Why was the panto a non-show in America?

28 Mar

Not long ago I wrote a post about the cooch dance in early-twentieth century travelling shows, based on material from Robert Allen’s Horrible Prettiness. Allen recently visited the University of Queensland (where I am based). One thing he mentioned in passing then has stayed with me – this being how curious it is that pantomime never formed a part of the American popular theatre tradition.


Dan Leno as the panto dame, Widow Twankey (from http://www.peopleplayuk.org.uk)

Mid-nineteenth century burlesque shows featured dame figures in America, just like the pantomime. These dames were men dressed up as cantankerous, be-wrinkled crones, who of course formed the butt of innumerable jokes during the course of a show. Given this cross-over, it is indeed odd (as Allen noted) that the pantomime never took off in America. It is even more odd given the similarities between aspects of blackface minstrelsy and pantomime harliquinades. Harlequins were black-masked figures who often engaged in ribald buffoonery very close to that of minstrel end-men and other American blackface clowns. (The very term ‘slapstick’, which played such a key part of American minstrel and vaudeville comedy, came from the stick which harlequins used to slap about other clownish fools on stage).


A harlequin-figure holding a slapstick, also from the V&A collection at http://www.peopleplayuk.org.uk)

As yet I have no good ideas about why the pantomime remained such a distinctively English institution. Incidentally, however, I note that when I was looking over a Sydney magazine called Theatre yesterday, looking at the issues produced during the First World War, it struck me that pantomime reached an apogee of popularity in Australia during those war years.

In February 1915, for example, the Theatre included some reminiscences of Dan Leno from one of his colleagues, noting that Leno had been famous for his dame-roles in the London pantomimes at the end of the nineteenth century. ‘Pantomime is drawing the biggest audiences of any entertainment in Australia at present’, the magazine declared – and went on to include reviews and picturees of the various pantomimes playing at the time. A month later, the magazine was reporting that hundreds of people were turned away every night when the George Willoughby pantomine, Babes in the Wood, was showing at the Adelphi in Sydney.

A feature of the pantomime in both England and Australia – at least from the late 19thC – was that it included cameos from the music halls and variety stage. Anyone comic singer who was big in variety theatre could do a star turn in the latest pantomime, belting out their latest hit or performing a skit only loosely related to the plot of the panto in question. During Babes in the Wood, for example, the American performer Joesphine Gassman appeared with her black piccaninnies in a brief cameo, having drawn great applause on the Australian Fuller vaudeville circuit some months previously.

The appearance of an American blackface act during an Australian pantomime is yet another example of the promiscuous intermingling of the popular theatrical forms. And it yet again brings to mind Allen’s question about the non-show of the panto in America. If anyone else has a notion of why this was the case (or else examples of American pantomimes), I would be keen to hear about it.


Theatre (Sydney).

By way of an aside, I note that Josephine Gassman is discussed in M Alison Kibler’s Rank Ladies: Gender and Cultural Hierarchy in American Vaudeville, published by the same university press (University of North Caroline) carrying Allen’s Horrible Prettiness. Kibler says that Gassman’s routines (as a white woman in blackface, performing with black ‘piccaninnies’) was regarded as disgusting by many American critics in the very early 1900s (pp. 121-23). By 1914, however, she was receiving rapturous reviews for her Australian vaudeville act in Sydney’s Theatre.

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