Freaks Like Us

Buxom firestarters and dog-faced men: Frontier theater on the fringe

The Twin Cities, alas, have a short theatrical memory. Even the now-sainted Star Tribune critic Mike Steele, who covered theater in the Cities for 30 years, never seemed to get around to the really interesting stuff. Where, as an example, are the Fiji Cannibals? Why no mention of the fact that, at the end of the Victorian era, the State Fair exhibited an embalmed whale for the edification of fairgoers? Who among us remembers that the diminutive Tom Thumb repeatedly visited Minneapolis in the 1890s, to universal acclaim?

Call it the proto-Fringe. The first 30 years of Twin Cities theater often seemed like a celebration of the odd. Early Twin Cities newspapers offered occasional commentary on popular theater, usually with a dismissive sniff. There is also a voluminous compilation of variety performances collected by Lawrence J. Hill for his 1979 Ph.D. thesis from the University of Minnesota (with the unsensational title A History of Variety-Vaudeville in Minneapolis, Minnesota, From Its beginning to 1900). Hints of the Twin Cities' early years of theatrical grotesquery pop up here and there in Frank M. Whiting's Minnesota Theatre: From Old Fort Snelling to the Guthrie. Otherwise, these early performances have been lost to history.

Well, no longer. Here, in preparation for the Fringe Festival, this year's own pageant of the outrageous, we take a glance back at a few of the more extraordinary stories from the days when the frontier seemed to be one big sideshow. (The earlier carnival barking of the good Doctor Hill is the source for many of our tales here; it can be found at the Minnesota Historical Society.) Those with faint constitutions and those who are easily offended should be warned now: These are stories to raise gooseflesh and inflame the senses, and you would be wise to find yourself in a recumbent position before you begin to read.

Life on the Frontier is Such a Drag What to do if you are stationed at a fortress at the mouth of the Mississippi, the year is 1821, and you are bored to distraction? The answer, long a tradition both in the military and in alternative theater, is to dress in women's clothes and prance about onstage. That's what one 16-year-old drummer boy did in a performance of Pizarro, or the Death of Rollo. "We were one of the performers," reminisced the drummer boy, Joseph R. Brown, in the Henderson Democrat in 1856, badly abusing the editorial we. "We done Elvira."

Even years later, the critics' knives remained sharp.

St. Paul's Weekly Pioneer & Democrat had this to say, reflecting on young Brown's performance, which they had not witnessed:

 

He measures nearly six feet in height and about as much in circumference....We don't think that even thirty-five years ago he was very delicately formed or strikingly handsome. The idea of his representing tragedy at any time in his life, in any character, strikes us as being sublimely ridiculous, but to attempt the impersonation of a female character....Why, Brown, this was the most graceless, impudent imposture ever perpetrated.

 

Getting Wood: Lumberjacks Force Their Way Into Minneapolis's First Minstrel Show "Our citizens are not generally aware of the true character of this band of Concert Singers now performing in Woodman's Hall, Minneapolis," began an advertisement in the St. Anthony Falls Evening News on April 7, 1858. "The phrase 'Ethiopian Minstrels' has been too often (and too justly) associated with noise, vulgarity, and low aims, and it is but simple justice to say this Troupe is just the opposite of all this."

The ad sought to rescue the reputation of ministrelsy, then one of this country's most popular forms of entertainment. The acts themselves consisted, for the most part, of white men with burnt-cork-blackened faces performing burlesques of African-American folk songs and cruel satires of "authentic" African-American behavior. But it is hard to imagine that the young city of Minneapolis, a coarse place then mostly supported by the lumber industry, would be overly concerned with the morality of a minstrel show that looked to be a rollicking good time. Perhaps the ad was intended to preserve the reputation of Minnesota Chief Justice Lafayette Emmett, as this particular group of minstrels, the Melodem Troupe, featured Emmett's brother Dan.

Whatever the relative merits of the Melodem Troupe, their Woodman's Hall appearances generated considerable excitement when, on the first night, a group of lumberjacks showed up and loudly demanded free admission. The bewildered ticket seller gave them comps, and the following night a larger contingent of burly sawyers arrived, also demanding admission without charge. When the ticket seller refused, the lumberjacks forced their way into the building. Having had advance warning of a possible ruckus, the staff inside Woodman's Hall bolted the doors, and, when the woodsmen began to beat on them, armed themselves and the audience with clubs. The doors held, however, and the lumberjacks eventually wandered home. While the Melodem Troupe would continue to play for one more evening, the woodcutters did not repeat their performance, as the hall was guarded by a constable and 50 persons enlisted to help keep the peace.

 

Professor Anklebreaker: The Velocipede Takes the Twin Cities Stage The bicycle came to the Twin Cities in 1869. Nowadays, bicycles are so commonly seen hung in garages and clipped onto the fronts of our city busses that we don't think twice about the bike lanes that ring our lakes and flank our thoroughfares. In the 1860s, however, they were very much a theatrical phenomenon. Scores of self-proclaimed "professors" took to Twin Cities stages, showing standing-room-only audiences the essentials of riding the velocipede, a bony, wooden bicycle that would eventually earn the nickname "The Boneshaker."

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