BLOOMINGTON — Although appallingly racist by today’s standards, blackface comedians and singers were a popular form of entertainment well into the 20th century.
Blackface sketch comedy and musical numbers grew out of the minstrel shows of the pre-Civil War era, in which African Americans were portrayed in the most degrading terms — childlike, superstitious, lazy, and unable to control their carnal urges. White actors would blacken their faces and employ exaggerated vernacular African-American English. This “infantilization” of a people born into bondage was a means by which white Americans could both mock and expropriate black culture.
One of the area’s most well-traveled blackface comedians was Earl Goforth of Bloomington. In the early decades of the 20th century, he was a successful vaudevillian in towns and cities throughout the Midwest, East Coast and Deep South.
At the height of his popularity, Goforth traveled with the Orpheum Circuit, and was said to have appeared on the same bill with the likes of W.C. Fields and Al Jolson. One of his long-running blackface characters was “Southside,” and in that guise he was a regular on WLS radio.
Born in 1880 in Ipava, Goforth’s family came to Bloomington when he was in his early 20s. His father J.C. worked for more than two decades as a shoemaker for the Illinois’ Solders’ and Sailors’ Children’s School, the state-run orphanage in Normal.
By the 1920s, Earl’s younger brother, George C., led the Black and Gold Orchestra, Bloomington’s most popular jazz band. Earl, an accomplished drummer, also formed and led a jazz band, and often sat in on his brother’s “orchestra.” He would sometimes play the drums in blackface, or include blackface routines in band appearances that would double as minstrel shows.
In 1905, Goforth married Isabel Faggiani in Chicago, and the two performed as the blackface team of Earl Goforth and Bella Doyle. Their bits featured songs, snappy percussion work (especially Earl on the snare drum), groan-inducing jokes and elaborate physical comedy. The couple spent much of their time on the road.
Goforth’s views on African Americans are unknown. Blackface performers were not necessarily racist, and some believed they were paying tribute — if in an admittedly backhanded way — to black culture. Regardless, entertainment of this type illustrates the confining nature of the mores and peculiar morality of one’s own era, and the difficulty of rising above them.
On the vaudeville circuit, the couple appeared with one novelty act after another. In January 1910, for instance, while performing in Freeport, they shared the bill with the sketch comedy routine “Mama’s Cry Baby” that featured 440-pound former prizefighter Ed Dunkhorst (known as the “human freight car”) playing a 10-year-old boy.
In September-October 1921, Earl and Bella Goforth, along another vaudevillian, toured the Deep South, performing a blackface routine called “The Chicken Thief” in cities like Atlanta; Birmingham, Ala.; Memphis; New Orleans; and Dallas. They were part of a vaudeville review that included “The Girl in the Basket,” a “scenic song spectacle” featuring warbler Mademoiselle Vera perched in a basket of illuminated flowers hoisted over the audience.
Later that same decade, in February 1929, Earl Goforth (performing as “Mr. Southside”) and his 12-member minstrel review appeared alongside the George C. Goforth WLS Gold Band, first at the Crescent Theatre in Pontiac and then at the Central Theatre in Fairbury. “Regular old-time minstrel show brought up to date,” was the promise.
In the mid-1930s, Goforth left Bloomington to teach music at the state mental hospital in Jacksonville (his brother served as music director of the boy’s reformatory in Pontiac). Earl remarried in his later years, and he and his younger wife Mildred had at least one child.
Although the popularity (and in some quarters, the acceptability) of blackface minstrel shows were on the wane by the 1930s, they were still common enough on a local level, staged by schools, fraternal societies and organizations seeking to raise money. In October 1940, Goforth brought his “Southside” character to Moline for a minstrel variety show sponsored by the “dads’ clubs” of several elementary schools.
Goforth passed away in November 1959 after an automobile accident. An entertainer to the end, the crash occurred while the 78-year-old was returning to his home in White Hall after a band gig.