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The Madge Kinsey Players open in Van Wert, Ohio, for a midsummer evening's entertainment. Tent shows are often the only "live" talent small towns ever see

Pix #2 - Dorie Field of the Kinsey Players and some of her puppets. She's checking the phony hen that lays a phony egg. (Photo unavailable - if anyone has access to this article and the photo, please contact Carol Wangler cwangler@wcnet.org)


Madge Kinsey Graf, once billed as the "Phenomenal Child Artist," has trouped all her life.

Otto Imig, second from left below, plays thepopular "Toby" role in a Kinsey scene

 

HITS in the TALL CORN By VANCE JOHNSON (Collier's for August 20, 1949)

Long ago Broadway and Hollywood posted the death notice for the repertory theater, but out in the great midlands tent shows are still playing to standing room only.

The author, a Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, has been a newspaperman for 20 years. He has been interested in tent shows ever since the day he saw the Sadler company as a boy in Texas.

This summer, out in the "tall grass country," a grand old American institution long since given up for dead by Broadway and Hollywood is still going strong. It is the repertory theater.

Generally it holds forth under a gaudy red and blue tent like the big top of the circus, appears every Monday morning in perhaps half a hundred small cities and towns in the heart of America, stays for a week, offers a new play "each and every evening," and moves on.

Repertory's custodians are a sturdy band of professionals who have been beating the hinterland trail for well over a quarter of a century regardless of depression and war. While Broadway mourns for the "days that were" and nearly every season launches a highly publicized but singularly unsuccessful attempt to "revive" repertory, and while earnest and artful--and subsidized--groups struggle mightily to "keep the drama alive" in old barns, circular theaters and the like, these hardy troupers go about their business as if no one had ever questioned their likelihood of success.

With them, repertory is not a lark or an experiment; it is an established, regular and profitable way of life. They just set up their tents on vacant lots, school campuses and fair grounds in Ohio, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Nebraska, Texas and a few other near-by states and watch the quarters and half dollars roll in.

On a hot evening last summer, when I caught up with the Schaffner Players at Lewistown, Missouri, I found them playing to an audience that outnumbered the population of the town by at least 300. A week later, at Goodland, Indiana (population 1,000), I saw another company doing the same thing. Fully, 1,300 people who had come for miles around the town were watching the antics of two of their favorite comedians, "Toby" and Ora Slout.

In Quincy, Illinois, a city of 40,000 which saw its last legitimate theater converted into a movie house nearly two decades ago, seats for the Schaffner show were so hard come by this summer that queues started forming in the middle of the afternoon. Hundreds had to be turned away.

In these towns, repertory is an old and respected friend. Schaffner, Slout, the Roberson-Gifford Players in Wisconsin, Bisbee's Comedians in Tennessee and many others have played the same towns year after year for a quarter of a century. This year the Madge Kinsey Payers in Ohio are celebrating their 61st year of repertory; this in the 44th year for the Harry O. Brown Players in Wisconsin, the 40th year for Harry Hugo in Nebraska and the 38th year for Jack and Maud Brooks in Wisconsin.

Madge Kinsey Graf, the lighthearted, shrewd, reigning queen of the Kinsey clan, was billed as "Baby Madge, Phenomenal Child Artist" in her father's Kinsey Komedy Kompany in 1901. She hasn't missed a season since and she fully expects the Kinsey name to go trouping up and down the Ohio for at least two more generations. She expects her daughters and sons-in-law--Betty and Jack Murdock and Jean and Pep Graves--to step into the management before too many years. And just before the season opened this year Betty presented her with a grandson who unquestionably soon will become another "phenomenal child artist."

Most of the tent shows travel over a relatively small "established territory," moving 30 to 40 miles every Sunday night. With a few exceptions, none of them travels more than about 1,200 mile a season.

All of the managers and many of the married performers live in house trailers on the show lots, and in the smaller towns the others usually find lodging in private residences. During a weeks stand they get to know the "towners" well and more than a few lasting friendships are made.

A Tent Showman's Farewell Tour

Many tent show performers are as revered in their territories as John Barrymore ever was on Broadway. When Harley Sadler, a famous Texas tent showman, made his farewell tour a couple of years ago--retiring after 30--banquets and luncheons were given in his honor almost everywhere he stopped.

In Littlefield, Texas, he was greeted by a group of dignitaries who had flown there in private planes from all over the state. At Lubbock, the merchants gave him a $500 gold watch.

