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Mimes and Miners: A Historical Study of the Theater in Tombstone

Clair Eugene Wilson (1935)


When they don't like a play in Arizona, they don't like it, no matter who was its author. A traveling company recently gave Hamlet in an Arizona town, and the following notice of the event appeared in the local paper: "A company of duffers gave a show last night at Barney Hill's. They played a dizzy snap called Hamlet. We never heard of the drama before, and we never want to see it again. It is the snidest thing in the way of a show we ever fell up against. There ain't no horses, singing, fighting, or dancing in the whole blamed shebang. There was a lively dog fight in the middle of the play that was a great success. The actors were not killed but the duck that played "Hamlet" was tarred and feathered. He will recover. (9)

Every condition was for bringing to Tombstone the best of the traveling companies. Tombstone was a good show town. It was eager to spend money freely and it did. Desirable climatic conditions prompted more companies to play in Tombstone than would ordinarily have been the case. When other camps were snowed in, stage coaches were bringing to Tombstone companies that might otherwise have gone elsewhere. In the early years of the town, the railroad came from the east only to Deming, New Mexico, and from the west only to Yuma, Arizona. (9-10)

[From a Bird Cage Opera House playbill:]
People crazed with delight over our new company. 20 first class artists.
The verdict is "guilty." Johnny Pierce. Guilty of what? Of being the greatest End Man and Comedian that ever visited Tombstone.
Always ready when wanted, Nola and Billy Forrest; the people's choice.
Still with us—Miss Mable Rivers. A model for all to copy from.
The pink of perfection, Miss Kitty Mountain, who has established her self at once as a favorite.
Our bower of beauty: Miss Clara Edwards, Miss Irene Orsman, Miss Bell Budoir, Miss Lizzie Bell, Miss Annie Showers, Miss Lotta Hall, Miss Bessie Harper, Miss Susie Foster, and a host of others. (21)

"For the past week the Bird Cage Theatre has had a burlesque on the boards, entitled The Chinese Must Go. The play is full of laughable incidents and its author is entitled to a niche in the temple of humor with Mark Twain, Bob Burdette, et al." (25)

There were other attractions; however, in the form of glove contests between the Parker brothers and Walker and Edwards. "The greatest interest was centered in the heavy lifting of Schumacher, the winner of the late match over Professor Marc Christal. A ponderous bar of iron, weighing fully 150 pounds, was raised aloft in Mr. Schumacher's hands, and in addition to this was the entire weight of three average sized men and the whole carried about the stage with apparent ease by the Young hercules." (31)

We cannot close this brief review without a reference to the appointments and mountings of the play. Considering the limited resources of he hall, the scenery and surroundings were appropriate, and as full as could be expected under the circumstances; but what was lacking in this regard was more than compensated for by the beautiful costumes of the "Marchioness" and "Alice Varnay." It has not been our good fortune to witness such elaborate toilets at any previous representation in Tucson. (43)

Jennie Wallace as "Clara Willoughby", the Madison Avenue belle and the poor street waif, "Minnie Rook", captured everybody with her sparkling and brilliant acting; while her charming sister, Maud, as "Inky Dick, the Printer's Devil" introducing her songs and dances, and her great clog dance appeared to much greater advantage than on the preceding evening. (47)

The "Jolly Twelve"—A Field Night of Crazy Amateurs in Tucson
Many a long day has passed since the writer has struck on such a hive of cranks as last night rammed and jammed in and out of the side flats at Levin's Hall, and we doubt whether a "cuddy" full of them could be found in any other part of the Pacific Coast. Those who went expecting some return for their money and patronage were woefully disappointed, and those who remained away and missed seeing the "bleached out Apache squaw from the San Carlos reservation" in his magnificent imitation of the song of "The Dying Swan" will always have a lasting regret. It cannot be described, will never be imitated and may prove to be a boon in disguise by forever putting a damper on all such performances. The rest of the circus was of little better description and was composed of knock down and drag out repetition. (48)

The next troupe to appear at Tombstone firmly believed in the power of advertising. It was Andrews and Stockwell's Ideal Spectacular Pantomime and Star Specialty Company with their twenty artists and their "startling funniosity in three acts, entitled Humpty Dumpty's Picnic." (51)

"Give Miss Putnam a play in which she can laugh, dance and win the hearts of her hearers by the charming natural abandon of an untutored girl, and she becomes (in the language of the Hon. Bardwell Slote) a K. C. (complete success)." (56)

Tucson, also, witnessed this unusual attraction, and the public responded with full houses, assuring the company that should they ever return, they would be greeted "by the largest audience ever gathered under one roof in the memory of the oldest inhabitant." (57)

Tombstone audiences were just as quick to pronounce adverse criticism as they were to praise. The recipient of the remarks was the McKanlass Colored Specialty Company, which played at the Schieffelin on October 24. There was some difference of opinion, regarding the merits of the company, but "the general verdict seems to be that the town would have been winner had they never come." (60)

The repertoire of the Mexican company consisted of The Mascot, El Relampago, and Olivette or The Tempest. The latter was presented as a benefit to the company. It was the inevitable outcome of the catastrophe that befell the troupe when the Occidental Hotel, in which they were staying, burned to the ground. The loss to the company was estimated at $10,000. The prima donna, alone, lost $1,200 worth of diamonds besides considerable composure. When the fire broke out, she was dining at the Can Can Restaurant. As pistol shots were discharged, warning of the fire, she started for the kitchen, exclaiming, "Revolution! Revolution!" The Tombstone public charitably responded to the predicament in which the opera company found itself. Almost $200 was taken in at the benefit performance. (64)

The experience of managing the Tombstone presentation of the Imperial Opera Company proved so discouraging to Jack Bellamy that he forsook the affairs of the theater and went back to the undertaking establishment. Although caring for the dead might not be very glamorous, it is more certain than the vagaries of the stage. (65)

Tombstone was truly show-starved. "Whatever the Attraction, Tombstone Will Patronize It" might well have been the slogan to attract traveling troupes of all kinds. The next to receive the stamp of "full house" approval was a dog show that filled the Schieffelin with men, women, and children. The record states that the dogs, thirty in number, acted their parts in an intelligent manner. "The long distance and high jumping on the part of a greyhound was particularly interesting and astonishing." (69)

"The minstrel entertainment last night at Schieffelin Hall was by far the best one that the citizens of Tombstone have been treated to in the history of the camp." (70)

Professor Anton Zamloch returned to Tombstone, on November 19, fortified with more experience and the plaudits of other communities. . . .
"His spirit rapping, taking three cages and as many canaries from a hat of one of the audience, shooting doves out of an omelet, and hundreds of other amusing deceptions kept the audience in good humor. The prizes given to holders of tickets was an interesting part of the show. A Mexican packed off a sack of flour. A. L. Vidal took home a ham, Charles Bacigalupi shouldered a side of bacon, Kieke took back to his store a bottle of pickles, Phil Hart captured a pair of corsets, Jim Allison won an elegant parlor lamp, Mrs. Chenowith drew a water set, while dressing cases, table covers, silk handkerchiefs, etc. went all over the house." (72, 73)

The fact that the Tombstone public seemed to be in unaccustomed surroundings when they attended the theater of late was at least partly responsible for their lack of behavior when "A majority of those who attended the play last night evidently mistook the idea that a reserved seat required a person to occupy any particular spot. It was every one for themselves, and the usher surrendered his position early in the evening." (74)

"The parts were all well rendered. Tears took the place of applause. The play is too pathetic to suit the average human being whose every day life is a serious play itself in this part of the country." (77)

"The scene is located in New York state where love at first sight seems to be the object of life. The West is too practical to look upon such sentiment as being true to life, and anything that is not true to every day existence is unfavorably criticised in this neck of the woods."
Such a criticism reflects at least a degree of critical thinking. It differs vastly from the usual "The play was the best given so far. There was a large and appreciative audience." (79)

