Monday, May 25, 2015

Charley Case, the raceless king of minstrel Improv

(picture from my own collection, from a piece of sheet music the Case composed himself)
Charley Case was a fascinating character when it came to minstrel comedy. 
He was more often than not a subject of rumors and criticism when it came to what the public thought of him. He was a rare and progressive comedian in his own way, that many famous stand-up comedians took from later, and still do surprisingly, even if they don't know it. 
His sense of humor was sly and very natural, quick-paced, and somewhat distracted. He spoke very quickly, and slipped in small things here and there in a story that one was just trying to get the whole idea of, and just as the audience understood the story's setup, he would throw in a small comedic thing, and give almost no time for the audience to laugh, he would just keep on going with the story. He spoke in a very odd voice, that had a comical air in it generally, and it was sometimes hard to keep up with, and he would scramble words occasionally, which he would improvise from there, and go off his usual script. 
He spoke quite a good amount of his experiences with all of the confused crowds he encountered on his travels in the years before he died in 1916.
Here is one of the two records he did which describes his travels in the best possible way:

It's not one of his specific comedic monologues, where he created various characters and made al sorts of things go on between the family members. He always did his trademark thing while be did his monologues--
played with a piece of string. 
He would sift the little thing around his fingers as he did his quickly paced sly comedic speeches. He explained that:

"It began this way. When I first went into the business I used to wear a pair of black gloves and during my talk carelessly toyed with one of them, picking at the fingers. In the course of time, naturally, a hole appeared in one of the fingers, and as I continued to work with it it grew, and instead of getting a new glove, when it became too dilapidated  to wear any longer, I took it off my blackened hand, carrying the glove at which I still continued to pick.
Now in a few months this glove had become little more than a rag, and after a while all that was left of it was a string, and this too in time wore out. But... I noticed that the audiences were commenting on this peculiarity, so when the last thread of the glove had disappeared I got a string in its place. I also learned that I had become so accustomed to it that I couldn't get along without it, and now I might almost as well be using my hands."

(section from Tim Brooks' wonderful book Lost Sounds)
Case had learned the ways of show business in the mid-1880's, so he saw it progress into the land of vaudeville and burlesque. He cultivated all sorts of little things that he became known for, even if the audiences all over the world didn't understand his humor and little tricks. The country that especially didn't understand his humor was the English. He specifically spoke of the English as them not knowing his references and finding it hard to decide what to pay attention to when he spoke. It was hard for everyone to decide what to pay attention to when he spoke; his fingers, the string, what he was wearing, his speaking, and the sly humor.
It was hard to choose one thing that was great about him. 

But the reason Case was such an object of discussion was not only because of his odd and progressive stage schtick, but it was his questioned race. Many of the people he worked with wondered if he was of mixed race descent. He doesn't entirely look that way, but many thought this way due to his rather "black" sounding voice. These rumors also spread around because not too many of the people who went to his shows saw him when he wasn't in blackface. Even though he said himself that he hated the whole burnt cork thing anyhow. He said the it was too expensive, and it damaged the skin if worn too often(as often as he was supposed to I guess...). He didn't abandon the tradition all together though, he still continued to do the whole thing into his later years on the stage in the teen's. From the picture of him above, he's not even in a very "traditional" minstrel costume, even if he's all painted with the burnt cork. He broke all of the usual structure of the minstrel show. he was never a part of a group, and he didn't dance, but he did sing however. 
He also had a real talent for creating parodies of popular songs and writing his own that had rather raunchy or off-colour humor in them(so from this great talent, one can assume that he got the blue envelope quite often...). Some believe that he even did the parody of Neil Moret's famous "Hiawatha" done here by Collins and Harlan in 1903:
Pretty raunchy if you listen closely!
His humor was always unexpected, so that is why the managers kept him, even if he threw in a pretty wrong thing or two here and there. 
Case never spoke of his race when the reporters asked him, and from everything they asked him, he never disclosed any of the truths about his race.And these rumors only spread widely among the public years after his death. As many of the first hand accounts of him had stated that he either had a mother who was black, or a wife who was" full-blooded" black. He found that not important as long as he was still performing all over the place, and the crowds either loved him or hated him(as he was reported to not have been paid nearly as much as he should have been). He was a real creative weirdo however. He had all the traits of an extremely intelligent and creative performer. As some said that he refused to tour a few times due to nervous breakdowns. These reports began around 1907. He got straight back into performing after these times of hiatus. He had new material created for every one of his hundreds of shows, and he oftentimes just improvised  if something was going a different direction. Many of his stories were published in booklets in the early 1900's, and if any one had one of those books, tell me! They have all sorts of fun illustrations along with the comical stories following the same group of characters. 
Case died in 1916. But it will never be known exactly what happened when he died, and what exactly killed him. So the story goes that one of his friends was touring with him, and left his hotel room for a few minutes to go and get something. When the friend just got out of the room, he heard a big boom from behind, so he ran back and found Case dying on the bed, and Case apparently muttered, "Pardon me" and his friend(who was Arthur Cutler) summoned a doctor immediately but when he arrived, Case had been dead for well over a few minutes. From bizarre and abrupt happening, his wife apparently died of shock upon first hearing of his death. He left a legacy that was like no other. And many of the great improv and stand-up comedians we all love lift many of the great and innovative things that he did over a century ago. 

Black or White, Case was raceless. His humor took everything and made it better than it could have ever been. 
Even if it was just a string. 

I hope you enjoyed this!


  1. Charley Case is my great, great, grandfather, I was so overwhelmed to read this article and also saddened about his passing, I wish o could have met him, he is so inspirational to me, Sincerely Brian Goodman,

    1. Hey! Thank you so much. I am honored to be connected with someone who is related to this comedy genius. I very much appreciate your comment here and hope to become in better contact with you.