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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

Checker games in a men's parlor
(17039, Charles Schweinle Collection, OHS).

Clinton's Community Band
(6442, Robert L. Williams Collection, OHS).

Tinker Drive-in Theater, Oklahoma City
(21412.M2021.1, Z. P. Meyers/Barney Hillerman Photographic Collection, OHS).


Like people everywhere, Oklahomans have always found ways to entertain themselves in their idle time. American Indians during the Indian Territory period and thereafter participated in a variety of games, but one form of recreation enjoyed by all the tribes was a type of ball game commonly referred to as "stick ball." The ball was fashioned from deerskin, and ball sticks, crafted from hickory, had a pocket at one end, also of deerskin. Two goal posts, approximately fifteen feet high, were erected at either end of a field roughly forty rods long. The goal posts were constructed close together, with one pair as a target for each team. The objective was to hit these posts with the ball the greater number of times, using only one ball and never using one's hands. Each player was equipped with two ball sticks for catching and throwing the ball. The number of players on each team might range from thirty to fifty. "Stick ball" was similar to modern-day field hockey in that each player would try to seize a loose ball and throw it toward the goal posts of his team. The game usually lasted an entire day, with the team that had hit the goal posts the greater number of times declared the winner. Another popular game with American Indians was "chunkey." Chunkey included two participants at a time who played with a disc-shaped stone and wooden lance. Each player rolled the stone and then, just as it was about to stop, threw his lance at it. The winner was the one whose lance landed nearest the stone.

Quilting and dancing were often combined forms of recreation for American Indians and Anglo pioneers. At the end of cotton-picking season often a small amount of the fiber was retained for spinning and reeling. By word of mouth, neighbors were invited to a "hanking" to use the spun cotton. Generally, a quilt or two was already stretched on quilting frames when guests arrived. The day-long affair included as many as twenty-five women working on quilts. For patchwork quilting, many block patterns, such as "log cabin," "double wedding ring," and the ubiquitous "nine patch" were shared among neighborhood women. In addition to using block patterns, African American women also composed quilt tops with strip units. At the so-called "quilting bees," long tables were set up in the yard, and a contributing dinner was served. In the late afternoon the quilts would be rolled up and fastened to the ceiling beams with rings and ropes. The house was then cleared of furniture in anticipation of the arrival of spouses and friends. Thereafter, the dinner leftovers were eaten, and the guests danced late into the night.

Playing "horse" was an early-day amusement among Oklahoma children. Several children would identify an appropriate tree sapling, and the children would then take turns mounting the sapling as if riding a horse. Often the sapling would require two or three children to pull down. When the sapling was released, it sprang upright, and the mounted children would be thrown off, much like riding a bucking horse. Handmade toys also served as a form of recreation for children but also as a pastime for adults who crafted them. These toys were fashioned from such native materials as wood, corn shucks, vines, apples, and gourds. American Indians shared techniques for making corn-shuck, hickory-nut, and apple-head dolls with white and black settlers. One of the most popular toys was the propeller-ended whimmy-diddle stick. Children spent countless hours with these homemade devices. On Sundays in many Oklahoma communities children could play only with biblically based toys such as the Jacob's Ladder puzzle.

Another early-day form of recreation, often enjoyed during warm weather, was the "big fish fry." A creek would be damned with logs and brush and then the water poisoned with a weed called "devil's shoe string." Each participant brought his own bunch of roots that were pounded with mallets and then floated up and down the creek in the early morning to poison the water. By late morning the fish would rise to the top of the water and were secured with gigs, spears, and pitchforks. The catch was consumed at the big fish fry in the evening.

Oratory was highly respected and well attended in Oklahoma. The Chautauqua Institution, built in 1874 on the shore of Lake Chautauqua in an obscure part of northwestern New York, became the headquarters for a phenomenally successful late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century religious and educational movement. For those who could not travel to New York, "tent chautauquas" were launched. Chautauquas were held on a myriad of subjects ranging from natural science to historical curiosities. Among the speakers, William Jennings Bryan is said to have given fifty lectures in twenty-eight days. Most early-day Chautauquas were held in tents where no smoking or drinking was allowed. Chautauquas began to flourish by 1910 in Oklahoma.

