Heroes, Hisses, and Jolly Della's Deflating Bosom: tent "Rep" shows

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

When Tent "Rep" Shows Toured the Country


Heroes, Hisses and Jolly Della's Deflating Bosom

When tent "rep" shows toured the country


The young actress knew she had to read the line the way it was written in the script.But as she looked around the dismal little stage, it somehow stuck in her throat. Like the other repertoire theater tent shows, they played the same towns over and over, so most of the audience already knew what a notorious cheap skate their manager could be. Old J. B. Rotnour was generous with his actors, but Lord,  how he hated to turn loose of a penny to replace their scenery or to buy a new tent.  Surely they had heard about the "blow-down" not long back, when the rotted stitching that had held the ropes to the canvas for so many years, finally gave way under a heavy wind. The canvas had sailed through the sky like a magic carpet, leaving behind only a bare skeleton of poles.And old man Rotnour was just as tight when it came to replacing the pathetic old pieces of scenery that had been painted and re-painted year after year.

The little troupe was putting on their usual "Saturday night western."The play was called Jealousy, and they had reached a scene where the fabulously wealthy cattle baron was carrying his blushing bride from "back East" across the threshold of his luxurious ranch house.She had a simple line to say as they crossed into the splendor of the plush western mansion.

She knew the line.But as she looked around at the sad little stage setting, the words simply refused to cross her lips.  Her eyes slowly surveyed the two beaten-up old chairs by the timeworn kitchen table shedding its layers of multicolored paint.  Then they focused on the unsightly collection of rusty buckets and dishpans.They had been strategically placed around the stage floor to catch the torrents of rainwater that were pouring through the peeling patches in the tent ceiling.  Finally, summoning all of her theatrical training, she smiled sweetly at the pitiful little set.Then, raising her voice above the splashing of the rain, she blurted out her line: "Oh!  John, it's beautiful!"

Despite the ragged scenery, the little troupe filled a strong need for entertainment.  The small traveling theater companies, like the little circuses, were especially welcome in the smaller country towns.  Just because the inhabitants were Oklahoma farmers or Missouri bricklayers didn't mean they weren't hungry for a taste of the same kind of entertainment the New York sophisticates enjoyed.  Granted, sometimes this  "taste" was bit unseasoned, but that's all right, the audience's response was sometimes just as unpolished.Like the time in Louisiana during a presentation of Othello, when a member of the audience had apparently not been following the plot line very closely.As the actor playing Othello grieved and fretted over the loss of a handkerchief, the impatient yokel could no longer restrain himself.  In a loud voice, he blurted out: "Why don't you blow your nose with your fingers and let the play go on?"

Not only were the audiences sometimes a tad unpredictable but not everything on the stage always functioned like clockwork either.Like all the other live entertainment forms, there was no opportunity to "retake" a scene if something went wrong.  Once, during a presentation of a play titled, Call of the Woods, a door stuck shut and left an actress in a very uncomfortable situation.  The play was a popular melodrama classic, complete with a noble misunderstood hero and a damsel in distress.As the play begins, we learn that our hero's unscrupulous younger brother, Willis, has been stealing money from their poor blind mother for years.  All along, he has been blaming his foul deeds on Dave, the hard working hero.Mama, taken in by Willis's lies, has banished poor Dave to a cabin in the woods.

Later we learn that Willis has apparently been fooling around with more than his blind mother's money.It turns out that Hilda, Mama's hired girl, is going to have his baby.  Hilda is a pretty tough customer and informs Willis, in no uncertain terms, that she expects him to marry her.If he has any other plans, she tells him, she will not only let her gun-toting daddy know what he did, but will spill the beans to his blind mother about his stealing.  Unfortunately for Hilda, she decides to deliver this fiery ultimatum when they are alone in Dave's secluded cabin. Willis is not a particularly good sport about it and secretly grabs a convenient axe handle.Holding it behind his back, he gives Hilda a last chance to change her mind.  When she refuses, he whirls the axe handle around screaming,"Then you die!"

