Written by: Jeremy Kuipers-Witten
The changing landscape of mass entertainment between 1900 and 1920 was just as evident in Alberta as it was anywhere else in North America. February is Black History Month and when one examines Alberta’s entertainment history from 1900 to 1920 through a Black history lens, numerous interesting stories emerge. During this time frame, the popularity of minstrel shows and vaudeville theatre was beginning to diminish. Recorded music and film emerged as new markets for mass entertainment. Black actors and musicians who had formerly appeared on theatrical stages began to appear on recorded media that could be mass produced and shipped all over the world. Additionally, even though the popularity of minstrelsy and vaudeville was dwindling, a genre of black musical performance called jubilee singing remained popular throughout the teens and twenties. Still, despite the fact that African-American and African-Canadian musicians between 1900 and 1920 were participating in all genres of music, the recording and entertainment industries of the time mainly relegated these performers to stereotypically “Black” genres — namely the 19th century genres of minstrelsy and jubilee singing and the new 20th century genres of jazz and blues.
Below are three historic vignettes to provide a brief glimpse or snapshot into this historic period. The first captures a minstrel show that toured Alberta with an all-black cast, the second sheds light on a historic film that premiered in Calgary, and the third describes jubilee singers who toured the province between 1914 and 1920.
Richards and Pringle’s Georgia Minstrels
Minstrel shows first appeared in the United States in the 1830s with casts composed entirely of white men in blackface. They were racist shows that usually featured three acts. In the first act, the whole cast stood in a semicircle on stage while the host exchanged comedic (often racist) banter with the two actors standing at both ends of the semicircle. The second act was a variety show with various singers, comedians and jugglers, and the third act was a play. Following the formal abolition of slavery in the United States in 1865, Black actors began to appear in these shows (sometimes also wearing blackface) under the proprietorship of white managers. In the 1880s and 1890s, several of these troupes toured from the US into Canada. The period of minstrel shows after 1890 is particularly interesting because this is when Black-owned, all-Black cast minstrel shows began to emerge, some of which used no blackface at all. More recent research has been published on this period by scholars like Louis Chude-Sokei, Marvin McAllister and Karen Sotiropoulos who have examined the ways in which Black actors worked to challenge the racist stereotypes of minstrel shows sometimes even while remaining within the standard three-act minstrel show format.
On July 26, 1901, one of these all-Black cast minstrel troupes appeared in Alberta at the Calgary Opera House. The troupe was called Richards and Pringle’s Georgia Minstrels and the legendary African-American comedian Billy Kersands was still a member of the troupe at this time. Kersands’ famous trick was that he could somehow fit three teacups into his mouth at the same time. Richards and Pringle’s Georgia Minstrels returned to Alberta in 1905 and 1906, performing in Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge and Pincher Creek. By this time, Billy Kersands was no longer with the troupe. An equally entertaining member with the troupe named Marsh Craig was now in the limelight. Craig was a contortionist who was sometimes described as, “the human enigma” or, “the lithesome lizard.” His famous trick was that he could hold his body up above his head without the use of his hands and only by the use of his teeth. He would clasp his teeth on a wooden post or the edge of a table and contort his body backwards and over his head (see picture below). The black population in Alberta was very small when these performances took place. Alberta’s historic black settlements of Amber Valley, Junkins (now Wildwood) and Keystone (now Breton), did not begin to be settled until 1908 and 1909. Still, when considering Black history in Alberta it is important to consider these jaw-dropping performances by talented African-American entertainers that took place before a largely white audience in the province.
Sam Lucas and early cinema
Canada’s first movie theater, the Edison Electric Theatre opened in Vancouver in the fall of 1902. Then in 1907, a massive luxury theatre opened in Montreal with 1200 seats, which was the largest on the continent at the time. When Edmonton’s Monarch Theatre opened on Jasper Avenue in December 1911, it advertised itself as “the most vivid display of motion pictures ever displayed in your city.” The earliest surviving films featuring all-Black casts are A Fool and His Money (1912) and The Railroad Porter (1913), but sadly these important film reels never made their way to Alberta for public screenings in the early teens. In order to find an early instantiation of important Black cinema history in Alberta, one may have to jump to 1915, when William Robert Daly’s 1914 film adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was first screened at Calgary’s Regent Theatre. Prior to this film, the role of Uncle Tom had always been played by white men in blackface. Daly’s film featured Sam Lucas in the star role, an African-American actor and singer who had his start touring in minstrel troupes similar to Richards and Pringle’s troupe that had toured Alberta in the preceding decade.
