by hook or by crook

In the early nineteen hundreds, New York’s Miner’s Theatre was a major venue. Sharing the stage were such luminaries as the male impersonators Ella Wesner and Vesta Tilley and jig dancer Pat Rooney. But what made Miner’s unique for a time was Amateur Night held on alternate Fridays.

Ella Wesner

“Backstage the various candidates were nervously awaiting the call. Certainly no prima donna ever experienced keener pangs than those blue lipped, pale faced, stage struck amateurs.

Juggler and imitator, David Swatrz strode forth. He had used black grease paint liberally, his intention being to transform himself into a French Count. But the lad’s head resembled nothing so much as the head of a zebra. He made a cone of paper and tried to balance it on his nose but it fell off sideways. He did manage to balance a broom on his chin though ensuing tricks failed as did his imitation of a madman using make believe paroxysms. “Sure, dat’s no imitation” was the verdict from the gallery.

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David was followed by James Macon doing the Hebrew Cake Walk and Miss Lottie Faustine singing and dancing in a pink and silver gown. A woman cornetist who looked old enough to know better was next.


Another account from 1905 lists a juggler, buck-and-wing dancers, a blackface comedian in a red plaid suit, a clay modeller and a quartet of singing newsboys. A “Black Shakespeare” failed to win the crowd but an “Armless Wonder” was showered with coins.

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Since the procession of utterly untalented hopefuls could be painful, not to mention boring, an enterprising stage manager came up with a way of policing the length of unsuccessful acts.

On Friday night, in October, 1903, at Miner’s Bowery theater, a particularly bad amateur was inflicting a patient audience with an impossible ‘near tenor’ voice. Despite the howls, groans and cat calls, the ‘artist’ persisted in staying on, when Tom Miner, who was conducting the performance, chanced to see in a corner a large old fashioned crook handled cane which had been used by one of the negro impersonators.

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Quickly picking it up, he called Charles Guthinger, the property man, and had him lash it securely to the wings and without getting in sight of the audience deftly slipped the hook around the neck of the would-be singer and yanked him off the stage before he really knew what had happened.

“The next contestant was to give imitations of noted actors, and after giving the worst imaginable one of Edwin Booth announced his next would be of Richard Mansfield. At this a small boy in the gallery yelled ‘Get the hook!’ The audience roared in approval while the ‘actor’ fled in dismay.

Published in: on January 6, 2011 at 8:50 am  Comments (33)  
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