A night at the opera house
In the late 19th century, the Sweeney and Coombs Opera House was the place for live theater.
Located in the 300 block of Fannin, the opera house was named after the Sweeney & Coombs jewelry company. (Not to be confused with the building of the same name that still exists on the north side of the block where the Harris County Administration Building is located.) Does Sweeney’s Jewelers sound familiar?
On Sept. 26, 1892, Irish comedian Herbert Cawthorn starred in “Little Nugget.”
Not much is known about that production. The same goes for “A Breezy Time,” though it made the rounds in other opera houses during the same period.
Anyway, the next day, Houstonians got a chance to see McCabe and Young’s Operatic Minstrels.
Billed as “The Only Legitimate Colored Attraction,” the duo of Billy Young and D.W. McCabe were among the few blacks who actually owned their minstrel company.
According to the Cyber Encyclopedia of Musical Theatre, TV and Film Web site, “Black performers still had to wear blackface makeup in order to look ‘dark enough,’ performing material that demeaned their own race. Despite such drawbacks, minstrelsy provided African American performers with their first professional stage outlet.”
A well-sourced Wikipedia entry on the subject says all-black troupes played up the idea that their ethnicity made them the only true representatives of black song and dance. That may help explain why McCabe and Young’s Operatic Minstrels were billed in such a manner.
According to Young’s entry in the University of Kentucky’s list of notable African-Americans, the duo had been working together since the 1870s and managed to tour the South and Cuba.
But it appeared relations were already tense by the time the two hit Houston in 1892. Later that year, McCabe left the company in Mexico, took off with the money and was not heard from again until 1894.
McCabe died in 1907. Young continued to perform until 1913 when he developed lung problems and died a few months later.
And whatever happened to Cawthorn?
Well, he appeared on Broadway periodically from 1899-1908. But in December 1903, Cawthorn found himself in Chicago as part of the cast of “Mr. Blue Beard Jr.” at the Iroquois Theater. Cawthorn, the production company and 1,900 people in attendance would end up being part of one of the worst single-building fires in American history.
During the matinee performance, a light set a curtain on fire. Overbooking, poor fire prevention measures and other factors led to the deaths of more than 600 people.
Cawthorn was able to help many of the stage girls escape the blaze.