Minnie Emmett: When Bad Genealogy Happens to Good People

In a previous post, we noted that Dan W. Quinn made a few duets ca. 1895 with Minnie Emmett for the United States Phonograph Company. This seems to be a fact not widely appreciated. Has anybody out there got one?

The U.S. Phono. Co. catalog says the following:

We have here two well-blended voices, producing a charming effect on the Phonograph. The work is a new and an original departure, and the duets are well adapted for general purposes. Very musical and showy, brilliant and firm in tone. Sure to be popular, both from the nature of the subjects and the reputation of the artists.

Priced at $1.50 each, the titles were “Gobble Song” (from La Mascotte), “Reuben and Cynthia” (from A Trip to Chinatown), “He’ll Love You Bye and Bye,” and “The Spider and the Fly (with Buzzing of Flies, Mewing of Cats, and Cat Duet)” (from Isle of Champagne). Emmett also did a solo with Mr. Maxwell, “Back to Our Mountains” (from Il Trovatore).

There was quite a buzz about Minnie Emmett in the industry of the mid- to late-1890s. Before she came along, no really effective records of the female voice had been made allegedly. The same U.S. Phono. Co. catalog says this of Ms. Emmett:

SOPRANO SOLOS BY MISS EMMETT.

ONLY SUCCESSFUL RECORDS OF THE FEMALE VOICE EVER TAKEN.

After a series of experiments extending over several years of record making, we can now offer to the public what we believe to be the first true records of a high soprano voice. No squeak, no blast, but natural, clear and human. Miss Emmett has a round, sweet voice, sympathetic, and under perfect control. Her records would sell on their merits, even if they did not represent a new achievement in our art. They are made one at a time.

She made “Sweet Marie,” “Somebody Loves Me,” “Little Wooden Shoes,” and “They Are the Best Friends of All.” A supplement, also ca. 1895, listed these and four others: “When You Know the Girl You Love, Loves You,” “Pretty Maggie Mooney,” “I Don’t Want to Play in Your Yard,” and “Rosie, Sweet Rosabel”—price, $2.00 each. Ouch.

Minnie Emmett

Minnie Emmett (The Courier, April 22, 1904)

If you like the sound of a serious singer doing popular songs, then you’ll definitely like Emmett. If, however, you prefer your comediennes to sing in a more rough-and-ready way, stick to Ada Jones or Elida Morris. But a web search for Minnie Emmett shows a good amount of interest in her, so it’s necessary to make a few observations.

Our late friend, Quentin Riggs, was very intrigued by Ms. Emmett and, as far as we can tell, is about the only one who ever found out anything about her. Given the state of archival research before the Internet, it’s surprising he found anything at all. Unfortunately, it looks to us like it’s all mistaken.

Quentin found one Minnie Emmett performing with Frank J. McCabe in 1894. Sure enough, the team of McCabe and Emmett tore up the boards for the entire decade and into the first decade of the 20th century. But this was a vaudeville act—singing and dancing, with a dog specialty to boot. (At the end of 1901, McCabe paired with Harry Parker, formerly of the Parkers, but this seems not to have been a permanent move.) The critic Chicot complained in 1901 that the act “was getting hopelessly out of date” (New York Morning Telegraph 19 Apr. 1901, p. 10). In the spring of 1907, it was reported that the trained dog, Count, had died (New York Clipper 27 Apr. 1907, p. 269).

Given that Minnie Emmett was an opera singer and that she toured separately at the same time (and she is never listed performing with a “partner” in an “act”), it’s hard to believe this is the same person. Furthermore, the census entry Quentin found for Frank McCabe and wife Minnie, living in Amsterdam NY in 1900, with four sons (Marcus, Emmett, Raymond and Charles) is the wrong group of people. This Frank McCabe was a stone worker, and his wife has no listed profession.

The vaudeville McCabes are in the 1900 census living in Manhattan on W. 17th Street. J. Frank McCabe was born Aug. 1867, wife Minnie in Jan. 1870. They had been married five years already with no children; both are listed as actors. In the 1910 census we find “Minnie Emmett,” living with her brother, Clarkson, in Manhattan on W. 114th Street. Age = 39 years old; marriage status = single; occupation = vaudeville performer. This could be the same woman from the McCabe and Emmett team.

But it sure doesn’t sound like Minnie Emmett the opera singer.

Sadly, all we can do today is tear down past assumptions, because we haven’t been able to find a scrap of biographical information on Emmett. Plenty of press notices and (laudatory) capsule reviews, but that’s about it. The last thing we found is in the New York Dramatic Mirror from July 23, 1913: she had successfully sued the Franklin-Baggott Company, proprietors, for back pay while a member of the Olympia Park Opera company.

Does anybody out there know anything? We’ll keep looking.

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One thought on “Minnie Emmett: When Bad Genealogy Happens to Good People

  1. I don’t know if this will help anything, but in the late ’70’s at Tower Records I used to get re-recordings of ancient cylinders and the like on 12″ vinyl albums by very obscure labels. One album was of a trunk of cylinders found in Kansas City with hand written labels on them which the sleeve notes said were apparently recorded one at a time (so early were these cylinders). One of them was a solo of “I Don’t Want to Play in Your Yard,” by “a Miss Emmett,” as the sleeve identified her. Presumably the cylinder was from the 1890s. Now if they were all individually recorded and were found in Kansas City, could they have been recorded there? Was our Singer-in-Question in Kansas City in about 1894? (That date seems to stick in my mind for some reason.) Did she record there? I don’t know the name of the vinyl’s label, and don’t know if I still have the record or not (lost somewhere in my storage perhaps?) But I bought it at Tower Records in West Hollywood in about 1979. I know this is lot of text for something so ephemeral, but maybe it could provide some clue, for whatever it’s worth.

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