned in Twain's stories. Going back further we find Shakespeare had a Moorish Othello, and Oberon got an Indian boy for Titania . Then we have "robots" in R. U. R. and it's implicit remapping of slavery onto automation.

Using "others" to discuss what we can't say about ourselves is a social mechanism. In today's climate with privilege/pity hierarchies it's not likely useful to feed the #metoo fires.
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Jack Shalom
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Re: Blackface

Postby Jack Shalom » March 1st, 2019, 10:54 am

Using "others" to discuss what we can't say about ourselves is a social mechanism.


Very true. It is also true that the dominant culture uses the depiction of "others" to define "them" to be what "we" need them to be in order to keep its power.

The whole issue of blackface is fraught with social, political, and artistic considerations that are (I'm pretty sure) beyond the scope of this board. In my mind, though, I'm trying to write an essay that will help me sort out the issues swirling around inside of me concerning such representations.

So what I'm trying to do here right now is to stay away from those hot button discussions, but just put forth a hypothesis of existence, and then see if there is evidence to back it up.

Bill Mullins
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Re: Blackface

Postby Bill Mullins » March 1st, 2019, 3:19 pm

Yes, there were blackface magicians:

"Harry Lathrop, well known in the profession as Harry Eugene St. Cyr, a magician and black-face comedian, died in Auburn, N. Y., on January 21." Sphinx Feb 1905

From Variety Apr 13 1907, a listing of the acts performing at the Empire in Frankford, PA says "Harry Hanson, blackface magician, funny". I can't find any more information of any substance about him.

From "Confessions of an Amateur Magician" by Henry Ridgely Evans, Sphinx June 15, 1908. He is dealing with stage fright:
" "I can't face that crowd of youngsters," I said. "Get me a mask of some kind." I had read about the Man in the Iron Mask.
"Why not blacken your face?" the dear fellow suggested," and appear as a negro necromancer."
"The very thing," I acquiesced. While I was burnt-corking my visage, thereby concealing my blushes, Dent was urging the orchestra—a fiddle, flute and harp—to renewed efforts. A large but unpaid claque thundered in front. "Ring up! He's afraid! Whoop!"
Finally the curtain ascended, and yours truly in black face stepped out to do or die, as an exponent of the black art."

Other references: "Owen Brady, the black face magician, scored heavily" Oswego NY Daily Palladium, Feb 17 1909.

"Roy (Duke) Gerlach has a new pro­gram of acts which he will present, fea­turing black-face comedy magic, chalk- talking specialties and a spirit (bur­lesque) seance." Billboard, July 10 1926.

"Paul Schuette did an act next which could be called "black-out magic." Done in blackface, he explained what should have happened when each effect somehow went astray." Genii, Apr 1942.

It is difficult to know just what the hierarchy was.
Soto Sunetaro, who was black (possibly mixed-race), performed as Japanese.
And "Otto [Johnson] joined McIntyre and Heath and forsook magic for black face comedy." -- Vaudeville News, July 2 1926.
Still unknown at this time if there were any blackface jugglers, and what they gave up to perform as such.


@Brad "Not exactly what you are asking, but I have a piece in my collection - from Germany - the effect of which is that a white man leaves the room (or ducks under a table) and returns a black man."
Brad's effect is almost woke compared to:
"CHANGEABLE LIFE SIZE BABY
Here is something that should certainly make a hit with any performer looking for a comedy effect. From a borrowed hat is produced a blackface baby. This will bring a laugh at the expense of the owner of the hat. Fearing that this colored representative might cause trouble in a self-respecting white family, the performer offers to settle the race problem. Taking an unprepared handkerchief, he pretends to wipe the black baby's face, during which operation the black baby changes into a white one. Thoroughly well made, unbreakable and actually looks like a real baby. Can be used over and over again." From Sphinx, Oct 15 1919.

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Zig Zagger
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Re: Blackface

Postby Zig Zagger » March 1st, 2019, 4:25 pm

Brad Henderson wrote:Not exactly what you are asking, but I have a piece in my collection - from Germany - the effect of which is that a white man leaves the room (or ducks under a table) and returns a black man.


I once found this in a German dealer's catalog (from around 1920) and quoted it a while back in my blog. You can also see the original illustration:
https://zzzauber.wordpress.com/2015/10/ ... talogen-2/

The trick was advertised as "The art of instantly transforming oneself into a Negro", resulting in "howling laughter from the entire company"...
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Jack Shalom
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Re: Blackface

Postby Jack Shalom » March 1st, 2019, 7:14 pm

Thanks, Bill and Zig Zagger. I was familiar with a lot of the legit theater references and minstrel references, but not sure about magic.

Richard Hatch
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Re: Blackface

Postby Richard Hatch » March 2nd, 2019, 6:21 pm

I believe Andrew MacAllister began his career as a blackface assistant to Phillippe Talon, before achieving success in his own right.

J-Mac
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Re: Blackface

Postby J-Mac » March 3rd, 2019, 11:12 pm

While admittedly offensive in today's world, were these magicians considered offensive in their time? If not then I'm not sure why it's "cringe inducing". If these were done in the present time of course they would be offensive. But if they weren't at that time, then I'm not sure. Anyone know if it caused a ruckus back then?

