Lost To History: Before there was Keytar Bear, Boston had Banjo Cat
History was in the air last night around Boston, as the Museum of Fine Arts helped unearth the findings of a time capsule placed in the lion statue atop the Old State House, placed there in 1795 by Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, and William Scollay. What was found, according to Boston Magazine, were a few newspapers, 24 coins “in various denominations dating from the 1650s to the 1850s,” and “a copper medal of George Washington, a Seal of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and a silver plaque inscribed by Paul Revere and Samuel Adams.”
Around the time the MFA was live-tweeting the opening of the time capsule, Boston’s Joseph DiLuigi made an online discovery of his own, perhaps of equal historical importance: Banjo Cat.
We can only assume this is a distant relative of Keytar Bear.
The card photo, which made online headlines in the mid-2000s when it was first discovered in an old cabinet of a woman named Beverly Wilgus (if we are to believe the internet), dates back to 1887.
It was taken by a Boston photographer named Louis De Ribas, who truly captured the mood and majesty of this banjo-playing feline.
Here’s word from Beverly, who created a whole Etsy shop around the photo a few years ago, with the full image down below:
We have had this cabinet card of a cat playing a banjo for years. Although some photographers used stuffed animals for genre images we feel that this kitty is alive if obviously annoyed at being posed with a banjo, top hat, and gloves. I believe the photographer is Louis De Ribas, a Boston photographer who patented a drop shutter in 1887. The time, the place, and the name seem right.
I used a slide (*now replaced with a scan of the original) of it recently for a demonstration to a friend who is considering the purchase of a scanner. The scan was only going to be a demo and I didn’t even plan to save it. When we looked at an enlargement of the scan we saw faint writing on the image. That became a demonstration of contrast enhancement.
The only part we could read was “…. to Me Quickly My Darling” and “copyright …..” Was this the title of the song the cat was “playing”? A Google search brought us to “Come to Me Quickly My Darling” from the 1874 comic operetta Evangeline. It was loosely (very loosely it seems) based on the Longfellow poem Evangeline. It toured and was revived periodically for over 30 years. Its popularity seemed partly explained by the liberal use of ladies in tights but texts also mention a two-person dancing heifer and an amorous whale. Isn’t the internet amazing!
Sure is, Bevster.
Now we don’t know where Banjo Cat performed, how many tips he or she received, or if he or she eventually had a day in Cambridge named in his honor. But we do know that this cat should be recognized in the long line of music-playing animals this city has come to cherish in the 21st century.
Play on, Banjo Cat. Play on.