Blackface minstrelsy is often thought of as an American theatrical form. While historians of American popular culture have explored blackface minstrelsy from almost every angle, in Canada such remembrances have largely been overlooked.

During the 1870s Canada underwent a widespread urbanization and industrialization that included the rise of a mass consumer market, and the expansion of cultural institutions, most notably theatre houses. Between the 1890s and 1920s, minstrel acts from the United States and Britain performed in front of audiences in Montreal, Toronto, and other cities across the country. Second, this time frame also marked a period when Black people across North America were “free” from slavery and as such the wearing of blackface and the caricaturing of the Black body on the minstrel stage spoke to particular white anxieties and fears about the proper place for Black people in an increasingly industrialized society. "Free" is placed in brackets to emphasize the struggles for full citizenship rights that continues across sites of Black diaspora. White anxieties and fears about Black communities stemmed from Black migration to northern cities like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia in the US and Toronto and Montreal in Canada. 

Royal Lyceum Theatre, King St. W., south side, between Bay & York Sts., c. 1858, watercolour, John Wesley Cotton (1869-1931). Source: Public Domain, see also Baldwin Collection, Toronto Public Library.

The Princess Theatre, King St. W., between Simcoe & York Sts., 1930. (Originally named the Academy of Music). Source: Public Domain, see also City of Toronto Archives, Salmon Collection, Series 1278 File 136.

Royal Alexandra Theatre, King St. W, & Simcoe St., 1930. Built in 1907,this legitimate theatre also became a vaudeville house. Source: Public Domain, see also the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1003.

There are likely hundreds of images of white men and women in blackface hidden away in boxes in the basements of white Canadians who in their youth might have participated in or attended blackface minstrel shows, or they are the descendants of parent(s), grandparent(s), extended family or friends who participated in or attended blackface minstrel shows. Canada’s introduction to blackface minstrelsy was not only through travelling circuses, minstrel troupes, and, later, vaudeville acts from the US but, as BREC demonstrates, a localized form of blackface existed, and has existed, north of the border for generations. [1]

Blackface minstrel troupes first appeared in Toronto in the late 1830s, and by the early 1840s, there is clear evidence that members of Toronto’s Black community petitioned city council annually to prohibit these touring minstrel shows. As Stephen Johnson, Dr. Cheryl's Banting postdoctoral fellow supervisor, professor Emeritus of English and drama in the University of Toronto Mississauga, and editor of the 2013 book Burnt Cork: Origins and Traditions of Blackface Minstrelsy, said in an interview with Maclean's in 2019 that for four consecutive years, from 1840 to 1843, Black community petitioned city council not to allow the blackface clowns when the American circus put on their show in Toronto. “They became more extreme with each year .... By the end, they were saying that they were afraid that it was inciting physical violence against them.” The document, which can be found on the City of Toronto's website, is labelled, “Item 785—Petition of various people of colour in Toronto—October 14, 1841.” Despite their efforts, by 1849,blackface minstrelsy continued to draw large audiences at the Royal Lyceum, one of the city’s first theatre houses, and by 1851, more than half a dozen prominent troupes visited Toronto. [2]

American minstrel companies first came to Canada in the 1840s, but the peak years began in the 1860s. Touring theatrical productions of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) was extremely popular in Canada West (present-day Southern Ontario) throughout the 1860s. In the 1860s, Montreal-born Hugh Hamall formed “La Rue’s Minstrels and Hamall’s Serenaders” and by 1867, he was performing in front of white audiences in Montreal but also throughout Ontario. Similarly, in 1858, Toronto-born Colin Burgess, Patrick Redmond, and Denham Thompson opened a concert hall on Adelaide Street East in Toronto with a two-night minstrel show.

Shea's Hippodrome, Albert and Terauley (now Bay) Sts., opposite (now Old) City Hall, c. 1921. (Opened 1907, demolished March 1957 to make way for the new City Hall). Source: Public Domain, see also the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 840.

Grand Opera House, Adelaide St. W., c. 1885 and 1895. Source: Public Domain, see also the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1478, Item 26.

Professional singers and musicians came to Toronto’s St Lawrence Hall, which was built in 1850. St. Lawrence Hall was also the city’s centre for abolitionist and anti-slavery activities in the 1850s and 1860s. Toronto became known for theatres that were built, burnt down, and then rebuilt. The Royal Lyceum – Toronto’s first professional theatre – burned down and was replaced in 1874 by The Grand Opera House, which was, for many decades, the city’s premier theatre. The Royal Opera House was also a premier theatre until it burned down in 1883.

In the early twentieth century, Toronto had some of the largest vaudeville theatres in North America. Therewere five large theatres inToronto in 1905 - theGrand Opera House, the Princess, the Majestic, Shea's and the Star;  “large” typically meant that eachseated 1,500 or more people.[3] The largest of which was built by two brothers, Jeremiah and Michael Shea. While Buffalo,New York, claims the Shea brothers as prominent native sons – Buffalo was their homebase and there is still a Shea’s Theatre there – the two actually came fromSt. Catharine’s, Ontario. In 1899, they opened Shea’s Theatre (1899–1910) also known as Shea’s Yonge Street or the “Strand” at 91 Yonge Street, on the east side of the street, between King and Adelaide Streets. Later, the Shea brothers opened Shea’s Hippodrome on Bay Street at Queen, right across the street from Toronto's Old City Hall. The theatre was demolished in 1957 to make way for the new City Hall. [4]

La Rue's Minstrels and Hamall's Serenaders, John Henry Walker (1831-1899), c. 1875. Source: McCord Museum, M930.50.8.419.


[1] For more discussion on the localization of Canadian blackface see, “Come One, Come All’: Blackface Minstrelsy as a Canadian Tradition and Early Form of Popular Culture.” In Towards anAfrican-Canadian Art History: Art, Memory, and Resistance, pp. 95-121. Charmaine Nelson, (Ed.). Concord, Ontario: Captus Press, 2018.

[2] Lenton-Young, Gerald. "Variety Theatre." In Early Stages: Theatre in Ontario 1800–1914, p. 178. Ann Saddlemyer, (Ed.). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990.

[3] Robert Brockhouse, The Royal Alexandra Theatre:A Celebration of 100 Years (Toronto: McArthur and Company, 2007), 8.

[4] Ibid., 11-12.


A History of Toronto #18: Vaudeville, Theatre & Movies, such as Loew's Theatres. Source: Anne Martin, YouTube.






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