With his walking cane, fat cigar, muscular frame, and suave extroversion, the African-American ex-pat and vaudeville star, Irving Sayles, was often to be seen in the streets of turn-of-the-century Australasia’s largest cities and towns. Born in Quincy, Illinois, he first came to the Antipodes in 1888 as an end-man with the Hicks Sawyer Minstrels, the rest of whom were also African American. He was just sixteen at the time. And like most black American performers who toured these southern lands in the 1870-80s, he stayed for good once his tour was done.
On stage with his other accomplished colleagues in Australia and New Zealand, Irving Sayles immediately made a splash. He was fine singer, and his dancing was something to behold. ‘Irving Sayles was also an acrobat’, as one of his colleagues would later remember: his back somersaults were a speciality. Such was his athleticism that Sayles would also work up a reputation as a sprint runner during the 1890s, entering in well-publicised Australian competitions every now and then. And on top of that, he was hilarious. As New Zealand’s Evening Post put it in 1888: ‘Funny is not the word to adequately describe what Sayles is. If he looks at the audience they roar at him’.
Sayles and his fellow end-man, Charles Pope, introduced coon songs to the Antipodes during their season with the Hicks Sawyer Minstrels. When Sayles sang syncopated numbers like ‘The Coon Dat Had De Razor’, performing it with the sassy exuberance that this number required, Australasian audiences sat up directly and started to tap their toes. By 1900, however, coon songs had lost their early edginess: they were no longer about swaggering black men wielding razors with a hectic facility. By this time, Sayles’ songs on the Australian Tivoli circuit, the Dix Gaiety circuit in New Zealand, and for other sundry performing companies, were more often about ‘the silber moon [sic], the stolen chicken, and the girl with the goo goo eyes’ , harking back to older minstrel fare.
It is a striking circumstance that the few African American companies who came to Australasia in the late-nineteenth century decided not to go back to the US. According to Richard Waterhouse, the overwhelming majority of the performers for the McAdoo Fisk Jubilee Singers, the Corbyn Georgia Minstrels, the Hicks Sawyer Minstrels and the Georgia Minstrels made Australia their home. Many of these performers became fixtures on Australasian stages, spending time in New Zealand cities as well as Australian ones.
It is not that Australasians weren’t racist, of course: there are plenty of patronising references to Sayles in the press on account of his blackness. The Evening Post’s declaration that the ‘smile on his genuine dark face resembles the entrance to a coal-pit, it is so extensive’, captures the tone of this commentary. So does the Sydney Theatre’s description of his ‘natural animal spirits’, and its breezy assurance that white cornerman ‘can never fill the bill like the full-blooded coon’.
Sayles seems to have worked hard to joke about his colour on stage. He even made implied slurs on Aboriginal Australians in order to forge a rapport with his overwhelmingly white audiences. On at least one occasion, he told Sydney audiences that he had a wife at a camp out La Perouse way (a Sydney site where large numbers of Indigenous Australians lived) so that they might laugh with him about how funny that idea was, hahahha. But still, the fact that he mixed with Tivoli performers socially and lived it up with fellow gamblers at race-tracks makes it clear that black American stars enjoyed a certain exceptional status in Australasia that they could not have enjoyed in the country of their birth. Sayles himself modelled a swank street-cred around these colonial cities, ‘walk[ing] the earth with the air of a coon who has a mortgage on the Universe’ – and he made a good living from the stage. He married Edith Carter at the age of 25 in Melbourne, a white English-born woman.
Irving Sayles is said to have ‘dropped dead’ in Christchurch on 8 February 1914, aged 42, while in Gloucester-Street ‘joking with some friends’. Witnesses watched him reel and fall suddenly in the street outside the Dominion Hotel where he was staying. Afterwards, his death was confirmed as an embolism of the coronary artery. Sayles had been in New Zealand, as he often was at that time, performing for the Brennan-Fuller vaudeville company. Following his death, the Australasian papers carried plenty of obituaries to this popular ‘coloured comedian’.
Evening Post (NZ), 27 October 1888.
Theatre (Sydney), 1 July 1909, p 15.
Charles Norman, When Vaudeville Was King: A Soft Shoe Stroll Down Forget-Me-Not Lane (Sydney: Spectrum, 1984), 9-10.
Richard Waterhouse, From Minstrel Show to Vaudeville: The Australian Popular Stage, 1788-1914 (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 1990).
On Sayles’ sprinting escapades, see: West Australian, 29 November 1897 and 18 March 1898, available via the National Library of Australia’s beta database.
On Sayles’ death, see: Evening Post (New Zealand), 9 February 1914; Grey River Argus (also NZ), 10 February 1914; a copy of his death certificate at the Nugrape Records website.
A biography of Sayles (with rather gushing references about the extent that he felt accepted in Australia, is available here at the hat theatre archive.
The above image is from a fabulous post on coon songs and ragtime on the community blog Meta Filter.