Today is the birthday of 19th century performer William H. (“Billy”) West (1853-1902). We call him “another Billy West” to distinguish from two others…the silent comedy star and the contemporary voice-over comedian.
We don’t need to celebrate Billy West and we certainly don’t condone blackface**. The point of this is to talk about history, good, bad, warts and all. Besides, West was known as “The Progressive Minstel”, and you’ll soon see why, and it’s actually a good reason.
West was a blackface minstrel who became famous when he teamed up with George Primrose as the stars of J.H. Haverly’s Mastodons, a lavish traveling minstrel show with an enormous troupe, the biggest in teh country. By 1877 the team was successful enough that they broke off and created their own show.
Inspired by British impresario Sam Hague who toured the U.S. with his company of minstrels in 1881, Primrose and West began to emulate Hague’s more refined methods of showmanship, minimizing plantation material, adding classical music and ballet, and de-emphasizing blackface to the extent that, by the time they were done, there were only two blackface minstrels in the entire company, the end men (“Tambo” and “Bones”). They had great success with this method, although they had their critics within the industry.
In 1898, Primrose split with West and teamed up with the more traditional Lew Dockstader. And West continued on with West’s Big Minstrel Jubilee.
He died five years later and was buried at Green-wood Cemetery, which is how this post came to be written because I was walking through there a few weeks ago and came across this:
Note the symbolic tambourine and bones that adorn the monument.
To find out about old school show biz including minstrelsy, 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.