Today is the birthday of Johnny Wild (1843-1898). Born in Manchester, England he moved to the U.S. as a child, running off to join the fly-by-night Arlington and White’s Minstrels** at the age of 14. For the next few years he learned the ropes at a number of circuses and variety houses in New York city and the upstate region. By 1863 he was an end man with Carncross and Dixey’s Minstrels. Next he formed a team with his wife Blanche Stanley and worked for Tony Pastor and other variety producers.
In the mid 187os he started at the Theatre Comique and became a core member of Harrigan and Hart’s stock company. Here he formed a loose team with Billy Gray (Cornelius O’Donnell, 1844-1882). Billed as Wild and Gray, the two were prized for their more nuanced, three-dimensional delineations of black characters, and so interacted beautifully together. Wild’s most popular character was Simpson Primrose, a barber whose dignity prevented him from knuckling under to to society’s demands for black subserviance. He also specialized in “Kingfish” type “town negroes”, diamond-stud-wearing gambling dudes with an eye for the main chance. (By contrast, Gray’s most popular character was a minister, the Reverend Palestine Puter).
After Gray’s early death, Wild stayed on with Harrigan and Hart (and after Hart left in ’85, he stayed with Harrigan for a few years.) In the 90s he had a popular show called Running Wild and worked vaudeville as a solo. He has been called vaudeville’s first tramp comedian. He had just undertaken a vaudeville tour with his old H & H colleagues Annie Yeamans and Dan Collyer when he died in 1898.
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
**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.