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.


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

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Pretend that you live in a town – say, 1906 Santa Rosa – that suffered a major disaster – say, an earthquake that killed scores of people and left the downtown in rubble. A few weeks pass and you’re worn down by mourning and stress and just plain bored. So what could you do for fun?

The town went roller skate crazy when a very nice skating rink opened that summer, and seemingly everyone in town turned out to whirl around the rink or to watch experts perform (there was a gallery that could seat a thousand, and professionals appeared regularly). But there’s not much variety to the sport, and Santa Rosans were accustomed to being entertained. Before the quake, there were two theaters: The cavernous Athenaeum, where plays and stage shows were performed, and the Novelty Theatre, which presented Gong-Show quality vaudeville acts. Both were destroyed in the disaster.

The first post-quake playhouse was The Hub Theatre, which apparently opened its doors in September with an address of simply, “Main st.” It’s difficult to determine where it was, because the two blocks of Main between Courthouse Square and Sonoma avenue were almost completely flattened; it was probably in a long, narrow building that had been used to store buggies, and is now part of the site of the Roxy Stadium 14 movie theater (quite a nice coincidence, that).

At first, The Hub offered more cheesy vaudeville acts such as “Marco the Boy Magician,” and “Flood and Hayes, Renowned Trick Jumpers.” But it wasn’t long before the shtick variety programs were replaced by plays performed by the Columbia Stock Company, Al Richter, manager. They offered a new play every week, with three evening shows and a matinee. By early 1907, the ensemble had become the Al Richter Stock Company, with performances seven evenings a week plus a Sunday matinee, which was probably more of a dress rehearsal.

It’s no small feat to assemble an acting troupe, and Mr. Richter must have been an interesting character with boundless energy. But Orson Welles he was not, and the plays he presented were hardly cutting edge Ibsen. The newest play I can find advertised was about 8 years old at the time, and the oldest predated the Civil War. These were farces and potboilers, with titles such as, “The Moonshiners”, “Wanted, A Baby!”, “Too Much Mother-In-Law”, and “Nugget Nell, or the Pet of Poker Flat.” These early-to-mid Victorian era plays often leaned heavily on ugly racial cliches; villains or comic characters might include a “drunken Indian,” a “giddy Celestial,” a “lazy Colored servant,” which meant that the Richter Stock Company made heavy use of burnt cork, yellow and red paint along with demeaning and crude dialect. One week Mr. Orrin Shear was playing “Johnson, Colored Gentlemen” in their production of “Little Alabama,” and a few weeks later portraying “Ratts, the slave auctioneer” in “The Octoroon.”

Entertainment options bloomed in 1907, with vaudeville acts at the new Empire Theatre on Third street, a few doors down from the ruined courthouse. There was also the Star Nickelodeon at 414 Fourth street showing continuous motion pictures. And just before Thanksgiving, Al Richter opened his new Richter Theatre on the northwest southwest corner of B and Third street (currently a pitiful grassy knoll outside the mall, across from Wells Fargo). On the first anniversary of the Richter Stock Company that autumn, Press Democrat editor Earnest Finley wrote an approving commentary: “Nearly all of [the productions] were good, and some indeed excellent. The players as well as the plays have been of superior character, and the prices have been much less than were formerly paid for entertainment not so good.”

But all was not sunny that year for Al Richter. Theodore (T. T.) Overton, brother and business partner of Santa Rosa’s mayor and one of the town’s movers and shakers, announced that he was going to build an even bigger theater and organize his own company of actors. The Press Democrat featured a drawing of “Santa Rosa’s New Theatre” (not reproduced here because of poor microfilm quality, but it can be found in the Feb. 26, 1907 edition) that would seat 700 and have a state-of-the-art design by architect Victor Dunkerley, who had just designed the jewel of the new Santa Rosa downtown, the Overton Hotel. The cathedral-like playhouse would have 10 exits that could be opened “with the throwing of a single lever in the box office, which would be a safeguard in case of fire or other cause which might induce a panic,” according to the announcement in The Republican. Surely the spectacle of ten doors flipping open at once would have been a powerful temptation for scalliwags to cry “fire” in a crowded theater.

That would have been intimidating competition for Richter, whose operation was showing signs it might be having money troubles. Attendance was apparently off; while still in the smaller Hub Theatre, the stage manager came out and urged the audience to patronize their homegrown productions because it was, after all, a local business, and everyone in town was doing their darndest to shop locally. Another hint at desperation was that Al Richter rented space for building and painting new sets “to give the people a new set of scenery each week as the bill changes at the theater.” Read between the lines and it appears that he was making copies of stage sets from a theatrical service in San Francisco in order to save rental costs.

It seems that this era of local theater ended in the spring of 1908, when it was announced that the Richter Theatre was henceforth a vaudeville house. “From the large and appreciative audience it would seem that the change was to the liking of the patrons,” The Press Democrat snarked on May 15. In the following months it would also serve as a movie house/nickelodeon and a week-long rental theater for traveling acting companies. Ads announced in September that there was a new manager at the theater, and it followed soon that it had been sold.

