Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Colonial Entertainment - Brown's Christy Minstrels

In 1864, a theatrical group styled “Brown’s Christy’s Minstrels", opened for a short run at the Brisbane School of Arts in Ann Street. The initial reviews in the local press were far from encouraging.

A company of "Nigger" melodists have appeared in Brisbane under the title of "Brown's Christy Minstrels," but their performances are very inferior and otherwise objectionable.[1]

School of Arts building in Brisbane ca. 1879

The same reviewer found the second night’s performance similarly sub-standard.

"BROWN''S Christy Minstrels" gave a second   entertainment at the School of Arts last evening. There was a very small attendance. The style in which the various pieces were rendered was not calculated to alter our previously expressed opinion of the talent of the minstrels. Suffice it to say that the comic pieces were of a very mournful character, and some of the sentimental efforts deserved a smile.[2]

“Brown’s Christy’s Minstrels" were part of a craze for such shows in the 19th century.

The original Christy's Minstrels were a theatrical group formed by Edwin Christy, in 1843, in Buffalo, New York. They performed in blackface, parodying the speech and mannerisms of African Americans. 

The format of the minstrel show developed by Christy became extremely popular and spread to England and the colonies.  Some of the original members of Edwin Christy’s line-up such as J.W. Raynor formed their own Christy's Minstrels groups and toured extensively.[3]

Soon the phrase "Christy’s Minstrels" came to mean any blackface minstrel show. 

1844 sheet music cover for a collection of songs by the original Christy's Minstrels

A correspondent to the to The North Australian took exception to the review in the rival newspaper, The Brisbane Courier which he referred to as nothing but “a paper-hanging establishment.”



Sir. — There is an old saying, and a true one, that "people who live in glass houses should not throw stones." The idea applies in a very forcible manner to the editor of a certain paper, who has evidently been at considerable pains to cut and hash the performance of a few young men styling themselves "Brown's Christy Minstrels."

Now, Sir, I happened to be one of the audience, and it was quite evident to me as well as to nearly all in that house that the Minstrels were only amateurs, and, as amateurs, performed remarkably well; I admit that the stump oration was a signal failure, and utterly pointless, and therefore would have been much better omitted; but, as your contemporary justly observes, the audience were good-humoured and considerate attributes which form no part whatsoever of this self-satisfied censor, who assumes the editorial "we" and goes on to say, "We think the Minstrels will do well to retire on their profits from their first entertainment, for they can have no qualification but excess of "cheek" to justify them in giving a second."

Minstrel performer in blackface

The idea of our friend talking about "cheek" is rather rich, for we fancy he is the very personification of cheek who can send out daily from his paper-hanging establishment, such a miserable re-hash of stale news, mingled — for novelty I suppose — with some original remarks which read very like bosh.

It would be a waste of time and space to detail the pitiful performances which daily emanate from this would be Boanerges[5]. Let me inform this young man that he has mistaken his vocation; let me advise him to use his scissors and paste pot in the more legitimate avocation or pasting and papering the interior walls or the houses of the Metropolis of Queensland, and leave the editing of papers to men with more brains and less bunkum: for although we may acknowledge a dearth of news even in the Metropolis, we want something better than the stale amusement of fifteen minutes with the Brisbane Runner.[6]

Another correspondent submitted a rather cryptic view of the performance, inferring perhaps that the performance was so bad it was entertaining in an “agreeably disappointed” way.

We dropped in to the School of Arts last night about 9 o'clock, and heard the closing performance of the "Niggers." We were agreeably disappointed, in one sense of the word. We had been led to believe that we were to hear and to see something, which was insultingly to be palmed off upon Brisbane as - "an entertainment" unworthy of the name, although sufficiently good to gull and delight the "new chums."

Not so, however. We never had, ourselves, a decided penchant for this kind of entertainment. Most people, especially the young have. Whether the performers be professional or not, we are free to confess, that we have interested the "Ethiopian" performances of others, calling themselves professionals, which will bear no comparison to the performance of "Brown's Christy Minstrels."

Mr. J. Brown of the Christy Minstrels 1863

There is no vulgarity connected with their entertainment. No double entendres, which so frequently distinguish the "nigger" business. The audience in the main body of the hall was very sparse. The galleries, however, were crowded. We know not whether the performers are from Dixie's Land or the North Pole, and disguised as they were last night, we never expect to identify them; but as this is their last night at the School of Arts, we can only say that If any lean person desires to "laugh and grow fat," he would do well tonight by attending "Brown's Christy's Minstrels."[7]

Finally, yet another correspondent regretted that so much criticism was direct towards the Brown’s Christy’s Minstrels, given that the citizens had no right to be overcritical of their performance given the “dearth of recreation” available in Brisbane.

The entertainment given by Brown's Christy's Minstrels on Saturday evening last, at the School of Arts, although but thinly, attended, was superior to any of their previous concerts. The audience appeared to be much gratified, and several of the pieces were treated to an encore. The Brothers Bower, who sustained the chief part of the entertainment, acquitted themselves very creditably; they have good voices, dance well, and have a keen appreciation of the humorous.

We were sorry to see that the entertainment was not largely patronised, as we have seen much worse performances highly lauded by portions of the Brisbane Press; but by some chance, Brown's Minstrels, who are strangers, were criticised with such severity after their first appearance, that their future efforts met with less support than they might otherwise have done. 

Christy's Minstrels Sheet music cover 1844

We did not feel justified in referring to the criticism, until we had listened attentively to the entertainment; but having done so, we think it only just to state that as a whole, the entertainment passes way agreeably a couple of hours, and that we have listened to many not near so pleasing, in Brisbane.

True, there are one or two things in the programme that would be better let alone; those few programmes, however, with which a like fault cannot be found.

Here, in Brisbane, where there is such a dearth of recreation, it is neither wise nor gracious to be hypercritical. We wish the Minstrels better success should they appear again.[8]

The following year a rather more accomplished group of “Christy’s Minstrels” played in Brisbane. Formed in England, the players featured J. W. Raynor, a member of the original American “Christy’s Minstrels”.

Brisbane Courier  June 8 1865

LAST evening the Christy's Minstrels made their first appearance at Mason's Theatre. The audience was somewhat larger than it has been during the past week.

The first part of the evening was devoted to the rendering of those charming melodies for which the Christy's are so famous.

The next part of the programme comprised the burlesque of The Hutchinson Family, by Messrs. Ramford, Nish, and Melvyn, the absurdity of which never fails to amuse; a medley dance and prize jig by Mr. W. Norton, whose abilities as a dancer we have before had occasion to notice; a brilliantly executed solo on the violin by Mr. Nish, and the scena, The Desert, by Mr. Ramford, to which his splendid voice did ample justice.

A burlesque imitation of Leotard[9] on the flying trapeze, by Mr. Raynor, elicited roars of laughter from the audience, and finished the performances of the sable troupe.[10]

Although no longer part of the entertainment scene, Minstrel shows remained popular well into the 20th Century.

© K. C. Sbeghen, 2012.

[1] The Brisbane Courier Saturday 2 July 1864
[2] The Brisbane Courier Saturday 2 July 1864
[3] Sourced from Wikipedia.
[4] i.e. performers in blackface.
[5] A loud vociferous preacher or orator. (from the name given by Christ to the two sons of Zebedee.) OED
[6] The North Australian Saturday 2 July 1864.
[7] The North Australian Saturday 2 July 1864.
[8] The North Australian Tuesday 5 July 1864
[9] A well-known French performer after whom the garment is named.
[10] The Brisbane Courier Tuesday 23 May 1865

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