Lew Dockstader’s position in vaudeville was somewhat similar to Ned Harrigan’s: one of America’s top impresarios, reduced to journeyman jobbing in his declining years. Dockstader was the owner and proprieter of America’s last big minstrel show,** the platform from which Al Jolson shone before starring in his string of Shubert musicals. When Dockstader died, so did a tradition that stretched back to the 1840s.
Born in Hartford in 1856, his original name was George Alfred Clapp. As a boy he taught himself to play several musical instruments, and at the age of 17 he joined up with the Earl, Emmett and Wilde Minstrels. In 1874 he was with Whitman and Clark minstrels and then formed a partnership with Charles Dockstader, from whom he took his name. When Charles died, Lew inherited the troupe. In the mid nineties, he worked solo in vaudeville for several years, appearing (among scores of other engagements) on the very first bill at Proctor’s Pleasure Palace. In 1898, he teamed up with George Primrose to form Primrose and Dockstader’s Minstrel Men, which toured for six years, until Dockstader split off to form his 40-member Lew Dockstader’s Minstrels. This is the company that employed Eddie Leonard and Al Jolson. By the teens, minstrel shows were over and Dockstader had returned to vaudeville as a headliner.
Like many minstrels of the day, Dockstader wore blackface merely as a convention; he made no attempt at African American impersonation. In later years, the portly, top-hatted gentleman dropped the blackface entirely and concentrated on monologs and imitations (e.g., Teddy Roosevelt). He died in 1924.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville and performers like Lew Dockstader, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.