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William A. Huntley

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William A. Penno (1843 — 1929), known by his stage name William A. Huntley, was a composer, music teacher, and vocal and instrumental performer in minstrel and vaudeville traditions. Playing his 5-string banjo before crowds that came to number in the low thousands, he sang in a high tenor and played his banjo bare fingered, picking the strings in a style today named "classic banjo." His published compositions include banjo instrumentals and parlor music. Huntley spent his working life performing and teaching in the off season. He performed throughout the United States and toured Europe as a part of several different minstrel groups. A highlight of his performing career was to play before the Prince and Princess of Wales, about 1880 at Her Majesty's Theatre in London. He moved away from minstrel shows by the 1880s, and "took pride" that he could perform without blackface stage makeup. He focused on building respectability for the banjo, through teaching, composition, and performance recitals. He was featured in the S. S. Stewart Company's catalog (showing that art-banjo promoter Stewart recognized his talent) and began to play the company's banjeaurine. In 1888 he performed before a crowd of 2,000 people in his hometown, Providence, Rhode Island.
Huntley first performed onstage in a play in Providence at six-years-old. He played the part of "little Tom Bruce" in the play Nick of the Woods. His first minstrel engagement was in 1860 or 1862 with Mead's Euterpean Minstrels at New London, Connecticut.
He worked as a clerk in Providence, recorded in the state census and city directory in 1865.
Two biographies written during his lifetime are vague about the start of his musical career from 1865 to 1869; authors Edward Le Roy Rice and Samuel Swaim Stewart published generalized timelines of his activities. The two give different years for his work with Mead's Euterpean Minstrels. He was reported by Le Roy Rice to have joined the Campbell and Huntley Minstrels in 1865, and to have played with them for several years. However, news clippings indicate that group was formed in November 1870. Between 1868 and 1870 he was reported to have opened a music-teaching academy in Providence in which he gave banjo socials once a week, his "first attempt at edging the banjo into high society." However, he was not listed in the Providence, Rhode Island city directory from 1866 to 1869. He re-appeared in the Providence city directory in 1870 both as William A. Penno, music teacher, and William A. Huntley, musician.
Newspaper accounts in 1870 may be the earliest record of his music career. In October 1870, he became business partners with Charles Austin, John D. Hopkins and George W. Huntley to form Campbell, Huntley and Austin's minstrels, sharing profits. They became Campbell and Huntley's Minstrels in the midst of a November and December fallout between Austin and Hopkins in the newspapers. Originally planned to be together for four weeks, the group was still intact in January 1871.
William A. Huntley began receiving his mail as a performer independent of Campbell and Huntley's Minstrels in February 1871. He and George (later "Dr. Geo. W.") Huntley continued to associate repeatedly into the 1880s. George Huntley became a successful manager and agent (organizing shows in towns ahead of the arrival of the minstrels), working with the Huntley Minstrels, the Martinetti-Ravel Pantomime Company and Whitmore and Clark's Minstrels.
By September, Huntley was performing on his own at the Howard Athenaeum in Boston, performing as a solo banjoist and making his first "whiteface" appearance on stage. William joined the Lauri English Pantomime Troupe by October 1871 and the Martinetti French Ravel Pantomime Company from December 1871-July 1872. In early 1873 he joined the McKee and Rogers Company, and afterwards rejoined the Martinetti Troupe. In 1874 he became co-partner with George W. Huntley again, in the management of Huntley's Minstrels, and performed in the principal theaters of the country for the next four years.
Huntley was especially engaged to play banjo for the blackface Haverly's United Mastodon Minstrels in London, and led the group's big banjo act in which twelve performers appeared at one time. He gave a first performance at Her Majesty's Theatre on July 31, 1880 and remained three months. During this period, Huntley had the honor of appearing before the Royal Family. Afterward, he played in the principal cities of England and in Paris. He left Europe later in 1880 and arrived in Memphis, Tennessee on December 30, to fill out his contract with Mr. Haverly's "New Mastodon Minstrels."
From 1881 to 1884 Huntley performed with Whitmore and Clark's Minstrels, and later formed a partnership with John H. Lee. The two men opened a banjo teaching-studio in Providence and performed together, Lee on the 6-string banjo and Huntley on the banjeaurine.
