Tent shows

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Tent shows have been an important part of American history since the mid-to-late nineteenth century. The shows first began “In regions which couldn’t support full-time playhouses”.[1] Men such as Fayette Lodowick, one of the earliest tent show entrepreneurs, would travel around river towns all over the US making money on traveling tent shows. These shows “were utilized for a variety of amusements including medicine shows, moving picture shows, vaudeville shows, circuses, musicals, concert companies, and any number of one-night stand dramatic troupes”.[2] Tent theatre played a critical role in the American entertainment industry. It first grew out of opera houses, which were in almost every major city until the end of the nineteenth century. Tent theatre boomed by the 1920s, when the industry for outdoor entertainment was at its peak, and declined shortly after. From the origins of tent shows, to its decline and fall, tent theatre had a major influence on American culture and left a legacy for tent shows everywhere.

Origins and the Opera House[edit]

Tent theatre received its influence from the original small town opera houses. The golden age of the Opera House, “The last thirty years of the 19th century” .[3] Along with the rapid expansion of America’s railroads and transportation, allowed for the arts to begin touring America easier and more efficiently. As the operations developed by the touring opera companies improved, canvas theatres began adopting the business methods used by opera houses. These methods were implemented by people such as Roy E. Fox, and Harley Sadler, tent entrepreneurs who had large amounts of “public relations and an unusual (for the time) amount of publicity”.[4] Fox and Sadler always made sure to make the shows as intricate as possible. They studied the seating arrangements, making the theatre space more like a normal playhouse instead of circular like a circus, used platform stages to make the actors more visible, properly ventilated the tents so they could be used year round, and created optimal lighting for the actors.

At the time, small shows at opera houses had begun to get too expensive to be put on. In 1900 “There were approximately 340 theatrical companies touring… by 1920 the number had dwindled to less than 50” .[3] As the Opera touring companies began to shut down, outdoor entertainment such as tent theatre began to start a new entertainment trend. Although the number of touring tent shows increased dramatically, tent shows had many regulations they had to abide by. One major issue Tent theatre had was piracy. The shows put on could not have low enough prices and still be able to give the people what they want. When troupes were not brave enough to pirate plays, “managers and other members of repertoire troupes became playwrights, re-hashing old plots and devices, re-dressing new and popular pieces, and inventing fresh situations tailored to the special talents of their company” .[3] In 1897, the copyright law was revised. “The revision explained that anyone proven guilty of piracy was to pay 100 dollars for the first performance and 50 for each performance after that”.[5] The guilty person would also be charged with a misdemeanor and serve at least a year in prison. Due to the strict law, many companies had to raise prices. This caused competition of price-cutting for the tent shows. Although tent shows faced many issues like this throughout the twentieth century, the 1920s were still the most successful time for tent shows.

Tent Shows and Moving Pictures[edit]

In the boom of tent repertoire, motion pictures began to be the easiest and most popular ways to make money. The craze of picture shows first began in 1896 “with the first exhibition of Vitascope at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall in New York City” which “had by 1906 reached a degree of public acceptance totally unexpected”.[1] Depending on the location, “admission prices for cheap melodramas and repertoire companies were ten, twenty, and thirty cents, and for road shows as high as $1.50; motion pictures could be shown for five cents”.[1] Motion pictures played a huge part in lowering interest in live entertainment. Movies eventually deteriorated vaudeville and melodramas. Moving pictures were cheap to put on, easy to run, and attracted the public. Because of the vast popularity that was achieved, “motion pictures were not only drawing audiences away from the live amusements, they were taking over their facilities as well”.[3] Tent shows would put on whatever made them the most money, and had the most popularity. Moving pictures did not slow down tent shows but instead improved business. Moving pictures became so popular at the time that most local theatres in towns all across the US were transformed into movie theaters. Many managers of the local theaters, who were permanently located businessmen, were “available year round to campaign against the intrusion of traveling outdoor attractions that were arriving too frequently each year”.[3] Tent shows stole much of the business that movie theater owners created. As popularity increased, unionization became the next step in an attempt to make tent shows even more prosperous. This however, ended up playing a large role in the demise of tent shows.

Decline and fall of Tent Shows[edit]

Tent shows declined to the point that “There were fewer shows on the road in 1932 than at any time before World War I”.[1] Actors and managers, now without jobs, primarily went to work for radio, which was dominant in Chicago, or movie studios on the west coast. It was a changing time for America, as tent shows became “no longer necessary to bring theatre to small communities”.[3] With improving technology, automobiles provided the general public with the ability to travel and take part of any entertainment they wished. People were now able to drive to any theatre they wanted, and television allowed people to access entertainment from their own home. Hundreds of tent show companies closed during these times and many never re-opened. During World War II, “With its drain on personnel and its gas and tire rationing”,[1] many more tent shows ended. After the war, “a vestige of a dozen or more shows carried on until one by one they disappeared”.[3] Tent shows played a large role in American entertainment from the late 19th century to the early to mid twentieth century. The companies became necessary to spread many different types of art all over the country. The rapid expansion of the business set stakes for future forms of entertainment and, even though the economy, technology, and unionizing eventually led to the demise of tent shows, future companies realized, and continue to realize that, in order to be a successful business, they need to be like tent shows. Tent shows used an extreme amount of advertisement, always gave the people what they wanted, and gave the public choices of what to see and do. The last touring tent show company was the Schaffner Players, under the management of James and Juanita Davis, which is a museum piece, representing what was once an energetic industry”.[3] Although tent shows are over, the companies are remembered for their love and passion for theatre and various forms of entertainment, leaving a legacy of strong business, which overcame many obstacles.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e Hischak, Gerald Bordman, Thomas S. (2004). The Oxford companion to American theatre (3rd ed.). [Oxford]: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195169867. 
  2. ^ Theatre in a Tent, the Development of a Provincial Entertainment
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Slout, William (1972). Theatre in a tent, the development of a provincial entertainment. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press. ISBN 0-87972-028-X. 
  4. ^ Matlaw, edited by Myron (1979). American popular entertainment : papers and proceedings of the Conference on the History of American Popular Entertainment [held at the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center on November 17-20, 1977] : sponsored jointly by American Society for Theatre Research and Theatre Library Association. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0313210721. 
  5. ^ Wilmeth, ed. by Don B. (2007). The Cambridge guide to American theatre (2. hardcover ed., 1. publ. ed.). Cambridge [u.a.]: Cambridge Univ. Press. ISBN 0521835380. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Slout, William (1972). Theatre in a tent, the development of a provincial entertainment. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press. ISBN 0-87972-028-X. 
  • Hischak, Gerald Bordman, Thomas S. (2004). The Oxford companion to American theatre (3rd ed.). [Oxford]: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195169867. 
  • Matlaw, edited by Myron (1979). American popular entertainment : papers and proceedings of the Conference on the History of American Popular Entertainment [held at the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center on November 17-20, 1977] : sponsored jointly by American Society for Theatre Research and Theatre Library Association. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0313210721. 
  • Wilmeth, ed. by Don B. (2007). The Cambridge guide to American theatre (2. hardcover ed., 1. publ. ed.). Cambridge [u.a.]: Cambridge Univ. Press. ISBN 0521835380.