"I can't do business with you any more," a candy salesman complained to Sadler one day. "You're always holding court."

The sale of prize candy is a standard procedure with all tent shows. Sadler's candy spiel was typical.

"You never can tell what you will get out of this candy," he would say. "Two years ago a boy and a girl found prize coupons in their candy. The boy's called for a pair of lady's hose and the girl's called for a safety razor. I suggested that they exchange, which they did-and that was how they met. They got married and last night they came to the show. With them was a bouncing baby boy. You never can tell what you will get out of this candy."

Literally hundreds of young married couples who first entered Sadler's "tent theater beautiful" in their parents' arms have brought their own children to see his plays. In Lewistown I heard three different people tell Neil Schaffner they had not missed a single performance of his show in the 26 years he had played their town.

In most of the towns "tent show week" is something like fair week or an especially long community picnic. The shows are a combination of circus, carnival, variety hall and legitimate theater. Except for the "dramatic end," which houses the stage, the tent resembles a circus tent. The seats are only as soft as the pine out of which they are made; candy, popcorn and peanuts are as much as part of the show as the actors.

Twenty years ago nearly all of the shows carried a band which played for a street parade and a concert in front of the tent. Most of them still have orchestras (the actors double in brass) and all still offer vaudeville between the acts. An extra-price "concert" after the main show is standard.

But with all of them the play always has been, and still is, the mainspring.

In the second decade of the century, as the movies began to take over opera houses, the resident companies merely transferred their standard repertories to a canvas theater. All of them played such familiar numbers as East Lynne, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Over the Hill to the Poorhouse, and Lena Rivers. But often they aspired to finer things. Ben Howe, an old-time rep actor who now manages an apartment house in Chicago, says he once played Damon and Pythias on a tent show stage.

In 1904, when Sarah Bernhardt got into a row with the owners of a string of theaters in Texas, she rented a big tent and completed her tour under it. She played Camille in French at a top of $2. The Sport North Company, a tent repertory company which toured Kansas and Texas every summer until 1920 (then Ted North, son of one of the brothers, took over for the next 19 years), followed Bernhardt with Camille in English at a 50-cent top--and did turnaway business.

When the old favorites were worn thin, many of the companies lifted successful New York plays outright. It is said that one Chicago "play bureau" cleaned up by sending stenographers to the theater to take down the dialogue of the new plays, doing a slight rewrite and selling the scripts to tent show managers. But, as audiences became more exacting and the dangers of copyright infringement became greater, most of the companies turned exclusively to royalty plays.

Because many of the traveling troupes were small, gave cheap plays on tiny stages, under bare white lights and before single, "diamond dye" sets (scenery which could be folded for easy transport), Broadway considered tent repertory an uncouth and insignificant part of the American theater. But in their heyday--from about 1917 to 1930--many of the better tent shows went to great expense to give their audiences settings, stage effects and acting which would have been a credit to any theater anywhere in the country.

Managers of the large tent troupes, which had companies ranging from 40 to 75 people, made annual pilgrimages to New York and Chicago to keep up to date on settings, lighting and other technical aspects of the theater. Many of the new techniques they saw were promptly put to use under canvas. A few years ago, Pearle Wilson, who acted in tent repertory for more than 30 years (with Murphy's Comedians, Sadler and other first-rate companies), went to New York for the first time in several seasons. Naturally she "caught" most of the hit plays. What she saw amazed her.

"I went to Harvey and Oklahoma!, among others," she said. "The way some of the minor roles were played was a disgrace to the profession, and a good tent show never would have permitted lighting like they had in Oklahoma!--where the actors threw shadows on the backdrop, which was a field of grain. I felt so let down!"

Road Life Wasn't Too Bad

Because a good number of the shows were on the road 40 to 50 weeks a year and because working conditions were good, pay regular and living costs in the small towns low, managers found little difficulty in obtaining competent performers in the early years of repertory. Many of them, particularly married couples, preferred a long season oat $40 to $50 a week to the gamble of frequent separations and long periods of unemployment in New York. And as the movies replaced vaudeville, the better tent shows attracted many a headline act.

During the twenties, several of the tent shows gave creditable performances of such New York successes as "Rain, The Old Soak, Lightnin', The Goose Hangs High, The Cat and The Canary, Applesauce. The Gorilla, and Up in Mabel's Room. But the standard fare, then and now, was a light, popular comedy built around the antics of a redheaded, freckle-faced country bumpkin invariably known as Toby.

