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.
There were many ways to carve out a niche for yourself in vaudeville — one way was to ride the coat-tails of a racist pancake syrup mascot! Tess Gardella (born this day in either 1894, 1897 or 1898–I’ve seen all three) went from singing at social functions in her native Wilkes-Barre, to putting on blackface and calling herself Aunt Jemima and going on the vaudeville stage. The character name predated her by many decades, and she was never officially affiliated with the product. Aunt Jemima characters on the minstrel stage dated back to the 1860s. Billy Kersands debuted his song “Old Aunt Jemima” in 1875. Nancy Green was the first official person to play her for the pancake company, helping to introduce the product at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (i.e. the Chicago World’s Fair). Many other performers played her in after years; Gardella was simply jumping on the bandwagon — a very vaudeville thing to d0.
Anthony Slide, in his Encyclopedia of Vaudeville, says Gardella adoped the character in 1918, at the urging of Lew Leslie of Blackbirds fame. Audiences loved her ebullient good nature and she rapidly climbed the rungs: George White’s Scandals (1921), the Palace (starting in 1922) and book musicals (she was the first to play the role of Queenie in Showboat in 1927). Gardella’s main bailiwick was live performance, she did very little radio or film. Her most notable film performance was in the 1934 movie Stand Up and Cheer. Fittingly, her last performance was at the Palace, in its 1949 vaudeville revival. She passed away the following year.
To find out more about vaudeville including stars like Tess Gardella, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous