The Boston Globe
Fletcher Smith
12 January 1930


Not a single "Tom" Show Is Left of the Many Who Once Reached Every New England Town—Some Had Barking Actors Instead of Bloodhounds, and in One John L. Was the Blood-Thirsty Legree



  There is not now on the road in any section of the United States or Canada a single company playing that grand old drama, "Uncle Tom's Cabin." New England has always been considered lucrative territory for a Tom show. Some of the most famous Tom actors and actresses came from Boston, and it was, and is today, the home of several famous Tom show managers.

  For the same reason that the minstrel show owners of the country took their shows from the road, Tom managers found it necessary also to shut up show. The talking pictures and the radio have combined to kill both the minstrel and the Tom shows. There is not a single booking agency in New York city which could furnish a route for any one-night-stand company unless it was willing to sacrifice Saturday, the best night of the week, for the showing of Wild West or talking pictures.

  "Uncle Tom's Cabin" has had a long and notable career, and there is hardly a hamlet in New England but at one time or another has had the famous play.

Seven Persons or 70

  It has been played with a company of seven persons and again with 70. It has been mounted with two car loads of scenery and put on in hotel ballrooms with bed sheets for mask-ins and a bare wall for the ice scene. Eva has died and gone to Heaven more than once on a cot made of two kitchen chairs and a sheet borrowed from the landlord, only to make her almost immediate reappearance out in the audience to offer her photographs for sale at the small price of a dime, 10 cents.

  No New England boy or girl, when he or she arrived at the age of understanding, was ever denied the privilege of witnessing a performance of Uncle Tom. In fact, New Englanders seemed to regard it as a religious duty to have the children gain their impressions of slavery days as they were supposed to exist from witnessing the flight of Eliza across the Ohio River and the whipping of Uncle Tom by the cruel Simon Legree.

  "Uncle Tom's Cabin" has made more New England maiden ladies weep over the death of Little Eva than any other drama ever written, not excepting "East Lynne."

  Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire were always the favorite territory every Summer for the many wagon "Uncle Tom's Cabin" companies that opened in April and closed in September. One of the first of these shows, if not the very first, was Witherell Doud's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" company, that made the East every Summer.

  It was owned by George Witherell and Clarence Doud of Chateauguay, N Y, and it always featured as its leading actor, Charles Brickwood, as Marks the lawyer. Brickwood, whose right name was Charles Brickett, was a native of Haverhill and a Harvard graduate. He was the brother of Benjamin Brickett, the noted Haverhill criminal lawyer and ex-Mayor.

Biggest of Wagon Tom Shows

  Brickwood, besides doing Marks, played a banjo and danced in the concert. He had been admitted to the bar after he had been graduated from Harvard, but took up acting and died in the profession. He is buried in Haverhill.

  Martin Sullivan of Boston and Haverhill, who conducted a costume parlor on Washington st for many years, had a small wagon Tom show on the road, and so did Augustus Dionne of Keene, who also had a nickelodeon on Essex st, Lawrence, for a year or so.

  The biggest of all wagon Tom shows was owned and operated by Jim Shipman of Winchester, N H. He owned a big farm up on a mountain between Winchester and Keene, and opened and conducted a hotel in the former town after he retired from the show business. Originally he came from Syracuse, N Y, but he married Ada Thorpe, the former Ada Taylor, wife of a very rich young man of Winchester. She came into possession of all the Taylor property and land.

  It was Jim Shipman who conceived the idea of keeping a wagon Tom show out all Winter. The show played in theatres, but traveled overland. It opened in Winchester and moved as far East as Livermore Falls, Me, where it was snowbound. It was driven back to Winchester and never again went on the road.

  Jim Shipman, for a time after leaving the show business, drove a stage between Keene and Brattleboro, Vt, and then opened up the hotel at Winchester that at once became popular with the traveling public, especially drummers. His widow still conducts the hotel.

  Thomas L. Finn's wagon "Uncle Tom's Cabin" company was pretty well known in Vermont and Upper New Hampshire. Tom operated from Hoosic Falls, N Y, and was formerly in the circus business as side show manager for Sig Sautelle.