Something of the conditions the troupers had to face in their attempts to bring entertainment to the inland towns can be judged from the account of the Melrose Minstrels' engagement which was scheduled for March 7. They transferred their trappings to the skating rink and showed there because Schieffelin Hall could not be warmed. (80)

"But the singing and instrumental features and the steropticon [sic] views were pleasing and interesting while the performance of the Doctor with his den of snakes was remarkable, and later when he allowed the largest of his number, and one that had been caught near Watervale the same day, to bite him, in full view of the audience who gathered around the stage and saw the venomous bite by the rattler on the hand of the Doctor. Snakin was immediately applied, and the powerful neutralizing effects of this medicine was plainly shown. In the belief that there might still be some "doubting Thomas" in the group, the snake was again allowed to insert its deadly fangs into the hand of the doctor and permitted to remain imbedded in the flesh for several seconds and the poison shown as it flowed from the reptile's mouth into the wound. A citizen scooped up some of the poison on a paper from the overflow on the Doctor's hand. The excitement was intense as it was plainly shown that no deception had been practiced, and on the merits of the medicine a goodly number of bottles were sold." (81-2)

"Dr. Nonneck inserted hat pins through his tongue and arm, taking pains to run the pin through the large artery of his arm and the point sticking out on the opposite side, making a hole through his cheek with a hollow needle and blowing benzine gas through the needle and igniting it producing a miniature gas well fire, running a needle through his neck and allowing two persons to pull the thread back and fourth and otherwise making a human pincushion of his face all without showing the least signs of pain."
It would be desirable to record that Dr. Nonneck continued over the western hills and plains, bringing a boon to that snake-infested country, in the form of "Snakin." But while the intrepid adventurer was demonstrating his remarkable abilities at Deming, New Mexico, the potency of his brew was insufficient to throw off the effects of being bitten by some mad snakes. "Several doctors who have been working on him have almost given up hope of saving his life." Unfortunately, the final outcome is unrecorded. (82)

Those people of Tombstone who were unable to go to Bisbee were cared for, in a theatrical way, by a troupe of amateurs from the latter. Townsend's comedy drama, The Mountain Waif, was presented on June 8, 1901. It was billed as high class production. Just what constituted "high class" in those days may be inferred from the following synopsis:
Act 1. Interior of Miners' Roost Hotel. The Arrivals. A salted mine. A new friend.
Act II. Sitting rooms at Parson Tibbs' house. How to kill a chicken. Jollie's arrival. Arrested. I'll meet my accuser face to face.
Act III. Golden Gulch. The Plot. A gun that shoots at both ends. You have killed him. Now kill me. Ralph Delmar has an invitation to attend his own funeral.
Act IV. Same as Act II. Ralph Delmar. Lynch him, boys. No, I'll defend him. We are the people and don't you forget it. A Mountain Waif. (85)

Maloney's Wedding, a musical comedy, was produced on March 26, and was well received. A synopsis of the "farcical conceit" is indicative of its nature:
Act I. The Introduction.
Act II. The Wedding.
Act Ill. The Trouble and Finish.
Musical program: The Great Radcliffe, Peculiar Lew Nelson, James E. Bowen, Nellie Fillmore, Laura Pierpont, and that little comedienne, Maud Sutton. Medleys, choruses by the entire company. (89)

The Millionaire Tramp Company was the next to join the steady stream of troupes to play in the season of 1904 at Tombstone. It appeared on October 17, featuring "two real, live babies, who take a prominent part in the play." (90)

During the next few days, Tombstone lost two performances. Walter Scott, better known as "Scotty of Death Valley," desired to bring his troupe of twenty and present The King of the Desert Mine. Manager Howe of the Schieffelin was not interested or there were no open dates, since the troupe did not appear. (97)

