On August 17, 1870, Happy Cal’s Minstrels performed at Legg Hall, bringing the village “the ideal American burnt cork production.” While I cannot find a local review of the evening’s entertainment, I can quote a reporter from Terre-Haute, Indiana, who said, “This popular troupe of ebony-hued artists gave a magnificent entertainment last night at the Opera House. Cal Wagner, ‘Happy Cal,’ was in high glee and ran riot in wit, fun, farce and fancy.”
Minstrel shows followed a formula, with a line of performers, an “interlocutor” in the center and the “endmen” – often called Tambo and Bones – at either end of the row. Happy Cal Wagner was a premier endman, a performer who traded jests with the interlocutor and the other endman. Early in his career, Wagner had portrayed “the Fat Boy of Africa” for the Ironclad Minstrels, but now he was the head of his own company, singing songs like “I’m A-Gwine Down South,” “Put Me in My Little Bed,” “Jimmy, Let’s Go Home” and the unforgettable “Good Sweet Ham.”
Not everyone was amused. Social reformer Frederick Douglass described blackface performers as “…the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens.”
You might say of Happy Cal, “He meant no offense,” however, there was the incident five years later in Montgomery, Alabama. Shortly after the passage of the Sumner Civil Rights bill that guaranteed African Americans equal treatment in public accommodations, a group of “negroes” purchased seats in the “dress circle” for Happy Cal’s performance. And that evening they took their seats, “among Montgomery’s fairest daughters.” The April 1911 edition of Confederate Veteran described what came next:
“When the curtain went up, the company marched in and took their seats for the overture, Wagner sitting at the end with tambourine in hand. Casting his eyes over the audience, he saw the negroes in the dress circle, and knew at once this would never do; so he put down his tambourine, advanced to the footlights, and announced that there were negroes in the dress circle and would they please vacate and go to the gallery, where they would find good seats, and the performance would commence… The negroes did not move… Wagner left the stage and returned quickly with pistols in hand, saying to the whites, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, stand aside; I will clear the dress circle of these colored gents.’ Pandemonium reigned; men were on their feet instantly, and the negroes went out of that dress circle, kicked and cuffed, and made a hasty retreat to the street. The performance then commenced, and much praise was given ‘Happy Cal.’”
In America, we are not unfamiliar with images of white men pointing guns at men of color, but this is the first time I have ever read of a white man doing it while his face was painted black. I wonder if Happy Cal was ever aware, even for a moment, of the irony of that situation.