Item #8693 Harry Martell’s South Before the War Co.
Harry Martell’s South Before the War Co.
Harry Martell’s South Before the War Co.
Harry Martell’s South Before the War Co.

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Harry Martell’s South Before the War Co.

[Ca. 1895]. Booklet, 5.125” x 3.5,” color-printed wrappers. [10] pp., numerous b&w illus. CONDITION: Very good, occasional light (printer’s?) ink smudges.

A colorful program for what may have been “the first big-time theatrical exhibition of up-to-date, ‘ragtime-ready’ black vernacular music and dance,” whose romanticized presentation of plantation life by African American performers set off a trend in showbusiness (Abbott & Seroff, p. 360).

Harry Martell and J. H. Whallen first toured their experimental mixed-race production in 1892, the year that Homer Plessy deliberately challenged Louisiana’s segregation laws by boarding a whites-only train car in New Orleans. The inclusion of African American performers in Martell and Whallen’s show lent “a sense of realism” to its sanitized interpretation of plantation life, and proved a hit, running throughout the 1890s and spawning a gang of imitators that, though burdening Black performers with damagingly sunny stereotypes of “plant life,” also provided a platform for “the commercial ascent of African American quartet singing” (Abbott & Seroff, pp. 360–61).

This colorful promotional program was likely issued in advance of the 1895 season, when the show acquired, as noted here, “its own $12,000 Pullman Palace Car” and passed into the sole ownership of Harry Martell, who is here named as “Sole Prop. & Mgr.” (The partnership may have resumed, as later advertisements again make reference to Whallen and Martell together). The season opened at the Buckingham Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky on September 16th, and among the acts advertised here are the blackface performances of Billy Wolf and Billy Williams as “the Good Old Uncle Eph” and “Aunt Chloe,” respectively; “Picking Cotton” (“The original and only show of its kind on the American stage”); “Landing of the Robt. E. Lee,” including “Fifty Sugar-rolling, Cotton Stowing, Hilarious, Hallelujah, Howling, Genuine Southern Darkies…True to River-Life in Every Essential Detail”; “Thirty Dark-Skinned Dextrous Dancers”; a “Comical Colored Camp Meeting” of “Sable Salvationists”; and, illustrated in color on the lower wrapper, a “cake walk” act, the music to which was an important predecessor of ragtime. The centerfold features a photo of the majority-Black cast, over the caption: “. . . Count Them! . . . And be Convinced of the Enormity of this Show.” The Company featured many “rising black stars of ragtime minstrelsy” (p. 361) who, though not named here, included over the years, Joseph and Eugene Clark, Billy and Cordelia McClain, Billy Caldwell, Katie Carter, and Charley Howard, as well as numerous quartettes, including the Eureka Quartet (William Hill, Lew Francis, Luke Pulley, and H. W. Scott), the Twilight Quartet (which went on to perform high class vaudeville shows in New York), and the Standard Quartet (which, comprising Ed DeMoss, H. C. Williams, William Cottrell, and Rufus L. Scott, made some of the earliest recordings of Black vocal harmony).

Harry Martell, born in New York City, was a seasoned performer before forming the South Before the War Company, having managed a popular acrobatic troupe since 1878. Whallen, originally from New Orleans, was said to have joined the Confederate army at an extremely young age (thirteen, by one account), and before entering the entertainment industry worked on the railroad and in law enforcement. The two initially partnered in 1890 to organize the Whallen & Martell show, while Whallen continued to own and operate the Buckingham Theatre with his brother.

OLCL records just one example of this program, at the University of Virginia; another is held at Yale. 

REFERENCES: Abbott, Lynn and Doug Seroff. Out of Sight : The Rise of African American Popular Music 1889–1895 (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002).

Item #8693


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