The other day I was playing some old records when I came across one of my New Christy Minstrels LPs from the 1960s folk era. I always wondered how they named themselves, but was never energetic enough to find out. I'm sure you can enlighten me and tell me just who were The Old Christy Minstrels, anyway. -- Patrick Russell, of Edwardsville
Actually, to be historically correct, they perhaps should have called themselves The Even Newer Christy Minstrels. Here's why:
Randy Sparks started out singing folk and Broadway as a solo performer in the late 1950s. But after briefly forming a trio that included wife Jackie Miller, Sparks decided he wanted to put on a really big shew so he put together a 14-member troupe he called The New Christy Minstrels.
It was perhaps the first large folk group of its kind, and it quickly captured the country's imagination with its "barrage of color-coordinated blazers, starched petticoats, choreographed grins and stage makeup," as G. Brown described them in his book, "Colorado Rocks: A Half-Century of Music in Colorado."
By April 1962, their first album, "Presenting the New Christy Minstrels," was flying off record store shelves. It earned them a Grammy Award for best performance by a chorus and remained on the Billboard 200 chart for two years. They followed it up with the album "Rambling,'" which produced their first hit single, "Green, Green."
What casual fans like you apparently didn't realize was that Sparks took the group's name from the original Christi's Minstrels (or The Christy Minstrels), a blackface group formed by Edwin Pearce Christy in the early 1840s in Buffalo, N.Y.
This group was notable for several reasons, according to theater historians. First, they apparently were instrumental in formalizing the recipe for the traditional minstrel show. Then, in 1851, Stephen Foster -- often called "the father of American music" -- gave Christy the right to premiere his new songs, even selling him exclusive rights to "Old Folks at Home" ("Swanee River") for $15,000. And, Christy's stepson, George, used the group to become perhaps the greatest blackface comedian of his day.
Both Christys left the group in the mid-1850s, and, depressed over the Civil War, Edwin Christy committed suicide in 1862. His name, however, lived on in England, where, in 1857, former members of the Christy Minstrels organized the (J.W.) Raynor & (Earl) Pierce Christy Minstrels. They disbanded in 1860, but like old rock 'n' roll groups today, individual members formed splinter groups that used the "Christy" name into the early 1900s.
So when Sparks formed his group in the early '60s, it was merely the latest resurrection of a name that had spanned more than a half-century. They did not perform in blackface, but the central idea remained the same: Put on a show that made audiences forget their troubles.
That's why they soon fell out of favor by those who began using the folk genre to sing about moral and political issues. You may remember Barry McGuire, who co-wrote and sang lead on "Green, Green." He left in 1965, and, with his gritty voice, recorded "Eve of Destruction," which zoomed to the top of the charts.
Still, while more "relevant" groups have disappeared, The New Christy Minstrels are still raking in the "Green, Green" in their 52nd year. You can follow their concert schedule, buy their CDs (they have two new ones in production) and read Randy Sparks' blog at www.thenewchristyminstrels.com.
In a recent episode of "Law & Order: SVU" there was an actress who played a rape victim from 40 years before. She had a French accent, and I remembered the voice from an old World War II movie in which the main character rescued some people from a Japanese invasion. The woman was in charge of a girls school on an island. Who was the woman and what was the movie? -- H.D., of Mascoutah
You've managed to put together two arresting performances by the lovely and talented Leslie Caron. In 2006, the now 82-year-old Caron won an Emmy for her "SVU" performance. And, nearly 50 years ago, she and Cary Grant captivated movie audiences in "Father Goose," which won the 1964 Oscar for best screenplay.
Who represented Eliza Jumel when she sued former Vice President Aaron Burr for divorce?
Answer to Wednesday's trivia: One day in 1942, Jimmy Van Heusen wrote a spur-of-the-moment song to celebrate the birthday of lyricist Johnny Burke's wife. Comedian Phil Silvers provided the lyrics, which started, "Bessie ... with the laughing face." It was so popular, they used it at other birthdays, changing the name as they went. But when they sang it for a young Nancy Sinatra, father Frank reportedly broke down and cried, thinking it had been written for her. Nobody told him differently, and Van Heusen even gave the royalties to Nancy after Old Blue Eyes recorded "Nancy (with the Laughing Face)."
Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or email@example.com