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Kansas History

19th Century Kansas Traveling Shows

by Patrick Joseph O'Connor

Around one hundred years ago, the Marx Brothers were touring on a small-time vaudeville circuit. According to Groucho, when they played a Nacogdoches, Texas theater "full of big ranchers in ten-gallon hats, and a few small ranchers in five gallon hats," their audience suddenly dashed out into the street. Learning that the cause of this exodus was a mule creating havoc, they went wild themselves. All of the frustrations and hardships they had been made to endure on the grueling tour came out. When the mule's show was over and the Texans returned, they found the Marx Brothers yelling and going crazy, burlesquing their own act and throwing in a few insults about the Lone Star State. The audience loved it, as did succeeding Texas towns. It could be said that the Marx Brothers' style was born that day.[1]

Vaudeville was a variety program featuring several acts consisting of acrobats, comics, skits, vocalists, magicians, celebrities from the legitimate stage, and those from real life. There were single performances, the standard two shows a day, or continuous vaudeville running from ten in the morning until eleven at night. Many radio and television stars became successful in the two-a-day: Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Al Jolson, Mickey Rooney, (all of whom played Wichita's Orpheum Theatre) as well as Fred Astaire, Buddy Ebsen, Jimmy Durante, and W.C. Fields. Fields was supposed to play Wichita in 1928 on a show with Moran and Mack which was touring the South and Midwest. Fields, late of the Ziegfeld Follies and silent films, insisted on top billing. When the billing was reversed in Wichita, Fields left the show.

Ethnic humor was freely allowed on the vaudeville stage until such minorities organized enough to pressure theater managers. These included the Chicago Anti-Stage Ridicule Committee and the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a group of Irish emigrants. As a result of this, vaudeville eventually had to provide something for everyone and be on guard not to offend anyone. It was "the first institution to face the dilemma of modern mass entertainment."[2]

The power of traveling shows to alter perceptions was noted by Marshall Beuick writing in a theatrical journal in 1925. "The majority of vaudeville entertainers occupy the role of opinion circulators and supporters of established opinion, besides being transmitters of their personal relations to life."[3] He went on to condemn vaudeville's mindless sketches and lowbrow humor, sounding very much like critics of television today.

A primary factor in the composition of the medium was the surge in immigration that occurred around the turn of the last century. Comic characters followed the pattern of immigration. The original two-man acts were in blackface so to be able to portray blacks in look and dialect as practiced in the earlier minstrel shows. They later worked as blackface comic and white straight man. The next team to win favor was the double Irish, followed by straight man and Irish comic. Then there was Double Deutsch, which is what German teams were called.

Joe Laurie Jr., a performer, stressed the changing tastes of the public. The exaggerated costume and thick accents of the minority and immigrant groups gave way to the comic being dressed the same as the straight man, with a funny hat or something similar to distinguish him.[4]

Sophie Tucker recognized the role the new citizens played in vaudeville. "We all sprang from the same source, the same origin. We were all swept to the shores of this country on the same tidal wave of immigration, in the same flight from prejudice and persecution. Our life stories are pretty much the same."

This eloquent summing up gives an accurate assessment of the mood of the country�everybody was in motion; those who had come from Europe or those who had moved to territory west; or those whose parents had done so and who were busily engaged in assimilation with the new common culture that was America. Vaudeville served the purpose of bringing the country together, by making fun of those newly arrived or those far from urban sophistication. While such merrymaking might be thought to be cruel�many of the sketches were brutal�it is important to remember that many of those in the audience were newly arrived themselves. It was the mass audience that vaudeville served, for the most part. The individual acts of balance, wit, and other talents took the people away from the hardship and loneliness of their existence, though such hardship in freedom of opportunity was more easily endured than that life offered them in the repressive regimes or crowded tenements they left behind.

Vaudeville gave the new citizens in the urban centers a sense of commonality. While the black might be made fun of in one era, the Irish, Italian, or Jew were sure to be next. No one group was immune and in this a healthy acceptance was formed, for all were becoming Americans. This stage-aided melding process was lost for the most part in the touring shows that played the Midwest; for though there were a few immigrant communities of foreign origin, most of the audience came to see the sights and entertainments of the urban population. The Midwest patrons, for the most part, were the establishment.