John L. a Strenuous Legree

  Uncle Tom is not dead, he is only sleeping. As soon as the public tires of talking pictures and the radio, and managers of opera houses and theatres will book one-night stand shows again she will awaken and take on a new lease of life, for Uncle Tom, like the circus and Tennyson's brook, is destined to go on forever.

  Perhaps the most famous of all Boston Uncle Tommers was John L. Sullivan. J.W. Goodrich, who had managed a wagon circus through Connecticut and New York State for several years, one Fall organized an Uncle Tom's Cabin company to play theatres throughout the East.

  He secured as his big feature John L. Sullivan, who played Simon Legree and used up in the course of a few weeks half a dozen Toms, who no matter how they padded under the red flannel shirt could not stand the rough usage received from the famous pugilist in the whipping scene.

  Ern G. Estey of Lynn was playing Tom in the show and he probably lasted longer in the role than any other actor. He wore under his red shirt a vest that was lined an inch thick with cotton. This oftentimes was inadequate to afford sufficient protection from the lashings he received some evenings when John L. had been entertaining friends in his dressing room and desired to give them a good account of himself as an actor later on.

  John L. remained with the Goodrich show as long as it was on the road.

  Two of the best-known Uncle Tom's Cabin managers in the country are, or were, both natives of Boston. One, A. Arnold Stover, had presented the famous old play in about every small town and schoolhouse in every New England State up to the time of his death, and although he accumulated several fortunes was unfortunate enough to let most of the money get away from him by placing too much trust in his managers.

Raised on the Show

  Leon W. Washburn, who is now living in Boston with his daughter Grace, herself a famous Tom actress in her time, had the largest Uncle Tom's Cabin company that ever toured the country. It required two cars to transport it and was famous for several seasons from presenting two Marks and two Topsies.

  Washburn had a protege in William Kibble, born in St. Johnsbury, Vt, and who was practically raised on the Washburn show. Billy was featured for years as the world's greatest baton swinger and then when he grew to manhood took over the Tom show and ran it for several years while Leon W. Washburn managed his big new theatre in Chester, Penn.

  Kibble died at Mt Clemens, Mich, and his widow had the show out for a few seasons with Charles A. Ackerman as manager. On the death of Ackerman, Washburn again had the show out, but finding it almost impossible to secure satisfactory bookings took it off the road forever. He is now about 80 years of age but hale and hearty and still attends Boston theatres.

  A. Arnold Stover was a native of Boston and enlisted from here when the Civil War broke out. He came back when peace was declared and engaged in the show business.

  Stover organized the first Uncle Tom's Cabin company to tour New England and Eastern Canada. He used to make his headquarters at a rooming house on Burroughs pl, across from the Hollis-Street Theatre. Here he rehearsed his cast and often painted the scenery for the floating ice and the rocky pass.

Started on Pension Money

  Stover had as his first manager Charles Burrell, who retired to a farm near Portland and accumulated a fortune. Then he had with him for years as manager Charles K. Harris, who came originally from Round Pond, Me.

  There were two other brothers, Joe and Eugene. The former became quite a famous repertory actor and was with the Bennett and Moulton Company, while Eugene was content to remain with his brother Charles.

  There was a very clever family of young folks just breaking into the theatrical business that Stover had working for him in practically all of his companies. There were three sisters, Jessie Harcourt, Bertha Judkins and Bonnie Hazel. Harris married Jessie and induced Stover to go out ahead of a repertory company known as the Charles K. Harris Comedy Company. It opened in Maine with a band and orchestra, but did not meet with great success. Stover turned it back to a Tom show and put the company on its feet.

  It was Stover's custom every Winter to secure all the open Saturday afternoon and night dates possible in the theatres throughout New England. He would book on a 50-50 basis and furnished the necessary billing and the company, usually of seven people.

  They had no dogs and the actors were called upon to play bloodhounds by barking in the wings for the ice scene.

  Stover wired James F. West, who managed the Academy of Music at Haverhill for a Saturday date and received the answer, "All O K, but don't bring any more actors who bark like dogs."

