Charley Case (ca. 1860-1916) is one of those oft-told vaudeville legends, mostly because he is so well remembered by those fortunate enough to have seen him — and because so little record remains, thus tantalizing us. Even the reports we have from the time are full of conjecture for reasons that will be obvious.
He was a blackface** comedian who was probably a mulatto. Some commentators speak of him as being black, some as being “mixed”, and I have no doubt it was in his interest to “pass” whenever he had the opportunity (he certainly looks pale enough in the lithograph above, but who’s counting?) BTW, it was extremely common for African Americans to perform in blackface back in the day. It’s one of the side entrances they used to get into show business in those prejudiced times.
Also, he probably committed suicide. There are accounts of a “gun accidentally going off when he was cleaning it” in a Times Square hotel, and he was known to be a nervous, sensitive and frequently -depressed character. A quiet, understated stand-up comedian (with a habit of worrying a piece of string as he spoke), he came up first in rowdy concert saloons before switching to the vaudeville stage (which would have been more conducive to his highly verbal act) in the 1880s. By the ’90s, he is spoken of as a star.
Critics and contemporaries spoke of him as one of the most hilarious comedians they ever saw, but so retiring and moody that if he had even one heckler or if he lost his lucky piece of string, he would sequester himself in his hotel room mooning and brooding about it until coaxed back into the limelight. He also wrote and performed songs, and this is the best documentary evidence we have of him today. While he never did graduate to Broadway or make any films, he did make some record albums, some of which survive and are available to purchase in anthologies. Google him and see! (Note: spelling is inconsistent; it is sometimes rendered as “Charlie”)
To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudeville, 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.