New York Times
Unsigned Article
18 June 1905

How Are The Mighty Fallen!

  ONCE upon a time the manager of a "Marine Band" that had wandered into Waco, Texas, or thereabout, asked the manager of the local opera house if the acoustics of his temple of the drama were good.

  "Coo-sticks?" was the reply of the buckskin-clothed impresario; "coo-sticks? Why stranger," indicating with an eloquent wave of the hand the singularly bare-looking stage of the "Opry House," "why, man alive, there was a 'Tom' show played the town jes' ahead of you folks, an' ef we ever had any 'coo-sticks' roun' the place I reckin they cleaned 'em out along with ther res' of their stuff they swiped."

  Truly is the hand of every man against the "Tommer" as the interpreters of the characters in the dramatic version of Mrs. Stowe's perennial are professionally called. But equally is the hand of every "Tommer" against every one who is not a genuine U. T. C.

  Some maker of epigrams theatrical once remarked that there are three kinds of actors—good, bad, and "Tommers." The last named would be quite content with the definition, if they ever had heard it, for the "Tommer" is as distinct a variant of the genus actor as the dramatic biologist would want to meet with.

  The Rialto knows him not. His native haunt is by preference "Far Cohoes" or some equally remote spot. He is one of the few actors who are never out of work. The part he played at the beginning of his career as a "Tommer" he continues to play to the end. Managers of "Tom" shows advertise in the theatrical papers for "a good St. Clair" or "A1 Tom," just as the merchant makes known his wants regarding a bookkeeper or stenographer.

  Some of these advertisements are well worth the while of a humorous minded investigator.

  "Stewart Bros.," reads one, "want good Marks, with donkey, also Legree with dogs and sober Topsy." With stern brevity is added "Mashers and boozers save stamps."

  Another "call" draws attention to the fact that "salaries must be low," sweetening the bitter, however, by the addendum. "But you get them."

  "Barnard's Big Double Tom Show," we learned a little further down the column, "wants good woman for Eliza, who can cook and wash and is a neat dresser, on and off."

  "The Solid South Big Syndicate Double Uncle Tom's Cabin Co." finds itself in need of a good St. Clair, who can play the tuba in the band, "double in brass," says the "ad"—"and understands the care of dogs." Surely no sinecure.

  The unpopularity of "Tommers," however, is not solely owing to the fact that they will swipe everything from an "Opry House" that isn't nailed down. They in very truth are not the only sinners of this kind. Other and much more pretentious attractions have been caught at the same trick. There is a deeper seated reason for their, to put it mildly, unpopularity with their fellow-craftsmen. Imagine the feelings of the star of the last season's Fitch success who is asked to dress, when the show is on the road, in a room but recently occupied jointly by "the man-eating Missouri bloodhounds" and "The Sunny South Colored Quartet."

  As a rule "Tom" shows—there are about 300 of them—play to a good business. Sometimes, however, they get up against it hard. Some time ago a small show was touring Texas with no noticeable results but a lamentable falling off in the available assets. The manager, after a week of this kind of hard luck, went to see the Mayor of the place where they were to play that night.

  "What's the matter with the show?" inquired the investigating manager, "that you fellows don't patronize it any better?"

  "Well, young feller," was the carefully considered reply, "the boys think there might be less heaven and more action."

  The manager thanked him and left. The next day the town was pasted high and low with small bills.

  "Something doing at the theatre tonight," they read. The result was gratifying to the show folk. The house was jammed. Nor could the patrons of the drama complain of any lack of "the something doing" promised. They saw a spirited ten-round go, strict Queensberry rules, between Legree and the hitherto meek Uncle Tom; a "double" acrobatic act by Little Eva and Topsy. Last but best a thrilling hurdle race over the ice blocks of the frozen river by Eliza, mounted on Marks's long-suffering donkey. They had no kick on bad business after that night, and the interpolations became regular features of the performance.

  Of course the big "Tom" shows, the kinds that travel on the railroad, without having to get off for the trains, don't experience many vicissitudes. It is the little outfit that goes under canvas when the town it is playing in boasts no theatre, or available hall, that experiences the real ups and downs. There is a legend extant in "Tommer" circles of such a show that went to the bad in an inhospitable part of the country. They lived, or rather starved, for days on what they could get by means fair or foul. At last, one day the pangs of hunger became so unendurable that, like shipwrecked mariners, they were forced to resort to cannibalism. One by one did "the ferocious man-eating bloodhounds" disappear, until one morning there were no more left. The resourceful Marks, rising to the emergency, went in search of his donkey, with the intent of dining that evening. Alas! the intelligent animal had, doubtless after seeing the fate of the last dog, nibbled through his tether and vanished. Nor was he ever found again.

  Consider, then, the lot of the "Tommer." An outcast among his own kind, he approaches his work with none of the keen creative pleasure of a higher type of actor. He is a thing apart, doing the same thing year in and year out for very little pay and no glory. Nobody ever saw a dead donkey, no one ever saw a "Tommer" who seemed new at the thing. Like Topsy, they seem to have "just growed."

  When next you see his somewhat grimy altar of Thespis in your midst go up to the man in the blue-painted ticket wagon and pay your "Ten, twent', or thurt'," and when in the gray of the morning the "Tommers" set their faces toward the next town, as the last wagon dips over the hill, these poor pariahs of the drama shall call blessings on your sleeping community.