By the mid-1830s, during the fever pitch of activity on the Erie Canal, over 60,000 people each year were passing through Buffalo, bringing with them everything they owned in trunks and crates, and carrying deep in their hearts a hope that they would find happiness and home in the ever-expanding west. Many of these immigrants hopped from the canal boats directly onto steamers to be ferried across the lake, but traffic was so congested during the summer months that many families were forced to spend a night or two in the Canal District until space opened up on a steamboat. As soon as they stepped on the docks, they were greeted by dozens of scam artists, merchants, and hotel agents or “runners” who hoped to separate the unwitting travelers from what little money they had.
The Canal District was rife with misery, disease, and vice, and being situated at the western terminus of the Erie Canal, it quite literally was a sewer. In America’s Crossroads: Buffalo’s Canal Street/Dante Place; the Making of a City, Michael N. Vogel, writing in vibrant prose, challenges romanticized notions of a bustling, glamorous setting: “The short walk from the ‘Grand Canal’ to the crowded riverine [sic] harbor was a walk through tragedy and crime, as the spaces between maritime businesses were filled rapidly with buildings housing the dregs of society … Barrooms and bordellos filled the new buildings, aging them rapidly as the illicit commerce of a waterfront district crammed every nook and cranny with vice.”
In this frontier society of drunken sailors, prostitutes, artful dodgers, trickster steamboat runners, cagey hotel agents, merchants, grocers, immigrant families, and the orphaned children of gangs, a widow named Harriet Harrington set up a saloon and “concert hall.” Not much is known about Harrington except that sometime in the 1830s, a charismatic musician and actor named Edwin P. Christy drifted into her life and she ended up marrying him.
Christy may be the most influential man in Buffalo history you never heard of. And if you haven’t heard of him, it’s not because his life has been insufficiently chronicled, or because he committed such a grave atrocity that, at some point in our city’s history, Buffalonians disowned him in a single act of collective conscience. (Yes, O.J., I mean you.)
No, at some point, people simply stopped talking and writing about E. P. Christy—maybe because the Erie Canal days are so long ago (I think this is a big part of it), or maybe because his story is an untidy American tale of how one race stole from another, and maybe the legacy of guilt and embarrassment which accompanies a story of cultural theft prohibits the characters of that story from entering into the local folklore.
The little-known story of E. P. Christy culminated sometime in the summer of 1842, when in one of the sweltering brick buildings along the Canal, Christy became famous the world over for staging what he claimed was the first-ever blackface minstrel show.
That’s right. Showbiz started “blacking up” in Buffalo. Of course, individual stage performers had been donning the burnt cork mask for decades, but Christy may have been the first person to organize an entire evening’s entertainment around a troupe of blackface performers.
The nineteenth century Buffalo waterfront.
One of Christy’s inspirations for assembling the troupe was his teenage stepson George Harrington, who was known to visit the steamboat wharves in blackface and dance for sailors who would throw coins at his feet. A shrewd manager, Christy began performing with the boy, mentored him, and, before long, Harrington changed his name to George Christy and became the show-stopping, sweet-singing, cross-dressing star attraction of nightly saloon shows. As soon as they banded together, the Christy Minstrels, as they were known, became the city’s preeminent entertainment, playing raucous shows to boozed-up “canawlers” night after night in the rooms above saloons.
I should note that another minstrel troupe from the same period of time also laid claim to being the honest-to-goodness originators of the classic minstrel show. In fact, many scholars state as indisputable fact that Dan Emmett and his New York City-based Virginia Minstrels invented the form in the latter months of 1842.
Each group claimed to be the inventors of the form because such a claim, whether it was true or not, bestowed the groups with an air of authenticity. Furthermore, every leader of every significant antebellum minstrel troupe claimed to have spent some time touring the South in search of truly authentic slave melodies. According to the “Memoir” section in Christy’s Plantation Melodies no. 4—a small song book published in 1854, and available at the Central Library’s Rare Book Room—Christy, “our hero,” toured the South as a child, and, in New Orleans, at the impressionable age of twelve, served as superintendant of a “ropewalk” of slaves; the author says that “it was in this capacity that he acquired his superior knowledge of the Negro characteristic traits, humor, and melody.”
Even if Christy wasn’t the originator of the minstrel show, the Christy Minstrels are responsible for starting the minstrel show craze, making it the first truly American form of popular entertainment. The classic minstrel show consisted of about four to six “blacked up” men sitting in a semi-circle, a different instrument to each man. The troupe typically included a banjo, fiddle, bones, and tambourine, and the setting was invariably a fantastical Southern plantation where the slaves were always happy. Two “end men,” Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, named for the instruments they played, would engage in a series of inane dialogues, where one or the other would end up looking like a fool. (The joke about the chicken who crossed the road to get to the other side comes straight out of the mouths of end men.) Another stock character, the “interlocutor”—the pompous straight man, which in the case of the Christy Minstrels was Christy himself—served as the Master of Ceremonies.
It’s a tad misleading to say Christy or anyone else invented the program for the “classic” minstrel show, because the lineup was always in flux and acts varied from group to group. In fact, many of the show’s conventions did not appear until the Christy Minstrels had already made a name for themselves.