As the script called for, Hilda was then to run screaming toward the door, with Willis in hot pursuit.  After they ran out the door, the audience would hear three loud whacks, followed by screams of decreasing volume.  Willis was then supposed to return to the stage, holding the bloody axe handle.  During this particular evening's performance, however, when Hilda reached the door, it didn't budge.  She pulled and twisted with all her strength, but it simply wouldn't open.  The frantic actress called off stage in a loud stage whisper, "Open the door!"  After taking another trip around the kitchen table, she ran frantically back to the door, only to find it was still stuck solidly.

During all of this, the actor playing Willis tried to stall his pursuit as much as possible.He had been desperately delaying the chase by bumping into chairs and tripping over his own feet.  Despite his best attempts, however, he soon stood beside her.  Unless he wanted to simply stop the play, there was nothing else he could do.  Obviously, the audience was aware he was going to attack her...so like a true theatrical trooper, he did the only thing he could.  He hit her on the head with the axe handle.  Apparently he hadn't had a lot training in faking a blow, because the poor actress had a lump on her head for days.

Incidentally, despite the incident, the play continued and eventually ended happily.Poor Hilda it turned out didn't die from the blows but instead was knocked into a state of amnesia. Honest Dave had heard Hilda's screams, and ran into the cabin, with the rest of the characters at his heels.  Then Willis dropped the bloody axe handle and hid. Poor Dave picked it up as he ran in, and stood over Hilda's body.  When the others arrived, Willis jumped out of hiding and accused Dave of having attacked her.  Later, during Dave's trial,  poor addlebrained Hilda was sitting outside the courtroom in a buggy.Suddenly the sound of horses hooves and Hilda's screams let the audience know she was on a runaway buggy.  Just in case they didn't figure it out, the dialogue of the play also informed them.

It was about time for Hilda's luck to turn around, and that wild buggy ride unexpectedly turned out to be her savior.  She was tossed out of the buggy and, as fate would have it, landed directly on her head.Fortunately though, whatever the axe handle had knocked out of her head, that blow knocked right back in.With her memory now fully restored, she got up, dusted herself off, and marched into the courtroom just in time to clear poor old Dave and point an accusing finger at the treacherous Willis.

It didn't matter that the plot might have been just a little far fetched.  The audiences would sit on the edge of their seats as the axe whirled or the buggy crashed.  Throughout the years, millions of Americans sat on the edge of their seats inside the small tents as the heroes and villains clashed.  The little "canvas playhouses" as the tent shows were often called, became extremely popular.By 1927, the New York Times reported they reached more people than "Broadway and all the rest of the theater industry put together."

The little traveling tent repertoire theaters have supplied many country folk with their first theatrical experience. Like so many of the other early entertainment forms, the origin of the first tent show is a little cloudy.Much of their history has been handed down by word of mouth.  We do know that one of the pioneers of the traveling theater was James H. McVicker.  As is often the case, his innovation was triggered by misfortune.  He was a partner in a theatrical company in Chicago, when a fire destroyed the theater in 1850.  Suddenly faced with no place for his troupe to work,  he made a logical decision.  During the rebuilding of the theater, he took his troupe on the road.

Throughout the rest of the century, more and more theater troupes followed suit.  After all,even in the larger cities, they would soon run out of theater-goers who wanted to see a particular play.  In response, the troupes began to head out over the rough dirt roads to bring a taste of culture to the surrounding country folk.  The problem was, most of the little country towns were only large enough to accommodate a one-night stand.  This meant the little troupe would have to pack up after each performance, and head out for another little town somewhere down the road. Not only did they tire of the constant travel, but the traveling expenses were eating up their profits.

The solution to this problem was simple - they had to learn more than one play, so they could stay in the same town longer. As the companies began to develop a repertoire of several shows, they gained the name of "rep" shows.  Most of these early troupes set up their show wherever they could - in the local opera house or often in a roofless "airdome" when the weather permitted.As the years rolled by however, some of the theater companies followed the lead of the small circuses, and began to tour in tents.  The tent became very popular after 1913, when the new "silent movies" began to take over the opera houses.

Although it was years before America's theatrical troupes began to travel, the theater itself took root shortly after the country's birth. Since our forefathers were a little too busy carving out a new country to sit down with a quill in hand and write a play, most of our early plays came from Europe. Shakespearean drama was a natural, since the early colonists had grown up with it in England.  It wasn't long however, before Americans began to add their own "special touch" to the great Bard.

Everyone agreed that Shakespeare was a great dramatist. Still, this new country had been founded on some pretty strict religious morals, and his stories were often a little on the wild side.That didn't present a big problem though - since there weren't yet any copyright laws for theatrical presentations - they simply rewrote him.  It just wasn't fitting, for example, for Juliet to allow Romeo to steal a kiss on their first meeting...so, in the American version, she waited a few more dates.  In fact, the American "play re-writers" decided she was also a little young to be having a fling, so her age was increased to a more respectable eighteen.  They also felt King Lear needed a little modification.  After all, it didn't send out a very good moral message to have him killed for no reason.  So on the American stage; he lived happily ever after.

Needless to say, not everyone was delighted with this "butchering of the Bard."So, since America obviously wanted its own style of play, it wasn't long before native writers began to write American plays.Theater groups were springing up in nearly every town and they were hungry for new play scripts. Most of these new playwrights cranked out their stories between the cracks of their full-time jobs.  Across the young country, schoolteachers, lawyers and mechanics suddenly turned into authors.

In some cases, they even took the opportunity to combine their trades with their new vocation.John Minshull, a New York butcher, for instance, wasn't content to write his plays for the sake of pure art.He not only portrayed the benefits of living a moral and religious life, but also of eating good portions of fresh meat.  During one of his plays, the hero informed his fellow actors that the "color of the complexion depends upon the food we eat.  To feed constantly on salt pork," he enlightened them, "accounts for the sallow complexion."Just in case the audiences hadn't completely learned this lesson, Minshull wrote a song in another play that ended with the lines, "Oh the roast beef of Columbia! Oh Columbian roast beef!"  Since the producers could get all the plays they needed from England, at no cost, they were not in the mood to pay much to the new American playwrights.  In 1815, a playwright named M. N. Noah, complained about this problem.  A theater manager, he wrote, rather than paying money for one of his best plays, had offered him "ten loads of wood."

Very likely, some of the early theatrical scripts were not quite worth "ten loads of wood."Since many were written by completely inexperienced writers, in between their jobs and other responsibilities, they were often cranked out in a few hours.  Aware that their scripts were not exactly works of art, some of the writers added a clarification in the preface explaining that their play had been "a hasty production," or had been "sketched in a hurry." 

Hastily written or not, most of the productions eventually found their way onto a stage.  As towns were founded across the early country, the theaters soon followed.  In fact, the theater was often the second building to be constructed...right after the church.In Huston, Texas, however, as author Edward G. Fletcher points out, "God even permitted two professional theaters to exist at a time when the town still had no churches."

Not just everyone was thrilled about our early country's love affair with the theater.  One storeowner wrote a warning about the theater's addictive quality.  Possibly stretching the truth "just a touch," he said he had recently discovered the "dramatic disease" right in his own family.Fortunately, he had spotted it just in time to prevent his family members from cutting a hole in the living-room ceiling in order to let in the ghost of Hamlet's father.Not only had his family become infected, but in his store, he claimed, his clerks had begun to write their business memos in blank verse.

Despite these dire warnings, Americans loved their early theater.  In fact, they loved it so much; sometimes they apparently forgot the plays were not real.  During an 1812 performance of a play in Philadelphia, for instance, the hero turned to his fellow-actors and asked if they felt they should entrust their rights to English justice.  An old man in the audience didn't wait for their response.  He stood waving his cane and called out, "No sir, no!  We'll nail them to mast and sink with the stars and stripes before we'll yield."The audience gave the impromptu "actor" a prolonged ovation.

At the conclusion of a play in New York City, a group of Cherokee Indians had enjoyed the performance so much, they felt mere applause wasn't adequate.  So they climbed right up on the stage and presented the leading lady with ornaments and head­dresses.  Sometimes however, this "audience participation" wasn't exactly welcomed by the theater troupe.  It wasn't at all rare in early times, for example, for the audience members to shout song requests to the musicians in the orchestra during the play.

In Boston, a newspaper correspondent wrote about the audience's control over the events of the plays they watched. "We (the sovereigns) determine to have the worth of our money when we go to the theatre," he claimed.  He explained that through their insistent applause and loud demands, the audience would make the actors repeat the songs and dances that they had particularly enjoyed.  That evening, the correspondent continued, he was planning to attend a play called The Gamester.  During the play one of the characters, Mrs. Kean, poisons her husband.  "Perhaps," he predicted, "we'll flatter Mr. Kean by making him take poison twice."

This audience intervention often went far beyond the boundaries of good-natured requests for musical numbers or repeated scenes.  If these requests were denied, apples and walnuts were often hurled toward the musicians or actors.  In fact, early in America's history, an incident in a theater actually ended in bloodshed.  It evolved from the still-simmering bad blood between the United States and England.  The foremost tragic actors of the 1840's were Edwin Forrest, an American, and an English actor named William Charles Macready.  Each actor had visited the other's country to perform.  During these visits, everything had gone smoothly until the second time Forrest played London.He was hissed during the play, and later received several hostile reviews.  A man who was known to be a friend of Macready wrote the most severe notice.

Under the assumption that Macready had arranged for this unpleasant reception, Forrest decided to get revenge.So he attended Macready's performance of Hamlet, in Edinburgh, and personally hissed at his performance.  And with this childish rivalry, the stage had been set for an inevitable confrontation.  Friends and fans of each actor began to take sides in the dispute as the quarrel escalated into a burning issue between the two nations.  Throughout both actors' ensuing performances, newspaper headlines reported flurries of rotten eggs and insults.

By the spring of 1849, the feud had become so intense that the irate audiences felt the eggs and insults were no longer enough.  Macready was booked to perform Macbeth in New York's prestigious Astor House Place opera house.  During the performance, four chairs were thrown onto the stage, one of them almost hitting an actress.  Macready decided the insanity had gone on long enough. After the show, he announced that he would cancel his tour.  His supporters however, urged him to stay on and keep the show running.  Unfortunately he took their advice.

During a performance two days later, several arrests were made inside the theater due to minor disturbances.  Outside, a growing crowd became inflamed when they heard there had been police action in the opera house.  They began to throw stones at the building.  As the situation worsened, the militia was ordered to intervene and prevent further disruption.  The word had spread to the unruly crowd, however, that the militia's rifles only contained blank cartridges.So when Macready exited the theater with a police escort, the crowd - unconcerned about the militia and their bogus bullets - pushed forward.  The militia members were hesitant to fire directly at their fellow townsmen, and instead, shot slightly over their heads.  Suddenly, shock waves surged through the crowd.  As observers and innocent bystanders screamed and fell to the ground, a horrible realization set in.  The rumor had not been true.  The militia was indeed using live ammunition.  It was a terrible lesson to learn, but the "Astor Place Riot" finally brought the American audiences to their senses. There would never again be such a total loss of control at a theatrical performance.

Throughout the years, however, there would continue to be uncontrolled events during the live performances.  As upsetting as these incidents often were for the actors involved, for the audience, they were often be the stuff that memories were made of.  Take for instance, the night Jolly Della Pringle first wore her new beaded gown.  In the early days of the theater, most actors had to furnish their own wardrobes.  They usually bought inexpensive used outfits, one piece at a time.  Not Jolly however.  She was well known for her collection of beautiful evening gowns.

That night, she donned a unique outfit adorned with tiny square glass beads.  It was a dazzling dress that sparkled and shimmered under the stage lighting.  When she put it on and proudly strode onto the stage, Jolly likely felt that nothing could go wrong that night.  She was truly "dressed for success."  Despite her dazzling appearance, there was one small problem.The "hour-glass figure" was the style of the day.  And Jolly didn't exactly fill out the top part of the hourglass. No problem she thought - nothing that a couple of rubber balloons couldn't take care of.So with her new "inflated figure" and her glistening dress, she walked gracefully on stage.

