Medicine shows were primarily a rural form of entertainment, operating out of the backs of wagons (and later, trucks) in the Mid-west and Southeast United States, although its roots go back as far as Medieval times. These small operations would travel around hawking patent medicine cures, tonics, elixirs, and lineaments with a pitch usually made by a “Doctor” (invariably one with dubious or nonexistent credentials).
The medicine shows (and their medicines) were often linked to Indian tribes to give their folk remedies an imagined legitamcy. Kickapoo Indian Sagwa was the most famous of these, although there were countless others.
To lure the townsfolk, a small company would present a basic variety show, featuring skills like magic, juggling, short skits and music. As you can imagine, life traveling with such shows was brutal and hard — exposure to weather, very little money. Buster Keaton’s parents Joe and Myra started out with such outfits, and so did Buster, who was born as they were traveling with one. I have been to the site — Piqa, Kansas, a bleak, desolate spot one suspects is not far from the farm of Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. Some of the other performers who got their start with such shows are Harry Houdini, Harry Langdon, Joe Cook Red Skelton, Carter the Great, Cal “Uncle Josh” Stewart, Ted Lewis, Bobby Watson, Jimmy Conlin, James Cruze, Ned Sparks, Paul Dresser, Charles Winninger, Jack Donahue, Chick York, El Barto, Fred Stone, the Weaver Brothers and Elviry, Hal Skelly, Otto Fries, Donald Brian, Tom Dugan, Horace Murphy, Rambling Tommy Scott, and Eli Bowen the Legless Acrobat.
African American performers who traveled with medicine shows included Diamond Teeth Mary, Papa Charlie Jackson, Big Joe Williams, Cow Cow Davenport, Big Bill Broonzy, Leonard Harper, Sissle and Blake, Slow Kid Thompson, Tim Moore, and T-Bone Walker. George Walker and Bert Williams were nearly lynched while traveling with a medicine show through the south when the local denizens decided that their clothes were too fancy.
Percy Williams, who’d started out as an actor in melodramas, made his fortune as a medicine man, and eventually owned a chain of vaudeville theatres. Jesse Lasky went from performing in medicine shows to helping to found Paramount Pictures. Vaudeville impresario Gus Sun produced his own medicine shows. Sylvester Poli purchased his first wax museum from a couple of veterans of the Kickapoo shows.
Live medicine shows went out with the banning of patent medicine in the early to mid 20th century. But every time you listen to radio or watch television and get a commercial for a pharmaceutical company you’re getting the modern electronic equivalent.
I’ve done medicine show bits many times over the years. Trav S.D.’s Health and Wealth Elixir made its appearance at my Nada shows in ’96 and ’99 and at The Brick in ’06; and we’ve also taken the liberty of hawking Moxie in ’02 and at Collective: Unconscious in ’07. I stand firm by my belief in the Moxie product, but the show itself took a bath. Look for more from me like this in the near future!
To learn more about the variety arts past and present, including medicine shows, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.