Troupes Are Called Rural “Opera Houses”
COLON, Michigan, April 19, 1941 – Show-wagon wheels again are rolling. Throughout the rural communities of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, five established dramatic companies which last year played to 600,000 persons once more are touring the “kerosene circuit.”
The tent shows are modern open houses for rural communities, according to Skippy LaMore, of Colon, owner of one of the largest dramatic tent shows in Michigan, which has its winter quarters here.
Shows Divide State
Working under a tacit agreement among themselves not to infringe upon one another’s territory, the Jack Kelly company and Caldwell’s Comedians cover the Northern counties of the lower part of the state, while Norma Ginnavan and Frank Ginnavan (which are brother and sister troupes), and LaMore’s show work in the Southern tier of counties. LaMore explains that the present-day tent show is a far cry from those of yesteryear, for the modern tent show is an up-to-date road show “on wheels.”
“Automotive facilities made life easier for the tent-show people,” LaMore says, “We can play towns 200 miles apart now just as easy as those near by. Automobiles have increased attendance, too. It is not uncommon for families to drive 25 miles to attend performances and often they follow up the show in several different towns.
Trailers Are Big Help
“Theatrical people always have had to ‘live in trunks’ more or less,” he says, “but the house trailer has changed that for our actors. The entry of the tent show into town now is a regular cavalcade of trucks and automobiles with house trailers.
While the city show producers lament the decline of the legitimate stage and blame the “talkies” and radio for attracting the public’s interest, from stage shows. LaMore argues that the tent shows have seen in these inventions new opportunities for their business.
“The radio has provided the tent shows with one of its greatest improvements,” says LaMore. “We used to have to work out all kinds of devices for off-stage sounds. Now we use the sound-effect records made for radio use. There are records for every imaginable sound from lightning crashes to barking dogs and stealthy footsteps.”
Today’s tent shows are more realistic in other ways, too. The movies have led audiences to expect more lavish settings, LaMore says.
“For instance, if the stage setting is to be a grocery store, the audience won’t stand for us using a painted backdrop of shelves of groceries. We have to have a genuine store scene and us a stock of real merchandise.
An old-time tent show could easily get its equipment into a couple of baggage cars, he point out, but the tent show today requires four or five trucks and a working crew of 15 men.
“And the efficiency of the crew is second only to the big circuses” he says. “The trucks have to move on schedule and the crew has to be ready for any transportation emergency. For our show we use five trucks. The one carrying the tent must get through ahead because it takes nine hours to complete the tent set-up. Another truck carries the stage properties, the wardrobe trunks and piano; a third hauls tent chairs and seats; the fourth takes all the stage equipment, and the fifth – known as the trouble shooter – carries lighting equipment and tools of all kinds.”
Shows Provide Costumes
Since the actors are required to provide only street clothes, the show owner has to make a tremendous investment in special wardrobes. Winter quarters here provide for 33 trunks of wearing apparel.
LaMore says that although his patrons look upon the tent show as only a summer activity, in reality running a tent show is practically a year-round job, since the show owners spend the winter in preparation for the coming season. The actors usually work in such shows in the South in the winter and transfer to Northern shows for the summer.
LaMore last winter read through approximately 100 three-act plays from which seven were selected for summer production.
“We know what our patrons like and they don’t change,” he smiled. “They want the hero to marry the heroine and the villain to get his just desserts, with plenty of comedy mixed in.”
Skippy Lamore died in 1942