Ballooning in Hawai’i: A Very Short History

Joseph Lawrence was born in 1863 in Salem, Ohio and owned a hardware business until he was 24, when he somewhat unaccountably began a new career as a daredevil balloon ascensionist. The French inventor and aviation pioneer Jean-Pierre Blanchard first brought the practice of ballooning to the United States in 1793. Unmanned balloons were used by American circuses as early as the 1820s for advertising and publicity, but it wasn’t until the 1870s that the great era of circus ballooning got started. Aeronauts, as they were often styled, would ascend a mile or so into the air in a hydrogen balloon, performing tricks on a trapeze dangling from the basket and then parachuting to the ground for the finale. It was also, perhaps curiously, one of the few lines of circus work in which African-Americans were accepted and so-called “colored aeronauts” were fairly common. Some shows had multiple balloons upon which customers could pay to ride during the day, but Joseph Lawrence made his name as a daredevil aeronaut. Beginning in 1887, he traveled around the country giving exhibitions, eventually adopting the “Van Tassell” surname after joining forces with Park Van Tassel, a competing aeronaut who made a name for himself performing around the American West.

Courtesy of Chronicling America

The Van Tassell Bros. troupe made plans for an ambitious tour through the Pacific during the fall of 1889. After performing in San Francisco, Joseph Lawrence “Van Tassell” arrived in Honolulu in late October and made his first ascension on November 2, safely parachuting to the ground in front of a crowd of 500 or so spectators. After his initial success, the newly minted pioneer of Hawaiian aviation planned a follow-up performance in honor of King King David Kalākaua’s birthday on November 16. Unfortunately, the wind picked up that day as the balloon rose into the sky and although he was able to successfully cut loose and deploy his parachute, a gust carried Joseph out to sea. He landed some miles from shore and drowned before help could arrive.

Courtesy of Chronicling America

Despite a hopeful advertisement from the troupe’s manager, Joseph’s body was never found. And so in relatively short order, Joseph Lawrence went from the first flyer on Hawai’i to the first aviation fatality. Park Van Tassel continued to tour around the Pacific in the years that followed. Another performer with whom he was affiliated, Jeannette Van Tassel (variously described as his wife or daughter), was killed after a fall at Dhaka (Bangladesh) in March 1892, after which he finally retired from the balloon business.

On balloon and the American circus, see Bob Parkinson, “Circus Balloon Ascensions,” Bandwagon (Sep.–Oct. 1964), 3–6; on the many tragedies that accompanied them see William L. Slout, “What Goes Up…Comes Down, Bandwagon (March–April 1996), 22-27.

Step Right Up!

I woke up today to a nice surprise. The Boston Globe’s art critic, Sebastian Smee, who won a Pulitzer Prize last year, penned a glowing review of Circus and the City. Obviously it is wonderful whenever someone says something positive about your work, but it is a mark of really excellent criticism when the essential idea is articulated in a more elegant manner than even the curator has been able to. Here’s the kicker:

“This may be a show that hinges on New York. But it is really about America, its unquenchable thirst for novelty, and its endless appetite for diversion. As such, it should not be missed.”

Full article here.

Kelly and Leon’s Minstrels (Part II)

*Part II of a serialized history of the influential American minstrels.

By May 1863, the Chicago Tribune described the minstrel troupe that counted Edwin Kelly and Francis Leon among their number as “a fixed fact” and observed that they were doing “the largest business ever done by a troupe of similar character in this city.” Buoyed by this success, the company made plans to construct a new theatre and, following a short summer tour, they opened at a renovated Metropolitan Hall in late September as the Arlington, Kelly, Leon, and Donniker’s Minstrels. After a successful fall season, the company moved into their new “Opera House” in late December.

Kelly-Leon, December 1863

Chicago Tribune (December 1863)

While traveling companies visited Chicago on occasion during the preceding decade, it is perhaps surprising to note that up until this point the city never had a resident minstrel troupe. Kelly and Leon’s timing was auspicious insomuch as Chicago was booming during the 1860s and the ardent fashion in which the public embraced the minstrels indicated that there was a lucrative market for such entertainment in the expanding metropolis. The Tribune opined that it was “refreshing” to have a resident company “composed of gentlemen, capital singers, and fine instrumentals” given the “innumerable bands of bunglers in Ethiopian minstrelsy which have visited us.” Kelly and Leon in particular were celebrated for their talents and the Academy of Music was one the city’s premier attractions in the years that followed.

Although they obviously counted among their number some very skilled performers, there was not much that distinguished the programs of the Arlington, Kelly, Leon, and Donniker’s Minstrels from those of their contemporaries as they relied on the standard mix of singing, dancing, and comedy presented in a tripartite format. The company emphasized that they presented a refined brand of minstrelsy and even offered a Saturday matinee for “ladies and children.” They also did what they could to stay in the public’s good graces by holding frequent benefits for various charitable causes such as the Orphan’s Asylum and the Soldiers’ Families Fund. With the enthusiastic patronage of Chicago audiences and a permanent venue secured, the company worked on expanding their repertoire and mounted increasingly ambitious productions, culminating their first season with an elaborate piece called “The Sons of Malta.”*

By the end of the season, Edwin Kelly was listed as the troupe’s manager and the company was bolstered by turns from an assortment of entertainers. Perhaps the most notable of these temporary performers was Jackson Haines (1840-1875), a man who is now generally acknowledged as the father of modern figure skating. Haines was a trained ballet dancer who appeared in pantomimes during the early 1860s in New York City, but it was his ability to transpose the grace and agility of the art onto skates that made him famous. In late January 1864, he created a sensation in Chicago with his performances at Washington Park. The Tribune observed that the rolls and spins Haines executed were the “very poetry of motion” and his popularity touched off an ice skating craze in Chicago. During his May 1864 stint with the minstrels, Haines was forced to perform on roller skates, but the reviews indicate that he had lost nothing of his appeal.

The Arlington, Kelly, Leon, and Donniker’s Minstrels closed their season at the Academy of Music in late June and, following a short vacation, they toured through the Eastern cities. At some point during this tour, Donniker left the concern, which might have been either the cause or result of Edwin Kelly taking over as manager. While at the Brooklyn Athenæum in September, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle wrote that their show was “far above anything else we have seen in this line.” The newspaper described Leon as “the best Ethiopian dancer on the stage” and effusively praised Edwin Kelly’s skill, opining that there was “no signer on the minstrel stage to compare.” Kelly and Leon’s star was clearly on the rise and the company’s reputation for excellence continued to grow throughout their tour through the major Northern cities during the late summer and early fall of 1864.

* It is unclear to me whether this was a parody or adaption of a stage play called “The Sons of Malta” written by Harry Seymour that debuted at the Chatham Theater in 1857 or if it was a burlesque of the boisterous fraternal organization the Sons of Malta, which was then active in Chicago. During their 1861-1862 season, the New York City-based Bryant Minstrels presented a popular piece called “The Rugged Path, or, Sons of Malta,” that might have been the basis for the Arlington, Kelly, Leon, and Donniker troupe.

Sources: Chicago TribuneBrooklyn Daily Eagle; Slout, Burnt Cork and Tambourines; Hines, Figure Skating.

Kelly and Leon’s Minstrels (Part I)

*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.

Play Dead and Spiritualism as Show Business

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Teller and Todd Robbins’ production Play Dead is how it illustrates the continuing appeal of what might best be described as “anti-spiritualist entertainment.” The show itself is a loosely structured mix of magic, mind reading, and debunking delivered in a gothic style that is alternately scary and amusing. It certainly provoked a range of lively response from the audience the evening I was at the theater. The performance is difficult to categorize and really must be seen, but the driving force is Robbins, who tells a series of tales based around macabre historical figures and events. The inspiration for the show was apparently the tradition of spook or fright shows that attracted mostly young people in search of a thrill at carnivals or at special midnight shows at local theatres across the country. While some will find undoubtedly find the scares in Play Dead hackneyed, it offers, in its own way, a rather serious meditation on death.

