Just a few weeks before the great earthquake tumbled Santa Rosa head-over-heels into the 20th century, there was a late winter’s evening when the town had a chance to forget the confounding modern age and gaze nostalgically backward. It was as if the 19th century dropped in to say goodbye.
The February 1906 event was a performance by the Mahara Brothers’ Minstrel Carnival at the old Athenaeum Hall on Fourth street. Today we think of minstrel shows as an ugly, irredeemable display of bigotry: Whites with burnt cork face makeup telling racist jokes in drawling “coon” accents or belting out “Mammy” songs. And that indeed was the type of minstrel show most people saw, particularly after the turn of the century. But there was another type of minstrelsy that had older roots. Both kinds shared the premise that the audience was supposed to watching slaves having after-dark fun on an antebellum plantation, but the other type of show avoided the demeaning racist shtick, and no surprise why: The performers in these troupes were all African-American.
The 1890 census listed almost 1,500 professional “Negro actors and showmen,” and most had to be working in all-Black minstrel shows, given the limited venues available to African-American performers in that era. They had their own trade paper, “The Freeman,” which tracked touring routes and bill changes, as well as publishing letters about Jim Crow encounters that might serve as precautionary tales to others passing through that area. Among these all-Black companies was the highly regarded Mahara show, which played in Santa Rosa that night.
One of the most famous graduates of the Mahara shows was “St. Louis Blues” composer W. C. Handy, who toured with the company between 1894 and 1903, except for one season. In his autobiography, “Father of the blues,” Handy provided a vivid description of what must have happened on Fourth Street that day:
“Life began at 11:45 A.M. in a minstrel company…we were sure to find a swarm of long-legged boys on hand, begging for a chance to carry the banners advertising the show–the same young rabble, perhaps, that invariably swept down upon the circus with the offer to water the elephants in return for free tickets.
“The parade itself was headed by the managers in their four-horse carriages. Doffing silk hats and smiling their jeweled smiles, they acknowledged with easy dignity the small flutter of polite applause their high-stepping horses provoked. After them came the carriage in which the stars rode. The “walking gents” followed, that exciting company which included comedians, singers and acrobats. They in turn were followed by the drum major–not an ordinary drum major beating time for a band, mind you, but a performer out of the books, an artist with the baton. His twirling stick suggested a bicycle wheel revolving in the sun. Occasionally he would give it a toss and then recover the glistening affair with the same flawless skill…
“…[A]t 7:30 we played a program of classical music in front of the opera house. In all probability, we would pull the ‘Musician’s Strike’ out of our bag of tricks. During this well-rehearsed feature each musician would, when his turn came, pretend to quarrel with someone else and quit the band in a huff. When, to the dismay of the innocent yokels, the band had dwindled to almost nothing, a policeman who had been ‘fixed’ and planted at a convenient spot would come up and ask questions. This would lead to a flght between some of the remaining musicians, and the officer would promptly arrest them.
“The crowd could be depended on to express its disappointment in strong language. ‘Just like ni*gers,’ they’d groan. ‘They break up everything with a fight. Damn it all, they’d break up Heaven.’ During these recriminations we would spring the old hokum. The band, having reassembled around the corner, would cut loose with one of the most sizzling tunes of the day, perhaps Creole Belles, Georgia Camp Meeting, or A Hot Time In the Old Town Tonight, and presently the ticket seller would go to work. Our hokum hooked them.”
Handy also wrote that company’s standards were so high that members thought of the troupe as a “finishing school.” By 1906 Handy was no longer with the show, but we know from reviews of their performances in San Francisco earlier that month that the big star of this tour was Bessie LaBelle, who would later become known as a West Coast blues singer with Jelly Roll Morton. That she was the featured performer was another difference between the white minstrel shows, which rarely had any women at all; as many as half the Mahara performers were female, including a renowned trombone player.
It probably goes without saying that the exception to the all-black identity of the Mahara company were the Mahara brothers themselves, who handled the money and managed everything. Founder of the touring group was William Mahara, who had been a manager for other minstrel companies going back to 1875 before starting his own in 1892. When W.C. Handy described “managers in their four-horse carriages” leading the parade, he primarily meant William, with his diamond-buttoned shirt sitting next to his giant St. Bernard, Sport.
According to W. C. Handy, William and his brother Frank, who managed their other touring company, treated performers with complete respect. Performers traveled the country in a private Pullman car with their own cook, waiter, and porter. Their train cars also had a hidden compartment to stash food, weapons, and act as an emergency hideaway, which Handy had cause to use when a Tennessee sheriff and posse sought to arrest him in 1903 for striking a white man. A third Mahara brother, Jack, worked as the advance man and miraculously survived being shot between the eyes during an 1894 train robbery. He was left with a hole about an inch deep and two inches wide in his forehead, which he covered with a silver plate. Talk about your conversation starters.
By 1906 the independent minstrel shows were facing hard times as vaudeville geared up to become an entertainment industry. That the ad in the Santa Rosa papers promised an “olio of pleasing vaudeville novelties” (the “olio” was the middle part of the minstrel show) was a concession that tastes had changed; a purposely old-fashioned show had dwindling appeal.
This was near the end of the Mahara Brothers’ Minstrels; William died in 1909, and that same year ads can be found for the “Jack Mahara All White Minstrel Company.” Blurbs that proceeded the show promised, “the minstrel show like any other enterprise in this progressive age has evolved; there are many changes from the old days in minstrelry. The Jack Mahara Minstrels have evolved…members that are young and full of comedy…a clean, refined and moral show.” A few months later, Jack abandoned his clean, refined all-white troupe in Nevada owing them back pay. And that was the end of the Mahara minstrel empire.
Plantation Life Will Be Well Presented
It was in the evening when the day’s work in the cotton field was done and “Massa” had gone to bed, in the darkest days of slavery, that the darky toilers wer wont to gather around their humble huts and there hold high carnival under the pale light of the moon. Though all, or nearly all, of this has passed into history and tradition, there is still a strong semblance of those never to be forgotten days left in “plantation life.” A vivid spectacle introduced in Mahara Bros. Big Minstrel Carnival this season, which makes its appearance at the Athanaeum on February 26th. To make the pictures more realistic they introduce ten of the handsomest creole ladies from the Boyou Teche, La., pastimes of the rice and tobacco fields, giving an entertaining exhibition of the tobacco stripping and manipulation. Grand choruses of supereminence song with the rich, true plaintive voices of the southern negro. The ladies of the company are also seen in the second edition of the program, known as “Minstrelsy of Today,” showing the evolution of the blacks since emancipation. This amusement, Dusky Beaux & Belles, is spectacular, up-to-date, singing and dancing, dressed in costumes of the club, reception, and the ball room.– Santa Rosa Republican, February 24, 1906