The Vaudeville Era of Sylvester Bell: A St. Joseph Cultural History
Written by Jerrad Hardin
Everything that has happened in my life I first dreamed of in 1914. I had a vision of what my life would be like. I dreamed of the things I’ve done and seen since 1914: hoboin’, tap-dancin’, meat packin’. In 1914 I seen big chunks of meat floatin’ through the air. -Sylvester Bell
A St. Joseph Museums volunteer and local historian handed me a manuscript over the summer. It’s an oral history given by Sylvester Bell, who made his home in St. Joseph, Missouri, in 1921. The transcript was meant for publication sometime in the late 1980s but hasn’t made it yet. I’ve been working through our museum’s music history collection, writing some paragraphs about Arthur Pryor and Coleman Hawkins. After reading through Bell’s transcript, I realized he was here in the era of both Coleman Hawkins and Arthur Pryor. In the days before he came to town, Sylvester had been a tap dancer in Arkansas from a young age. That he danced along to Arthur Pryor songs is likely, as Pryor’s music was widely available at the time (Billboard, 1942). Bell claims, “I danced in every pavilion in St. Joseph, Jewish temples, dancin’ programs, downtown theaters, nights clubs, what-have-you”. Having passed through town in 1919 for the first time, he said he loved St. Joseph, as it was “the best kind of town, friendly and wide-open” (Bell, 1985).
From here, Bell traveled around the country with A.G. Allen’s Minstrel Show. A.G. Allen was one of the most successful black promoters of minstrel theater in the United States (USM, 1894-1953). Bell went on to perform with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, a famous tapper, and “Fats” Waller, a jazz-pianist and composer, on what was called the “RKO” Circuit. After several years as a performer, by 1924, during a tough week of shows in New York, Bell decided to slow down and find steady work back home in St. Jo (St. Joseph City Directory, 1926). Having taken a job at Swift Packing House as a butcher he says, “All kinds of burlesque and vaudeville shows come through St. Jo. Lots of famous and popular people. They wanted to pick me up, to have me join them, but I didn’t ‘cause I knew what a rough life it was. You drink too much, you don’t eat properly, and what they feed you, with your salary, you couldn’t live off that”.
That Sylvester’s girlfriend was a working piano player in the 1920s in St. Joseph is interesting enough, “I’d get off at the packin’ house and ease into a joint called Slippery Gulch and stay there all night long. The girl I was clownin’ with, she was the piano player there”. That she was probably hammering out tunes or variations of tunes by Arthur Pryor, as well as a new, developing sound called delta blues, takes our imaginations to exciting corners of St. Joseph history. The institutions that thrived in the early entertainment industry in St. Joseph and around the country, paved a way for folks like Bell and his girlfriend to make a living as artists. Earnings for Bell according to him ranged from $35 to $75 a week on the circuits. By 1921, traveling minstrels and vaudeville acts were performing weekly in St. Joseph, while Arthur Pryor’s music books were scattered around the city, in theater houses and homes, and for sale around the corner at Eshelman’s Music Store. That same year, a 17-year-old Coleman Hawkins and his Jazz Orchestra performed at Patee Market for a dance (News-Press, 1921).
In Conger Beasley Jr’s unpublished manuscript about Sylvester Bell, which includes an introduction describing their relationship and the process of collecting oral histories, he writes in his notes that in the early 1920s, vaudeville replaced minstrelsy in popularity. In 1925, there were approximately 1,500 theaters in the vaudeville circuit. By 1930, there were only 300. “St. Jo was like some kind of loud, roarin’ animal back then. Almost a Las Vegas, cause you could do anything you wanted”, said Sylvester, into the 1980s-ish reel-to-reel. “When I first saw it in 1919 there was a sign on top of the Corby Building that said, “Welcome to St. Joseph, Missouri, The City Worthwhile”, so I used it as a headquarters” (Bell, 1985). From St. Joseph, Sylvester trained his way around the RKO circuits – Chicago to St. Paul, Oregon, Louisiana, Arkansas, and New York. Out of the places he’d been, he said of St. Jo, “The people I met here were different than all the people I’d met in all the rest of my life travelin’. They’d sit down and talk with you.”
St. Joseph’s history would be terribly incomplete without discussing the theaters, music, and cultural institutions that developed in the period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The transition from classical music to rag and jazz, to blues isn’t exactly linear. It’s more a mishmash of heady living, all swirling, dancing, and fooling around. Military bands were a paid musician’s job market. The RKO circuits, piano music and vaudeville comedy – the culture of St. Joseph music certainly begins somewhere at the crossroads of these influences. These well-springs of cultural creativity are a portal to understanding the coming of jazz and blues, electronic music and rock and roll. They take the mind to places like the moment composer W.C. Handy describes upon first hearing a “blues” slide guitar, “His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on some kind of sadness for the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar … the effect was unforgettable. The weirdest music I had ever heard” (Handy, 1941). Like the gold rush, ragtime, jazz, and blues expanded the influence of Missouri in phenomenal ways, and brought tap dancers, piano players, and art seekers, lured by a sense of meaning and a hopeful sign on the tallest building, to St. Joseph.
Special thanks to Denny Pitts, Conger Beasley Jr., and St. Joseph Museums Inc.
- Interview of Sylvester Bell by Conger Beasley Jr., 1985, un-published manuscript/transcript
- “The Final Curtain: Artur Pryor” (obituary), Billboard, June 27, 1942, p. 25
- Circus, minstrel and traveling show collection, 1894-1953, https://lib.usm.edu/spcol/collections/manuscripts/finding_aids/m329.html
- Joseph, Missouri, City Directory, 1926 (St. Joseph, MO. : n.p. 1924), page 99, entry for “Bell, Sylvester, butcher Swift & Co”
- Hawkins, Coleman, “Drill at Patee Market”, St. Joseph News-Press, May 18th, 1921
- Handy, W.C., Father of the Blues: An Autobiography. The Macmillan Co., New York, 1941