Fraternal organizations have long been an important segment of the social life of Oklahoma communities both large and small. Freemasonry was the first such fraternal order in America and its early strength is reflected in Oklahoma by the Masonic buildings and institutions in Guthrie. Fraternal groups represented in Oklahoma include Woodmen of the World, Knights of Pythias, Odd Fellows, Rebekahs, Eastern Star, and Grangers. Blacks in Oklahoma had separate, distinctive fraternal groups that were nonetheless closely related to white groups in style and significance. Patriotic, ancestry-based societies such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution thrived in Oklahoma. The Knights of Columbus was popular among Oklahoma Catholics. According to most historians the elaborate ceremonies and rituals, colorful costumes, and mysterious titles helped members escape the humdrum aspects of their daily lives. Service organizations such as the Kiwanis, Rotary, and Lions later emerged in the state as middle-class, business-oriented versions of fraternalism.

Even though contemporary organizations have appealed to boys and girls, scouting began as a gendered organization. Working in cooperation with the YMCA, the Boy Scouts movement was popular from its outset in Great Britain in 1907. This coordination was orchestrated by William D. Boyce, who guided the official formation of Boy Scouts of America in 1910. The BSA network quickly spread throughout the nation, but it had already reached Oklahoma in 1909 when a Pawhuska troop received a British charter. By 1912 the BSA magazine, Boy's Life, had become the nation's largest youth magazine. Most Oklahoma educators and parents welcomed scouting as a wholesome influence on youth.

Amusement parks in Oklahoma were descendants of medieval trade fairs and European pleasure gardens of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The growth of the amusement park industry in the United States benefited greatly from the Chicago's Columbian Exposition of 1893, which introduced key elements of modern amusement parks, including Ferris wheels. Increasing leisure time and disposable personal income initiated a tremendous growth of the amusement park industry from the 1890s to the 1920s. Oklahoma's large parks included Oklahoma City's Delmar Garden and Tulsa's Orcutt Park. By 1920 more than eighteen hundred operated in the United States. The 1920s marked the beginning of the dramatic decline of traditional amusement parks. With the new mobility provided by automobiles and the lack of parking facilities at the urban parks, visitors turned to new activities such as motion pictures.

The history of motion pictures and early movie theaters in the United States directly coincides with Oklahoma statehood in 1907. As in the rest of the country, the first theaters in the state were nickelodeons, a term which combined the price of admission, a nickel, and odeon, the French word for theater. From 1905 to 1910 thousands of nickelodeons sprouted around the United States in buildings set up specifically for that purpose. Maverick theater owners used storefronts, town halls, and church meeting rooms that could accommodate a sheet for a screen, some chairs for patrons, and electricity for a projector playing rented films of features such as The Great Train Robbery. By 1910 theater owners determined that the film industry was a viable economic pursuit and proceeded to build lavish theaters with plush seats, grand marquees, and technologically advanced, automatic music-making machines.

Lawrence William Brophy was one of Oklahoma's significant pioneers in the early-twentieth-century film industry. Arriving the day after statehood in 1907, Brophy, after seeing a film at the St. Louis World's Fair, established a nickelodeon in Chandler. Six months later he sold his share in the theater and moved to Muskogee, then the state's second largest city. From that time, he built an entertainment empire that encompassed movie houses in Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, and Arkansas. He took pride in giving patrons the same entertainment options that existed in New York City and Chicago. By 1926 Brophy was out of business, but his career in Oklahoma lasted through the "golden age" of motion pictures that featured stars such as Mary Pickford and Charles Chaplin.

A second major figure in Oklahoma movie theater history is Ellen Whitmore Mohrbacher, who opened the Savoy Theater in Prague in 1921. Whereas Brophy's theaters had showed silent films with musical accompaniment that was provided by the theater operator, Mohrbacher witnessed the advent of talking pictures in 1927. Throughout the depression her theater, as well as others, provided an inexpensive escape from the harsh realities of that era. In 1939, 65 percent of the national population went to movies at least once a week to see romance, adventure, and comedy.

By 1940 Oklahoma supported a total of 381 motion-picture theaters, but within a decade the state's small-town theaters had been negatively impacted by television's rising popularity. By the early 1960s the national numbers of movie theaters and people attending them had been cut in half, and Oklahoma reflected that trend. By 2000 only a few older active movie theaters still existed, notably in Henryetta, Miami, Okmulgee, Ponca City, and Cushing, where movie goers could watch films outside of the huge megaplexes offering as many as twenty-four films in one building.

Humans tamed the first campfires more than a half-million years ago. However, recreational camping did not emerge in the United States until the end of the nineteenth century. At that time, large numbers of urban residents went "back to nature," fleeing the pressures of urbanization and industrialization. Easy access to remote areas was made possible by the railroads. The growth of consumer culture was stimulated by Montgomery Ward and Sears-Roebuck, whose stores provided campers with the proper gear for their wilderness voyages. By 1910 the organized camping movement had grown extensive enough to justify the formation of the American Camping Association.

Mass production of the automobile and the creation of the modern highway system led to motor camping and the formation of such organizations as the American Automobile Association and the Recreational Vehicle Association. In the 1920s Oklahomans used private and municipal camping grounds, and by the 1930s a state park system was available. The growth of camping reached a milestone in the 1920s with camping stories written by Ernest Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis, new product development by L. L. Bean and Sherman Coleman (whose portable gas stove appeared in 1923), and the first National Conference on Outdoor Recreation in 1924. Post–World War II suburbanization helped turn camping into a mass cultural activity in the late twentieth century. Nearly ten million recreational vehicles (RVs) were on the road in the late 1990s, forcing national and state parks to install more water, sewer, and power lines.

Oklahoma is a state of doers, watchers, talkers, and organizers, and sport is a strong link in the chain of its recreational and entertainment activities. For most Oklahomans, sports is by far the most important leisure-time activity, whether it be a round of golf, a game of softball or soccer, or a few hours devoted to some "game of the week" on television. Many of these sporting activities are of European derivation, including horse racing and breeding, boxing, track and field, cockfighting, rowing, soccer, and sailing.

As urbanization swept across Oklahoma, leisure time increased as a result of shorter working hours, and a rise in spectator sports began. Standardization and codification of sports were necessary to give participants a "level playing field" and allow spectators to better understand the rules of the game. Intercity competition and standardized leagues were made possible by the advent of the railroad and automobile. Improvements in printing and the invention of photography made possible the rapid dissemination of the news and images of sports, both of which bolstered the interest of those distant from the scene. The 1920s became the "Golden Age" of American sports. Oklahomans, like most Americans, became hooked on both professional baseball and intercollegiate football. Baseball became the national pastime, with professional leagues established (sixteen teams) as well as several hundred minor league teams. Football was the big-time collegiate sport in Oklahoma.

Within Oklahoma's cultural heritage, a product of many cultural groups, music has always been one of the most significant and widespread recreational pursuits. Many of the first settlers brought musical instruments when they migrated to Oklahoma and Indian territories. According to Oklahoma historians, there were soon so many musical instruments in the state that many educated women turned from farming to teaching music. Community bands began to flourish by statehood, and local bands performed at building dedications, political gatherings, and patriotic celebrations. The summer season brought evening band concerts every Saturday night, and many communities erected bandstands in the center of town. Most of the community bands consisted of fifteen to twenty members drawn from a pool of local amateur musicians.

Throughout the twentieth century the state has produced performers, composers, institutions, and songs that have significantly shaped the entire realm of American folk and popular music. Performers such as Woody Guthrie, Patti Page, and Garth Brooks, composers Albert E. Brumley, Jimmy Webb, and Hoyt Axton are exemplary of Oklahoma's important contributions to American music. Important cultural institutions grew to include ballrooms such as Cain's in Tulsa and Trianon in Oklahoma City, radio stations like KVOO in Tulsa and WKY in Oklahoma City, and bands such as the Texas Playboys and the Blue Devils. Finally, songs such as "Oklahoma!," "Oklahoma Hills," and "Take Me Back to Tulsa" not only evoke images of Oklahoma, but are a vital part of an American music legacy.

Cultural and musical diversity are a hallmark of Oklahoma. The musical landscape includes songs and dance of the southeastern and western American Indian groups, Anglo-Celtic ballads brought from the Upland South, country blues from the Mississippi Delta, black and white spirituals from the Lowland South, community band music of Italian, German, and Czech immigrants, and mariachi music from the Rio Grande Valley. Noted folklorist Alan Lomax's statement that "the map sings" is a fitting description for the music of Oklahoma.

While some musicians achieved fame at home, the majority of Oklahoma musicians migrated elsewhere to seek and find fame and fortune. Oklahoma, however, is not an exception, because few states with a rural orientation, sparse population, and without a major metropolitan area have succeeded in becoming music centers. The allure of major recording studios, more and better performing venues, and bigger markets affected the decisions of Oklahoma music artists to leave for one of the large cities of the Midwest and East and West coasts to further their careers.

In her book Oklahoma: Footloose and Fancy Free, Angie Debo wrote, "When it comes to music, Oklahomans are like mockingbirds—more interested in getting it out of their system than in a finished performance." Oklahoma's music legacy proves Debo both right and wrong. Right, because Oklahomans sang, performed, and wrote music whenever and wherever they could. Wrong, because Oklahomans, amateur and professional, have provided us with a multitude of finished performances to form the musical mosaic of our state.

The last decades of the twentieth century added new layers to the state's entertainment scene and also brought controversy. Cockfighting, a traditional sport, came under fire and was outlawed in 2002 by statewide vote. Horse racing changed from a rural pastime to an organized industry, with racetracks and off-track and on-track pari-mutuel betting. Indian gaming became popular, and venues abounded all around the state. With the construction of the Chesapeake Energy Arena, a huge entertainment complex in downtown Oklahoma City, the state began to attract major touring artists and groups, including Paul McCartney and Cher. A completely renovated Oklahoma City Civic Center reopened in 2001, bringing the best of Broadway productions to the state by the new millennium. The Tulsa World launched the SPOT awards to showcase young musical talent in eastern Oklahoma, and the city's historic venues, the Brady Theater and Cain's Ballroom, succeeded in attracting major music acts such as Willie Nelson, B. J. Thomas, and Dwight Yoakum. Stillwater's Tumbleweeds Ballroom may be one of the most overlooked venues in the state, drawing such legendary country acts as Merle Haggard and George Jones as well as contemporary artists Travis Tritt, Chris LeDoux, and groups such as The Great Divide and the Red Dirt Rangers. Although they still pursue traditional American entertainments like camping, rodeo, and minor league sports, Oklahomans continue to expand their leisure-time interests to newer activities, including arena football, skateboarding, motocross, and "extreme sports" such as Mat Hoffman's BMX freestyle biking.

George O. Carney

Learn More

Judith A. Adams, The Amusement Park Industry: A History of Technology and Thrills (Boston: Twayne, 1991).

Warren James Belasco, Americans on the Road: From Autocamp to Motel, 1910–1945 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).

David Q. Bowers, Nickelodeon Theaters and Their Music (Vesta, N.Y.: Vestal Press, 1986).

Robert H. Boyle, Sport: Mirror of American Life (Boston: Little, Brown, 1963).

Helen Brophy Geary, "After the Last Picture Show," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 61 (Spring 1983).

Harry P. Harrison, Culture Under Canvas: The Story of Tent Chautauqua (New York: Hastings House, 1958).

Frank Hoffmann and William G. Baily, Sports and Recreation Fads (Binghamton, N.Y.: Haworth Press, 1991).

Galen Kurth, "'Little Buzz Buggies': Midget Auto Racing in Oklahoma City, 1946–1964," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 85 (Summer 2007).

John W. Loy and Gerald S. Kenyon, Sport, Culture, and Society (London: Macmillan, 1969).

William F. Mangels, The Outdoor Amusement Industry from Earliest Times to Present (New York: Vantage Press, 1952).

Larry O'Dell, comp., Oklahoma @ the Movies (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 2012).

Robert W. Peterson, Boy Scouts: An American Adventure (New York: American Heritage, 1985).

Doris H. Pieroth, "The Only Show in Town: Ellen Whitmore Mohrbacher's Savoy Theater," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 60 (Fall 1982).

Steven Riess, City Games: The Evolution of American Urban Society and the Rise of Sports (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989).

William W. Savage, Jr., Singing Cowboys and All That Jazz: A Short History of Popular Music in Oklahoma (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983).

Peter J. Schmitt, Back to Nature: The Arcadian Myth in Urban America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990).

Twombly Wells, 200 Years of Sport in America (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976).


The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
George O. Carney, “Recreation and Entertainment,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=RE002.

Published January 15, 2010
Last updated August 6, 2018

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