The public was assured that there would be warmth and comfort for everyone. The announcement was made through the newspaper columns. This method was not like that of a small town back East, where in the event of there being a fire in the opera house stove, an announcement was made to that effect by means of a small boy who carried a sign and rang a bell. (99)

"Their every word, look, or action was the signal for an outburst of laughter which at times ran riot. It is needless to say that only a wooden cigar sign could resist these two comedians." (103)

One of the standards by which the quality of a traveling show was judged was whether or not the company adhered to the production as advertised. When it did not, sharp comment was unhesitatingly given. (103-4)

Indicative of a development in the picture form of theatrical entertainment, was the program on March 13. It was billed as "Bradshaw's Famous Diorama in a Refined Pictorial Program, and was presented under the auspices of the local Elks' Club. (104)

The good fortune that Tombstone had enjoyed in attracting so many traveling shows during the past few years received a definite setback in the cancellation of the engagement of a great many theatrical companies that were booked for Arizona. The low price of copper, the mining of which was the main source of income, was announced as the reason for the cancellation. People were attending performances of cheaper forms of entertainment such as the moving picture shows. (108)

"The 'Dancing Horse' by Hall and Wentz was exceedingly clever. Miss Carrol McComas did a well received whistling turn. Charles Murray got about six encores with his catchy, 'Every Town Has a Broadway, but There is Really Only One.' Mack took several encores with his 'Cowboy Kid.' In fact he got so that he had to ride the "horse" on for one encore. . . ."
The opinion was that the troupe could "return any old time." (110)

The presentation of The Cowpuncher at Tombstone on January 29 had only a lukewarm reception. The play was essentially the same type as its more illustrious contemporaries, but in the West its "palpably overdrawn and crude representations and ever present 'eastern idea' proved its downfall." (111)

Tombstone was entertained with a lecture by Thomas McClary, who appeared at the Schieffelin on April 27. Mr. McClary was unusually adept at winning the friendship of his audience.
"His reference to Tombstone was peculiarly felicitous and was to the effect that the only objection he had to the flower garden of Arizona was its name; that in the place of Tombstone, after observing the expanding prosperity everywhere in evidence, he would suggest the name Resurrection."
His style, which was "calculated to dissipate gloom in the human heart and give life's mission a true relish," was finding an appropriate illustration in the play-going off Tombstone, for the theater continued to pull itself up out of the despondent period of just a few years prior to this time and to go on with an increasing list of popular productions. (112)

The Haliday Company was a little indiscreet in advertising, without permission, the foregoing performance as the Elks' Night show and in having Mr. Gall sing the Elks' song. The lodge members remonstrated publicly. This advertising was of no benefit to the troupe. (114-15)

Even the faithful Georgia Minstrels did not see fit to include Tombstone in their itinerary. Old time negro minstrels and Tombstone were not to be divorced without fight. Into the breach came the Nashville Students with their rag-time band and other accouterments of minstrelsy. (125)

To meet the needs of the time, the building formerly known as the Oriental Saloon became an exhibition hall for "the daily exhibition of two separate and distinct collections of views, embracing life scenes of the most important events which have transpired on the Eastern and Western continents, both ancient and modern among which are all the principal and decisive battles of the Great Civil War of the United States." (129)

The most important of the lesser places of entertainment had been formerly a saloon known as the Crystal Palace. It had been formerly a saloon known as the Crystal Palace. [Sic] (130)

Tent shows of various kinds took advantage of the attractive climatic conditions of Tombstone and vicinity to appear there during the winter months. On December 13, 1887, Forepaugh's circus, commonly billed as "4-paw's", exhibited its "monster railroad circus, museum, menagerie [sic], and ELEVATED STAGE" at Fairbank, the nearest railroad town to Tombstone. (131)

The furnishings of the company included a private sleeping car, two baggage cars, and a day coach. Among the actors were "white lady and gentlemen performers, cowboys, Indians, and Mexicans." (132)

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