Minstrels were an American tradition of entertainment popular prior to the Civil War through the 1950s. During the early decades in Follansbee, folks were wildly entertained by minstrels preformed primarily by white folks painted in blackfaces imitating racial stereotypes of black people’s dialect.
Shows consisted of comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and singing that often involved the entire audience. The banjo was the foundation of minstrel shows, but they also included tambourines and violins. While most minstrel characters would be offensive today, they were popular fare for the time.
Minstrel shows were preformed at various venues including the Hooverson Heights School, Follansbee High School auditorium, movie theaters, and various clubs and lodges. The shows involved mostly amateur performers who were adult men and women, and also children. On occasions minstrels also featured professional African-American performers.
“Bucky” Earl Wendt of Rockdale Road recalled being at a minstrel show at Hooverson Heights School. He remembered the exuberant audience singing African American songs. The Follansbee Review reported on city minstrels that drew large audiences before the age of television when folks were more active outdoors, and enthusiastically participated in community entertainment.
In April 1918 during World War I, the Kinights of Pythias Lodge sponsored a weekend of minstrel shows that crowded the Family Theater for every performance. The shows featured professional groups, but also local armatures who presented humorous and serious skits based on local events.
For example, John Russell portrayed a dying soldier in “Overthere.” “There were few dry eyes that witnessed the scene,” the newspaper reports. Building on the feelings of patriotism, the skit referred to boys fighting overseas. The Lodge raised nearly $500 dollars for the local Red Cross.
In December 1936, a joint Jubilee and Minstrel venture was planned by the Theta Chi Alpha Fraternity and the Men’s Civic Club. Promoted as the fourth annual Dixieland Minstrels & Monster Amateur Jubilee, the performances occurred during January 15-16 at the high school auditorium. The Civic Club arranged to present amateurs and was looking for local talent. The joint profits were used for community improvements.
In February 1936, the “Ye Od-Time Minstrels” sponsored by the Emrys Watkins American Legion was promoted in the city paper. The performance was planned for two days at the high school auditorium.
Directed by Frank Carey, the cast included practically all of the town’s best performers. Nearly a hundred talented men, women and children were recruited for rehearsals of various skits. The event was billed “as the best amateur offerings in the history of local theatricals.”
Part of the program consisted of a variety of dance numbers preformed by Johnny Cecelone’s dancing class. The grand finale featured all members of the cast and had a patriotic background with Albert Fauth singing “Your Mother and Mine,” Jack Power sang “Yankee Doodle Boy,” and Rebecca Carey sang “Rose Of No Man’s Land,” among others performers.
In November 1939, The Follansbee Brothers Former’s Club Minstrel was scheduled for Friday-Saturday at the high school auditorium. The Follansbee Review reported that “in addition to a group of real fun-makers who will take part in the minstrel group proper, specialty numbers will be presented by Miss Alice Jean Lewis, talented local dancer, Howard George of Steubenville, and Alice Marie Romick, Dave Jones, Dave Kemp, Rose Buccalo and Areline Kabisch of Follansbee.
Minstrel shows declined with the rise of Civil Rights movements during the late 1950s as attitudes regarding black stereotypes’ began to changed.
Cast on stage for the Follansbee Steel Foreman’s minstrel show, including the Follansbee Steel Co. Foremen’s Club band, Dec. 1948. Photos – Jim Mirasola Collection.
Photos courtesy of WV Archives and Follansbee Review
- *Follansbee Review, “Nearly $500 for Red Cross from Minstrels,” April 26, 1918, p. 1.
- *Follansbee Review, “Jubilee, Minstrel Committees Active,” Dec. 3, 1936.
- *Follansbee Review, “Ye Old-Time Minstrels On Tuesday-Wednesday,” Feb. 13, 1936.
- *Follansbee Review, “Fine Performances by Legion Minstrels,” Feb. 20, 1936.
- *Follansbee Review, “Forman’s Club Show, Nov. 1939
- *Blackface Minstrel History and Origins, from Harlequins and Jesters: http://www.streetswing.com/histmai2/d2minstrel1.htm
- Loreto “88” LaFrate and Loretta Thoms; Showboat Minstrel May 26, 1951