For those interested in nineteenth-century entertainment, it is a delightful continuation of the long tradition of exposing and often lampooning the practices and beliefs associated with spiritualism. Spiritualism was a heterogeneous movement that centered on a belief in the supernatural and that the living could communicate with dead spirits via human mediums. Despite its very public staging, spiritualism has generally not been understood as a form of show business. But as R. Laurence Moore’s notes in his fascinating study In Search of White Crows (1977), part of its appeal was that “mediums could be good theater” and were “another source of entertainment for at least two generations of Americans who liked to explore puzzling situations and gathered to witness anything billed as out of the ordinary (5-6).” Spiritualist entertainers like the Davenport Brothers toured the world with a “spirit cabinet” act in which they were tied up and placed inside of a box with musical instruments that mysteriously played after the lights were dimmed. The noted American magician Harry Kellar (1849-1922), an erstwhile assistant to the brothers, became even more famous for his exposure of this routine.

New York Public Library

The overall point is that spiritualism and anti-spiritualism paid dividends at the box office. But mediums, and the magicians that ostensibly worked to expose them, also pushed the boundaries of good taste. Purported communication with dead friends and relatives was obviously a charged subject, and performer’s risked the ire of both the credulous and the critical.

The spiritualist show business existed in an ambiguous space, and critics like Kellar couched their entertainment as a way learn and defend oneself from con games. It is exactly this sort of framework that Todd Robbins adopts in Play Dead, which centers on the tale about Mina “Margery” Crandon (1888-1941), a Boston medium who claimed to be able to speak to the dead. The show runs through a range of spiritualist tricks, including a segment where Robbins somewhat uncomfortably demonstrates the ability to “communicate” with the dead friends and relatives of the audience. I don’t want to reveal too much about the actual performance, but it is both very well written and performed. In short, Play Dead gives a heady mix of cheap thrills and macabre ruminations that is sure to entertain, just as such shows have done since the mid-nineteenth century.


NYPL Lunch Hour Exhibition

A new exhibition at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building explores the relationship between the city, food, and modernity. I’ll write a fuller review when I have a moment, but this generally excellent exhibition ably chronicles the evolution of the midday meal in New York City with some wonderful printed materials and a few genuinely compelling objects. The digital version of the exhibition is here.

Benjamin in Vegas

A recent trip to Las Vegas reminded me of the work of Walter Benjamin, a philosopher whose work I was very taken with as a graduate student. The surreal quality of the city and its surfeit of gamblers and prostitutes got me thinking about some of the more elegant and opaque passages from his unfinished Arcades Project. In Convolute O,  Benjamin wrote that “the figure of the gambler becomes a parable for the disintegration of coherent experience in modern life.” He went on to connect the gambler to the life of a worker in a capitalist society: “Since each operation at the machine is just as screened off from the preceding operation as a coup in a game of chance is from the one that preceded it, the drudgery of the labourer is, in its own way, a counterpart to the drudgery of the gambler. The work of both is equally devoid of substance.”  The gambler thus becomes a model for modern man, cheated out of experience and driven by boredom to endless repetition of an activity that never satisfies. The dehumanizing character of modernity is likewise found in the prostitute who becomes an exploited and fetishized commodity. Benjamin equates labor with prostitution, writing that “the prostitute [as] the ur-form of the wage laborer, selling herself to survive,” and a “figure of the denigration of the human body and of nature itself through the process of commodification.”  The gambler and prostitute are significant for Benjamin’s understanding of the diminution of human experience and the distortions of commodification in the modern capitalist city.Luxury shopping at Bellagio

Contemporary Las Vegas would seem to validate elements of Benjamin’s perceptive analysis of the relationship between capitalism, gambling, and prostitution. Indeed, as the place where American capitalism has perhaps found its purest expression, it hardly seems surprising that so many of those he regarded as its casualties call Las Vegas home.

Sources: Walter Benjamin. The Arcades Project, Ed. Rolf Tiedemann. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, (New York: Belknap Press, 2002)

The Zoological Institute Poster

My essay about one of the most spectacular works of antebellum American printing, the Zoological Institute poster, has been published by Common-Place and you can read it here. Although I discuss the version held at the American Antiquarian Society, there are three other extant copies, which are held by the Shelburne Museum, the Smithsonian, and the New York Historical Society respectively.

American Antiquarian Society
American Antiquarian Society