The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
THE AUTOMATIC MINSTRELS
The New Acts column in the August 22, 1908 issue of the weekly Variety, then one of several competing papers trying to cover the stupendously varied world of show bizness, carried an elliptical notice of a between pictures "try-out" act at the Manhattan movie theater, managing to stuff very little solid information into a long paragraph. William Gane's Automatic Minstrels, wrote Sime Silverman, Variety's energetic founder, consisted of nine figures, eight sidemen and an interlocutor, the straight man who sets up the jokes. The other eight rejoindered with jokes and music. Gane's Manhattan Theatre, at Broadway and Thirty-Third, was no hole-in-the-wall nickelodeon. At 700 seats, it was large for its time and had recently been a legitimate stage featuring stage royalty like Sarah Bernhardt. As the move to cinema indicated, Gane offered cutting edge programming, with audiences receiving an hour's worth of entertainment - three reels of motion pictures and two live acts - for their ten cents.
Minstrel acts were as common in vaudeville in 1908 as rock bands are today. Standard stuff, seemingly. More should have expected from Gane and perhaps more was offered. Sime, who slipped into the back of the theater upon hearing of the new act, couldn't tell if the joketellers were real. It is "not yet known," he wrote, "whether the others were human or merely dummies." The real joke was on the audience. Because "Phonographs situated behind each of the figures supplied a couple of jokes and all the songs. ... If the figures were 'dummies' they were very lifelike." Sime thought that Gane might be the genius of all geniuses if so. A nine-person performance for the cost of one actor!
Four decades later, when Silverman's successor, Abel Green, and Joe Laurie, Jr. wrote the gargantuan Show Biz: Variety from Vaude to Video, memories of the act had gotten a bit garbled. "William Gane introduced the first (and last) All-Automatic Minstrels at the Manhattan Theatre in 1908. Outside of one live interlocutor, all the minstrels were dummies with gramophones concealed inside, telling jokes and singing songs upon cue."
History is hard. Show Biz is notable as much for what it leaves out as for the thousands of acts included, evidence of how unbelievably difficult it was to do thorough research in the days before keyword searches. In fact, though Green and Laurie had access to the entire run of Variety back issues, they missed a letter to the editor that got printed the very next week in Variety, from one "Byron" Monzello.
This is a direct steal of my act. I will furnish affidavits I originated "the Mechanical Minstrels" in September 1904, in Indianapolis. Not then satisfied with results, I continued experimenting until September 1906, when my act was completed...
As proof, Monzello also took out a half-page ad in the same issue with a picture of the minstrels and elaborate details of the act's contents. Note that he spells his name "Bryon." You wouldn't think he'd get it wrong, but look at the way he spells "mechanical."
Gane's act might just have appeared once but keyword searches of modern databases reveal a slew of Automatic and Mechanical Minstrels that date back decades.
That shouldn't have surprised them. Mechanical dolls, figures, automatons, and puppets littered the 18th and 19th centuries, with hundreds or thousands of clockmakers, mechanics, and tinkerers vying to mimic human form and movements and speech with all the ingenuity that modern engineering could summon.
Perhaps the most famous music-maker is one of the first. Pierre Jaquet-Droz and his sons, Henri-Louis and Jean-Frédéric Leschot, built three automata from 1768-1774 to publicize their clock-making business. Containing thousands of interlocking pieces, the Musician actually played her keyboard, the Draughtsman produced images of the King and other royals, and the Writer invented Twitter by being able to pen messages up to 40 characters long. They still work today.
Others took up the challenge, although minstrel toys and dolls had to wait for the actual minstrel show to arise in the 1840s. Records from back then are sketchy but searches turn up a slew of fascinating examples from later in the century.
Indianapolis Journal, May 29, 1882. A fairly standard small theater vaudeville bill. Freaks and entertainers often were billed together at shows, before the former got run out of respectable theaters by the middle class morality police. I have no further information about James Redmond or what his Automatic Minstrels might be although he had been around for at least five years at that point. Rhoda, the Herodian Mystery, was a former P. T. Barnum exhibit, who appeared to audiences to be a living head on a table with no body underneath. Yes, it was done with mirrors.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December. 1 and 4, 1895. Abraham and Strauss, Brooklyn based and in a gigantic new store opened in 1893 on Fulton Street, was one of the largest department stores anywhere in New York. Department stores were the kings of retail establishments, always in competition with one another and never more so than at Christmas time. They vied to bring in customers with the biggest and gaudiest Christmas displays. Every day in December 1895, the store took out advertisements hyping the French-made automatons comprising a minstrel troupe (Ethiopian meant blackface) that evidently could do everything Gane's minstrels did and more. Kids without access to superstores could soon play at home with Mechanical Minstrel dolls for $1.00
Oakland Tribune, November 4, 1906. This sounds familiar. J. M. Leavitt owned a company that made stage props, so he's a natural to play with this idea. Remember that William Gane was a theater owner; he found acts to play there and wasn't likely to develop his own enormously complicated clockwork toys.
Bristol [IN] Banner, July 10, 1908. Riverview was a giant amusement park that opened in Chicago in 1904. It had everything, including "mechanical minstrels." This press release looks like a newspaper article because it was printed as such in the Banner and in scores of other Midwestern newspapers. A surprising amount of entertainment news then and now are reprints or light rewrites of press releases.
Database hits of mechanical minstrel acts stop abruptly after Riverview's 1909 season. The difficulty of keeping the delicate machinery going while subjecting it to constant movement on and off stage and city to city probably doomed the efforts.
One hint that what we would today call robot minstrels either survived a bit longer or else had a far greater impact on cultural memory than the scant mentions in the papers imply is that they were featured in a cartoon in 1912. Popular cartoonists require immediate understanding of their subjects, either long-lived tropes that have created their own reality - people stranded on a desert island, e.g. - or a timely event so publicized that all readers would pick up on it. The cartoons in To California - By Rocket were of this type and so was the cartoon called That Synthetic Food of the Future.
Well-known comic artist H. C. Greening started the full-page Sunday comic strip Percy in October 1911, featuring the hijinks of a Professor (naturally German, who spoke in vaudeville stage dialect) and his invention, the "mechanism man" Percy. Percy always starts out working wonderfully - but "brains he has nix" and like any badly programmed computer, he continues to do his job until destruction. That was the standard twist writers had put to their automaton stories since Jerome K. Jerome started it all with "The Dancing Partner" in 1889. Ely's Automatic Housemaid is another. Was Greening using the memory of a mechanical minstrel act or had a new one come along? I can't find any evidence of a new one, but the juxtaposition of the old and the new must have been irresistible. If you want an idea of what such an act might be like, try this astounding artifact that appeared in the Washington Evening Star on November 10, 1912.