As the play progressed, however, something was transpiring beneath her shimmering dress that would soon add an unusual touch to Ms. Pringle's performance.  The sharp edges of the square glass beads were slowly cutting away at the rubber of one of her balloons.  As Jolly walked around the stage, several audience members began to notice that she was beginning to look just a tad lop-sided.As the air continued to leak out, it was becoming apparent that either Jolly had an extremely unusual physical ability, or something was a little "less than natural."  The audience began to roar with laughter.  A true trouper, Jolly waited for her first scheduled exit to make "repairs."Then, when she reappeared, once more in a well-balanced state, the audience roared again.Jolly however, continued unruffled, as if a shrinking and expanding bosom was a perfectly natural part of her performance.

Another unexpected incident, which also turned out to be the most memorable part of the play, took place in the Loranger show when they were playing the Midwest.  The show's manager, Bess Loranger was a lovable old character in her late sixties, with dyed red hair and a robust love of life.  Jim Parsons, one of the members of the troupe remembered her as being "one of the sweetest old girls I have ever known in my life, although her language embarrassed me at times."Despite her "sweetness," old Bess, it seems, did tend to swear like a sailor.  In fact, the rumor was out that she also occasionally enjoyed a good cigar.

Another thing about Bess - when something struck her funny during a play, she simply had to laugh.  And it wouldn't be a girlish giggle.  She would erupt with an earth-shaking guffaw that would shake the back row of the theater.  One such eruption occurred when she was playing a character in a play called The Family Upstairs.  In the scene, she had just lost an argument with another character, and takes her anger out on her poor son Willie.  She was supposed to whirl around and yell, "Willie!  You go upstairs and wash your neck, and behind your ears!"

Somehow old Bess's tongue got a little tangled, and as she spun around she shouted instead,"Willie! You go upstairs and wash your behind!"Parsons remembered a split-second of dead silence.And then it happened...Bess's eruption.Her whole­hearted guffaws rocked the tent.  The more she laughed, the louder the audience roared.  The show stopped dead in its tracks for five minutes while everyone pulled themselves together.

Yes, unlike most of today's sedate theatrical performances, not everything was ideal in the early actor's world. Writer's often commented on "The music of cracking peanuts," the "buz-buz and hum-hum of small talk," and "incessant spitting of chewing tobacco."  As irritating as this was for the poor actors, the play-writers often had an even stronger irritant - the critic. The early critic could be their worst nightmare.  The play, Brutus, for instance, was written off by one critic as being a "foolish and presumptuous imitation."And in even more vivid terms, another critic described the play, Eighth of January, as "a detestable heap of rubbish." 

Sometimes the critic wasn't satisfied with simply panning the play.  He would aim his critique directly at the play-writer. One blamed a writer for being a "spotter of pure-white paper." But the award for early America's most venomous critic would likely go to the one who covered a play called The Battle of Eutaw Springs.  It was really not such a bad play, he acknowledged,  "considering that the author must have had his brains blown out at this same battle!"

The theater managers didn't always have an easy job either.  Occasionally an actor would show up for the performance, drunk.  Since this could ruin a show and give the troupe a bad reputation, the theater companies had a hard and fast rule against drinking. Anyone who came on stage drunk would be fired.  There was, however, one exception to this rule - comedy actor, Bush Burrichter.Bush was such a nice guy and so talented, that nobody wanted to end his career. Unfortunately, although he would go for weeks sober as a judge, now and then he would fall off the wagon.  And when he fell, he fell hard. As one of his contemporaries remembered,  "let him so much as smell a cork, and he would be drunk for days."

His manager, however, had discovered a way to keep Bush in line.Bush's girlfriend was a large redheaded woman who didn't take any nonsense from him.  Knowing how firm she could be, the manager sometimes paid her to keep him sober and ready to go on stage.  An actor friend named Al Pitcaithley, related an incident when the manager found Bush drunk the morning before a matinee performance.  He quickly summoned Bush's girlfriend to the scene.

When she arrived, she lost no time.  She immediately "jerked him to a sitting position," Pitcaithley recalled.  She then slapped him, "first to the right and then to the left."  Then after pounding his head against the wall a couple of times for good measure, she sat him down in front of a cup of black coffee and taught him his lines for the play.  By the matinee show-time, poor Bush was a little battered and bruised, but ready to face an audience that would be unaware of his drinking problem.

