Two hours in a hot tent?
That was entertainment in the days before radio and television, said Dr. Jan Younger.
“People had attention spans then that were remarkable,” Younger told an audience Thursday in Fayette. “Some of these speeches were two hours long. We’re talking about a hot tent, no air conditioning, and flies—and babies crying.”
And yet, he said, people were on the edge of their seats listening.
Dr. Younger, recently retired chair of the Heidelberg University honors program, spoke at the Fayette Arts Council annual meeting about culture and entertainment in decades past, with special reference to Fayette native Bud Walker who traveled with the Ginnivan Dramatic Company tent show.
Tent shows such as the popular Ginnivan production fit perfectly into the study of American cultural studies, Younger said.
John Ginnivan started his tent show in 1898 while the Spanish American War was underway. Younger describes the conflict as “a splendid little war” that lasted only a few months and produced dozens of heroes.
Two programs had spread across the Midwest that helped people know the heroes: the chatauqua and the lyceum.
The lyceum movement started in the 1820s as an educational program, but after the Civil War, musical entertainment and drama shared the stage with orators.
Younger believes the lyceum gave rise to the construction of buildings such as the one he was standing in Thursday—the Fayette Opera House. These structures were built in towns both large and small across the nation.
The lyceum brought culture in the winter while in the summer citizens were entertained in the tent.
From its beginning in Chatauqua, N.Y., in 1874, the tent show movement spread across the Midwest.
“The focus was definitely not the theatre,” Younger said. “The chatauqua people believed in mother, God and country. The theatre was always considered maybe a little too wild.”
Many famous speakers traveled on the chatauqua circuit, including Teddy Roosevelt, Mark Twain, Josh Billings and Will Rogers. A lot of money was to be made for well-known figures.
One of the most popular religious speakers was Baptist pastor Russell Herman Conwell who preached a new message that Americans wanted to hear: You can make a lot of money and still get to Heaven. The New Testament message of helping the poor, Younger said, changed to one that made God and money go hand in hand.
Conwell once gave his famous “Acres of Diamonds” speech at the Fayette Opera House.
Chatauqua went beyond fixed locations and took the form of itinerant shows that would spend a few days in a community before moving on to another. They incorporated the same values from chatauqua and moved them into the theatre.
“People wanted religion and values and country,” Younger said.
The Ginnivan show produced plays in its early days, and there were three melodramas that dominated chautauqua: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” based on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel; “Ten Nights in a Bar,” William Pratt’s temperance story; and “Cricket on the Hearth” from a Charles Dickens novella.
Through the years, the entertainment broadened. A preview of the 1937 season described the show as hilarious comedy, thrilling drama, vaudeville, magic and novelty musical acts. Little Buddy Walker fit right in.
“You mentioned that when you talked with Buddy, he would say that he couldn’t remember anything,” Arts Council president Tom Spiess said to Younger, “and then he would break into an entire skit or routine.”
“I think when we lost him we lost a wealth of information,” Younger said.
Younger was once acquainted with a graduate student in search of a doctoral project and he directed the young man to Bud Walker and the Ginnivan Dramatic Company. The student started researching, but later changed direction and dropped the project.
He expects a student will come along sometime in the future who will produce a definitive document about Bud Walker. That’s the only way it will get done, he added, because the hours of research needed could never be completed on a voluntary basis.
It’s an interesting tale to weave together, Spiess said: What Bud means to his family, what he means to the residents of Fayette, what the Ginnivan tent show is all about.
“It’s a pretty remarkable story,” Spiess said. “It helps us understand more about what we were like from 1898 through the Depression and on.”
“He didn’t bring up too much of what he did in the past, to any of us,” said Walker’s daughter, Sherri Werner of Wauseon. “He kept most of that to himself so I’m learning from the pictures [in the scrapbook].”
Tom Spiess said the last time he spoke with Bud’s mother, Theresa, she recalled the tent show days as work; it was a job.
Bud’s granddaughter Melanie Whitlock of West Unity said the closest she came to the Ginnivan days was at Halloween when she was dressed up like Bozo.
“We didn’t get the cigar, but we got a corncob,” she said.
Beyond that, Bud’s tent show career wasn’t well known.
“[My grandparents] didn’t talk about it,” Whitlock said. “We are learning. We didn’t know the scrapbook and these pictures existed until after he died. He kept a lot of secrets.”
He took a lot of secrets to the grave, she said, which is really sad.
Beyond his days as a workaholic in Fayette industry, he spent a lot of time playing in bands—mostly with “Three D’s Plus One.”
“Playing the drums, that was his life,” Whitlock said.
Bud once drove with Maynard Gamble for an audition in Chicago. Maynard was a bass player and he wanted Bud to play the baritone horn—an instrument Bud didn’t know.
He told Spiess about the four-hour drive to Chicago during which time he learned to play the instrument.
“It’s part of who Bud was,” Spiess said. “He was an entertainer.”