Opera Houses

"Between 1870 and the turn of the century, over 75 opera houses in Kansas served as cultural centers for their communities, offering professional and amateur entertainment."[5] The houses offered "traveling lectures, impersonators, theatre companies, hypnotists, masters of the black arts and psychic phenomenon, puppet shows, vocal and instrumental soloists and local musical and theatrical groups."[6] Emporia is one of Kansas' major cities and its Whitley Opera House was a fine example; yet much smaller communities supported opera houses.

Most of these opera houses contained businesses in the first floor. The Whitley was located on Sixth Avenue and Merchant Street in a city that was serviced by several railways, enabling people from surrounding towns to see the shows. The Opera House was 65 feet wide, ninety feet long, and sixty feet deep. It could accommodate 1000, which when it opened, made the Whitley the largest house in the state. It had a third level balcony and was ornately decorated throughout, costing $35,000 to construct.

Admission was ten, twenty, and thirty cents for local shows and up to one dollar for touring productions. In addition to theatrical use, the Whitley was used for high school commencement, meetings of fraternal organizations, and tours of bands, including John Phillip Sousa's. The Opera House burned in 1913 for a total loss.

The Whitley by then had seen years of touring shows; she was showing her age. A sign nailed on the wall near the actors' dressing room read: "We know the house is rotten. How about your show?" It is interesting to note that the loss of the Whitley prompted Emporia to establish a paid fire department.

In the beginning, the house was used with amazing regularity, putting on such national touring productions as Uncle Tom's Cabin and Davy Crockett. Though the fare was usually drama, a few lectures on the supernatural, ornithology, and ventriloquism could be taken in. In October, 1883, the Heywood Mastodon Minstrels played the Whitley, as did Hyer's Colored Musical Comedy company. Both were good for one day each. The Georgia Minstrels, organized in 1865 by a black manager, played the Whitley in September of 1883.

In 1900, the shows offered at the Whitley were still predominantly theatrical: drama and comedy, though a few variety and minstrel shows were in evidence. No mention of vaudeville occurs until March, 1906 when the Huston-Franklin Orpheum Vaudeville Show did two dates. Minstrel shows, national and local, and variety programs were brought in far more often than vaudeville after that. Plays were the thing for Emporians. In September, 1912, the Martyne Sisters put on a vaudeville show which included motion pictures after their act.

Concordia's LaRocque Hall, built in 1877 and still standing, served as civic, music hall, and theater for 29 years. It was renovated over the years and eventually seated around seven hundred. The LaRocque was more of a meeting hall than a theater, though it was venue for some of the same touring troupes that played the Whitley.

Along with the plays, Concordians saw Swiss bell ringers, musical glass artists, other musicians, public orators, and demonstrations of hypnotism and ventriloquism. Medicine shows, minstrel shows, and a dog and pony show (November 29 & 30, 1897) also added to the bills. According to Peggy Doyen, most of the shows featured a free band concert in the street before the performance, serving to draw the crowds.[7] She notes that one troupe had an especially good parade going until the band instruments froze in the severe cold.

In 1907 the Brown Grand Opera House opened in Concordia. It is also very much in existence and can be toured. The Brown was on a par with the Whitley, seating slightly under a thousand. The seats on the main floor were of green leather and there was a large pin cushion where mammoth Victorian hats might be fastened during performances. Vaudeville is first listed in 1911, performed by the Jones and Whitten Stock Company. There are few listings after that. In 1925 the Brown was sold to the Concordia Amusement Company to be converted to a movie theater, later taking advantage of sound-on-film technology.

Emory Frank Scott treats the history of theatrical entertainment in the college town of Lawrence (Kansas University). Scott, who served as manager for the Orpheum in Lawrence in 1930, begins with the Bowersock Opera House, built in 1882. Along with touring troupes, the Bowersock saw many fraternity and sorority productions over the years. John L. Sullivan, bare knuckle heavyweight champion of the world, was on a personal appearance tour and came to the Bowersock after his reign (1882-1892). Unfortunately, he was at a pre-appearance social gathering and fell victim to at least one too many toasts. When he finally appeared at the Bowersock, there was some confusion at the stage door and the marshal was summoned. Sullivan was rescued from the Lawrence jail in time for his performance.[8]

The Bowersock burned to the ground in 1911. It was rebuilt with lavish Grecian decorative style and with electric lights. It was meant primarily for the stage and silent film. Birth of a Nation played there in 1915. Glen Dickinson, of the Dickinson Theater chain, purchased the Bowersock in 1925. A few years later the Bowersock had the first sound movie in Lawrence, The Canary Murder Case.

