Even before Konocti Harbor became synonymous with oldie rock bands, the North Bay was a popular stop for fading has-beens. In the first decade of the 20th century, not a single top name musical act played near Santa Rosa, with the arguable exception of John Philip Sousa’s Band in 1904 (and even his group could be viewed as an oldies touring band, as the March King’s glory days had passed). Instead, the little theaters north of the Golden Gate churned through a procession of unpolished – and often cringe worthy – vaudeville acts, novelty athletic exhibitions such as the man who roller skated on stilts, and those geriatric tours of names once famous on Victorian stages, back 20, 30, even 40 years before.
One group that played Santa Rosa in 1908 had been quite famous less than a decade earlier: The Richards & Pringles Original Georgia Minstrels. The Press Democrat interviewed their manager, asking if he had read a recent newspaper article about declining audiences for minstrel shows. Manager Jack Holland predictably dismissed the idea as “the veriest rot,” conceding that a few minstrel touring companies had folded, but the recent theatrical season had been rough for everyone. “The good old style of entertainment still holds a warm place in the hearts of the American people,” he assured the reporter.
Some of this was braggadocio and whistling past the graveyard; minstrel shows were being slowly squeezed out by the modern and always-changing vaudeville bills, as discussed here in an earlier essay. The Richards & Pringles show wouldn’t fold until around 1916, and a few companies would hang on for another two decades beyond that, booking halls in smaller and smaller rural communities in the Deep South and performing for audiences that were mostly African-American.
Sadly, the PD interview with manager Holland begins with that single insipid question and ends with his predictable and banal answer. Even a Journalism 101 student today would have probed a bit, and realized that this man had stories enough to fill the newspaper for days. (Nor was this the only time that year a clueless local reporter had flubbed the shot at a big, newsmaking interview.) Jack had worked for several circuses before becoming an agent for Richards & Pringles, and by the turn of the century, he and his financial partner simultaneously owned that famous minstrel troupe and three others, all using only African-American performers. For showmen they were remarkably successful, and that should have led an astute reporter to drill down to the fundamental questions: Why is your famous company playing a dinky theater in a remote California farm town? Where’s Billy Kersands? And where were you on that night in Missouri, six years ago?
John Holland started working for Richards & Pringles in 1891, about three years after the company was founded. Billy Kersands was already the star of the show. Holland greatly owed the success of his shows to this black showman, who was possibly the most charismatic stage performer of the late 19th century and could be considered the first crossover act, as wildly popular with black audiences as white. Kersands was renowned as a comic genius and also created – or at least, popularized – a dancing style known as “Virginia Essence,” which was the direct ancestor of tap dance. He was universally admired and respected; when the group toured England and Europe, Queen Victoria awarded him a diamond pin. A good biography – and a Ken Burns-quality documentary, even a motion picture (he looked remarkably like Eddie Murphy) – is long overdue.
The money-making Kersands/Holland machine might have chugged along for another decade if not for what happened February 16, 1902, on the outskirts of New Madrid, Missouri. A day earlier, the Richards & Pringles company had come to town and that afternoon, a few well-dressed black performers were taking a stroll when a couple of local young men began pelting them with snowballs. One of the performers cussed at them. At the sold-out performance that night, local youths heckled the performers and at the end of the show, charged the stage. One of the minstrels fired a revolver and at once there were a half-dozen guns firing in both directions. The audience panicked but when order was restored, the only serious injury was a bullet in the leg of a performer. Members of the troupe suspected of firing weapons were taken to jail, where they were beaten. The next evening, mask-wearing men attacked the sheriff’s office. The mob singled out Louis F. Wright, a 22 year-old trombone player, as the performer who began the shooting. He was dragged from his cell and hanged from a tree at the edge of town. His body was cut down the next morning and shipped C.O.D. to his mother. No one was arrested for involvement with the murder. Wright’s friends and family in Chicago raised money for a lawyer to sue the county, but nothing apparently came of it.