The Toby character is quite as old as the English-speaking stage. William in Shakespeare's As You Like It and Abel Drugger in Ben Jonson's The Alchemist were Tobies. But tent showmen generally agree that it was Frederick R. Wilson of Oklahoma who made Toby a hero.

As the story goes, one night in Louisiana Wilson appeared as Toby Haxton in Clouds and Sunshine. The next night he was Toby Green In Out of the Fold--and boys on the street began calling him Toby. When the time came for Won by Waiting, in which Wilson played Bud, he renamed the character Toby. Before long he was known far and wide as "Toby" Wilson, and most other repertory comedians followed his example of making the character a standard feature in every comedy. "Rep" playwrights could not turn out "Toby plays" fast enough to meet the demand.

Because of their tremendous popularity with rural and small-town audiences, "Toby comedians" became indispensable members of every tent repertory company, so much so that more than one company was thrown on the rocks when its comedian quit in a huff. Many of the Tobies, including Sadler, Schaffner and Wilson, started their own shows and many a manager became a Toby in self-defense.

Although almost all Tobies still wear a red wig, affect freckles, peaked eyebrows and a raspberry mouth, and indulge in the most grotesque costumes, Toby necessarily is a different kind of bumpkin in every part of the country. L. Verne "Toby" Slout goes in for slapstick. "Boob" Brasfield, Bisbee's veteran comedian, and Neil Schaffner rely on comic situations, pantomime and surprise for their laughs. Both ad-lib freely and like nothing better than to "break up" another member of the cast, getting everybody on stage and off laughing together.

Other Tobies rely heavily on gag lines and still others--like Otto Imig, the quiet, unassuming comic who has been a mainstay of the Madge Kinsey Players for 15 years--play what might be described as a "sympathetic Toby." Situations and bits of business which Schaffner and "Denny" Dennis wow them with in Iowa would fall flat if Brasfield used them in Tennessee, and vice versa. Words and actions have to be suited to the locale.

Over the years this has necessitated a great deal of rewriting of the standard Toby plays, and many others as well to make them more suitable vehicles for cast and territory. Corn belt colloquialisms are not at all funny in Tennessee and the dry cow-country witticisms which send the customers rolling in Texas are almost incomprehensible to Ohio farmers or factory workers.

Time has Matured Toby

Moreover, because the Toby comedians have grown older every year--most of them are now past fifty--the Toby character has had to grow up from the impertinent, precocious boy of two decades ago to the bumbling, homely hired hand of today.

Many repertory managers have written, produced, directed and acted in a high percentage of their plays. Often it is difficult to recognize a play after a half dozen managers have reworked it to get in local color and comedy situations, and to make the characters fit the cast at hand.

Because of this, the tent show probably is the nearest thing we have to a genuine American folk theater.

Some actor-manager-writers have sought to do serious work. But light entertainment always has been, and still is, the main objective of the tent show.

"Our mission," says Neil Schaffner, "is to bring laughter and forgetfulness to thousands of people whose lives are drab and unexciting, made up mostly of tragedy and care."

The tent shows dish out corn by the stageful. The wrongdoer always must be foiled and virtue must triumph. J. B. Rotnour, veteran Illinois tent showman says, "The more hokum we give them, the better."

But a great concentration of corn, the tent showmen argue, does not necessarily mean an absence of good theater. Some of the most beloved figures of the entertainment world have been successful purveyors of corn--Ed Wynn and the late W. C. Fields, to mention a couple.

"People don't come to tent shows for an uplift or to hear a penetrating commentary on some of the foibles of our society," says Schaffner. "They come to have a good time."

A former president of the University of Texas, who was an inveterate Sadler fan, once put it in more homely terms, "I don't come here to think--I come here for a belly laugh."

"You must remember," says Schaffner, "that a tent show audience is made up of children and adults, farmers and factory workers, doctors and professors. You have to please them all--and in doing it you must work against all kinds of distraction, from crying babies to the rustling of popcorn sacks. Consequently, tent show plays have got to have a lot of plot. Speeches have to be short, and their points obvious. Action has to be fast and it must never hesitate."

The truth of this observation was proved painfully a couple of years ago by a group which started out from Tennessee for a tour of the South and Southwest with an "all-Broadway" repertoire: Arsenic and Old Lace, Kiss and Tell and Over 21. It was one of the most sensational flops in recent theatrical history.