  Stover, although he was known in every little town from Boston as far east as Nova Scotia, never came back to Boston with much money and depended on his pension money to start him out again. Every three months the Government paid him $72. With this money he would lay in a supply of paper, have his dates printed at the Boston Job Print and his school kid cards at Johnson's Printery on Washington st.

Easy Matter in Those Days

  It was an easy matter to organize a Tom show in Boston in those days, for the town was full of actors up in the lines. Stover regularly employed Johnnie Malcomb for Marks. His Simon Legree was Louis Fredericks, who ran a scene painting plant over in South Boston. Mrs Bryant did Eliza and Ophelia and Edward Beckett of Ayer Junction did Tom. Billy Clark and William Gerald also appeared with him at various times and Jessie Harcourt was the Topsy and Bonnie Hazel the Eva till she grew too big and graduated to Topsy. Bertha Judkins did Mrs St Clair and Eugene, Haley and Skeggs.

  Whenever Stover secured a Saturday date he and Hi Davis would go to city and program the houses, calling at all the back doors, and giving out children's school cards for the Saturday matinee. They would also take up their stand on a street corner and present every lady with a herald of the show.

  Stover's indignation knew no bounds if anyone refused to receive the proffered herald. Once while programming the streets in Brockton, a well-dressed lady took one of his folders and after glancing at it threw it into the gutter. Stover at once grew indignant and grasping her by the arm exclaimed, "Strange, Madam, in this enlightened age, so many people cannot read." She called an officer and only the fact that Stover was known and the chief happened to be a veteran also resulted in his escaping paying a fine.

  Stover hated repertoire and could hardly be induced to go ahead of the Harris Comedy Company.

  A peculiar incident happened one Winter that put the Harris Company on its feet and kept it on the road for more than a year, playing Uncle Tom's Cabin, however. The repertoire show was doing bad business and was about broke when it arrived in Damariscotta, Me, for a week's engagement. It was in mid-Winter and the weather was bitterly cold. Business dropped to almost nothing and Stover was sent for to come back to the show and square the hotel bill.

Organized Over Night

  In the hotel he discovered a stock of lithographs of Uncle Tom's Cabin, left there for board by Palmer's Tom show, which went broke several years previous. Stover stood well with the landlady and induced her to let him have the entire outfit. There was a trunk full of billing matter, several sets of scenery and a property trunk.

  Every one with the show was set at work cutting the paper up and pasting it together again to read simply Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Stover went over to Southeast Harbor and hired a hall for the presentation of his show the following Monday night. Harris gave up playing repertoire and the show started to do a big business.

  When the company arrived at Monction, N B, it was detained for 24 hours while some of its members were held on a charge of robbery and murder. Stover had been given a big Dane dog by a butcher in Eastport and he was turned over to one of the company to look after.

Actors Held for Murder

  On the way to the opera house on Saturday night the young fellow went into a saloon with the dog, to get a drink. While in there he met the Minister of Finance of the Province, who lived in the town. That gentleman was always glad to meet theatrical people and asked permission to visit some of the actors in their rooms Sunday morning, on learning that the company would remain in the city over Sunday. He spent an hour or so with several of the actors, had several drinks and then was left in the room of Johnnie Malcomb to sleep for a while.

  Later he got up and in going down into the office, fell down a flight of stairs and broke his neck. There were arrests and the company held for examination the next day, three of the actors being charged with robbery and murder, as no money was found on the dead man and it was known that he had a large sum of money with him when he arrived at the hotel.

  But for the testimony of the hotel man, who had taken the money and put it in his safe, and a young local newspaper man who declared the official was intoxicated when he arrived at the room on Sunday morning, it would have gone hard with the actors. The coroner's jury reported late Monday afternoon that death was the result of an accident and the actors were freed.

  Stover spent the last of his days in the Soldier's home at Chelsea and is buried in that city. Hardly any of the original company are now alive; Jessie Harcourt died years ago and was soon followed by her husband, Johnnie Malcomb is dead and so are Louie Fredericks and Hi Davis. The writer, Eugene Harris and the two girls, Bertha and Bonnie Hazel, are about all who are living today.