WHERE THE MUSIC DIED

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

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NOW THAT WAS A FIGHT

Rule of thumb: While you’re getting beat up, it’s never a good idea to become trapped in a barber’s chair.

The brawl that started at the Blue Wing saloon in downtown Santa Rosa spilled over into the barber shop next door. One fighter was caught in the chair, where his leg was broken in two places and an arm broken as well. So frenetic was the action that even someone who tried to break up the scuffle was thought to have a broken arm.

BONES BROKEN IN A FIGHT
George Cogswell Sustains Several Injuries

In a fight at the Blue Wing saloon at First and Main streets Sunday afternoon between George Cogswell and James Campion, the former sustained a number of broken bones. One of his legs was broken in two places, and he is said to have also had one bone of his right arm broken. He became entangled in a barber chair and it was while thus entangled that the bones of the leg were broken. The man’s injuries were dressed by Dr. J. W. Jesse after which he was taken to his home near this city.

A peacemaker, who endeavored to separate the combatants, was also injured, and for a time it was believed he had sustained a broken arm.

– Santa Rosa Republican, November 16, 1908
FIGHT IN BARBER SHOP

The fight Sunday evening in which George Cogswell sustained a broken leg took place in a barber shop adjoining the Blue Wing saloon. S. H. McKee, of the Blue Wing, declares this barber shop has no connection with the business whatever.

– Santa Rosa Republican, November 19, 1908

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SUMMER SHOOTOUT

Sounds of summer night, Santa Rosa 1907: Crickets, someone’s barking dog, lowing of cattle in the stockyard, a freight train whistle, the blamma-blamma of two guys shooting away at each other at close range outside a popular downtown restaurant. Note to the next Broadway producer who revives “The Music Man:” Clue us in that most of the respectable citizens in those cute little nostalgic towns usually carried loaded pistols.

In one of the most sensational events of the year, 31 year-old barber Andy Carrillo was out late Friday night and discovered his wife drunk, apparently flirting with another man. Carrillo socked him in the face and drew blood; the man stumbled back into the restaurant. A friend of the bleeding man charged outside and hit Carrillo who drew his pistol, shooting this man in the chest. Carrillo fired a second shot that broke a window and grazed the cheek of Frank Miller, yet another man inside the restaurant. Miller charged outside with his own gun drawn. He and Carrillo fired at each other at point blank range, but mirabile dictu, neither of them were wounded, and the man shot in the chest was not seriously injured. Carrillo fled with Miller still firing away. Police arrived and began searching for Carrillo, who they found hiding in his bed as if nothing were amiss.

Carrillo was out the next day on $1,000 bail, which was paid in part by saloon man Jake Luppold. It was decided he would appear in Superior Court on charges of assault with a deadly weapon. His wife Jennie, meanwhile, was sentenced to 30 days in jail “as a result of being drunk the night in question.”

When the case came to trial, no details were disputed except that the man allegedly hit in the face by Carrillo testified “he was not certain who had struck him.” But after three ballots the jury could not decide on guilt, although the votes always leaned heavily towards acquittal.

Why Carrillo was able to shoot someone in the chest yet even not be found guilty of assault is a mystery. Also odd is that his wife served a month in jail for drunkenness, while the usual sentence at the time was 10-14 days. Another woman arrested for public drunkenness paid $5.00 and no jail time, according to the October 29 Republican, and a man arrested the same day was sentenced to five days in jail because he could not pay the $5 fine.

FIGHT DUEL AT EARLY HOUR ON THIRD STREET
Andy Carrillo Engages in Desperate Battle
W. N. Hall Shot in Breast and Frank Miller in Face During Melee Resulting From Attack on Charles Majors

Andy Carrillo who had just shot W. N. Hall fought a pistol duel in front of the Campi restaurant [on Third street, near the corner of B -ed.] shortly before one o’clock this morning with Frank Miller. Both men marvelously escaped injury and although Carrillo escaped from the scene quickly and hid at home he was captured by Officers Yeager and Lindley and locked up in the county jail within half an hour.

There had been a banquet in progress at the Campi, which about 45 members of the Bricklayers and Plasterers’ Union were attending. Mrs. Jennie Carrillo, who was under the influence of liquor, had been hanging about the place trying to interest some of the men without result. Finally Charles Majors went out to go home, but discovered that his wheel had been stolen. He reported the loss to the men inside and returned to the walk. Mrs. Carrillo was talking to him when her husband came around the corner and seeing them together walked up and struck Majors a brutal blow in the face, laying open a great gash in his cheek.

