Henry C. Miner and the Origins of “The Hook”

March 23 is the birthday of a once-important, now-forgotten New York theatrical impresario, politico, and all-around mover and shaker named Henry Clay Miner (1842-1900).

Miner began his adult life in the approved Bowery Boy fashion, as a city cop and volunteer fireman.  He also obtained a degree in pharmacy from the College of Physicians and Surgeons and operated pharmacies, one of many revenue streams in what eventually became a multi-million dollar empire. In the 1860s, he began to amass experience that would serve him well in his theatrical activities. He was an advance man for Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickok and Texas Jack. He booked a medical lecturer named Professor De Courcey, a magician and bird trainer named Signor Blitz, and Slavianksi’s Russian Opera Company.

Miner’s first venture operating an actual venue was a short-lived dime museum and variety hall in Baltimore. He broke into New York by managing the clumsily named Falk’s Volk’s Garden in 1875. From there he went on to establish the London Theatre, an early vaudeville house located at 235 Bowery. He sold out to his partner James Donaldson in 1878. The London operated as a variety, burlesque and vaudeville emporium for another couple of decades, later becoming a Yiddish theatre, an Italian playhouse and a venue for Chinese opera. Today it is the site of the New Museum.

The success of the London allowed Miner to start what became New York’s first theatre chain, eventually encompassing the American Theatre, the 13th Street Theatre, Miner’s People’s Theatre, Miner’s 8th Avenue Theatre; and the Fifth Avenue Theatre, which burned in a fire and was replaced with the Imperial Music Hall. He also owned theatres in Brooklyn and Newark.

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But the most famous of all his houses was Miner’s Bowery Theatre (1878). Miner’s influential amateur night (instituted by Miner’s son Tom) played every other Friday there. Performers were each given a dollar (which was a lot of money in those days), and winners were given fancy prizes, such as watches. The amateur night at Miner’s was popular; the audience, rowdy. A saloon and poolroom adjoined the theatre helping fuel the rambunctious energy, necessitating the use of hired “policemen” to roam the theatre ready to bust the heads of any troublemakers. Somewhere along the line, someone got the bright idea of yanking particularly clueless acts offstage with a shepherd’s crook. This became known as “the hook” (as in “Give ‘im da hook!”). This device was widely emulated throughout the country, and has even become an idiom in the English language. The innovation lives on in popular memory, even if Miner’s Bowery Theatre does not.

Bugs is about to get The Hook
Bugs is about to get The Hook

Among the notable performers who trod the stage at Miner’s were Eddie Cantor, Weber and Fields, the Four Cohans, A.O. Duncan (vaudeville’s first ventriloquist), singer Lottie Gilson (known as “The Little Magnet”), monologist John W. Kelly “The Rolling Mill Man”, and Charlie Ross later of the team of Ross and Fenton.

In addition to his pharmaceutical and theatrical concerns, Miner also operated one of New York’s premier lithography printing companies, turning out beautiful color posters not only for his theatres, but for many others of the day.

These many enterprises made Miner a rich and powerful man. In time, he became cronies with Tammany Hall politician Big Tim Sullivan, and there was a certain amount of cross-fertilization between the two. Perhaps inspired by Miner, Sullivan went into the vaudeville business, becoming backer of the Sullivan and Considine chain, an important circuit in the Pacific Northwest. And Miner became a U.S. Congressman, representing New York’s Ninth district from 1895 to 1897. For someone named after Senator Henry Clay, this must have been a proud phase of Miner’s life. Nonetheless, Capitol Hill appears not to have suited him. He did not run for re-election, but returned to New York to run his business interests after one term. He passed away three years later, and now occupies a gorgeous mausoleum in Brooklyn’s Green-wood Cemetery. His sons Edwin, Thomas, Clay and George continued to run his empire in the early years of the twentieth century. Among the Miner interests was part ownership of the Empire Burlesque circuit.

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To find out more about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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8 comments

  1. I am writing the first book from the American point of view about 19th century rotunda panoramas.These were the biggest paintings in the world, 50 x 400=20,000 square feet, housed in their own rotundas which were 16-sided polygons. Chicago in 1893 had 6 panorama companies and 6 panorama rotundas. Recently I chanced upon HARRY MINER’S AMERICAN DRAMATIC DIRECTORY 1884-1885 on-line and was delighted to find mention of scenic artists who also painted rotunda panoramas: Louis Kindt,Walter Burridge, Charles Henry Ritter, Ernest Albert .So I culled the names of the scenic artists, and created an outline.My HOPE was that later volumes of the Directory would reveal detail about my own interest in rotunda panorama. So I secured through inter-library loan volumes 1885-1886 and 1887-1888 of the Directory.Although the term “panorama” is never mentioned, I was heartened to realize that wherever rotunda panoramas were displayed from coast-to-coast “and beyond”,they did not exist in a vaccuum: scenic artists and their venues were at-hand and near-by. Sometimes local scenic artists were mentioned in newspaper articles about rotunda panoramas–Phillip Goatcher worked with Paul Philippoteaux at the panorama studio in Mott Haven, The Bronx. Interestingly,there were much fewer scenic artists who were listed in full-time staff positions at theatres and opera houses than, say, the number of stage carpenters listed. So I was surprised to learn that the LANYON OPERA HOUSE in Englewood, Illinois,employed a full-time scenic artist in 1885-6 and 1887-8 — Louis Chevalier. Englewood in the 1880s was a suburb of Chicago, and in the 1890s was a Chicago neighborhood. From September 1885 through September 1888 Howard H.Gross (1853-1920) and his panorama crew, including several “Duveneck Boys”, produced every 90 days units of the BATTLE OF GETTYSBURG and JERUSALEM ON THE DAY OF THE CRUCIFIXION for cities from coast to coast and beyond. In Autumn 1888 the studio closed and removed to Australia, where Gross erected two rotundas in Melbourne, one in Sydney,one in Adelaide,.Later the studio returned to Chicago and created the CHICAGO FIRE panorama, and held a contract to decorate the California Building. In summer 1893 panorama artist Thad Welch and wife Ludmilla lived in the Lanyon Opera House,which served as an “off campus” workshop to produce art for the Exposition. I have much info to share.

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