I am now officially obsessed. I never heard of this guy until Michael Cumella, host of WFMU’s Antique Phonograph Music Program, told me about him recently over lunch. “You never heard of Uncle Josh??” But I am not a record collector and cylinders and disks seems to be where Cal Stewart made his greatest mark. (Though he’d had a background in vaudeville, I don’t think he made any great waves there, never having heard of him ’til now!). But a guy named Stewart (I’m named Stewart) from Virginia (my forbears lived in the same part of Virginia then moved West through North Carolina and into Alabama/ Tennessee), who had an act in vaudeville playing a rural New England Yankee character (I’m from New England)???? What could be more calculated to interest me??
Calvin Edward Stewart (1856-1919) hailed from Charlotte Court House, Virginia. Before cutting his first cylinders circa 1897, he had worked as a stage coach driver and a locomotive engineer, and performed in circuses, medicine shows, vaudeville and the legit stage. His first performance was in blackface**, as a “pickaninny” character, at age seven in a play called The Hidden Hand. Starting in 1875 he understudied in a traveling stock company with the actor B.F. McCauley, launching his professional career.
In 1886, he first understudied the part of Uncle Josh Whitcomb in the play The Old Homestead, which was a sequel to the play Joshua Whitcomb. There was a vogue on at the time for rural types. Stewart enjoyed so much success portraying Uncle Josh, he became solely identified with the part, although he tweaked it a little as a vaudeville monologist to “Uncle Josh Weathersby from Way Down East”. In his monologues, he frequently describes his hometown, the fictional Punkin Center. He began laying down his monologues for posterity in 1897, and they became best selling comedy records in their day. Demand never let up. He recorded his last one not long before he died in 1919. And demand continues! Cal Stewart: The Indestructible Uncle Josh is available through Archeophone Records. Order here.
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.