Craven Lovelace
KAFM NOTES
Grand Junction Free Press Music Columnist

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March 28, 2013
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CRAVEN: The strange case of Charley Case

So you think Louis C.K. is a god, and hey, you're not going to get any argument from Craven, because man, that fella's funny. BUT.

Will anyone know who Louis C.K. was in 2113?

I dunno. Maybe. Maybe there will be posters of Louis C.K. on college dorm walls - assuming there are colleges in 2113. Or maybe there will be commemorative postage stamps - no, strike that, there definitely WON'T be postage in 2113. Or... whatever. Maybe every Sept. 12 will be celebrated as Louis C.K. Day, a time for the world to recall the greatest comedy god of forever and all time, amen. Could be. Stranger things have happened.

Then again, maybe Louis C.K. will be as remembered in 2113 as Charley Case is in 2013. Which is, of course, to say hardly remembered at all.

But back in the day, back in the late 1890s and early 1900s, when vaudeville was thriving and people paid pennies to stand for hours in a crowded theater and alternatively applaud or heckle a succession of singers and dancers and animal acts and comedians, back in that weird, alien yesteryear that few alive today can remember firsthand, Charley Case was the Louis C.K. of his time.

"The funniest man in America." That's what some folks called Charley, who had worked as a lawyer, an ice cream salesman and even a private detective before he somehow stumbled into show biz. He was what in those days was called a "monologist," but today, he'd be labeled a stand-up comedian (although Charley usually performed his act sitting down). He became known as "the Man Who Talks With a String," for his onstage penchant for fiddling with a piece of twine while he delivered his jokes.

Charley Case was huge. He was a monster hit on Broadway. People flocked to see him - when he chose to tour, that is, which was only during the winter months. There were no motion pictures yet to capture his act, but he recorded some of his monologs for the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1909, and a few of those recordings still exist to give us a hint of what Case's act was like. Although he performed in black face, Case never referenced race in his material, instead poking fun at his family and himself.

There might be a reason Case avoided racial material. After he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1916, rumors began to circulate that Case was a mulatto who "passed for white." It was said that his mother was an albino Negro woman from Ireland. If this was true (and we will probably never know for sure), he surely wasn't alone as a light-skinned black performer who pretended to be Caucasian. Indeed, why not? In Case's time, it was not easy to be a black comedian. As a black man, you would be forbidden from playing certain theaters, from appearing onstage with white women, from even joining the White Rats, the powerful vaudevillian union that negotiated wages for its members.

That Case is forgotten today is sad. That the institutionalized racism that might have made a man of color forge a false identity is largely forgotten as well borders on the criminal.

Notes is funded in part by the Gill Foundation's Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado, a proud supporter of Colorado organizations like Facing History and Ourselves and their work to combat racism, anti-semitism and prejudice through education.

Craven Lovelace produces Notes, a daily cultural history of popular music, for KAFM 88.1 Community Radio, kafmradio.org. You can visit cravenlovelace.com for more of his musings on the world of popular culture.


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The Post Independent Updated Mar 28, 2013 02:37PM Published Mar 28, 2013 02:36PM Copyright 2013 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.