Washington Post
Unsigned Reprint
11 April 1909

Uncle Tom's Cabin in the South


[Tulsa (Okla.) Cor. St. Louis Globe-Democrat.]

  "SIMON LEGREE," villain, stood on a ladder with a paint brush in his hand, wiping the side of his "private car." From a near-by window "Liza" beamed upon him amiably, even with affection, showing her white teeth as she smiled. The odor of ham and cabbage came from the car kitchen. Yellow dandelions had begun to show themselves. The feeling of spring was in the air, heightened by the scent of new tent stakes, newly oiled harness and varnish. An Uncle Tom's Cabin Company was preparing to abandon winter quarters and lead the nomadic life of a tent show until the frost and the chill fall rains should forbid further exposure of little Eva, the dear child, to the dangers of pneumonia. The "genuine ferocious Siberian bloodhounds" seemed to divine the approaching hour of departure and were tugging at their chains. A bunch of marble-eyed pickaninnies stood leaning over a fence at a safe distance speculating upon the awful powers of destruction possessed by the bloodhounds.

  "Yes," said Legree, a mild-mannered man, who had accumulated $75,000 in good hard cash in the 15 years he had owned a Tom show, "we're getting ready to go down the firing line, and don't for a minute imagine that we'll be able to dodge everything. This 'Tom' business is a life of perilous adventure. There isn't much trouble way up North nor way down South, but when you approach Mason and Dixon's line get ready for storms. It's where the frazzled edges of secession and Unionism flap together that life is hardest for us. And the worst place of the bad places is South Central and Southeastern Oklahoma. There are 'nesters' in that region only an hour removed from the 'bloody field of Shiloh.'

  "Never heard of what happened to us at Indianola in the spring of 1908? Well, you should have been there. Good crowd, and 'Legree' just in the act of larrupin' old 'Tom,' when in comes a Deputy Sheriff with five or six partners, all loaded with squirrel whisky and each with a six-shooter in his paw. 'Take to the brush, every damned one of you spotted leopards, and go back where you belong! You can't pull off this show in this here country!' That's what they said, and they meant it. Everybody fell off the benches and ducked under the tent walls and lit out for home. The fellows with the guns hurrahed and cheered. Then each one opened a bottle of whisky and waded into a near-by lake, where they paraded back and forth for hours, singing 'Turkey in the Straw' and shooting off their guns. Some of us slept on the floor of the car that night, fearing that a bullet might come thrugh the side of the car into our bunks.

  "At Wynnewood, Okla., a minister circulated a petition and got 250 signers, asking the Mayor to revoke our license. We had a dandy band that played selections from 'Faust,' 'William Tell,' 'Martha,' 'Il Trovatore,' and all that kind of stuff, yet the crowd stood in the street and jeered, and said that the musicians 'played like a lot of scared niggers.' That made us sore, but we couldn't do anything. The petition divided the town. The Mayor refused to revoke the license. A local newspaper editor said our treatment was an outrage, and got into a bully fight, with a gun play, for saying it. That night loafers threw bottles of stinking hoky-poky under the tent.

  "Tact often quiets trouble. When I see something getting ready to start, I stay close around the ticket wagon and pick out the biggest bully. I begin talking in a free and easy way, without his knowing that I belong to the show, and invite him to go in with me, paying for the tickets as if I were a stranger. Once inside, the bully becomes interested in the performance, and the vaudeville and acrobatic stunts between the acts, and grows friendly.

  "The prejudice against negroes is fierce in some parts of Oklahoma. A number of towns will not permit a negro to get off the train. At Hobart and Mangum, I kept my negro singers secreted in the car, took them in closed carriages to the tent at night, and opened the carriage door right against the door of the tent. Once inside and on the stage, the audience couldn't tell whether the negroes were genuine or imitation.

  "There are towns in Texas and Mississippi, however, that are simply pizen. At Palestine, Texas, the town band came down the street playing 'Dixie,' and followed by a mob of 250 men and boys. We canceled the performance and pulled out of town. Never get into a fight in such places; you'll get licked to a dead certainty, and maybe killed. We call Hempstead 'Six-shooter Junction,' after having had all the windows of our cars shot out there one night. In Texas the Greenwold Theatrical Circuit will not book a 'Tom' show in its opera houses, being unwilling to take chances, and no 'Tom' show has ever played the opera house circuit in that state. There's $20,000 net for the man that can get the bookings. 'Tom' would draw just as heavily as the Clansman, which sets Texas on fire about three times a year. Once inside the show a Southern audience usually ceases its hostile demonstrations against a 'Tom' performance. There is no play more appealing in its pathos, and when the story of 'Uncle Tom' grips an audience prejudice usually gives way to tears. This season I'm going on the firing line in Arkansas; you may see my name in the newspapers some day.

