Today is the birthday of the great American character actor Joseph Jefferson (1829-1905). Posterity associates him with but one role, his mega-success as the title character in Dion Boucicault’s stage adaptation of Rip Van Winkle, which Jefferson first played in 1858. Starting with a successful revival in 1865, Rip Van Winkle was nearly all that Jefferson would play for the next 40 years. Not by design — it was that much in demand. The public loved his portrayal of the character that much.
A second generation thespian, Jefferson first stepped on stage at age four to do a routine with blackface minstrel T.D. Rice ( “Jump Jim Crow”)**. He toured with his family for many years, including a stint entertaining American troops during the Mexican-American War. Following the war, he branched off on his own, achieving considerable success playing character parts, usually of a comical, rural nature. Among his earlier successes were his performances in Dot (a stage adaptation of Dickens’ Cricket on the Hearth), Our American Cousin (with Laura Keene, although he was not in the revival that Lincoln was watching on the night he was shot), and the Yankee character Salem Scudder in The Octoroon.
Stan Laurel (whose real names was Arthur Stanley Jefferson) always believed he was distantly related to Joseph Jefferson, but recent research has shown that that was probably not the case. In related news, William Jefferson (1876-1946), was in silent movies, including some of the comedies of Mack Sennett.
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.