The San Francisco Minstrels
Utah Valley University
Published in Utah Historical Review, Vol III.
The San Francisco Minstrels were a blackface minstrel troupe that became exceedingly popular in the decade and half following the Civil War, led by three of the greatest talents of the day Billy Birch, Charlie Backus and David Wambold. The troupe’s mix of physical comedy, intelligent wit and spontaneity appealed to a wide diverse audience of all social classes, including popular public figures such as Mark Twain. They were the highest paid minstrel troupe of their era and one of the very few that managed to survive by not traveling from city to city; instead they found success in New York City for nineteen years. Their show was known for incorporating the traditional three act minstrel show and characters such as Jim Crow and Sambo. Such characters were portrayed as childlike buffoons that lacked intelligence, which did catered to a widely accepted belief of the day that the black man was inferior to the white man. However, the troupe’s comedy came by using these simple, clown like characters that were believed not to be very smart and allowing them to articulate intelligent contemporary rhetoric. Many members of the troupe including Billy Birch and Charlie Backus also had a great ability of physical comedy and mimicry. The physical comedy mixed with the intelligent wit is what appealed to such a diverse audience and what ultimately made them very successful in the highly theatrical city.