Another problem occurred when, sometimes, out of mischief, one actor would purposefully try to throw another actor off his bearings.  James "Goober" Buchanan remembered such an incident during a tent show with the Stout Players in Waterloo, Illinois. He had been hired as an understudy for Toby Slout.  As was often the case, he also had a small part that could easily be cut if he had to fill in for the main actor.  He was given the role of a small-town chief of police. Goober had learned his lines, like most rep show actors,  not by memorizing the entire script,  but by using the line just prior to his as a cue.  After several rehearsals, he felt comfortable with his part.When the play opened, however, old Toby Slout, who had the line preceding his, had a sudden flash of meanness.

"I was supposed to walk through the door and say, 'I'm the chief of police,' and tell him I was looking for someone," Goober remembered.But before Goober could get the line out, Toby looked up with a mischievous grin and blurted out,  "Why hello chief,  what can I do for you?"  Goober, aware of Toby's intention, decided to throw him off track instead.  He quickly turned and called out over his shoulder,  "Hell!  I don't know."Then he calmly exited through the rear door, leaving Toby standing, open-mouthed, alone on the stage.

Goober also recalled occasional problems outside the tent. Local boys would hang around and, out of mischief, sometimes try to cut the tent ropes.  "I'd watch out around the tent," Goober remembered,  "and if I found a boy who might cause us trouble, I'd try to trick him out of his pocket knife."  "First, I'd tell him that I would let him in free if he would help out around the tent."After the boy enthusiastically agreed, Goober would explain to him that he would have to let him hold something of value,  "just for assurance that he would stay around throughout the show."  Then Buchanan would scratch his head and strain to think of some type of "collateral" the young boy might possibly have with him.  Finally, inspiration would strike him:"Oh I know!" he would exclaim,  " How about maybe... a pocket knife?"

Even putting the kids to work could sometimes be risky. Once Goober had asked some local boys to drive the tent stakes. The tent had been pitched right next to a railroad sidetrack where several freight cars had been parked.During the play, the kids, who had been peacefully watching the show, suddenly leaped to their feet and ran outside the tent.  They had heard the sound of an engine pulling up to haul the parked railroad cars away.  Suddenly, they remembered that they hadn't driven the rear tent stakes into the ground.  Instead, to save time, they had simply tied the tent ropes to the railroad cars.Fortunately, they were able to untie them seconds before the engine pulled the tent down.  "That was a close one!" Goober recalled.

Despite the critic's poison pens, the drunks, and the smart alecks, the theater troupes continued to travel across the country.Even though the tent shows usually traveled in wagons and later in trains and cars, some of the less-fortunate troupes sometimes turned toward a more primitive method of moving from town to town - they walked.  Luke Cosgrave, who worked with the F. W. and Grace George Company, remembered a trip they took through New Mexico.  Mr. George had decided that along with Luke and another man, he would go through the mountains on foot, while the female troupe members, accompanied by one other man, would ride around the mountain in their wagon.  Their intent was to arrive in Kingston before the wagon, and put up the show's advertising posters.  They should get there in plenty of time. After all, they calculated that taking the path through the mountain range would save them seventy-two miles over the wagon's circular journey.

They set out enthusiastically, passing a couple of broken-down sheds as they began their hike.  As they trudged along throughout the day and into the early evening, they began to look for a place to rest.  Peering through the dusky light, their eyes suddenly popped wide open.Together, they stared desolately at two distant buildings.  In the dim light, just a few hundred feet away, stood the same two broken down sheds they had left earlier in the morning.  They had apparently spent the entire day walking in a huge circle.

Unfortunately, their journey didn't improve much.  Hopelessly lost, they spent days wandering around, finally coming upon a cabin with chickens in the yard.No one was home, so the starving actors killed two of the chickens and cooked them. They polished off the meal with a bowl of custard they had found on the kitchen table.  Then they wrote a thank you note, and left free tickets for their show, on the table.  On the fifth day of their journey, they ran across five men leading three ponies.  The men told them they had been sent out by a traveling theater troupe that had reached Kingston two days earlier.They were "looking for some show fellows," they explained, "who might have missed the trail."