  "Getting back to Texas, let me tell you of a fool thing that happened at Lebo. Prohibition was a red-hot issue in Texas at the time, and we switched from 'Tom' to 'Ten Nights in a Barroom.' There was intense bitterness between the opposing partisans, and to show their contempt of their enemies, antiprohibitionists often came to a show with a quart of whisky, drinking publicly whenever thirsty.

  "At the Lebo performance, 'Joe Margan' had entered the ballroom of 'Simon Slade' and asked for a drink, only to be refused by 'Slade' in whose place 'Morgan's' life had been ruined. 'Joe' was complaining of his misery and the cruelty of 'Slade,' when a great big Texan stood up with a quart bottle of whisky in his hand, and exclaimed:

  "'Here, "Joe," damn it, take a drink with me!'

  "And the rascal walked up the runway and onto the stage. The man playing 'Joe Morgan'—now Mayor of Florence, Neb., by the way—was a teetotaler, and greatly opposed to drinking. He was a tenderfoot, and sight of the advancing Texan, deep in his cups, unnerved 'Joe' so greatly that he took several big swallows from the bottle at the urgent request of the owner. I was playing 'Slade' and was puzzled to know how we could get rid of our bottle friend without a break in the performance.

  "The Texan leaned against the bar, perfectly at home and crossed his high-heeled boots in a comfortable attitude. The audience tittered. The our unsalaried actor saw several barroom loafers at a table playing an imaginary game of cards, but without real cards, as public card games in Texas were forbidden by law. The Texan pulled up a chair, sat down at the table drew a greasy deck from his pocket, and dealt everybody a hand. The loafers had too much respect for the Town Marshal to take up their hands, and moved gingerly away, leaving the friend of 'Joe Morgan' alone in his glory. The Texan finally became disgusted, walked down the runway, and disappeared."

  "Uncle Tom's Cabin" is said to have taken in more money at the box office than any other theatrical performance in the world. Outside the larger cities it seems to be as popular as ever. Among its most devoted patrons are church people, impressed with the religious features, who could not be induced under any circumstances to attend other theatrical performances, believing them to be sinful. The tent show has grown to be the most popular way of presenting "Uncle Tom," and is more easily managed than an opera house show. One man with no experience in the theatrical business started a "Tom" show with a cash capital of $250. That was 15 years ago, in Nebraska. He now has a fortune of $80,000.

  The street parade, its "Topsy," its "Little Eva," its bloodhounds and its brass band is the strong drawing card. The shrewd manager sends a complimentary ticket to the head of each farmer family within a radius of 10 miles of the town where he shows. "It is certainty that if ma goes, the children will go," said one of these managers, "and the thing to do is to get the children to begin begging ma to take them. The complimentary ticket does the work."

  The careful manager of a tent show in the summer season pays close attention to the weather, especially in the southwest country, where a tornado is likely to form in an hour and blow the feathers off a chicken. Threatening clouds are watched closely, and if danger is suspected the audience is warned to leave the tent. Often there are jocular individuals who tell the people that they are being fooled, and that there is no danger. The showman meets this with the bluff of having his workmen begin pounding stakes and loosening ropes with as much noise as possible. If the audience is dismissed and there is no storm, the showman gets roundly roasted.

  "I missed it once in Western Kansas," said a showman, "and came near getting lynched. The clouds were the worst I ever saw—pea green and fuzzy orange all mixed together. I got the crowd out and the tent down, and sent the performers to the car. No storm. In about twenty minutes I saw 300 people, headed by the Mayor and the Town Marshal, trotting toward the show ground. We held a pow-wow, made it plain we were on the square, and offered to put on the show if the crowd would help put up the tent and seats. They agreed, and we put on a show that tickled 'em to death."

  The genuine bloodhound is unknown in a "Tom" show. He is so small size and so lacking in appearance of ferocity that he would be a failure as a drawing card. The dog commonly used is a Great Dane, and he fills all the requirements. They cause much trouble by fighting among themselves and attacking strange dogs. Once locked in combat they cannot be pried apart. Ammonia is held to their noses to make them loose their hold. These dogs seem to learn the "business" of the stage, and ten minutes before their entrance they begin an uproar of baying. The piercing scream of Liza as she starts across the ice is the cue that makes their clamor wildest, and they never miss the cue.

  The moral requirements of the theatrical business have improved in the last 10 years, as they have in other kinds of business. "When I employ a new man," said an "Uncle Tom" manager, "I tell him that he is allowed to appear on the stage drunk just one time," after which he is paid the salary due him and discharged.

  One "Tom" company has had five Evas from the same family, the father being an employee in the Chicago Postoffice. The oldest is now happily married and lives at Oklahoma City. When there girls reached the age of 11 or 12 years they were taken out of the show business and placed in school, where they seemed to make keener students than other children. The Liza of this show was the wife of the manager; she looked carefully after the welfare of these little girls, taught them their lessons regularly two hours a day, and took them to Sunday school every Sunday. At Saturday matinees the town children are asked to stay after the performance and visit with Eva and see the ponies, &c.