Jim

Jonathan Townsend
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Re: Blackface

Postby Jonathan Townsend » March 4th, 2019, 12:21 am

Were there more blackface magic acts than blackface comics (by percentage across years) or than blackface singers at the time? Here's some of the bigger picture: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_e ... _blackface

Are we learning from history or just following the instructions on the shampoo bottle? Lather, rinse and repeat. :)

We have folks playing at Arabic (abracadabra) and Latin (hocuspocus) or ... have a look in the Magic of Rezvani for some interesting takes on other people's faiths and practices. Is that an atheme or a wand ? A cup or a chalice?
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Diego
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Re: Blackface

Postby Diego » March 6th, 2019, 8:00 pm

There is a photo of a very young Houdini, (in Gresham's bio and elsewhere) with standard catalog apparatus/props. Among those props is a small black baby.

When I was a teenager, I knew an old-time carnival magician, Lee J. Eastman, "("Gully Gully") who showed me his scrapbook of photos. When I asked about the black baby in one of them, he described the routine/patter he used, which was similar to what Bill Mullens described: Borrowing a man's hat, (which all men had back then) then doing some routine involving the hat. Before handing it back, he would ask if he was married, had children, wanted more children, etc., and bringing out the baby. I don't recall Eastman talking about making the baby white at the end.
"That routine was always good for a laugh."

I remember later telling my very proper mother about it and she was horrified at the idea that maybe her son thought it would be something to emulate,(it wasn't) telling me that doing that was in, "terrible bad taste", (besides being offensive). She would sometimes explain to me, that somethings sold in magic catalogs, or stereotypes furthered in old movies, were offensive to others back then as well, and certainly more so today.

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Richard Kaufman
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Re: Blackface

Postby Richard Kaufman » March 6th, 2019, 10:13 pm

Blackface in minstrel shows was a popular form of entertainment. I'm sure some people cringed at the time, but more people seemed to enjoy it.
It is, most certainly, "cringe-inducing" now.
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Diego
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Re: Blackface

Postby Diego » March 6th, 2019, 10:51 pm

The magic section in The Billboard Magazine, used to occupy a full page, but by the 1940's, The Billboard Magazine had three columns, devoted to magic, burlesque, and minstrel shows...all on the same page.

Joe Lyons
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Re: Blackface

Postby Joe Lyons » March 6th, 2019, 11:17 pm

Richard Kaufman wrote:Blackface in minstrel shows was a popular form of entertainment. I'm sure some people cringed at the time, but more people seemed to enjoy it.
It is, most certainly, "cringe-inducing" now.


Equally cringe inducing is perusing a 1967 Magigram magazine and finding the ad for “Ten Little Black Boys” amid the many sexist ads and articles quietly screaming “Me Too!”. It’s important not to forget the past so we don’t repeat it.

Richard Hatch
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Re: Blackface

Postby Richard Hatch » March 7th, 2019, 12:01 am

As a measure of how messed up things were during the minstrel era, many African-American entertainers performed in blackface. Perhaps the most famous and successful was comedian and singer Bert Williams, whom W. C. Fields described as "the funniest man I ever saw -- and the saddest man I ever knew."
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bert_Williams

Jonathan Townsend
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Re: Blackface

Postby Jonathan Townsend » March 7th, 2019, 12:45 am

Jack Shalom wrote:... put forth a hypothesis of existence, and then see if there is evidence to back it up.
Some entertainers of that age put on blackface. Do we imagine a magician of that time would be less likely than a singer or comedian to use blackface?

I wonder if it was used as playbow to introduce the exceptional.
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Jack Shalom
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Re: Blackface

Postby Jack Shalom » March 7th, 2019, 8:38 am

Jonathan Townsend wrote:
Jack Shalom wrote:... put forth a hypothesis of existence, and then see if there is evidence to back it up.
Some entertainers of that age put on blackface. Do we imagine a magician of that time would be less likely than a singer or comedian to use blackface?


I wasn't sure--that's why I asked. Especially since magic has to do with issues of power in a way that comedy and singing do not.

I wonder if it was used as playbow to introduce the exceptional.


Playbow? I don't even have a hypothesis there :)

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Re: Blackface

Postby Jonathan Townsend » March 7th, 2019, 9:05 am

Playbow: framing an activity as play. The jester's costume and antics.
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Jack Shalom
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Re: Blackface

Postby Jack Shalom » March 7th, 2019, 9:27 am

Yes! That's Gregory Bateson's theory about communication--that some of our communications are meta-communications about how to understand the context of subsequent communications. He specifically uses the example of dogs and play.

So with that understanding, we might understand blackface in magic as saying: "Don't worry folks, it ain't real. We're just playing, don't get scared." That would interesting because that would be different from the way that blackface functioned in comedy and song. To explore: given the demise of blackface in magic, what other devices are used to communicate that same message?

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Re: Blackface

Postby Jonathan Townsend » March 7th, 2019, 11:36 am

The notion of masks is much older than minstrels. Look at older cultures.

We have plenty of characters to signal play... mad scientist, ingenue, explorer returned from far away lands, character out of history...

The audience needs to know that the performer knows that what's being presented is specious. Persuasive as far as the show goes but obviously specious. Without that acknowledgement of trickery we get into performance art aesthetics and face much more opposition from normalizing forces in society.
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