A one -paragraph AP wire story on the lynching appeared in many newspapers, including the San Francisco Call, but there was no followup in the press about the incident, much less comment from the owners or players in the troupe. Judging by ads found in digitized newspaper archives – always a hit-or-miss proposition – the company had few bookings for the rest of the season, and almost all of them were in Northern cities with no habit of lynching black men: Places like Minneapolis, Seattle, and Salt Lake City. When they ventured again into the Deep South at the end of the year, their newspaper advertisements downplayed the Richards & Pringles brand, most of the ad space filled with a photo of Billy’s big grin.
Kersands might not have been in New Madrid that night; some sources place him working that year at another of Holland’s touring groups, “Rusco & Holland’s Big Minstrel Festival.” Nonetheless, he severed all ties with Jack Holland’s minstrel empire at the end of the 1902-1903 season. He next performed a solo act, headlined in a stage comedy and formed “Billy Kersands’ Minstrels.” Later with his wife he renamed the troupe “Billy and Louise Kersands’ Minstrels,” and he broke from the minstrel tradition to create a variety show that was the precursor to vaudeville. (In an interesting switch, it was reported that whites were segregated into a corner of the balcony at these performances.) That he was also the owner of these shows and traveled on his private railway car was unprecedented for an African-American entertainer .
Billy Kersands died in 1915, immediately after closing an engagement in New Mexico. He was 73 and had spent the greater part of fifty years in the spotlight. Newspaper clippings showed he toured major cities in the East and Midwest in his last decade, but reference books are contradictory as to his movements and success (one otherwise-respected source has him performing for Queen Victoria nine years after her death). At the time Jack Holland was being interviewed by the Press Democrat in 1908, he was again part of a traditional minstrel show, headlining for the “Dandy Dixie Minstrels” in a swing through small cities in the Texas panhandle and adjoining states. But that doesn’t mean his stardom was in descent; at the same time, a top white vaudeville act, The Three Leightons, were performing an ersatz minstrel routine that centered upon an imitation of Kersands.
Between the 1902 lynching and its closure in 1916, the Richards & Pringles Minstrel Show apparently rarely performed below the Mason-Dixon Line. Perhaps Southern theater owners were skittish that local yokels would want to “finish the job” and string up other members of the company, or maybe they feared that the African-American performers were troublemakers. For whatever reason, the show toured mainly in the West, Southwest, and Upper Plains states, where audiences would be mainly white.
So this was this answer to the question that the Press Democrat reporter didn’t ask: They were in Santa Rosa because they now just performed outside the South in places where a sentimental view of “Dixie” prevailed. And without a bi-racial audience, they undoubtedly cut or “whitened up” sections of the program that appealed directly to blacks, leaving only a parody of the original show with a supersized portion of racism. What appeared here was probably more like “A Tribute to the Richards & Pringles Original Georgia Minstrels,” not so different from those ghost bands that tour under a once-famous name. Had they stuck around another seventy years, they undoubtedly would’ve been playing at Konocti.
JACK HOLLAND TALKS ON MINSTRELSY
A reporter recently met “Jack Holland,” for many years the business manager of Richards & Pringles famous minstrels who appear here on Monday night, and called his attention to an article in a recent issue of a metropolitan paper on the decadence of minstrelsy as a form of entertainment.
Mr. Holland replied with a smile: “Oh, yes, I read the article with a great deal of amusement. Every once in a while you will read an article by some misinformed writer about the passing of the minstrel show. That Americans have tired of the form of amusement that used to make their grandfathers, and yes, even their great grandfathers, laughed till the tears rolled down their cheeks.
“But such talk is the veriest rot. Minstrelsy was never in a more flourishing condition than at this very day.
“This is a progressive age, and one must keep abreast of the times if he is catering to the public. The season of 1907-08 was a particularly disastrous one. Scores and scores of dramatic shows and musical comedies were obliged to close for lack of patronage. Very few indeed were the minstrel shows that gave up the fight. There were two or three minstrel shows closed, to be sure, but they were inferior companies, and scarcely worthy [of] the name.
“None of the leading organizations closed, which proves conclusively that the good old style of entertainment still holds a warm place in the hearts of the American people.”– Press Democrat, October 31, 1908