Scott writes that there were only three theaters in Lawrence in 1927-1928: the Bowersock, Varsity, and Patee. He notes that pit orchestras had been dispensed with. There was no need for musical accompaniment for sound-on-film, except in the large cities for vaudeville productions. This telling statement accurately assesses the fate of vaudeville on the Plains. The touring shows, only marginally popular, were easily replaced by talkies.

There was an open air theater in existence circa 1908 which featured film and vaudeville. The Airdome had bleachers and allowed the audience to bring their dogs. The owner, Lee Cohn, abandoned the roofless venue for the New Vaudeville Theatre. The New Vaudeville opened in 1914 with a five-piece orchestra and a real vaudeville bill:

Murphy's Educated Dogs "A Night in Dayton"
Brandon and Dun A great riot of singing, dancing and talking
Skinny Lamont the blackface comedian
Movie "A Leaf in The Story"

The vaudeville programs offended some Lawrence residents, particularly those connected with Kansas University. The consensus was that the entertainment was closer to that seen in Kansas City, notorious for burlesque. Perhaps as a result of this censure, the New Vaudeville Theater was sold a year later. It was renamed the Varsity and became a movie house.

In 1925 the Orpheum Theatre of Lawrence came into being in a building formerly known as the New Auditorium. It seated about 600 and had lesser films during the week with vaudeville programs on Friday and Saturday. The small theater could not attract big time acts and lasted only a few months. The Orpheum reopened after being wired for sound in 1930, a member of the Dickinson chain.

The Lyric Theatre was investigated by The World newspaper on January 17, 1908 for possibly being a fire trap. The newspaper found that since the theater had electric lights instead of acetylene gas, and a double door opening into the paved alley, "it is as safe as being in your own home or business." An ad in The World listed Professor W.H. Crawford, "the leading colored tragedian of the world" and boasted of "forging ahead with first class pictures and some specialties." Specialties were magic lantern slides or vaudeville acts.

Just about a month later the Lyric burned (!) and was rebuilt as the Grand which lasted about a year. This illustrates the difficulty the smaller theaters had in competing with the Bowersock and other large stages. Vaudeville was certainly a casualty in all this. Fires, public disapproval, and the small size of the city (around 10,000) which prevented obtaining many of the big time acts, were all a factor.

Wichita's Orpheum Theatre, part of the Orpheum Chain, was designed by John Eberson, a nationally known figure who created the atmospheric theater style. It opened on Labor Day, 1922. The September 3, 1922 Wichita Beacon featured a special six-page section on the Orpheum. There were many half-page ads from merchants congratulating the city for bringing the theater to town, as well as a detailed description.

"The entrance to the building is at the corner of First and Lawrence (later named Broadway). The ceiling of the lobby is carved in elaborate Spanish style in vivid colors of burnt orange, green, blue, old rose, and gray so well balanced that there is nothing gaudy or overdone about it.... On the north side of the lobby is the box office with cast iron grill in polychrome colors and art glass windows. Five pairs of doors to the east give entrance into the vestibule, the walls of which are ornamented in full-length glass mirrors. The floor of the foyer is carpeted in old rose which harmonizes perfectly with the decorations of the walls and ceiling...

�On the mezzanine there is a ladies retiring room, nursery, mens' smoking room and the offices of the manager. The sidewalls of the auditorium are treated to represent a garden wall of old stone, through which arches appear to lead outside. Reflected over the garden wall...are deep blue lights, creating the impression that one is looking out into the open night. The same effect is carried back of the roofs of Spanish houses in the balcony, and entirely across the arched ceiling of the main auditorium through which are seen twinkling stars."[9]

Five days into the first week, the reviews were less than glowing. A new show featured an act that was "nothing but a jazz orchestra. Since jazz orchestras are becoming slightly passé, the act fails to please, as it might have a year ago."

The September 8 Beacon went on to report there was ordinary soft shoe, and that one act on the bill had been to Wichita previously. The Orpheum dropped its admission price a few weeks later. Evidently the novelty of the sumptuous theater was beginning to wear off. The people would come to be entertained no matter how grand the setting, and filling the many seats required a constant effort.

The Orpheum showed movies through the summer of 1924, returning to vaudeville the last week in August. The Wichita Eagle review for the program of the week of September 14 was less than enthusiastic.

