Today is the birthday of Oscar Willis (Oscar Henry McLain, 1843-1881). Interestingly, though the above photograph of him is in wide circulation (and for good reason, it’s rather disturbing) the only place I was able to find any biographical information on him was in An Authentic History of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. B.P.O.E., indeed.
His father was an Irish immigrant who made a pile of money for himself as a hat manufacturer in Pittsburgh. Oscar went against dad’s wishes to join a minstrel show at age 12 as a banjo player and “Ethopian Comedian.**” Like most in his line he performed with dozens of outfits, including many which bore his own name: Willis and McAndrews’ Minstrels; Schoolcraft, Coe and Willis Minstrels; Duprez and Benedict’s Minstrels; Cairncross and Dixey’s Minstrels; and Haverly’s Mastodon Minstrels. At one point he performed at P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, which is where this photo comes from. He died of T.B. whilst managing the Bismark Opera House in Bismark, Dakota Territory.
To find out more about the history of show business, 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 check out 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.