The Virginia Minstrels or Virginia Serenaders was a group of 19th-century American entertainers known for helping to invent the entertainment form known as the minstrel show. Led by Dan Emmett, the original lineup consisted of Emmett, Billy Whitlock, Dick Pelham, and Frank Brower.
After a successful try-out in the billiard parlor of the Branch Hotel on New York City's Bowery, the group is said to have premiered to a paying audience nearby at the Chatham Theatre, probably on January 31, 1843. They followed with a brief run at the Bowery Amphitheater in early February before an expanded schedule of venues.
Changes to the minstrel show
The main difference between the Virginia Minstrels and earlier minstrel shows is the type of performance that the audience experienced. They weren't the first blackface performers to band together and present a show, but they were the first to present a concert. The way that they presented and marketed themselves resembled that of the Hutchinson Family Singers, a group that was making more than ten times minstrel troupes were for each performance.
Unlike earlier blackface acts that featured solo singers or dancers, the Virginia Minstrels appeared as a group in blackface and what would become iconic costumes and performed more elaborate shows. In March 1843 they appeared in Welch's Olympic Circus as part of an equestrian act. Although they primarily appeared within a larger schedule of entertainment in their earliest months, they surely were the first minstrels to also be hired to perform by themselves at smaller venues.
- Whitlock, who detailed the beginnings of the group, stated that the event was a benefit for Pelham. See Lawrence Hutton, "The Negro on the Stage," Harpers New Monthly Magazine, June 1889, p. 140. Such an event occurred on 31 January. See The New York Herald, 31 January 1843, p. 3. The following day the Herald reported that the troupe would be appearing at the Bowery Amphitheatre, and an advertisement in the 6 February issue refers to their first performance that evening.
- New York Times, May 19, 1907: 'The Lay of the Last of the Old Minstrels; Interesting Reminiscenses of Isaac Odell, Who Was A Burnt Cork Artist Sixty Years Ago: “In nearly all the playhouses at least one minstrel appeared on the stage, but there were no regular bands or minstrel troupes until Dan Emmet, Billy Whitlock, Frank Brower and Dick Pelham got together and organized the original Virginia troupe, which opened up at the Chatham Theatre... That was back in 1842.”
- 1959-, Smith, Christopher J. (Christopher John),. The creolization of American culture : William Sidney Mount and the roots of blackface minstrelsy. Urbana. ISBN 9780252037764. OCLC 861200239.
- New York Herald, 1 March 1843, p. 3.
- Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. ISBN 0-19-507832-2. p. 136 et. seq.
- Toll, Robert C. (1974). Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-century America. New York: Oxford University Press.
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