"Not one day have we come anywhere near cracking the nut (making expenses)." Joe McKinnon wrote to the trade paper Billboard. "In eight weeks we have showed to less than 4,000 paid admissions and our (nightly) seating capacity is more than 1,600."

The fact that these plays, successes on Broadway and in the large cities of the Middle West and East, failed in the South and Southwest when presented under canvas was undoubtedly due to the basically different tastes of the respective audiences, but one of the major problems facing the tent show managers is maintaining the quality of their productions.

The Troupe That Failed

I know of one rather ill-assorted troupe with an indifferent kind of repertoire, which failed miserably when it tried recently to take over the "established territory" vacated by a first-rate tent repertory company whose manager had retired. The show drew big crowds on opening nights but attendance fell steadily thereafter. There could have been only one answer--the poor quality of its offering.

The play is the big rub. By the end of the war most of the writers who had produced "standard rep" plays had turned to writing for other mediums, or to selling shoes.

Broadway plays on the whole have become less and less suited for tent repertory's family audience. But even those which are suitable cannot be had anymore for anything like the royalties tent showman can afford.

Tent repertory always has been a "popular price" field, with a top of not more than 60 cents for reserved seats. While some of the larger shows may gross more than $125,000 a season, the box-office take for the average show's season is probably something less than $60,000.

Last year Schaffner offered Brock Pemberton $1,000 for the right to play Harvey one night a week for 20 weeks--a figure probably double anything any tent show ever paid for a Broadway hit--and Pemberton did not even reply.

This summer all of the tent shows are featuring old "standard rep" bills rewritten to "make them fit present-day audiences," or new plays "put together from old, sure-fire ingredients" by members of their companies.

Slout has redone a play, Whittlin' which he wrote 25 years ago when he was doing Lyceum and Chautauqau work. He now calls it A Doctor Falls in Love. Bisbee has revived a popular tent repertory play of the 1929 season, Tildy Ann.

Next to getting a play, the biggest problem confronting the shows is a steady shrinkage of willing and available talent. Many shows dropped by the wayside in the dreary 1930s and during the war. Consequently, a lot of people who had looked on repertory as a career had to find other means of livelihood.

Stars Began in Tent Shows

In earlier days it was not unusual for a performer to move from tent repertory to more cosmopolitan glory. The late Jeanne Eagles, who originated the role of Sadie Thompson in Rain, was a graduate of the Dubinsky tents in Missouri and Oklahoma; Warner Baxter got his start in the North brothers; Jennifer Jones and Jimmy Wakely, the horse-opera hero, got their first professional jobs in Sadler's show and Michael North, who has been giving the bobbysoxers heart throbs, grew up in father Ted's tent show.

But today, though the tent shows each year do attract a few talented amateurs and an occasional dramatic school graduate, few of the youngsters who might profit from a few summers under canvas are interested. Today only two shows--Bisbee's and Brunks's Comedians--are out as long as 35 weeks and although pay is good (up to $175 a week for a team) the short season is unattractive to many who otherwise might be willing to troupe.

Tent repertory still exists, it seems, because a few hardy professionals are willing to skimp through the winter clerking in stores, picking up occasional "school dates" or night-club turns and because vaudeville performers, who sing on for between-the-acts specialties, are willing to take a whirl at parts.

Back in the twenties, a tent show could be put on the road for three to four thousand dollars. Now a truck to haul the tent costs nearly that much (Bisbee values his equipment at $48,000) and few young men are willing to take the financial risk, much less endure the great amount of hard, physical work involved in running a tent show. Only three or four new shows have entered the field since the end of the war.

Nevertheless, "tent repsters," as Billboard calls them, are far from pessimistic. They laugh at talk that the movies put them on the skids and that television will finish the job.

Pictures gave me an awful run for the first few years and gradually shut me out of some good time," says Rotnour, "but in the last two years they have taken an awful flop over my territory while I have gone right on, playing in towns of 700 to 10,000 population with audiences of 300 to 800 per evening."

Some tent show managers report that, while they have "packed 'em in" this summer, movie houses running in competition to them have had only "fair" business. Last summer in Missouri, when at least 1,200 people were watching Schaffner's peripatetic Toby, I checked the movie house across the square which was playing a first-run picture featuring a well-known star. All but three seats were empty.

It has been estimated that upwards of five million people, perhaps more, will witness tent show plays during the 1949 season. As long as that many paying customers are in sight it is hard to convince tent show people that repertory is making its last stand. The End