Lee left for California in June 1887, while Huntley continued to teach and perform.
Arthur Wells French, songwriter for "When the birds have gone to sleep", for which Huntley composed music,
The minstrelsy show-business of the 1860s, when Huntley was breaking into his career, meant performing in blackface. However Huntley also engaged with performing groups that labeled themselves vaudeville and with pantomime groups. He performed his solo act in variety shows, where he had more control over how he presented himself.
Huntley performed at Tony Pastor's. Starting in the mid-1860s, impresario Tony Pastor capitalized on middle class sensibilities and spending power when he began to feature "polite" variety programs in his New York City theatres. Pastor used the term "vaudeville" in place of "variety" in early 1876, hoping to draw a potential audience from female and family-based shopping traffic uptown by barring liquor in his theatres and bawdy material from his shows.
Huntley had been experimenting with a different image from the early 1870s. He was characterized by minstrel Edward LeRoy Rice as having been successful performing in whiteface. It is not completely certain whether Rice meant his performances used white facepaint in the tradition of pantomime clowns, or if Huntley performed without any makeup at all.
An 1884 news article made it likely he was performing without stage makeup. The reviewer said, "Mr. Wm. A. Huntley is the only banjo artist in the country that has ever made a success in white face."
Huntley was among the first to use the term classic banjo to describe his music. The phrase today means a style of playing the banjo bare fingered, picking out the notes with two fingers and a thumb. For Huntley, the term spoke of quality and he used it throughout the 1870s. Huntley became associated with Samuel Swaim Stewart, a banjo centered entrepreneur, and former blackface performer, who was trying to move the banjo toward greater respectability. Huntley was featured regularly in the S. S. Stewart Banjo and Guitar Journal, starting 1883, and Stewart published some of his music.
Huntley took to the idea of a refined image for the banjo, and modified an idea used by J. H. Haverly and other large minstrel performance companies. Some of their advertising posters showed them marching in solidarity, in formal dress and in white face. However, their performers would perform in blackface, still formally dressed. Huntley would show up as himself, dressed in full evening dress, to perform that way even in rough places like the Bowery.
From 1887 to 1893, he also performed at concerts organized by Fairbanks and Cole, high-end banjo manufacturers in competition with S. S. Stewart.
S. S. Stewart advertisement, William A. Huntley (left) with banjeaurine and John H. Lee.
October 1871, Billy Huntley joins Lauri Pantomime Troupe
April 1872. Martinetti Ravel Ballet and Pantomime Troupe of French Artists, 1872
April 1873. Advertisement for McKee and Rogers Vaudeville Combination.
October 1873. Advertisement for Huntley's Minstrels, 1873.
August 1875. Metropolitan Theatre, New York, 1875
May 1876. Summer Theatre Comique, Washington D.C. Huntley would use the banjo-swinging act in the 1880s as well.
December 1877. Advertisement for concert at Tony Pastors, December 31, 1877.
February 1878. Grand Central Theatre, Philadelphia, 1878
1883/1884. Whitmore and Clark's Minstrels.
February 1885. Advertisement for music by Huntley in S. S. Stewart's Bacon and Guitar Journal
February 1888. Banjo Concert, Boston. William A. Huntley accompanied by his brother Charles H. Huntley (Penno).
December 1891. Review of banjo concert, Haywood Hall, 1891
1891. Advertisement in Sidney, Australia, for banjo classes using materials by S S Stewart, John H Lee and William A Huntley.
February 1893. 10th Annual Grand Star Banjo Concert, Boston
LOC are scores preserved at the Library of Congress. LSMC are scores preserved at the Lester M. Levy Sheet Music Collection. BERK are scores at the California Sheet Music Project at the Berkley Libtary.
He composed many song with lyrics by other musicians including Samuel N. Mitchell, Arthur W. French (1846-1919), Jerry Cohan (father of George M. Cohan), George Birdseye and Ernest Hardenstein.
Huntley's compositions were recorded by artists between 1898 and 1926 on Berliner, Victor, Columbia and Edison labels. Examples include: