Traveling shows brought entertainment to rural America in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Shows varied from individual acts to three-act productions. The two traveling show varieties were the medicine show and tent repertoire theater.
The medicine show brought its amusements in "covered" wagons. Traveling through rural communities, the shows' enterprising owners offered entertainment and "healing" remedies (later called "snake oil"). The shows offered both relaxation and magical cures for ague, gout, arthritis, rheumatism, and countless other ailments with their tonics, purgatives, and pepper- or wintergreen-flavored, alcohol-based patent medicine elixirs. During the 1920s rural electrification made radio shows generally available, displacing some of the demand for live entertainment, and the automobile gave access to physicians and "real" medicine. Nevertheless, remnants of medicine shows survived, traversing Oklahoma's back roads through the1940s, but none survived the advent of television.
At about the time that medicine shows began to disappear, tent repertoire reached its heyday. (The French spelling distinguished these actors from repertory groups traveling rail routes only and performing in opera houses, rather than in tents.) Tent rep had begun to be a prominent feature in rural America during the 1890s when groups had traveled through rural communities by wagon and in train cars. In tent repertoire the cast presented minstrel shows and renditions of Uncle Tom's Cabin patterned after showboat productions. Actors and actresses played roles, doubled as orchestra members, performed individual numbers between the acts, and often helped pitch their tents. Between the acts they sold candy and earned a percentage of the profits.
Tent repertoire companies moved through virtually every rural community in America and in Oklahoma by wagon, truck, or train. Their show tents ranged in size from a small one, seating two hundred, to giant circus-type tents, seating fifteen hundred. The "reppers" produced at least five different plays each week, with five to seven characters making up a standard cast. Each play had a hero, an ingenue, a "heavy" male (usually a villain), a "g-string" (a wizened old grandfatherly type with a beard on a string), and a comic (later always known as "Toby" and most often played by the company owner). Often they added a female heavy and another extra. The owners of the companies provided housing, food, and salaries to company members.
Soon after 1907 statehood Oklahomans began seeing tent repertoire groups performing all through the rural regions (but rarely ever in larger cities, although one did perform in Oklahoma City in April 1930). The only tent repertoire group indigenous to Oklahoma, the Haverstock Comedians, began its first season in Roosevelt, Oklahoma, in April 1911 and played continuously through the mid-1950s.
Most of the productions during the early part of the century were "tearjerkers." After the end of World War I, with so many American dead, the people longed to laugh, so tent rep owners began to add the "Toby" character. Toby was a country bumpkin who saved the day with his humorous antics.
At one time in the early 1920s there were more than seven hundred active tent repertoire companies in the nation. The Great Depression, World War II, television, and nighttime outdoor sports almost destroyed show attendance. By the mid-1950s only a few troupes still traveled. Today a few community theater groups produce old-time "Toby" shows on their stages as historical reenactments of tent repertoire.
Herb Walter Channell and Velma E. Lowry, Fifty Years under Canvas (Hugo, Okla.: Acme Publishing Co., 1962).
Jerry L. Martin, Henry L. Brunk and Brunk's Comedians: Tent Repertoire Empire of the Southwest (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Press, 1984).
Marian L. McKennon, Tent Show (New York: Exposition Press, 1964).
Jere C. Mickel, Footlights on the Prairie: The Story of the Repertory Tent Players in the Midwest (St. Cloud, Minn.: North Star Press, 1974).
Neil Schaffner and Vance Johnson, The Fabulous Toby and Me (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968).
William L. Slout, Theater in a Tent: The Development of a Provincial Entertainment (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1972).
Harlan Ware and James Prindle, Rag Opera (Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1929).
Robert L. Wyatt III, The History of the Haverstock Tent Show: The Show with a Million Friends (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1997).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Robert Lee Wyatt III, “Traveling Shows,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=TR008.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.