by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The scandals that have erupted in recent days in Virginia as governor Ralph Northam, attorney general Mark Herring, both Democrats, and Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, a Republican, have all been identified as involved as participants in or with direct connections to the wearing of blackface when the three politicians were younger has brought renewed attention to the long history of blackface, which dates back to about the 1830s (the beginning of the Homestead’s interpretive period) when white performers began wearing make-up and exaggerated costumes to mimic black Americans as entertainment in minstrel shows.
Whatever political connotations the controversy in Virginia engenders, the reality is that the history of blackface is more about white dominance reflected through theatrical, musical and, later, filmed performances. For nearly a century, live theater, especially vaudeville, included blackface through minstrel acts as a staple throughout the nation. In 1927, towards the end of the museum’s era of interpretation, America’s first motion picture to feature sound, The Jazz Singer, featured Jewish singer and actor Al Jolson wearing blackface to sing a featured song, “Mammy.”
While the use of blackface gradually diminished as civil rights advancements slowly were made through the remainder of the century, its use remained, as we have seen with these examples in Virginia, until very recently, if not in professional entertainment. Moreover, blackface was not only utilized by men and today’s highlighted artifact provides an example: a publicity photograph taken in Los Angeles in the 1920s of veteran vaudevillian Estelle Xavier Wills and an unidentified partner, both wearing blackface to promote their work as entertainers.
Wills was born in New York in 1879 and her father, Frank, was a theatrical performer starting in his native Baltimore earlier that decade. Eventually, Frank Wills had his own theatrical company, specializing in comedy and music and including his brother John and Estelle. She was lauded for her work, which appears to have started about 1896, as a singer and comedian.
For example, the Harrisburg [Pennsylvania] Daily Independent of 23 December 1896 wrote that “Miss Estelle Wills, a charming soubrette [an operatic singer with a flirtatious style], has a sweet contralto voice as she and her uncle John appeared in The Old Cronies. Three years later, the Wilmington [Delaware] Evening Journal stated that “Miss Estelle Wills is really a very winsome and attractive little lady, with a pretty oval face and a handsome figure, and some real talent” as the Wills company performed The Old Cronies and In Atlantic City during matinee and evening performances.
Wills, however, could also be strong-willed, as evidenced by a report in the Saint Paul [Minnesota] Globe of 24 April 1904 related that “the blonde and pretty soubrette of the company now presenting The Factory Girl at the Bijou theatre here” was heading back home to New York. The reason was that stage manager Sheridan Holmes approached Wills during a matinee and, she claimed, “intimated that she was destitute of brains.”
Wills rushed to the manager to demand an apology and, that not being offered, “she proceeded to get satisfaction by slapping Holmes’ face with great emphasis and enthusiasm.” Holmes then began to walk away, but “became angered and retaliated with a vigor that fractured the drum of her left ear,” according to the actress. She was quoted as saying “if I were a man, things would happen to this fellow Holmes.”
It turned out that Wills soon took an extended leave from treading the boards when she married fellow vaudevillian George A. Hickman in June 1905. The union produced a son, George B., who followed his parents’ footsteps into acting. While her husband toured in companies doing stage work, Wills remained at home to raise her son for at least several years.
By 1913, however, Hickman and Wills formed a partnership and put together a comedy and musical show called The Trusty, in which he “appears in a character study” and she “as a comedienne.” Three years later, Wills appeared as part of an ensemble called the “Maryland Melody Maids,” perhaps named for her father’s home state and the group performed “the beautiful musical comedy sensation” titled Mammy Jinny’s Birthday.
It is not known if Wills had previously employed blackface in minstrel performers, though it would seem surprising if she hadn’t, but this “picture of the Sunny South” featuring a Colonial stage set and “old-time gowns and modern costumes” starred the actress in the title role.
Notably in both the 1910 and 1920 censuses, while the Hickman household listed the elder George as an actor (vaudeville in the former specifically and “professional” in the latter), Estelle had no listed occupation.
Very shortly afterward, the family left the East Coast and headed west to Los Angeles. Estelle, using her maiden name, performed in April 1921 at a minstrel show put on by the Elks lodge. The Los Angeles Times enthused that
the performance is all that a minstrel show ever was or ever could be and the big audience at the initial performance last night greeted the old-time burnt cork stars and the newer ones with encore after encore.
Wills was one of eight mentioned soloists, the other all being men, for the show which was held at the Mason Opera House on Broadway just south of First Street. Two years later, Wills appeared in her only known motion picture, a short film called No Luck, in which she was credited as “Estella Hickman.”
These are the only known Los Angeles performances Wills gave and her marriage to Hickman soon ended in divorce, though, in the 1930 census, they, their son, Hickman’s brother and sister and John P. Whiteford all lived together in a house in Hollywood and all were recorded as actors. The location of the house is now part of the Sunset Gower Studios, which began as the original Columbia Pictures studio in 1918 and has been home to many famous movies and television shows and is now used for independent work.
The highlighted photo shows Wills and another man, perhaps Hickman, wearing blackface and posed as if she was going to break his arm. On the reverse is her name, address and phone number, this done clearly as a publicity photo to drum up work. Whether or not Wills did much else after that period, she continued to list herself as an actress in voter registrations up until the end of the World War II era and died in 1951, a couple of months shy of her 72nd birthday.
John P. Whiteford appears to have had a common-law marriage with Wills and he had a long career as a character actor known as Blackie Whiteford in films, though mostly without credited speaking parts, including many of the Three Stooges short comedies that were wildly popular in the 1930s and 1940s.
In a 1950 article, published around the country in a variety of newspapers, Whiteford, who died in 1962, claimed to have appeared in 2,000 films (the number is more likely in the few hundreds) starting in 1903 (he said he was a sailor cast in the important early film from that year, The Great Train Robbery and came to Hollywood in 1915) and said he never took an acting lesson “aside from a little coaching from his wife, Estelle Wills, who used to be on the New York stage.”
Finally, Wills’ son, George B. Hickman, who died in 1984, appeared in over 40 films from an uncredited role in 1924’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles to Mame, a half-century later, including Bringing Up Father (1946), The Babe Ruth Story (1948), Around the World in 80 Days (1956) and some television including Leave It To Beaver and Rawhide, although his roles were often bit parts and uncredited.
Who knows what will come of the blackface scandals (and others) roiling Virginia at the moment, but, as we commemorate Black History Month, a look back at the use of blackface in entertainment history is another reminder that, whatever progress has been made in race relations in recent decades, there is still much more to do and quite a way to go for further improvement.