By RUTH MORGAN
For Starkville Daily News
Minstrels brought excitement, amazement and laughter to towns under the big tent. The name “La La” has a musical connotation but that was not good enough for his father to put him in his band. But La La and his wife, Louise, whom he called “my baby girl,” could dance the jitterbug and perform ballroom dances as well as anyone. This story is straight from the soul of La La (Charles) Evans as he reminisced about his father, Geo. Evans, who was in the Rabbit Foot Minstrel Band of Port Gibson. La La still remembers his dad’s colorful band uniform.
To those who may not know, Geo. is the old abbreviation for George which people of long ago used. When looking at the shoe sign in the museum some have asked what Geo. means, and they have even pronounced it “G- E- O-.”
The George Evans family is native of Oktibbeha County originating in Oktoc at the Rice Plantation. La La said, “I can remember my grandfather, Ransom Evans, talking about living on the Rice Plantation. Ms. Nannie Rice often recognized their relationship with the Evans’ family. Ms. Nannie Herndon Rice worked to build and uplift the library facilities at Mississippi State University and served as secretary of the Mississippi Women’s Suffrage Movement. My grandfather had a large family, five boys and two girls and my father, Geo. Evans, was one of the boys. They were raised in the Chapel Hill Community.“
Geo. Evans told the family that back in his days of going to school they only went to tenth grade and then graduated. After that, he went to Tuskegee College, a private, historically black college in Alabama. From there he went around hoboing from here to there. He told the story about hoboing to Minnesota and while there, he stood at the mouth of the Mississippi River and straddled it at its beginning. He enjoyed telling this story because his homeland was in Mississippi.
Later, he came back home. While reading the Chicago Defender, a black weekly newspaper, he saw an advertisement to learn to play the clarinet and saxophone by mail. La La said, “I have learned since then that the clarinet is one of the hardest instruments to learn to play.” Geo. Evans taught himself how to play these two instruments through correspondence.
“My father was very, very energetic and had a lot of talent,” he said. After living in the Oktoc area, he moved uptown and somehow found out about the Fred S. Wolcott Rabbit Foot Minstrel Show. The minstrel show was under a big tent. It was the forerunner of the Ed Sullivan Show. People from all over the country would come and be a part of it because it was one way of showing your talent. In fact, that is how the Ed Sullivan Show got started.
The Ed Sullivan Show was an American television variety show from 1948 to 1971. It ranked #15 on TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time. It came on every Sunday from 8-9 featuring almost every type entertainment from singers, comedians, circus acts, ventriloquist, etc. The format was the same as vaudeville, and though vaudeville died a generation earlier, Ed Sullivan presented many ex-vaudeville shows.
The minstrel show was a seasonal thing here in Oktibbeha and surrounding counties. The troupe would start gathering in March-April and continue until the fall. Afterwards, they would go back to their homes. After seven years of trouping with the Rabbit Foot Minstrel Show, Geo. Evans decided to settle down in Starkville. There was a shoe shop named Eaves Shoe Repair Shop, which was owned by Paul Eaves. Geo Evans began working there where he had one chair in the corner to shine shoes. The Eaves Shoe Shop was located on Main Street near Staggers Bakery, Gordon’s Shoe Store, Hartness and Redus Drug Store and Peoples Bank.
Eaves moved to New Orleans and then Geo. Evans moved around the corner in the Synnott Barber Shop Building on Lafayette Street. Synnott’s Barber Shop was located next door to Martin Hardware on the left and the Tip Top Café on the right with Peoples Café on the corner. This made it a convenient place for these people to stop in and have their shoes shined. Geo. Evans worked here for three or four years. La La said, “I think it must have been during the World War II that Mr. Synnott left for the United States Navy and my dad took over the shop. He had five chairs in the front for whites and four chairs in the back for blacks. At that time the boots were suede at the bottom and we really had to work to smooth that fuzzy leather to make it shine! We would have people lined up to get their shoes shined because back then there were a lot of salesmen who dressed in suits and had to keep their shoes in tip top shape. Also, all the college students in the ROTC had to have their shoes “spit shined.”
I remember Howard Cosell, the American sportscaster of all times, would come by the shop to get his shoes shined. At that time, La La said, “I was so young I had to stand on two Coke boxes to be tall enough to shine shoes.” Geo. Evans then moved around the corner to 202 Lampkin Street. Each year they would give away calendars which had their “aim” printed thereon - “Our Aim” is not how much we can get for what we give but how much we can give for what we get.
The original sign on their store read: “Geo. Evans Shine Parlor, Dyeing All Colors Resueding.” When Geo. Evans Shine Parlor was originally built in 1940, it was about half the size it was before it was remodeled. He had fifteen chairs, eight for whites and seven for blacks. La La said, “During the days of integration, we had a difficult time.” White people would drive by the shop to see if any blacks were there and the black people would drive by to see if any white people were in the shop.” Also, during this time, sneakers (tennis shoes) had just come out – Adidas and Converse - which did not need to be shined. The front door of the shop on the right of the building is the exact spot where the original store stopped. It was the first building in town that Gulf States remodeled when they came to Starkville. The remodeling included expanding the square footage to twice the original size and rehanging of their neon sign designed like a shoe, which was made by Ferdine Barry who owned the tin shop. This sign was photographed and painted by many well-known artists through the years and is part of a permanent exhibit in the Oktibbeha County Heritage Museum. ROTC guys and professional businessmen remember the awesome service they received at this shoe shop.