Another Canal Street view.
Generally speaking, though, a show would begin with a few songs. The interlocutor, as emcee, then opened the formal proceedings, declaring, “Gentlemen, be seated!” Jokes and dialogue between the end men came next, followed by some more singing. In later years, troupes added an “olio”—a vaudevillian portion of the show where specialty acts of widely varying talents would take to the stage. The show typically closed with a one-act play involving the most empty-headed form of slapstick comedy.
Almost as soon as the Christy Minstrels started playing rowdy saloon shows, they added four-part harmony to their singing and quickly differentiated themselves from floor-thumping rival groups like the Virginia Minstrels. They eventually gained acceptance among more sophisticated crowds, who packed ’em in at uptown concert halls such as the Eagle Street Theater. A bill from the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser in 1846 suggests how the band had evolved to please the ears of more discerning—and wealthy—concert-goers: “It was our lot to witness their earliest efforts to entertain an audience, four years since … and at that time we were more amused by their caricatures, than charmed by the power or sweetness of their music … They are now artists, and their music is of the highest order.”
The group’s transformation may be explained partly through their collaboration with songwriter Stephen Collins Foster (he of “Oh! Susanna” fame), whose songs sentimentalized the plantation fantasy on stage. In 1846, the Christy Minstrels left for New York City, playing there almost continuously until 1854, breaking up only after George Christy had left the troupe to begin leading his own bands.
As a testament to the worldwide impact of the Christy Minstrels, any minstrel troupe on a tour of England had to call themselves the “Christy Minstrels” to be taken seriously. The group’s partnership with Foster produced dozens of beloved songs (like “My Old Kentucky Home”), some of which school kids still sing today, and almost all of which were published everywhere in a number of different song books throughout the 1840s and ’50s.
Up until the mid-20th century, just about any newspaper article published about the minstrel show’s beginnings gives the impression that Buffalonians were proud to claim the Christy legacy. In recent decades, though, as sensibilities toward blackface entertainment have changed, and as people have become more aware of the complicated mixture of racism, fear, admiration, and curiosity which compelled performers to start “blacking up,” the story of Buffalo’s role in creating the minstrel show has nearly vanished from the city’s consciousness.
But was Buffalo really the birthplace of the minstrel show?
In the Buffalo newspapers from 1842—the Commercial Advertiser and the Buffalo Courier, for example—there doesn’t appear to be any mention of the Christy Minstrels. In fact, most of the articles claiming that Christy invented the form were written years after the inaugural performance, and writers often have relied on Christy’s own testimony, folklore, and the recollections of Buffalonians who were alive during the period. For example, in “Minstrelsy born in Buffalo,” an article from the Courier on July 29, 1917, author Deshler Welch cites his father who said the Christy Minstrels invented the form in 1842, the first performance taking place as “a little entertainment on Water street.”
“Water street” appears in number of sources. A bill posted in the Commercial Advertiser on January 15, 1846, says the Christy Minstrels debuted as “delineators of Ethiopian Character … in the fourth story of a brick block on Water street.” An article from the Commercial on May 4, 1902 mentions the same location, and in 1924, the Buffalo Express quoted a woman named Elizabeth Leavitt Keller who lived during the 1840s and said, “The first minstrel show was given in a rough hall down on Water street, below the Terrace, by a man named Christy.”
Could this “rough hall,” this “brick block,” be the same saloon and concert hall that was run by Christy’s wife, Harriet Harrington? Although it’s hard to say if the Christy Minstrels was truly the first group of its kind, there’s enough evidence to suggest that Christy organized some sort of unique blackface troupe at some point during 1842, and the site quite possibly could have been a brick building on Water Street, near the Buffalo River.
The debut likely occurred when the Canals were open during the summertime, which would have been about six months before the Virginia Minstrels made their own debut in New York City. (Some scholars believe Christy called his band “the Virginia Minstrels” for the first few performances, which means that the New York group may have stolen Christy’s name, as well as his show conventions.)
The fact that only a few months separated the debuts of the two troupes raises some questions: How did two musical groups with similar conventions spring up at almost exactly the same moment in history? And how could they have debuted in two locations separated by 500 miles of barely navigable terrain?
The short answer is this: the Erie Canal.
Buffalo and New York, situated at opposite ends of the Canal, were payoff points for boatmen, who arrived with fat pockets and an inclination toward women, whiskey, and raucous entertainment. At the roadhouses of the Canal District, canallers and sailors could indulge in each of these vices. Furthermore, because Canal boats hosted bands and every port town had some sort of barroom entertainment, the Canal served not only as a commercial trade route but as a thoroughfare of artistic and cultural exchange.
The minstrel show as it was performed in Buffalo was the precursor to virtually every original American form of popular stage entertainment, from ragtime and vaudeville to jazz and rock ’n’ roll, and if you can imagine what it was like to see Christy’s Minstrels perform in a smoky, sweaty saloon hall, it’s easy to see that whatever we regard as American showbiz may not have been possible without the cultural moment afforded by that disease-ridden, vice-laden District by the water, where men of morally dubious character—their wallets fat with cash—came to play.
From Buffalo Spree, September 2010.