The recent loss of Robin Williams, whose death felt deeply personal to many who never actually knew him, reminded me of a North Country entertainer who shared a somewhat similar fate long ago. Although the man’s passing was not by his own hand, it was the suddenness of his “not being there” that was stunning and difficult for many thousands of fans. For like Williams, he had brought decades of laughter and great joy into their lives.
Johnnie Prindle was born in Plattsburgh, New York. The year? His gravestone says 1845; several census records say 1846; his marriage and death certificates say 1847. And age was only the first of many vagaries regarding his life in Plattsburgh. Little has been written about him, but two books purporting to provide the basic facts of his life are rife with errors.
For most of the first two decades of his life, Johnnie lived in Plattsburgh with his parents, Eli and Elizabeth Prindle. His principle absence from home during that time was associated with the Civil War, leaving him with a most unusual record of military service—almost as if he had never left home.
In late December 1864, at about 18 years of age, Johnnie enlisted in the navy for a one-year stint. Within three months he served on three ships—the Savannah, New London, and North Carolina. After training as a coal heaver on the first two, he was placed on the North Carolina, a receiving ship, which held new recruits waiting for assignment).
However, just 90 days after enlisting, Prindle left the navy and joined the army’s 192nd Infantry Regiment at Plattsburgh on April 11, 1865, two days after Lee’s surrender. Remarkably, his mustering-out date was May 12—barely a month later. Other documents give a muster-out date of August 28. Either way, he served in both branches of the military for the briefest of periods. Despite the brevity of those stints, there was one lasting impact: at some point he contracted malaria, which plagued him periodically throughout his life.
Prindle returned to Plattsburgh and married in the late 1860s, a union that produced daughter Carrie in 1868. For several years Johnnie and Carrie lived with his mother, Betsey (his father Eli had passed away in 1862). In the family’s records there is no mention of Carrie’s mother.
Although his profession in 1870 is listed as tailor, Prindle had been eyeing other options. A few years earlier, he had begun exploring the possibility of becoming an entertainer. Utilizing a good singing voice and a natural propensity for comedy, he organized and performed in small shows in the Plattsburgh area.
In the post-war years, minstrel shows (with performers in blackface makeup) were gradually supplanted by vaudeville and variety shows. Many of those retained minstrel components, including what were referred to as “Ethiopian Delineators” (impersonators of black characters). Johnnie excelled at a number of impersonations and was advertised as an Ethiopian Delineator in some of his earliest performances.
While it is understood today how wrong that is, both blacks and whites performed in minstrel shows in those early days. Not everyone condoned them at the time. Some social critics decried the practice, but it’s true that minstrel shows were once a common component of America’s entertainment scene.
While some modern humorists hope to send a message or offer social commentary, Prindle’s goal was the same as most comedians—to make people laugh. As an outstanding singer and entertainer, his repertoire included humorous impersonations of many nationalities and everyday characters, for as he learned early on, people loved laughing at themselves.
In the late 1860s, Johnnie performed at Palmer’s Theater in Plattsburgh and made show-business connections with traveling troupes that visited the city. In the early 1870s, he toured with the popular McLear Brothers of St. Lawrence County, New York. Canton’s Walter Leonard, a trouper himself and entertainment historian, witnessed Johnnie’s act in those early days, calling him “a wonderful performer … a whole show unto himself.”
According to Leonard’s recollections in his newspaper column, Johnny later appeared with a traveling variety show known as Washburn’s Last Sensation, “… transported on two large wagons: a flaming, red-and-gold band wagon, drawn by four horses, in which they made their street parade, and a wagon that carried their paraphernalia and baggage, which was considerable.”
In spring 1873, Prindle returned to Plattsburgh with the McLears for a show at Palmer’s Theater, where he had made his start several years earlier. At the same time, he announced a new upcoming gig with a traveling concert company from the town of Barton in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom—Beedle’s Bell Ringers, operated by Charles C. Beedle. (Synchronous ringing of bells to produce songs was a very popular form of entertainment.)
Beedle was wise to corner him early, for Prindle’s reputation had grown courtesy of an excellent singing voice and spot-on impersonations, especially his popular renditions of old-man and country-rube characters. Touring in Vermont for the summer, the Beedle variety show then headed north into Canada, returning through New York State after a number of performances in the province of Ontario.
Early in 1874, a measure of Prindle’s growing fame appeared in the New York Clipper, a New York City entertainment weekly. In bold type, an advertisement featuring Johnnie proclaimed, “$5000 CHALLENGE! … any person, male or female, in Europe or America … to compete with my Pantomimic Character Dance.” While Beedle’s Bellringers were top-quality as the title act (with 56 bells), it was Johnnie Prindle who had become the star attraction.
A year later, praise for his skills poured in from across the region. The Plattsburgh Sentinel: “Prindle never fails to bring down the house in his new and original acts…. He was repeatedly encored by the audience.” Canadian newspapers called him “one of the best comedians on the American stage.” The Burlington Free Press said, “Johnnie is the best comic singer and inimitable character delineator of his age in America.” The St. Alban’s Messenger added, “Mr. Johnnie Prindle, the comedian, kept the house in an uproar during his entire performance.”
In April 1876, Johnnie married Carrie Bennett of Glover, Vermont, a town bordering Barton, where the Beedles originated. But the show must go on, and soon after the wedding, Johnnie was back on tour. Three months later, the Argus and Patriot of Montpelier, Vermont, called him “excruciatingly funny.” Advertisements touted his “Irish, Dutch, Yankee, Old Men, and Negro Acts.” The Waterville (New York) Times said Prindle’s “… inimitable eccentricities made them laugh until their sides ached.”
Next: Conquering the West
Photos: Johnny Prindle; Headlines from 1871 and 1874