In the early 20th century, Tivoli Theatre bills consisted of a minstrel first half and a variety/vaudeville second part. For example in 1906, Harry Rickards, Tivoli owner, produced a show called, ‘The Romany’. The first part of the show consisted of a group of regular performers sitting in a semi circle on stage. The featured performers were Bob Bell, on bones and Irving Sayles on tambos. They performed in traditional minstrel style until the interval, after which a series of vaudeville turns were presented.
By 1906 Irving Sayles had worked for Harry Rickards for twelve years. He had started his career in American minstrel shows as a young man. His subsequent career in Australia was very successful and he was a well loved figure on the Australian stage until his death in 1914.
Irving was born in Quincy, Illinios, United States of America. His date of birth as given by himself was 1872. Quincy was situated just across the Mississippi River from Missouri, a slave state. Historically slavery was a major issue in the town. In 1858 Lincoln and Douglas had debated the issue in front of a large crowd in Quincy. The town was also a stop on the underground railroad route for escaped slaves on their way to Chicago.
In light of this, the issue of slavery probably played a large part in the family’s life. It’s possible that Irving’s parents Josephus and Melinda (nee Wilson), or perhaps his grandparents, were slaves. Irving in the one major interview he gave in Australia never mentioned the issue.
At an early age, Irving became involved with one of the largest minstrel companies in the mid western United States, Haverly’s minstrels. Haverly was a white entrepreneur who ran a large African American company of minstrels. His troupes had large casts, were mostly segregated and travelled extensively. His minstrel shows usually centred on sentimental songs about plantation times. Songs such as ‘Carry me back to Ole Virgina’ or ‘De Old Planation’ were standards of a Haverly program. They relied on stereotypical presentations of African American culture. The standard character was a slave yearning for the good times of plantation life. Irving appeared in these shows as one of the Hottentots. They were a singing, dancing and tumbling act. He must have spent much of his youth in the Haverly shows.
In 1888, aged a mere sixteen, Irving came to Australia with the Hicks Sawyer minstrel group. Hicks was an African American entrepreneur who had found competition with white managed minstrel groups almost impossible. Theatre owners in the United States preferred to deal with white managers rather than African American managers. Hicks found no such problem in Australia.
Unlike the groups run by people such as Haverly, the Hicks programmes concentrated on post slavery images of African Americans. These images were of urban life, and featured songs which reflected this. Instead of the deferential plantation slave, Hicks presented a non deferential, sometimes threatening stereotype. He also incorporated elements of vaudeville into the programmes. He had acrobats, clog dancers and comedy sketches. In many ways Hicks’ programme foreshadowed the later programmes presented by Harry Rickards at the Tivoli.
In September 1888, the minstrels played the Opera House in Sydney. The show was one of the best of its kind ever seen in the city. The bill included tenor William King singing "When mother puts the little one to bed" and Will Johnson singing "Hundred fathoms deep" Irving was on tambourines and also had a solo number. The Referee newspaper stated at the time that every item in the bill is a gold mounted pearl of minstrelsy.
The Opera House was filled every night. Crowds also flocked to the show in other Australian cities. In Brisbane, up to five thousand people squeezed into the theatre. In Hobart, disappointed minstrel fans were turned away from the door.
One of the unusual diversions during the tour was a game of baseball in Victoria. The Hicks Sawyer minstrel group took on the Victorian baseball club, lead by famous theatrical personality JC Williamson. The minstrels won the first game 15-13. The second game was watched with interest by hundreds of school children who had been given a holiday for the occasion. The locals lived up to expectations and trounced the American visitors 25-13.
In 1890 the troupe played Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Sydney. Shortly thereafter, in Irving’s words, the Hicks Sawyer group ‘went to pieces.’ Irving then went to work for Frank Clark in Melbourne. It was there that he teamed with long term partner Charlie Pope. The partnership lasted for fifteen years with Sayles as the comedian and Pope as the straight man. In 1891 Pope and Sayles began working for Harry Rickards. The pair soon became a fixture on the Tivoli circuit as the most popular corner men in the business. Irving later stated that
No employer ever treated me better, more considerately
or more generously than Mr Rickards
Conditions for African Americans in Australia were undoubtedly better than in the United States. Although racism was rampant in Australia, it was not directed towards African Americans as it was in America. In Australia, those of Asian and Aboriginal background bore the brunt of racist rhetoric. One simple example of the differences between the two countries was in their attitude towards theatre. In the United States it was unthinkable for a white woman to share the stage with black men. In Australia, Pope and Sayles shared the stage with many white showgirls without a protest being heard.
Sayles once said that, I am as good as a white man here. Yet he added and if I leave they might block me coming back. No doubt Irving was referring to the White Australia Policy and the infamous dictation test. His arrival in the country had predated the White Australia Policy. He therefore was not subjected to the test. The dictation test could be given to any prospective migrant in any European language. It was used as a tool to enforce a race based immigration policy. Irving was obviously aware of it and its possible consequences.
In an interview with Theatre Magazine Irving said that ‘ I know of no complaint against me – except it is that I happen to be born black. This implied that he had suffered from racism whilst in Australia. That was not unexpected due to the temper of the times.
Despite the trials of living in a racist society, Irving was determined to stay in Australia.
I love Australia and I intend to remain here for the rest of my life.
Another reason for his intention to stay could have been his wife. In 1897, twenty five year old Irving married English born Edith Carter. Edith often travelled with her husband on the Tivoli circuit. In typical style, Irving once joked that he did not like to admit that he was married.
Spare my days! You are now selling me altogether with the girls.
Observers of Irving’s act at the Tivoli thought him ‘unequalled as a corner man.’ Many touring companies attempted to lure him back to the United States, but he refused their offers. His act at the Tivoli relied upon singing and comedic skills. The songs were ones that centred on the urban stereotype introduced to Australia by the Hicks Sawyer minstrels. He also sang traditional songs such as "Hot time in the old town tonight.’
Irving’s comedy sketches centred on self deprecating remarks about his race and nationality. He had a routine where he joked about an imaginary wife from the Aboriginal settlement of La Perouse in Sydney. Irving was a naturally funny man who bubbled with laughter that was infectious. According to one reviewer
His cheerful allusions to his colour and nationality
tickle the collective funny bone of the audience.
Outside the theatre, Irving wore fine clothes and jewellery. He liked a cigar and a punt. He was fond of the races, and often bet on other sports such as boxing. He also had many friends who he entertained with anecdotes when he met them on the street. He was a man who laughed a lot, and seemed to enjoy his life in the theatre
In 1911 Irving was being described as
An Australian institution delighting in the course
of a year hundreds of thousands of people
throughout the different states and delighting them
with an ability possessed by very few other men
black or white, living or dead
He was obviously highly regarded as a performer and as a person. That year a major interview with him appeared in Sydney’s Theatre Magazine, the premier stage publication. Irving had been working for Harry Rickards for seventeen years. The fact that his face graced the cover of the magazine suggested his wide ranging fame and acceptance in the community.
By 1914, Sayles had left the Tivoli. Rickards had died in 1911. Irving was working for another vaudeville company, Fullers, in New Zealand. One day whilst in Christchurch he was joking with friends on the street. He was struck by a heart attack and died on 8th February. He was forty two years old.