Spectacular scenic effects marked the 1928 productions of the Men’s Club Minstrels, given on the evenings of April 13 and 14 in the Radnor High School Auditorium. As the house lights dimmed and fifteen musicians from the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Pennsylvania Grand Opera Company, with Archibald Morrison at the piano, began to play Sigmund Romberg’s “My Maryland,” the curtains opened on a life-sized reproduction of the rear view of the Broadway Limited! Resplendent in all the glory of glittering brass work and an illuminated keystone on the platform, the Limited stood there true ot life to the smallest detail, even to red tail lights! The life-sized observation platform and end of the rear car jutted out on the stage – the whole on rollers to move it backwards. Only a half hour before curtain time were the workmen finished with this magnificent contribution of the Pennsylvania Railroad to the 1928 Minstrel Show.
As George Borst, standing with the train conductor and porter, began to sing “I’m Going Down South,” the minstrel men came down the aisles in long files, singing all the way up the platform steps, up the steps of the “Limited” and into the train itself. As the last man went aboard, the porter picked up George Borst’s bags, and singer and porter entered the car. The conductor swung his lantern, climbed aboard, pulled the signal cord . . . the distant locomotive whistled faintly, began its staccato music and the train moved slowly away in the darkness as the curtains rustled together.
When the curtains opened again, it was on the Minstrel Company in the traditional circle with Ben James in the center arrayed in white satin and “unsullied by any trace of the more plebian black.” Then followed the usual jokes, amusing stories and many songs by Ed Hunt’s well trained chorus. Jules Prevost and the chorus sang “Spring is Here” and Ashby Wallace with the chorus “portrayed the poignant shadows of the swamplands of the deep South in “Chloe”. Lew Garrett, aided by the chorus, gave a splendid rendition of the old darky spiritual “Bow Down,” while George Orr sang “Ol’ Man River” in a way never to be forgotten by those who heard him that night.
Written for this production and dedicated to the Men’s Club Minstrels was a song by Clay Boland, entitled “He Ain’t Never Been to College,” sung by “Doc” Standen and the chorus. At its conclusion the circle gave the college yell, doubtless still remembered by some among us:
“Oi. Oi. He done vell
Gif him a good substantial yell,
After the intermission the curtains opened on the second half of the show, made up of a number of skits, the highlight of which was “In a Chinese Temple Garden,” with its oriental atmosphere skilfully interpreted by the orchestra. Bud Morrison as Buddha, immobile of countenance was seated cross-legged before a wall of typical Chinese design.
The synopsis as given in the program describes the scene thus: “A few bars characterize the introduction, the incantations of the priests at the shrine, while the perfume of the incense floats on the air. A melody (given to ‘cello, viola and oboe with pizzicato accompaniment) represents the lover. A Manchy wedding procession passes noisily by; a street disturbance ensues among the coolies . . . the beating of the gong in the temple restores quietude; the incantations of the priests are heard again, and the lover’s song, with a brief quotation from the temple and coolies’ music, brings the piece to a conclusion.” The part of the lover was enacted by James Smith, while the priests were F. A. Wallace, E. B. Stanley, L. W. Garrett, C. E. Riley, R. E. Hinkle and H. C. Creutzberg. The unusual scenery demanded by the “Chinese Temple Garden” was built by Morris Groff and painted by B. F. James.
The setting of the 1929 Show when it was given in April of that year was distinctly nautical. When the curtains opened on another of their performances of the “gorgeous era” the entire backstage was taken up with a replica of the ship “I’m Alone,” the original of which was at that time the subject of an international controversy. The minstrel company, though black of face, were in sailor regalia, while Ben James, ruddy of complexion and glittering in gold lace, was “Admiral of the Queen’s Navee.” As the show started there was a frantic cry of “Man Overboard,” when it was discovered that end-man Ted Park was missing! But a life preserver, making a long arc into the audience, unceremoniously hauled Ted aboard “spouting like a whale the glass of water he had taken while in Davy Jones’ Locker.”
Part of this show was broadcast over WCAU. Notable in the first part was Lou Garratt’s singing of the Negro Spiritual, “Talk About Jerusalem Morning”; “Chalita” and “Buccaneers,” as sung by the chorus; Jim Smith in “Neapolitan Nights” and George Orr in “Comin’ Home.” “By the Swanee River,” in part two of the program, was a musical description of a Southern Jubilee. According to the synopsis “the opening depicts the darkies shouting on their way to the camp meeting. The second part introduces “The Old Folks Dance,” followed by the younger element doing the buck and wing. This leads up to some lively coon shooting, which in turn is succeeded by Old Ephriam Jones dreamily singing “Wid the Old Folks at Home”.
Then follows a finale in which everybody participates”. Other numbers on this part of the program included “Levee Days”, in which “Levee Folks at Play” were introduced and “The Birmingham Quartette”, consisting of Jim Smith, E. B. Stanley, Ted Park and Ashby Wallace, sang various numbers. The finale came with the chorus rendition of “Down South”.
(to be continued)