In this letter to a Lewiston autograph collector, W. C. Handy reminisces about traveling to Lewiston with Mahara’s Minstrels. He pinpoints 1896 “when McKinley and Bryan were the republican and democratic nominees for president.” Handy joined Mahara’s in August 1896, according to his autobiography, Father of the Blues (1941), and the minstrel troupe reached Lewiston in early November. The Lewiston Twice-A-Week Tribune reported on October 31st that “Mahara’s refined minstrels have made an engagement for Tuesday night next….”
Handy reports that the people of Lewiston treated him “fine.” This was not the case in other Western towns visited by Mahara’s Minstrels. In his autobiography, he reports fist-fights, getting shot at, and threatened with lynching. Life on the road was ordinarily hazardous, and not just from stale fruits and vegetables. Combining broad comedy, tender songs, and assorted hijinks, the minstrels would march noisily from the train to the theater (in Lewiston, as in other towns, called the opera house) to drum up an audience for the evening’s performance.
Traveling minstrel shows were a common occurrence in Idaho mining towns from the earliest days. It was not until after the Civil War, however, that the performers of “negro melodies, laughable extravaganzas, burlesques, and musical gems and sweet ballads, together with their inimitable negro dances and short farces,” as described in the Idaho World, September 7, 1867, were made up of African American troupers as well as Caucasians in black-face. Minstrel shows, black and white, became the foundation for many show-business careers in burlesque, vaudeville, theater, radio, movies, and television.
The movie of Handy’s life, St. Louis Blues, was released in 1958 and, as promised, starred Nat King Cole as Handy. Also featured were Eartha Kitt, Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway, Mahalia Jackson, Ruby Dee, and Ella Fitzgerald.
Acquisition of this autograph letter was made possible with funds provided by the Library Associates, the “friends” of the University of Idaho Library.
Written in January 1996 for the library’s Digital Memories website.
Letter: Handy, W. C. (William Christopher), 1873-1958. Letter, July 31, 1957, New York. Special Collections, University of Idaho Library. MG 5560