Dick Pelham (Richard Ward Pell, 1815-1876) was one of the founding members of the influential quartet known as the Virginia Minstrels.
Born in New York City, Pelham was one of the many who emulated T.D. “Daddy” Rice in the blackface minstrelsy** craze. By the early 1840s he was performing with a succession of partners in duos and trios. Then in 1843, he joined the Virginia MInstrels, formed by Dan Emmett as a sort of minstrelsy super-group, for a run at the Bowery Amphitheatre, and this is considered to be the first minstrel show, although in many ways it was merely prototypical (since the form as it was later known had huge casts of performers, and a much more elaborate structure). Still the Virginia Minstrels was the first evening length blackface show, the first to have an official “group” that was large enough to have the various performers take turns in the spotlight, and the first to introduce key elements like the characters of Tambo and Bones, a stump speech, and so forth.
Like the other performers (Emmett, Frank Bower, and Joel Sweeney) he possessed a wide variety of skills, but his niche was that he was the group’s best dancer, so good that his technique was studied by no less than Master Juba. He also played tambourine in the musical numbers, delivered comic monologues, participated in crosstalk routines and so forth. The life of the Virginia Minstrels was surprisingly short, just a few months. After that, Pelham moved to England, where he performed for many years with British shows, including Pablo Fanque’s Circus.
**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.
To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.
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