Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation
Nicholas Sammond is Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Babes in Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Making of the American Child, 1930-60, and the editor of Steel Chair to the Head: Essays on Professional Wrestling, both also published by Duke University Press.
This chapter locates one of the significant taproots of American commercial animation on the vaudeville stage. Performing animators such as Winsor McCay, James Stuart Blackton, and Pat Sullivan made a living as lightning-sketch artists, creating complex visual puns on chalkboards and pads of paper before live audiences. These artists saw in the popular new medium of film an opportunity to expand their stage shows to include photographic tricks and characters that seemed to move and change on their own. As they developed these new acts, they incorporated the play with race and ethnicity that was one of the hallmarks of the vaudeville stage. As early animation producers developed cartoons from an attraction into an industry, they chose as a fundamental performative trope the gently antagonistic relationship between minstrelsy’s interlocutor and the blackface minstrel, transposing that relationship onto the performing animator and his rebellious and resistant central characters.