Majors rushed back into the restaurant with blood streaming from his face, and when his companions were told of the assault they rushed out with W. N. Hall in the lead. When Hall reached the sidewalk he was met by Carrillo who he struck for assaulting Majors. Carrillo jumped back, drew his revolver and fired at Hall, the bullet striking him just over and dangerously near the heart [then] crashed through the window in the restaurant, imbedding itself in the wall. Hall jumped behind a tree and the others not being armed rushed back. Carrillo fired another shot which passed through the window grazing Frank Miller’s cheek.

Miller, who was back in the restaurant, was forcing his way to the door and in an instant was face to face with Carrillo. Seeing him with a weapon Miller pulled his and the two fired almost instantaneously. That one or both were not hit seems marvelous, as they were right upon one another. Carrillo turned and ran up Third street and Miller again fired at him without effect.

Officer Yeager was standing in front of Germania Hall at the time and rushed to the scene of the shooting at once. Officer Lindley and Skaggs were eating supper in the Boston restaurant and were on the scene within a few moments. Their first effort was to capture Carrillo, and taking the direction of his disappearance a hurried run was made up through First, Second, and Third streets as far as E and back. Then Yeager proposed that Carrillo’s home be examined. He and Officer Lindley went to the house, where after some delay the door was opened. Carrillo was found and placed under arrest and taken to the county jail where he was locked up.

Dr. Jesse was called and arrived on the scene in his auto within a few minutes. He took Majors and Hall to his office where he dressed their wounds. Neither are dangerously injured, but it was a close call for Hall. The bullet struck him a glancing blow which saved his life. He remained at the restaurant for some time after the affair discussing it with other members of the union. Miller’s face was cut by the bullet which narrowly missed ending his life before he left the restaurant.

– Press Democrat, July 28, 1907
CARRILLO IS FACING JURY
Charged With Assault With a Deadly Weapon

Andy Carrillo, charged with assault with a deadly weapon, was brought to trial Wednesday before Judge Emmet Seawell and a jury. The jury is composed of…

…The first witness was Charles W. Majors, who narrated how he had been banged in the face when he started out of the restaurant where the shooting occurred on the night of the alleged offense. Majors declares he was not certain who had struck him. He returned to the restaurant with blood streaming from his face, and this sight broke up the banquet which was being enjoyed there.

Fred Forget, the second witness, testified to being at the banquet. He saw Majors come in covered with blood, and with other rushed out to the front door of the restaurant. Outside the witness saw Andy Carrillo standing with his hands in his pockets. Walter Hall forged ahead of witness and Carrillo raised his hand containing weapon, and with a string of oaths began firing. Hall need no air breaks [sic] to stop the speed at which he was traveling toward Carrillo. He reversed himself quickly and sped into the restaurant. He had walked right out, turned right around and run back in again.

Hall followed Forget in the narrative being give the jury, and his version of the affair tallied exactly with that of Forget.

Officer I. N. Lindley and Chief of Police Fred J. Rushmore testified to the arrest of Carrillo and the finding of the weapon with which the shooting had been done. Rushmore testified the weapon was still warm when he picked it up in Carrillo’s room on First street.

– Santa Rosa Republican, December 11, 1907
THE CARRILLO JURY FAILS TO AGREE
Discharged by Judge Seawell Thursday Night–Stood 10 for Acquittal, 2 for Conviction

The jury in the case of the state against Andy Carrillo failed to reach a unanimous verdict in Judge Seawell’s department of the Superior Court and was discharged by the court in the evening when the jurors had announced that it would be impossible for them to agree.

The first ballot taken by the jurors after they had retired was eight for acquittal and four for conviction. Then it was nine for acquittal and three for conviction. Then it went to ten for acquittal and two for conviction, and this is how the jury hung.

The case went to the jury after arguments by District Attorney Clarence Lea and Attorney T. J. Butts, and the instructions of the court, about half past three. The jurors asked to have certain portions of the testimony read to them, and for this purpose were brought into court twice. When supper time came they were taken to the California Oyster Market for supper, accompanied by Deputy Sheriff Don McIntosh. After supper they returned to court and remained in their room until discharged.

– Press Democrat, December 13, 1907

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