*Part I of a serialized history of the influential American minstrels.
During the 1860s and 1870s, Edwin Kelly and Francis Leon were one of the most celebrated and successful minstrel partnerships in the United States and the lavish operatic burlesques for which their companies were best known made an important contribution to the evolution of popular stage entertainments. Edwin Kelly was born in Dublin in the early 1830s (popular accounts place the date as 1835 but I suspect it was earlier) and after completing his studies as a surgeon at St. George’s Hospital in London, he moved to Boston to establish a practice. Kelly possessed a fine tenor voice and soon after his arrival he met John Ordway, who like Kelly was trained in medicine but drawn to minstrelsy. Ordway was a musician and manager of a long-running minstrel company known as Ordway’s Aeolians, which Kelly soon joined. He made his debut with the company in Boston on August 30, 1858 and quickly became a popular performer as a light comedian, interlocutor, and balladist.
Francis Leon’s introduction to the so-called “Ethiopian business” is rather less clear. Born Patrick Francis Glass in New York City on November 21, 1844, he was popularly supposed to have made his debut with Wood’s Minstrels in 1858. An 1856 advertisement for the American Museum for a “Master Leon, dancer” suggests that he made his way onto the stage earlier, though perhaps not in burnt cork. In addition to his skills as a dancer, he was an able soprano and was renowned as a youth for singing in the choir at St. Stehpen’s church. George Odell notes a September 23, 1858 advertisement, “performances nightly at the Metropolitan Gardens, Thirtieth Street and Second Avenue, of Leon’s Ethiopian Opera Troupe,” which suggests that Leon was performing in the operatic burlesque for which he was renowned at a remarkably young age. During the winter of 1858-59, Leon appeared as a prima donna and danseuse and subsequently appeared with various first-class troupes in and around New York City.
Although the precise date that Edwin Kelly and Francis Leon first performed together is difficult to discern, during the 1860-61 theatrical season both men were with George Christy’s minstrel company. Leon’s star turn was an interpretation of the opera Norma while Kelly was billed as the troupe’s tenor and acted in a variety of sketches and farces. Although both subsequently appeared separately, during the next two years they could most often be found on the same bill with various minstrel outfits in New York City as well as with the Ordway’s Aeolians in Boston. In July 1862, the two shared the stage at Barnum’s American Museum with Kelly billed as a “light tenor and comedian” and Leon as “the Ethiopian Cubas.” With the minstrel field crowded in the East and the Civil War raging, they elected to head out West in the late summer of 1862 on a tour with J. B. Donniker, a successful manager and violinst, and William Arlington, a versatile performer noted for his stump speeches. Billed as “Arlington & Donniker’s Minstrels,” the company traveled first to Cincinnati then toured through Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin for the remainder of the year. After a short and profitable stand in Chicago some months earlier, they returned in January 1863 and settled in at Kingsbury Hall, which was adjacent to “Colonel” Wood’s Museum, as Chicago’s first resident minstrel troupe.
Sources: New York Clipper; Odell, Annals of the New York Stage; Rice, Monarchs of Minstrelsy; Slout, Burnt Cork & Tambourines.