Madge Kinsey’s Players
In my autobiography called Patchwork And So Forth, I mentioned a description told to me by my father about his attending live theater at the opera hall in Mt. Gilead, Ohio during the Great Depression. In those days, kids went hungry a lot and he said when he saw the players eating saltine crackers, he wanted one in the worst way. When the play was finished, he went behind stage looking for the leftover crackers.
I am visiting my Dad now as he is preparing to leave his home in Florida to return to Ohio as he is going blind. It doesn’t take much for you to get the picture. Here I am going deaf and there is my Dad going blind. I can barely hear him and he can see me with some distortion. In between is my brother to help things along.
We were sorting through things, parsing among heirlooms, old photos, artwork and such when he handed to me an envelope with my name printed on it. He said there’s some stuff in there that I might like. I opened it and sure enough inside was some historical documents and descriptions about Henry George, our great ancestor, including some descriptions of Ohio history.
That prompted me to ask him more about his childhood. It seems that elders don’t always want to cooperate in those discussions but I gave to him a for instance. What was the name of the theater troupe that you saw in about 1935 in Mt. Gilead at the opera house?
He replied instantly as if he had been waiting for someone to ask that question.
“Madge Kinsey’s Comedy Troupe,” he replied.
Dad is 84 now and that places him about 10 to 11 years old at the time. He said the troupe came to town every year before then and after as he recalled.
Mt. Gilead is a farm town in north central Ohio with a small population today and very small one back then. Yet, people from surrounding communities would come to events at the Morrow County seat of government such as the livestock fair and live entertainment.
With this glimmer of new information, I went off to the Learning Center and Central Florida College where they have Wi-Fi and I conducted research into Madge Kinsey.
I returned and greeted my Dad with some new questions.
What was the name of your favorite plays or characters? Did they sell candy?
“Why yes they sold taffy in a wrapper. And, I recall a clumsy farm boy named Tobey who was a comedian,” he answered.
That’s a pretty good memory my Dad has. Then, I shared some more details.
Tobey was the most popular character as I describe later. As for the taffy, here is a quotation from a salesman as prize candy was a standard procedure for all tent shows.
"You never can tell what you will get out of this candy. Two years ago a boy and a girl found prize coupons in their candy. The boy's called for a pair of lady's hose and the girl's called for a safety razor. I suggested that they exchange, which they did-and that was how they met. They got married and last night they came to the show. With them was a bouncing baby boy. You never can tell what you will get out of this candy."
Dad responded, “That sounds familiar. Did you make that up?”
Well, it turns out that Madge Kinsey came from a family of tent performers and people who performed also at opera houses. She was the second generation, and after her father died, she branched away from the original Kinsey Komedy Kompany as she wanted to perform in opera halls to get out of the tents. Her headquarters was near Fostoria Ohio and she traveled all of Ohio and neighboring states to perform a repertoire of plays. They might stay in one place and perform a new play each evening for several nights before moving on.
I am going to write another story to continue the description of tent show performers with more detail about Morris L. Kinsey who founded the company.
The news relevance of this story to today’s modern world includes:
· Difficult economic times
· People seeking simple pleasures to make them laugh
· Repertory theater isn’t dead yet
“HITS in the TALL CORN By VANCE JOHNSON (Collier's for August 20, 1949)
Long ago Broadway and Hollywood posted the death notice for the repertory theater, but out in the great midlands tent shows are still playing to standing room only.
The author, a Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, has been a newspaperman for 20 years. He has been interested in tent shows ever since the day he saw the Sadler company as a boy in Texas.
This summer, out in the "tall grass country," a grand old American institution long since given up for dead by Broadway and Hollywood is still going strong. It is the repertory theater.
Generally it holds forth under a gaudy red and blue tent like the big top of the circus, appears every Monday morning in perhaps half a hundred small cities and towns in the heart of America, stays for a week, offers a new play "each and every evening," and moves on.
Repertory's custodians are a sturdy band of professionals who have been beating the hinterland trail for well over a quarter of a century regardless of depression and war. While Broadway mourns for the "days that were" and nearly every season launches a highly publicized but singularly unsuccessful attempt to "revive" repertory, and while earnest and artful--and subsidized--groups struggle mightily to "keep the drama alive" in old barns, circular theaters and the like, these hardy troupers go about their business as if no one had ever questioned their likelihood of success. “