Today is the birthday of American minstrelsy entrepreneur J.H. Haverly (1837-1901). Haverly was one of the first minstrelsy producers who was not a performer himself. He was strictly a businessman in the Keith and Albee mold, rather than someone who came up through the ranks. His aim was to make a buck, and he found innovative ways to do so (within the parameters of show biz conventions of the day, which were by modern standards unambiguously racist).
As a minstrelsy producer, Haverly made a couple of important contributions. First, in the 1870s he greatly increased the scale of the minstrel show, which is the rationale for including the otherwise bizarre word “Mastodon” in the name of his company “Haverly’s United Mastodon Minstrels”. Previous minstrel companies tended to be performing quartets or sextets. Haverly merged several troupes together, forming a troupe of “40 — count ’em! — 40” entertainers (an advertising formulation burlesque would later borrow from the minstrel show.) Secondly, from 1878 to 1882 he was one of the first impresarios to present all-black minstrel shows. In an era when the norm was white performers who donned blackface** to impersonate African Americans, Haverly acquired Charles Callender’s Original Georgia Minstrels and presented them with the same heft he brought to the Mastodon company, billing them as Haverly’s Colored Minstrels. Companies like this provided a crucial bridge between the era when African Americans were banned completely from the American stage…and when they became some of America’s greatest stars.
Managing the two huge companies grew to be too much for Haverly. Overextended, he sold the second company to Broadway producer Charles Frohman and his brother Gustave. Haverly also owned several theatres in New York, Chicago and San Francisco.
We post this at a fortuitous time for fans of New York and show biz history. In just a few days (July 5), the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors officially launches their project Windows on the Bowery with an exhibition at Cooper Union. Stay tuned for nuch more on this exciting project, in which I am proud to say I had a hand.
For more on show business history, 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.