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Sentinel - Tribune , Tuesday, July 7, 1959

Summer Nights Stalked By Melodrama In Dear Dead Days of Old Time Tent Shows By Minniebelle Conley

Warm summer nights in the 20's and 30's, and even in the 40's, the big tent stood waiting.

In the gentle twilight, from all directions came burned farmers, soaped and slicked, their tired wives and eager children; girls and their beaus; and the town folk. They paid their 10-,20- or 30-cents admission and crowded inside. To the breezeless top of the hard circus seats they climbed. The privileged sat on equally hard reserved chairs in the center. They talked and fanned.

The footlights came on. The bare bulbs over the audience went out, and the magic began. Outside hovered the humdrum. Inside melodrama stalked the stage.

The Kinsey Komedy Company had come to town for a weeklong stand. The tent stood on a vacant lot in any one of a score of Ohio towns, large and small.

O'Man River had his show boats. But Ohio had her tent shows.

For 66 years Ohio's "biggest dramatic show under canvas," as it was billed, was the now long defunct Kinsy [sic] Komedy Kompany. Kathryn Kinsey Travis, whose father, Morris L. Kinsey, originated the company, is for the present living in Bowling Green. Kathryn played child parts in the shows and later comedy roles as well as being pianist. Her theatrical career began when she was so tiny her father gave her cues by squeezing her hand when it was time for her to say her lines.

The summertime visit of the Kinsey Komedy Kompany to Bowling Green, and many other Ohio towns, was an annual event. In Bowling Green the company leased the lot at the corner of Pearl St., and Buttonwood Ave. Every night for a week, no matter how hot the weather, the audience packed the tent to the top.

Mrs. Kinsey, who played leads in the beginning, left the show twice, just long enough for Madge and Kathryn to be born. In a couple of weeks she was back. During the show that babies slept in the traditional theatrical trunk trays, even to the third generation. For trunks also cradled both Madge's and Kathryn's daughters. Madge had two and Kathryn one. Kathryn married Jimmy Travis, the company's leading man. Madge's husband, Harry Graf, was an electrician with the company for a time.

When the original company "folded its tents... and silently stole away." Madge formed her own company. She starred in it until 1952, when it also took its last bow. Outdoor movies, radio and television played the finale for the tent show. The day of the thriller and tearjerker was over.

"They were terrible things, utter corn now," Kathryn laughs in recollection. "But" she adds seriously, "we never did anything risque that the whole family couldn't see." Parents and children flocked to the shows together. And who wouldn't have? In the first years admission was 10-cents a head. Later it was 10, 20 or 30 cents. Ten, twent' and thirt' shows they were called. During World War I the price climbed to 47 cents for adults.


For this expenditure the audience was treated to such dramatic offerings as "Lena Rivers," "East Lynn," "Why Girls Leave Home," "Tempest and Sunshine," "Dora Thorne," "The Count of Monte Cristo," "Graustark," "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and "Ten Nights in a Barroom." to mention a few. "Ten Nights" was usually given Friday night. Saturday nights came the "Toby" shows, or rural comedies. Kathryn was the angelic Little Eva in "Uncle Tom's Cabin," until she grew too big. Then she made up in blackface and played Topsy. This was her start in comedy roles.

Between acts small Madge and Kathryn did singing and dancing specialties. As they grew up they and other members of the cast alternated in specialties while the scenery was changed.

In April the show went into rehearsal for two or three weeks before taking to the road. At first week stands were played. Later the schedule was two weeks. Six shows a week were offered. New shows were added every year. At one time the company had a repertoire of 65 to 70 shows. Winters the show went into theatres as a stock company. In Toledo they played the old Arcade, Palace and Coliseum.

Mr. Kinsey died when Kathryn was three. But Mrs. Kinsey continued to operate the company. "Mother was a fireball!" smiles Kathryn. Her second husband, Frank Miller became the show's manager. As the years went by Mrs. Kinsey went from leads to character parts. In later years she was "out in front" selling tickets and managing the finances, while her daughters succeeded her on the stage.

The show first traveled by train. Buying 25 tickets entitled the troupe to a baggage car for the scenery and trucks. They carried a loader who packed the car expertly. One time when he was ill he had literally to be snatched from his bed to load the overflow piled on the baggage platform. The car was then unpacked and repacked with professional know how. The company later traveled by truck and automobile.

The show carried 8 to 10 people. "Everyone helped to put up the tent and drive stakes," Kathryn recalls. Eventually they carried helpers.

True to theatrical tradition that "the show must go on," go on it did, hot weather, cold weather, "come rain or come shine." Except in the hill towns of southern Ohio when the tent stood on low ground and the show was rained out. "Then we'd tell them, 'No more show tonight! Come back tomorrow!' " Kathryn remembers.

Wind storms were the worst. "Sometimes we'd have to stop the show and have the audience sing to stop panic." Kathryn shakes her head at the recollection. "I've seen the center poles jump two or three feet! We had several blowdowns after the audience had left but by an act of God we never had a tent come down on them," she says thankfully.

When wind ripped the tent apart, women of the neighborhood would come to the lot and help patch it. "They'd sit in the sun and sew and talk." Kathryn smiles a little tenderly at the recollection. A glimpse behind the scenes into the glamorous world of make - believe, it was fun, and a little exciting, for the housewives to know the "show folks" personally.

Kathryn received a musical education that included study at the Eastman School of Music. She also played by ear and at 14 she unpremeditatedly became the the [sic] show's pianist. The regular man piano player was so indisposed one night he did not recover in time for the performance. "Kathryn," ordered her mother, "get out there and play!" Kathryn did. And from then on the Kinsey Komedy Kompany never hired a pianist. They had Kathryn! Everybody in the show "doubled" in something anyway.

The two girls were educated in boarding schools part of the time. Fostoria was the family headquarters and Kathryn, who was staying with friends went through the 6th, 7th, and 8th grades there while the show was playing winter stock in Toledo. Since she retired in 1949 she and her daughter have been living in Fostoria. Now Kathryn expects soon to open as pianist in a Toledo night club. In the meantime she is staying with an old friend. Miss Dell Bigelow, 124 N. Enterprise St.

The tent show gave audiences their ten, twent', and thirt' money's worth -- after the show came the concert for an extra 10 cents or so! At first the concert closed the Saturday night farewell performance -- the postscript to the love affair between audience and "the show." As the show grew in success and popularity the songs, dances and comedy skits were a nightly parting gesture.

The show was not only a family affair, but the company's other actors and actresses became almost a part of the family. The cast rarely changed. Paul Brady, who stayed with the company 28 years, began as a leading man and ended his acting career in character parts.

Ohio had other tent shows. Every state had them. Some of the best known Ohio ones were the Harry Shannon company, which also played both under canvas and in the old Chidester Theater here, and the Jack Walker Show. The Minelli Brothers played on the lot back of the Ridge St. School. Vincent Minelli, Hollywood director and husband of Judy Garland, took his first theatrical steps on the tent show stage. A native of Delaware, O., Mr. Minelli as a boy played Bowling Green in his father's and uncle's tent show.

Then show devotees were the romance, adventure and emotion - hungry folk of a simpler day. They suffered with the heroine, thrilled when the leading man took her in his arms and called her "little girl," hissed the villain, wept when Little Eva died and went to Heaven, and felt every lash on Uncle Tom's back -- all with uninhibited applause.

With garish scenery and flamboyant acting, the tent show spelled enchantment to a less sophisticated and more tranquil world. Gone the way of the show boat, the Chautauqua and the circus, it too, is another piece of picturesque Americana.




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