Chicago Tribune
"By a Barnstormer"
2 June 1907

How I Became a Tommer.

  Versatility is my strong point. I have played repertoire like this: Monday evening, "East Lynne"; Tuesday, "Macbeth"; Wednesday matinée, "Hearts of Oak"; Wednesday evening, "Chimes of Normandy"; Thursday, "Two Orphans"; Friday, "The Danites"; Saturday matinée, "Bunch of Keys"; Saturday evening, "Hamlet"; Sunday evening, sacred concert.

  But at that I never knew what versatility was until I became a Tommer. I had worn a path an inch deep from Fourteenth to Forty-second street on both sides of Broadway waiting for some one to offer to make himself famous by hiring me. I had arrived in New York in May, having firmly convinced myself that next season I would make Aldebaron look like a dot in the milky way compared with me. Towards the middle of June I dwindled down to the size of Eta in the scorpion, and by the end of June I felt like a speck of star dust. Which, being translated from astronomy, means that my aspirations to be a star had dropped to 30 cents, and that I was grasping at a chance to get anything. I offered to work for everybody, from Daly to Sam Jack.

  Late in June I signed up to go out through the middle states as a Tommer, doing Legree and doubling on the French horn, two parades a day, and working under canvas.

  The main feature, which I celebrated jubilantly, was a $10 advance and transportation (without a sleeper) to Irvineton, Pa., where I was ordered to join. Of the $10 I was forced to expend $4 for a second hand French horn, of dubious worth, and the remainder, after the purchase of a square meal, I laid up against a rainy day. As I had been trying to rival Dr. Tanner for about three weeks, that square meal ate into the unearned increment in fearful style.

  I departed New York with $3.15 and few regrets, and reported for duty at Irvineton. When I left New York my salary, as per agreement, was $25 per week. When I reached Irvineton it was unchanged. When the proprietor discovered that I was the proud possessor of $1.65 my salary immediately became $12. It was vain to kick.

  I played Legree the first night, after parading the town twice, and played it well. The following day the manager, who still was supremely aware of my financial condition and my constant inability to kick on anything, informed me that, as he had discharged George Harris, I would have to double as Harris in the future.

  Now, parading seven or eight miles a day, blowing a horn in front of the tent, and then dressing for two parts and playing them, besides doing a comedy song and dance, appeared a good deal like working, and for the first time I began to think that perhaps father was wrong when he advised me to "stay at home and work instead of running around with a lot of loafers who work a couple of hours a day."

  We continued westward, stopping on the commons of most of the weekly paper towns in Pennsylvania and Ohio, but it was not until we arrived at a village which bears the euphonious name of Losantville, Ind., that my vaunted versatility was tested to the limit.

  We arrived in town, via wagon, about 4 a.m. Uncle Tom and I were doubling up inside one of the wagons, sleeping, while Sandy McIntyre, who played Topsy and Lawyer Marks, drove. At some time during the night Sandy had acquired a bottle of fighting whisky, and we arrived in Losantville after a two mile run that made me and Uncle Tom dream that we were grains of corn in a popper. Sandy had driven the team at a dead run over a rough road.

  During the morning Sandy and Little Eva joined out, and when time came for the evening performance Little Eva, Topsy, and Lawyer Marks were out of the lineup, which left five of us, exclusive of the manager and two canvas hands and the cook, to do Uncle Tom for the benefit of Losantville. It was a situation to wring the heart even of Julian Mitchell.

  Besides that, the manager was two weeks behind in my salary, and he had been doing the Bunk Allen turn with everybody else as well. He hurriedly called a conference, and rearranged things. He agree to do Uncle Tom himself, he cast Aunt Ophelia and Lawyer Marks and Eva's papa as one part, Topsy had two other parts, besides doubling as one of the bloodhounds; Eliza had three stunts thrust upon her, and as for me all I had to do was George Harris, Legree, and Little Eva, besides being one of the bloodhounds and leader of the band.

  We switched lines considerably in order to cover up the shortness of the company and keep as many persons clear of the stage as possible in order to make the costume changes.

  What we needed that night was Clyde Fitch to rewrite "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and a couple of lightning change artists to help play it. I doubt if even Charles E. Blaney would try to put on fourteen principal characters with five actors, a ham manager, and one canvas hand, but by that time we were ready for anything, and it was a true test of versatility.

  Just before supper time (the cook was hurrying because he was anxious to prepare for his début as an actor) I gently approached the manager with a modest request for instant settlement of my just claim for $24, bring two weeks' salary which was in arrears. He at first declined, but under insistent and repeated demands he finally offered $12 and gradually lifted the limit until he reached $18, where he stopped. I grabbed the $18, in cold hard cash, the first real cash I had felt in two weeks, and shortly thereafter the memorable production commenced.

  Having played George Harris to a finish, and escaped to return from the other side and pursue Eliza across the ice, I hastily prepared myself to be Legree, and within a few minutes was transformed into Little Eva. If I do say it myself, my deathbed scene was good—that is, under the circumstances, for I had to die with my knees pulled up under my chin, to keep my feet from sticking out at the foot of the bed, and my ascent into heaven was a grand success.

  All might have gone well, but just while I was dying artistically Uncle Tom, who was the manager, and who was sobbing over my bedside, began to feel around under the bedclothes for that $18. The idea of any one pretending to sob over a deathbed, and a child's deathbed at that, and at the same time trying to get possession of the corpse's hard earned salary, savored too much of K. and E. methods to suit me, and I lost my temper. It is well the audience, which was sitting spellbound watching me die, did not hear the corpse's last words.

  Just as soon as the curtain fell Little Eva and Uncle Tom mingled, and it required the united efforts of the others to pull them apart. The $18 still was safe, so I hurried back to resume the Legree costume and finish the piece.

  It is sad to think that Losantville did not appreciate the realism of the closing act that evening. The manager, with pillows strapped about him, was prepared to be whipped to death, and I, as Simon Legree, was fully prepared to do the whipping. Also I knew from long experience just where the pillows ended and the unprotected spots began. It was the grandest, most realistic, and wonderful scene ever presented—but Losantville scarcely appreciated it. If I ever let the blacksnake whip hit a pillow it was because my aim was bad. I gave Uncle Tom the licking of his career. I licked him $4 worth, and then proceeded to lick him $18 a week for eleven weeks, with compound interest.

  The following morning, in proud possession of $18 ready money, I boarded a train for Chicago, and ceased to be a Tommer.