01 October 2007

Vaudeville comes to Pittsboro (1909-1910)

[Images cropped from the digitized materials in the University of Iowa's digital collection, "Traveling Culture: Circuit Chautauqua in the Twentieth Century".]

In October of 1909 the Chatham RECORD publicized the first of three entertainment events intended to raise money for Pittsboro High School. A few weeks later, a review of this initial performance referred to these events part of the "Lyceum course". The Lyceum Movement, a concept of adult education that began before the Civil War, emphasized community culture in the setting of town hall gatherings. It was on the Lyceum circuit that luminaries like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain and William Jennings Bryan spoke before eager crowds whose attention spans would surely astonish us in our own time. Many lesser lights worked the circuit as well, and "permanent lyceums" established themselves around the country.

Following the war, the Lyceum retained some of its high-minded characteristics while edging more into an entertainment circuit and a venue for vaudeville acts. Eventually the Chautauqua movement took the original Lyceum concept of adult education and community culture and ran with it, while vaudeville became the source from which an emerging entertainment industry drew such acts as the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields. The performers that visited Pittsboro in November of 1909 and then January of 1910 certainly shaded into the territory of vaudeville. Thanks to a library digitization project at the University of Iowa, we can take a look at the printed programs that likely accompanied these performers and provided advance publicity. In this post I'll link the three acts to Iowa's "Traveling Culture." More broadly I'll embark on an ongoing effort to describe the intellectual and cultural lives of the people living in the county and its surrounds about a hundred years ago.

The Pittsboro High School benefit series began with a magician named Hal Merton. The October 27, 1909 issue of the RECORD advertised his performance in terms so glowing and detailed that the author (surely the paper's editor, Henry A. London) seems to have experienced the maestro's act in person:
The Magician Merton.

On Thursday night of next week, November 4th., this community will have the opportunity of enjoying the most unique entertainment ever had here, when Hal Merton, the wonderful magician, will give one of his mysterious performances, the same that he has given in the large cities of this county.

Disdaining the aid of apparatus of any sort, Merton appears on the stage with his arms bared, and, depending entirely upon personal dexterity, accomplishes a series of remarkable feats, baffling the eye and the understanding alike. Eggs, billiard balls and flowers appear suddenly at his finger tips, vanish as mysteriously as they come, and then reappear at command. He will cause objects to spring from nowhere back to nowhere and will make hats and other objects perform remarkable antics. For comedy and mystery this entertainment will surpass anything ever seen here, and every body ought to attend it.
But London almost certainly had never seen Merton perform before. The circular for Merton at the "Traveling Culture" series must have preceded the magician Merton to the office of the RECORD. Compare the wording of London's description to the text in the program's inner pages [emphasis mine]:
Upon a brilliantly lighted platform, with arms bared to the elbows, Mr. Merton will demonstrate to the satisfaction of all that it is not only possible for an article to be in two places at the same time, but that it is equally possible that it may be nowhere at all. Solid articles, eggs, billiard balls, flowers and handkerchiefs appear at his finger tips and having served to amuse, vanish as mysteriously as they came, reappearing at command in the most unexpected places; a borrowed hat plays a most important part in the evolutions of a tumbler, ladies' rings develop most astonishing powers, a gentleman's watch figures in a series of startling surprises, silver bands become endowed with more than life and many of the most puzzling demonstrations of the Hindoo necromancers are duplicated for the first time upon the Lyceum platform. The Bouquet of Mystical Novelties concludes with a series of laughable feats in the pleasing and ever popular art of ventriloquism in which the famous blockhead "Joe" takes a most important part.
The RECORD hawked the event again in the November 3 issue, then provided a review of sorts on November 10:
No audience at this place ever before enjoyed more greatly any entertainment than did the audience at the school auditorium last Thursday night when Hal Merton, the magician, performed his wonderful feats of sleight-of-hand. They were truly wonderful and unaccountable and kept the spectators most delightfully entertained. The next entertainment of the Lyceum course will be on the night of the 29th of this month, when the celebrated Litchfield Trio will be here.
The RECORD then publicized the next act, the Litchfield Trio, in the November 24 issue:
Litchfield Trio.

On next Monday night at the school auditorium the citizens of this community will have the opportunity of enjoying one of the most delightful entertainments ever held here. The celebrated Litchfield Trio will then give one of their attractive entertainments, and it is of a different kind from any ever before seen here. It consists of humorous recitations, character impersonations in costumes, music of various sorts and a comedy entitled "Down at Brook Farm", which of itself is well worth the admission price.

The Litchfields are a man, his wife and daughter, all first-class performers, who will keep their audience highly amused and entertained with their character impersonations, humorous songs and splendid music. Wherever they have appeared they have given entire satisfaction, and a rare treat is in store for all who will be present next Monday night. No one who attends will regret it, and those who do not attend will regret missing so rich a treat.
The image shown here, a detail from the circular for the Neil Litchfield Trio, shows an apparent array of the "character impersonations in costumes" that Mr. Litchfield would perform. By the time the Litchfields visited Pittsboro, they had spent some two decades on the road to refine their act and test new portrayals. A search in a couple of historical newspaper databases provides a sense of their career arc and the itinerant lives they led.