The new owner was Mr. Overton, who somehow had never gotten around to building his expensive and extravagant playhouse, although Santa Rosa was promised more than a year before that “the building [was] practically assured.” He hadn’t gotten around to founding his own acting company, either; maybe he was disappointed that he couldn’t get the Richter Stock Company as part of the deal.


Although Santa Rosa no longer has the good theater building that it had before the fire, the people who go to plays have been better entertained within the last year than ever before in the city’s history. Occasionally there was a good play at the Athenaeum; but, depending entirely upon road companies, that playhouse often billed shows that sounded the depths of inferiority. Since the Richter Stock Company has held the Hub theatre, to which little playhouse local theatre-goers have been compelled to journey by reason of the lack of a bigger and better one, fifty-two different productions have been presented, nearly all of which were good, and some indeed excellent. The players as well as the plays have been of superior character, and the prices have been much less than were formerly paid for entertainment not so good.

There have been no grand stage settings, no large orchestras, no spectacular extravaganzas. The entertainment has been chiefly light melodrama, considerably below the highest form of dramatic art, but far above the childish humor of the comedies so popular in even the “dramatic centers,” and even further still removed from the vulgar indecencies of suggestive pruriency idocy [sic] of the “slap-stick” variety.

The theatre is supposed to represent Art. The greatest critics lay down the law that poor art is also poor morals; and there can be no doubt that coon songs [sic], rag-time, slap-sticks and like abominations have an influence directly opposed to all that is best in both art and morals.

It is pleasing to know that before many months Santa Rosa will have a theatre better adapted to its purpose than is the Hub, and that the Hub’s company will tread the boards there with much better accessories for creditable productions. The old company in its new home should be one of the town’s “institutions.”

– Press Democrat editorial, October 29, 1907

Some time ago five pistols, part of the property of the stage manager of the Hub theatre, were stolen. Yesterday Chief of Police Rushmore and Police Officer Boyes placed a youth under arrest and charged with the theft. It seems that there is another youth concerned in the robbery, and he will be arrested today.

– Press Democrat, January 23, 1907
Will Have Seating Capacity of Seven Hundred And Be Modern

Santa Rosa is practically assured of a handsome theater in the near future. Arrangements are now being made for the structure, which is to be constructed on Fifth street, opposite the Republican office. The news that T. T. Overton was contemplating the matter of providing an up-to-date playhouse for the City of Roses was recently given to the public in the columns of this paper and was pleasing news. The necessity for an opera house here is apparent to the most casual observer and the long time that has elapsed since the traveling companies from the east have visited this city makes people hunger for the good old times gone by when theatrical attractions in large numbers visited the city.

The theater planned for Mr. Overton by Architect Victor Dunkerley will have a seating capacity of seven hundred and five. Of this number four hundred will be accommodated in the main auditorium and three hundred and five in the balcony which is included in the plan.

Ten exits have been provided for the structure and all can be opened with the throwing of a single lever in the box office, which would be a safeguard in case of fire or other cause which might induce a panic. In construction and appurtenances the new structure will be up-to-date in every respect and fire escapes will be provided for the outside of the structure. The perspective is quite a handsome one, and on one side of the building will be the work “Music,” and on the other “Drama.”

Mr. Overton is organizing a stock company at present to handle the project with him and there has been a liberal response to the invitation to invest in the enterprise. Estimates of the cost of the structure prove that a liberal interest can be gained on the amount of coin to be invested and the building is practically assured.

– Santa Rosa Republican, February 23, 1907

Another Good Attraction Being Presented at the Hub Theatre

“The Octoroon,” which constitutes the attraction at the Hub Theatre this week is a strong play, and in the hands of the Al Richter Stock Company furnishes a fine evening’s entertainment. Not many patrons of the house will be apt to miss this week’s bill.

In his curtain announcement Monday evening, Stage Manager Harries made a point that seemed to find much favor with the local business men present. He called attention to the fact that while a traveling company might at times take a good deal of money out of town, a stock company such as that playing at the Hub was an entirely different proposition, practically all the money remaining here, and being spent each week among the local merchants. He urged a liberal patronage upon the part of the Santa Rosa business men for this reason.

– Press Democrat, April 9, 1907

Carpenters are rapidly rushing the work on “The Richter,” Santa Rosa’s new theater, and Manager Al Richter declared he will have the prettiest and cozziest [sic] little playhouse that Santa Rosa has ever seen. It will be neat in the extreme, and seat about 550 people…

– Santa Rosa Republican, December 11, 1907

Opens Special Paintshop for Benefit of Local Theatre

Manager Al Richter of the Richter theater is going into the scenery painting business on a large scale for the next few months. He has leased the room formerly occupied by Davis drug store on Fifth street and has transferred the place into a veritable paint shop, where he can work on the scenery for the theater. He expects to be very busy for the next three months and until such time as he can get stocked up with scenery.

It is Mr. Richter’s plan to give the people a new set of scenery each week as the bill changes at the theater, and to do this he will have considerable of a task as well as heavy expense. In order to hasten matters for the present he sent to the metropolis, where he secured a number of exterior sets and these are already on hand. Mr. Richter is an enterprising man and is determined to make the productions at the Richter equal to the best there are.

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 17, 1908

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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

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