My father and my brother, Maurice, had a very successful shoe shine business in this shop for many years. Maurice ran the shop after my father’s time. He also sold shoes, boots, belts and other leather goods and enjoyed many good years there. After Maurice, we rented the shop to one of our employees, Lawrence Williams, who had worked at the shop since he was nine years old. The Geo Evans Shoe Shine business began in 1923 and is the longest tenured African American business in Starkville having over 76 years of service. Past employees include doctors, engineers, career military personnel, educators, firemen, and others.
Geo. Evans was quite an entrepreneur which all started when he began playing with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels in 1940 - the biggest minstrel show in America. He was quite a talented musician, so he formed his own big band orchestra headquartered right here in Starkville. It consisted of about 25 members. They played throughout the Golden Triangle, Louisville, Ackerman, etc. Four of his children played in the band. Three of his daughters were in the band - one played the clarinet, another the saxophone and the other played the piano. Maurice, his son, played the bass. La La said, I tried out for the show, but wasn’t good enough!” The band was called “Geo. Evans and the Crusaders” and their theme song was “Moonlight Serenade.” Other favorites included “Star Dust,” “Moon Glow,” “In the Still of the Night,” “Blue Moon,” “I Only have Eyes for You,” “Tuxedo Junction” and others. About 1950, his band ceased and he gave full attention to his shoe shop and Boy Scout troop.
However, music continued through the next generations of the Evans family. In La La’s home is a beautiful mural of “Geo. Evans and the Crusaders” painted by Snow Hogan on the wall. He still has the old cornet which he and his two sons after him played in their high school bands. The Evans’ home has been the location of senior parties for many years where a bandstand was always present and music enjoyed. And music can still be heard as you pass his home whether it is from the breeze blowing through the trees or from inside his home where he is singing or playing his favorite songs.
The following is taken from a history of the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrel in which Geo. Evans was a part.
“The Foots”, was a long running minstrel and variety troupe that toured as a tent show in the American South between 1900 and 1950. It provided a basis for the careers of many leading African American musicians and entertainers such as Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Bessie Smith, Butterbeans and Susie, Tim Moore, Big Joe Williams, Louis Jordan, Brownie McGhee, Arthur “Happy” Howe and Rufus Thomas.
Patrick Henry “Pat” Chappelle was an African-American former vaudeville performer and entrepreneur from Jacksonville, Fla. who had established a small chain of theatres in the late 1890s. In 1900, he commissioned Frank Dumont of Philadelphia to write a show, A Rabbit Foot, for a new touring company. The show included minstrel performances, dancers, circus acts, comedy and musical ensemble pieces. It was owned and operated totally by African Americans.
The new “Rabbit’s Foot Company” toured widely and successfully, reaching New York as well as the South, where Chappelle’s gambling and business successes funded the company’s own railroad car and touring circus tents. By 1904 the show had expanded to fill three railroad carriages, and was describing itself as “the leading Black show in America.” The following year, one of the performers, William Rainey, brought his young bride Gertrude to join the company, and as “Ma” Rainey, she soon became one of its leading attractions.
By 1906 Chappelle was able to maintain multiple tent shows on the road. However, growing competition from other companies took its toll, and Chappelle died in 1911. The company was then sold to a white carnival owner, Fred S. Wolcott, who continued with the touring show.
In 1912, Ma Rainey brought the young Bessie Smith into the troupe, and worked with her until Smith left in 1915. Ida Cox was also a featured woman blues singer.
By 1918, Wolcott had moved the show’s headquarters to Port Gibson. Each spring, musicians from around the country assembled there to create a musical, comedy, and variety show to perform under canvas. In his book “The Story of the Blues,” Paul Oliver wrote: “The ‘Foots’ traveled in two cars and had a 80’ x 110’ tent which was raised by the roustabouts and canvassmen, while a brass band would parade in town to advertise the coming of the show...The stage would be of boards on a folding frame and Coleman lanterns - gasoline mantle lamps - acted as footlights. There were no microphones; the weaker voiced singers used a megaphone, but most of the featured women blues singers scorned such aids to volume.”
Louis Jordan performed with the troupe in the 1920s, sometimes with his father, a bandleader. Other performers with the company in the 1930s included the young Rufus Thomas, George Guesnon. trombonist Leon Pee Wee Whittaker a native of Newellton, La., Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis also toured with the troupe. As “F. S. Wolcott’s Original Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels”, the company continued to tour among southern states until it disbanded around 1950.
A historic marker has been placed by the Mississippi Blues Commission in Port Gibson commemorating the enormous contribution The Rabbit’s Foot Company has made to the development of the blues in Mississippi and placing them on the Mississippi Blues Trail.
Chester McKee remembers:
Yep, I had the jingle burned into me in the late 1930’s by radio station WREC, Memphis, 600kc on the AM radio dial. At bedtime each night the dial was set to WREC and right at 6 a.m. you heard:
It’s time to rise and shine
Shine your shoes if you want’a be in step
Shine your shoes to really be hep
The sun shines east, and the sun shines west
But Griffin polish shines the best,
Some folks are not particular how they look around the feet,
But if they wore shoes upon their head they’d make sure they looked neat,
So keep your shoes shined Griffin all the time
For Griffin time is the time to shine
Bong, Bong Bong
It’s time to rise and shine
When we dedicated the Evans Shoe Shine Exhibit at the museum, I sung this jingle and simply substituted Evans for Griffin
Incidentally, WREC was first organized by Mr. Hoyt Wooten who graduated from State in electrical engineering and built a radio transmitter himself and got a license from the old FCC to operate first at Coldwater and then at Memphis. Later, he expanded into TV and owned the radio and TV station until his death.
Love y’all, Chester.