"Cissie Hayden's Mascots and Cervo and Moro offer the most entertainment. Bebe and Edwards, who assist the Mascots, do an especially good Apache dance. Cervo and Moro...play the accordion well. Two strong men give some effective poses on a platform and later show muscular ability. The other act is best for yodeling and the fact that the two singers seem to realize they offer nothing original. Bert Berstand and Gertrude Ralston have some chatter that might be good if it could get beyond the footlights."[10] A serial and newsreel completed the program.

The reviewer's opinion of the singers is rather telling�vaudeville was offering less originality, and appeared to be conscious of the fact. Like the jazz band the newspaper had found to be passé, vaudeville was becoming routine. By early 1929, the entertainment booked at the Orpheum had taken on a carnival air. Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton were booked to "dance, play musical instruments, and (do) other amusing stunts."[11]

By this time vaudeville shows were seen less and less, replaced by silent films, acting troupes and musical reviews which were booked for as long as they proved popular. The Orpheum closed in April, 1929 and reopened May 20 as a sound picture house. The days of weekly bills of vaudeville were over.

With the advent of sound-on-film in 1927, the demise of vaudeville was clear. Alexander Bakshy, drama critic for The Nation in the 1920s, put some of the blame on the chains.

"Much as they [the Keith and Orpheum circuits, as well as others] have encouraged talent in vaudeville, their policy of mass production, the very size of the organizations they developed, and the fact that they must cater to the interests and tastes of a large provincial audience could not fail to have [a] demoralizing effect on vaudeville."[12]

Certainly the Orpheum Theatre was being talked about here. This bit of province-bashing gives insight into the urban orientation of vaudeville. It was fast-paced, varied, and sought to take from each act that which was most notable. The cosmopolitan assemblage of the vaudeville stage accurately reflected the Eastern audiences. When vaudeville took the road through the Plains, its charm lay in the talented glimpse offered into big city life, of fad and fashion.

Gilbert states that vaudeville's essential function was as a critical, satirical summation in topical humor of the social, economic, and political trends of the times.[13] It was a different entertainment than that offered in plays, which was a medium much preferred by most of Kansas. The number of dramas and comedies performed in the cities analyzed as opposed to vaudeville and variety shows supports this.

From the beginning, vaudeville was looked at as an oddity, albeit a sophisticated one, as much as the minstrel shows and ventriloquism exhibitions. When the Orpheum came into being with its hope of pulling in the best vaudeville acts and filling the 1800 seats night after night, management found that the really good acts were not playing the Midwest as often. They remained in the urban centers where the audiences could be counted on to show up and to understand the basis of the performance; or they had fled to films.

Films later saved the Orpheum, allowing it to offer talkies in a marvelous setting and keeping it in the movie business into the 1970s. Vaudeville had but a seven-year run there. It was a grand attempt to match the fine theaters of the East and, like the Bowersock of Lawrence, the Whitley Opera House of Emporia, and the Brown Grand of Concordia, it gave residents of Kansas a place to experience beauty and the stirring properties of performance.

[1] John E. Dimeglio, Vaudeville U.S.A. (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1973), 191.

[2] Dimeglio, Vaudeville U.S.A., 45.

[3] Charles W. Stein, American Vaudeville As Seen By Its Contemporaries (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1984), 331.

[4] Joe Laurie, Jr. Vaudeville: From The Honkey-tonks To The Palace (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1953), 81.

[5]. Dimeglio, Vaudeville U.S.A., 60.

[6] Wichita Eagle and Beacon, April 30, 1967.

[7] Peggy Doyen, History of Theater in Concordia Concordia: n.p., 1969.

[8] Emory Frank Scott, One Hundred Years of Lawrence Theatres, (Lawrence, Kansas: House of Usher, 1979), 13.

[9] Wichita Beacon, September 3, 1922.

[10] Wichita Eagle, September 8, 1922.

[11] Wichita Beacon, September 14, 1928.

[12] Stein, American Vaudeville, 32.

[13] Douglas Gilbert, American Vaudeville (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1940), 385.

(Copyright © 2007, Pat O'Connor)

Also by Patrick J. O'Connor:
Cowboy Blues: Early Black Music In The West
Discovering Differences in the Blues: The Rural and Urban Genres
The Black Experience and the Blues in 1950s Wichita
Minstrel and Medicine Shows -- Creating a Market for the Blues
Site author: George Laughead, manager, WWW-VL: United States History network. Thanks to Lynn H. Nelson.

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