Buckner’s Jubilee Singers
While African-American actor Sam Lucas was breaking ground on screen in Calgary in 1915, equally important performances by African-American entertainers were taking place elsewhere in the province, but they were live in-person as opposed to on a screen. William C. Buckner’s Dixie Jubilee Singers, a group first organized in Chicago, was now touring Canada and performing in church auditoriums and theaters across Alberta. That year, the troupe appeared at St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Calgary and the Metropolitan Methodist Church in Edmonton. While discussing the significance of jubilee singing, music historian Dena Epstein has written that, “instead of the grotesque stereotypes of the minstrel theater, audiences perceived a new image of black dignity, faith and simple beauty.” This is the type of music that was now being presented before audiences in Alberta, although it wasn’t purely stoic and reverent. A review of a Dixie Jubilee Singers concert in Saskatchewan describes that the singers were accompanied by a, “comic man [who] was funny even when he only looked at the people.”
In 1920, Buckner’s troupe had done so many tours of Canada that the Chicago Defender described them as a troupe “which tours Canada every year.” By that time, another former member of Richard & Pringle’s Georgia Minstrels, Willis Gauze, had stopped performing in minstrel shows and was now singing in Buckner’s troupe. He became famous for his female impersonation act which he performed in drag, but now he was singing spirituals. In preceding years, Buckner’s troupe played a number of small Alberta towns such as Munson and Carlstadt (now Alderson), so it is likely they appeared in a number of venues throughout Alberta once Gauze joined their troupe in 1919. One particular 1919 Alberta performance that stands out took place in Bassano, where a local newspaper reported that one of the members of Buckner’s troupe accused Joe Ubell, manager of the town’s Gem Theatre of being a peeping tom, stating, “a perfectly good reputation was shot to pieces of Tuesday when one of the Dixie Singers intimated that a certain very popular young man in town had been indulging in promiscuous oculatory exercise. But we don’t believe it Joe.” Bassano is roughly 150 kilometres southwest of Calgary and its Gem Theatre was the center of entertainment for the town in the teens and twenties. It is not known which member of Buckner’s troupe made this humorous accusation of an Albertan theatre manager, but it could have been Willis Gauze, a performer who was known for his sense of humor. Sadly, Bassano’s Gem Theatre burned down in 1930 and was not rebuilt. No recordings of W. C. Buckner’s Dixie Jubilee Singers exist, though one of its members Andy Bryant was recorded in 1924 when he sang with another group, the Sunset Four. When the Dixie Jubilee Singers performed in Saskatchewan in 1922, one newspaper reported that attendees at a camp meeting were, “led by Andy Bryant in the solo part.” This event would have been more like a church service with full audience participation and was distinct from the usual concerts that the Dixie Jubilee Singers gave later that evening. It is entirely possible, if not likely, that similar events took place when the Dixie Jubilee Singers toured Alberta. W. C. Buckner was one of the original members of the Sunset Four, although by 1924 he was no longer with the group.
Taken together, the performances of Richard & Pringle’s Georgia Minstrels in Alberta between 1901 and 1907, Sam Lucas’ ground-breaking role on screen in Calgary in 1915, and Buckner’s Jubilee Singers’ tours of Alberta between 1915 and 1920 represent three important Black history moments during the development of Alberta’s entertainment industry. Sadly, the first two decades of the 20th century saw a major increase in Jim Crow legislation and practice throughout North America, which of course included Alberta. It is crucial when celebrating the aesthetic achievements of these musicians and performers to keep their social context in mind. These artists showed incredible talent, ambition and fortitude during a time when their right to even exist, let alone make music, was questioned.
“News of the City.” Calgary Herald, 26 July 1901, p. 5.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin at the Regent Today.” The Calgary Herald, 28 June 1915, p. 9.
Epstein, Dena J. “The Story of the Jubilee Singers: An Introduction to its Bibliographic
History.” New Perspectives on Music: Essays in Honor of Eileen Southern , edited by Josephine
Wright, Detroit, Harmonie Park Press, 1992, pp. 151-56.
“Meota News.” The North Battleford News, 12 Feb. 1920, p. 6.
“A Note or Two.” The Chicago Defender, 7 Aug. 1920, p. 5.
“Local and Personal.” The Bassano Mail (Bassano, Alberta), April 10, 1919. p. 8.
“Young Singers and Minstrels Give Concert.” The Leader, 23 Dec. 1922 [Regina], p. 11.
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Sort of related to this post is the Canadian drummer, Flyod Sneed for the American band Three Dog Night. He recently died in Calgary. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Floyd_Sneed