Traveling by wagon was preferable to walking, but in some cases,  not much better.Showman Herb Walters remembers moving a dramatic show by wagon in 1915. They left Kansas City on the first of June, after an extremely rainy spring.The rains, unfortunately, would continue throughout the entire summer.  "The weeds in the field were taller than the crops..." he recalled.Pools of water hid hazardous sinkholes, and a lot of the bridges had been washed out.  They would set out early in the morning while the rain was pouring down.  "At that time of the day," Walters said,  "we could move better than we could later in the day when the sun came out, and partially dried the roads..."  When the mud began to dry, it would stick to the wheels, forming huge mud tires that the straining horse couldn't budge.

Somehow, despite the "mud tires," the "incessant spitting of tobacco," the "inflating and deflating bosoms," and all the rest, the early theater just kept rolling along.They brought a "touch of class" to the rowdy west.Rawboned frontiersmen would attempt to show their families they could become sophisticated theatergoers for a few hours. Sun-dried farmers would walk away from their rusty plows and mules and put on their Sunday best for an evening of big-city culture.  Not only did the troupes bring the theater to the frontier, they also brought the frontier to the theater.  The growth of the country was documented in the scripts of the early plays. Indian characters, for example,  were first depicted as fearless noble savages.As the mood of the country changed, they soon transformed into barbaric villains.

As the pioneers moved further west, rough-cut heroes like Ralph Stackpole, walked the stage.  "Roarin' Ralph, the ring-tailed screamer," as he called himself, would proudly march across in buckskin clothes and a coonskin cap.  Afraid of "nothing that walks, crawls, swims, or flies," he would tackle everything from treacherous savages to grizzly bears.  As the bear-fighting backwoodsmen began to fade from popularity,they were replaced by the new heroes of the "wild west."Buffalo Bill Cody, Deadwood Dick and other early western heroes brought the open-air excitement of life on the prairie to the stage.  Later on, the "cowboy" became the leading man.  And not just the honest sheriff or the hard-working cowpuncher.Even the bad guys became popular heroes.  Actor Walter Woods toured the theater circuit for twelve years,  playing Billy the Kid.

Years later, as the country began to mature and settle down, the honest hard-working farmer took his turn as the leading man.During this period, one of the truly American theatrical characters made his appearance.  This character, called a "Toby" comedian, was a coarse but shrewd country boy who loved to get one over on the visiting city slicker.  Like Billy the Kid, Deadwood Dick, Roarin' Ralph,  and the others, however, Toby and his friends would also be replaced.  This time, however, their replacements wouldn't come strutting across the stage bragging about killing bears and fighting savages.  Instead, they would flow invisibly through the air or flicker quietly across a dark room.

One of the stand-ins waiting in the wings, was that new squawking gadget that most of the tent show performers were certain was just a passing novelty.  After all, nobody would be satisfied to simply hear the actor's voices.  What would they watch?  Nevertheless, radio was slowly but surely beginning to reach out and pull potential theater-goers out of the dusty tents and back into the comfort of their own living rooms.

The tent showmen also felt confident that they had won the competition with another "passing fancy" - motion pictures.  Granted, the new creation had at first hurt their business and had even run them out of their nice warm opera houses.But they had managed to outlast the fleeting novelty.  After all, how long would the public be satisfied with the flickering pictures and their silly subtitles?  But then came the final blow.  Those silent little characters on the screens decided to start talking.  Now the public would have voices to go along with their silver-screen heroes.  And they wouldn't have to wait until the country's best actors came wheeling into their little towns.  They could lean back, in indoor comfort, and watch them right up there on the screen.

The wife of tent repertoire actor Chick Boyes remembers the first time she saw this new competitor.  She was in Chicago with her husband, during the late twenties.  They had decided to visit a theater that had advertised a very unusual treat.  As they were watching a typical silent film, suddenly, on the screen, a dog barked.  Her husband knew the significance of that solitary little bark.  Chick suddenly turned to her with a serious face.  "That dog's bark," he said prophetically,  "may be the end of us."


I hope you enjoyed the story.  If you have time, please leave a comment.  Thank you!

Submitted: July 27, 2020

© Copyright 2021 Dennis L. Goodwin. All rights reserved.

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