The first mention makes no allusion to entertainment, only a notice under HOTEL ARRIVALS of a "Neil Litchfield and wife" in the Idaho Daily Statesman, April 1890. An August 1895 theater listing in the Duluth News-Tribune mentions Neil Litchfield as a member of a vaudeville company called "Heywood's Celebrities," then a notice in August 1897 places "Neil Litchfield, Yankee comedian" in a troupe performing the "WORLD FAMOUS CHARACTERS." At last Mr. and Mrs. Litchfield are listed together in the Washington Post theater notices of February 11, 1900 as part of a vaudeville review where they will "show a 'truly rural comedy' called 'Down on the Farm,'" which "has much snap and wit." From this point over the next several years the Litchfields appear regularly in the advertisements and notices of the Washington Post, New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer, performing their signature "Brook Farm" skit. February 1904 they pop up in Kansas City, listed last in a long vaudeville bill at the Orpheum, where they are to perform "Halloween at Brook Farm." Just a few months before they came to Pittsboro, in August 1909, an advertisement in the San Jose Mercury News shows them performing "Down at Brook Farm" as part of a bill at Theater Jose, under the headline act, Doblano's Trained Sheep. The Lexington (KY) Herald has the Litchfield Trio playing there in February 1910, just a few months after their appearance here, then again in November of 1911. Finally, the Idaho Daily Statesman lists them in the "Immanuel Brotherhood Lyceum Course" in October of 1912.

Where the Litchfields appear in the larger city listings -- and at least some of the listings in the Post and Inquirer may be for venues in New York City -- they lie at or near the bottom of a larger vaudeville bill. The farther they roam from the major urban centers, the more prominent the mention they rate. In some cases, they even get reviewed, as in the 1910 appearance in Lexington, Kentucky, when the Herald wrote:
Enjoyable Entertainment

Despite the inclement weather, a large audience was present at the opera house to enjoy the splendid entertainment given by the "Litchfield Trio," who appeared under the auspices of the Midway Lecture Course. Refined and entertaining, the program rendered by this unusually talented family was thoroughly enjoyed by all present. No entertainment held here in years has given more universal satisfaction.
The RECORD's summation of the Litchfields' performance in Pittsboro practically echoes the sentiment they inspired in Lexington; from "Local Records", December 1:
No entertainment ever held at this place created more laughter and fun than that given by the Litchfield Trio on last Monday night. The impersonations and facial expressions of Mr. Litchfield could not be excelled and convulsed his audience with continual laughter. The music by Mrs. Litchfield and daughter was very fine and much enjoyed.
Finally, on January 26 the RECORD publicized the third of the three acts in the Lyceum course to visit:
The Italian Boys.

On next Saturday night will be the last and best of the three entertainments contracted to the be given here by the Radcliffe Entertainment Bureau. It will be given by Elbert Foland and five Italian boys, and wherever they have appeared they have been most highly complimented. No such entertainment as this has ever before been given in this town, and it is an opportunity that nobody should allow to pass by without attending it.

Mr. Foland is one of the most brilliant and versatile entertainers in the United States. He will both amuse with his humorous recitations and facial impersonations, and also entertains with his wonderful elocutionary talents. The music by the Italian boys charms and delights every audience that hears them, and no such music as their has ever been heard here. Their musical nad literary fantasy "A night in Venice" is of itself well worth the price of admission to the whole entertainment, even if there was nothing else.

Each of the two preceding entertainments given by the Radcliffe Bureau gave perfect satisfaction and this one is the best of all, as will be admitted by everybody who attends it. If you fail to attend this you will certainly regret it.

Again, the circular from the University of Iowa, and the mini-review by the RECORD on February 2:
The entertainment given here last Saturday night by the Italian Boys was greatly enjoyed by a large and appreciate audience. Their music, especially that on the harp, was the best ever heard here, and the singing by the boy of thirteen was flue-like and was twice encored. Mr. Foland's recitations and impersonations were much enjoyed.
Both the Italian Boys and Merton the Magician appear in similar patterns of listings as the Litchfields. All three of these acts were road-tested and probably quite compelling as performers, but they were all marginal vaudeville attractions, never top-of-the-bill in the big city. Of the three acts, the Italian Boys probably garnered the most swooning praise as they traveled, which suggests a certain timelessness to the formula of a boy-band with a soprano lead singer.

So far in my research, the RECORD does not follow up on these items with any mention of how the program fared in terms of raising money for the high school. As always, the Rabbit remains vigilant for more information, but unless the RECORD says anything else, it's hard to imagine where it might turn up.
Still, at some point, someone must have calculated that the acts would draw large enough crowds to pay the performers and provide a surplus for the benefit of the high school.

By the same token, some incentive must have drawn the performers to the road and away from the creature comforts of the big cities. Perhaps they earned more while traveling, maybe they enjoyed it, found creative stimulation, or used it as an opportunity to build an audience and a following. Maybe they just took pleasure in making the world smaller for rural audiences. Merton the Magician, the Litchfields, and the Italian Boys all brought to the high school in Pittsboro a cultural experience that Chatham's farmers and merchants and their families shared with audiences in Lexington, and Duluth, and even San Jose. In a place that could seem as remote and occasionally forbidding as Chatham County, a polished boy-band with a soprano lead singer was just the thing to deliver the world.

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