Another of my sonic misadventures has been posted on Bandcamp, in case anyone out there likes discordant, whinnying diddley-bow solos.
And now, we get off the train in a different (at least on the surface) America….
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“Maybe you shouldn’t put that on the blog,” my dad said, looking at the picture in my hand.
The caption reads: “THE LAZY MOON MINSTRELS / Presented by the Package Company / Fri. Sat. March 1-2 1935.”
This was a musical theater presentation, apparently mounted by the employees of the company in Springfield, Massachusetts, where my grandfather used to work.
(Not sure who the intended audience was. Friends? Family? Clients? Anyone wandering in off the street? And whose idea was it to have a bunch of draftsmen put on a musical show? But I digress.)
I can’t pick out my grandpa for certain in the photo above. But it doesn’t matter, because I know what’s most important:
He’s wearing blackface.
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Google “The Lazy Moon Minstrels,” and you’ll find it was a full-fledged musical comedy, widely circulated, written by one Joseph Carl McMullen.
(I can find no biographical info on McMullen. But — assuming it’s the same guy — copies of some of his other plays are available on Amazon, with titles like “The Boob: A Comedy of Business Life, In One Act” and “When A Feller Needs A Friend: A Farce in Three Acts.”)
Enjoy laughing? Like jokes? Then you’ll love the Lazy Moon Minstrels which will be given this evening, April 8, at 8:00 p. m. in the Bell Township School auditorium. It is filled to the brim with songs, fun and entertainment designed to make any evening pleasant. The “Lazy Moon Minstrels” features the entire junior class. The production has a Suwanee River setting with Andy Burtyk and Emily Tom playing the main character roles of “Pappy” and “Mammy” Washington.
Or this, from the Raleigh Register of Beckley, W.Va., November 7, 1962 (!):
The presentation is in three acts and portrays the talented children of a family, famous now as radio entertainers, returning home to rehearse their tuneful radio show under the lazy southern moon.
And, you’ll find references to children who “(portrayed) white characters in the play,” or to those who portrayed blacks. Such as this sentence from the Palouse, Washington, Republic, of May 28, 1948: “Bob Olson was clever in his impersonation of a squeaky-voiced, adolescent negro.”
(It is possible my grandpa played this role too; I believe he portrayed one of the sons of the talented radio family. It would have been vaguely interesting to see how a white American of European descent who’d never been south of the Mason-Dixon Line portrayed their idea of a black person from the South. I imagine it was all reheated Amos n’ Andy in the end.)
So it seems, then, that people all over America reveled for decades in what seemed to them like a rollicking caricature of southern black life.
According to Wikipedia, blackface faded from Hollywood films at the start of the 1940s, but remained entrenched in other areas — like cartoons and the “Amos n’ Andy” radio show — for years after that. I would imagine it held on for a while in small-town theater, too.
I’d be curious to know the last time any local theater company ever mounted a production of “The Lazy Moon Minstrels.”
I suspect it was probably later than I would have guessed.
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But enough of the historical background. What does one say or think when one finds a picture of one’s grandfather in blackface?
After the initial rise of acid in my throat, I started to come to terms with it. While the thought of my grandpa in blackface makes me wince, it would be absurd to expect him to have turned his back on the show.
Not only was blackface more socially accepted then (less than a decade after Al Jolson’s star turn in The Jazz Singer), but the show was presented as a workplace presentation. And in the midst of the Depression, people lucky enough to have jobs did what they had to do to fit in.
And, I know of no evidence that my grandfather led a racially bigoted life in other regards.
(You could argue that a little kid wouldn’t have noticed that … but, for the amount of time I spent around my grandparents, I would have noticed. Kids are more observant than they get credit for, too.)
Mostly, this makes me wonder what I’m thinking and doing today that will seem appallingly wrong-headed 80 years from now.
I’m sure there’s something. I can’t see it, of course, but neither could my grandpa when he was slathering his cheeks with black greasepaint.