Henrietta, Texas, 1955: The Kiwanis Minstrel Show was coming to town, or at least to the high-school gymnasium. The basketball floor was covered with row on row of folding chairs, and ticket-sellers encamped at the rear doors.
I had an important job, operating the spotlight, and sat alone in the high bleachers. During rehearsals, I watched as a young schoolmate, Robert Bell, stuck a nail into the electrical circuit, so as to feel the jolt. Nobody stopped him. Who cared if he fried?
Just as the television show “Amos & Andy” has disappeared, and never emerges among the late-night reruns, so has the Minstrel Show disappeared. Of course the original ones toured the South once apon a time, and Lenny Sloan resurrected the “Three Black and Three White Minstrel Show” in San Francisco during my early answering service days. In fact, Lenny was my client, and now that I think about it, if I recall right, he still owes me money!
But back then, in my home town, this was the Kiwanis Club, masters of disguise.
My stepfather, Dr. Strickland, wearing blackface and a bow-tie that lit-up, he was in the show. My uncle, Dr. Hurn, with a bow-tie he could bounce up and down with his adams apple, he was in the show. Houston McMurray, our pompous town lawyer, was just perfect as “Mr. Interlocuter.”
Mr. Interlocuter was a well-dressed white man in the Minstrel Show. His job was Master of Ceremonies, and he would play straight man to the various pseudo-black actors as they delivered their gags. The entire chorus, in blackface makeup, would deliver songs, and background harmonies for solo singers.
In one skit, using a thick dialect considered very humorous, Dr. Hurn sat at a table, and at a knock on the door, admitted a patient, who in an even thicker dialect said that he was having woman troubles. The trouble was that his wife was pregnant, again, and he couldn’t afford to feed any more children.
The doctor gave him some pills which should stop the problem, but in the next scene the patient was back. The pills had failed, the fit had come on him, and the wife was pregnant, again, with yet another chillun.
This time the doctor took him behind a screen for an operation, and the man staggered out. But alas! In the next scene, the man, sheepishly knocking on the door, told the doctor that the operation had failed.
The doctor, now stern, said they’d have to “remove the cause of the difficulty”, and over the man’s protests, performed another operation behind the screen. The fellow was hardly able to walk from the room.
Even worse, in the next scene he was back and his wife was yet again pregnant. Now the doctor really had to think.
“Hmmmm,” said the doctor. “Appears we been operating on the wrong one!”
Ha ha ha ha ha. That one brought the house down.
After the show, when all the audience had gone, and the gymnasium was just an empty floor covered with folding chairs, there was great hiliarity among the actors. Grease paint was in their blood now. A flask was passed around. Some went down to the coffee shop to laugh and drink coffee. Dr. Hurn went to the hospital to do his rounds, still wearing his costume, bobbing bow-tie, and blackface makeup.
“Lordy!” said the nurses.
“My word!” said the patients.
My Uncle Doc, Dr. Hurn, he just bobbed his bow-tie, and didn’t say nothing.