It was a time of horse-drawn carts that eventually were motorized, showboats that eventually got grounded, medicine shows that eventually got regulated to death. It was a time when tent-show performers could be born to the stage.
"I was born in February and our season started in April," recalls Betty Bryant, now 62. "I was six weeks old and since we were doing 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' that year, I was the baby that was carried across the ice. The next season, I did a specialty number, at 14 months. I worked every season after, never quit. When I got too big for the baby, I started being Little Eva and when I outgrew that I did Topsie and when I outgrew Topsie I played Liza and carried a doll across the ice."
"I done the same," adds Marcy Maynard; the only difference between the two is that Bryant performed on her father's Mississippi River showboat and Maynard with her family's horse-drawn show.
Maynard and Byrant are among the dozen tent-show performers participating in the annual Festival of American Folklife on the Mall. Through Sunday, this company of old-timers and one-liners will celebrate a theatrical tradition that reached its zenith in the '20s and '30s. It was a period when many different types of shows traveled under tents to the backwoods. Some observers make a case for tent shows being the link between small communities and mass culture as we know it today.
Medicine shows were one of the first times a free show was put on to sell a product. Many medicine companies sent shows on the road, or the pitchmen would make their own brew from herbs (and, rarely, alcohol). They all eventually succumbed to more stringent Food and Drug Administration laws, but it was television and the perfection of the automobile that provided the crowning blow to the tent shows, according to Steve Zeitland of the Smithsonian. "A time came when people could take their cars and go to an entertainment center in a big city; they didn't need to have the shows travel out. And then with television, people wouldn't go out of their houses when they could stay in their living room and watch it."
The tents were as varied as the performers. There were the showboats, the medicine shows, the more highbrow Chatauquas, minstrel shows, country music shows, the rep shows built around melodramas like "Ten Nights in a Barroom" or "Over the Hill to the Poorhouse." And everyone had a major role, like medicine pitchman Fred Foster Bloodgood, who strode the boards for 11 years before the tents folded 45 years ago. For a while he traveled with the carnivals and circuses as a geek show pitchman before becoming a salesman for Sperry Rand.
"There's not much difference between selling a calculator and patent medicine," he confesses. The trick was alliteration and euphonious phrasing built around a two-, four- or six-count rhythm. Bloodgood was uncovered through an ad the Smithsonian placed in Billboard for medicine pitchmen; only two answered, and the other died last year, making Bloodgood one of the last in that tradition. "Just always admit the obvious," he advises. "It gives it a certain air of integrity."
For Bloodgood and the others, many of the old routines came back with very little prompting. Even though they hadn't performed them in 40 to 50 years, many had total recall, especially those who came from the tent-show families so prevalent in the '30s and '40s. Some had performed every single night every single year that they were growing up. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was a staple melodrama, along with the temperance classic "Ten Nights in a Barroom" (both of which will be glimpsed under the Folklife tents) but that type of popular theatrical entertainment also ended in the '30s.
And then there were the Toby plays built around a recurring comic character with freckles, a wig and a silly kid figure. This stock character appeared in many different plays and among those who played him was a very young Red Skelton, who got his start in medicine shows, along with country legend Roy Acuff. With the demise of the tents, many performers adapted to carnivals and circuses: Tex and Marcy Maynard only recently retired from Florida's Hoxie Brothers Circus where they were organist and drummer for several decades.
Bango player "Snuffy" Jenkins, fiddler "Pappy" Sherrill and guitarist "Greasy" Medlin have been the Hired Hands off and on for 40 years. They remember playing on the "kerosene circuit," barns with no electricity, mixing old-time hillbilly music with hand-me-downs from the old medicine shows, afterpieces where we shorted the length on 'em." They would "react out" shows like "Hookyville School" on long trips through the mountains. Sherrill claims they once covered 100,000 miles in a year, but Jenkins only says, "I finally quit on account of my health -- I was starvin' to death."
It's an old line, to be sure, and much of what's performed in the Mall tent will seem archaic. But Betty Bryant, whose family showboat was one of the last tent-style entertainments to close in 1942, says, "They left before their time as far as the content. You're going to see wholesome, clean entertainment . . . and have some good belly laughs." And forgive Marcy Maynard if she seems to have something on her mind. It's just another vestige from an art and life style that's only been missing in action to these people. She laughs easily, admitting that "you learn to count the house from the day you're born." Some habits die hard.