A Kind of Theatre I Bet You Never Knew About


Here’s an irony for you: I love to learn, but am not so interested in teaching. Because of what I do, this attitude on my part confounds people all the time, but it’s true: I look upon the writing of my two books, and this blog, and preparing talks as learning experiences, and I just share what I learn as I go. The pleasure for me is not in the sharing but in the greedy acquisition of the information as I write something. I’m happy to share…but I really hate being asked questions, for example, and a teacher should never hate that. At any rate, one of the happiest outcomes of my having written No Applause is that every so often I’ll hear from somebody who wants to share something with me, which then I naturally pass on to to other people. But the cool part for me is getting the surprise in the first place. For me, Christmas is kind of spread throughout the year, with presents from strangers that are highly targeted to my interests and things that give me pleasure. Now that I think on it, I don’t know what the hell I have to complain about.


Anyway, the other day I heard from a nice lady named Roberta Wilkes from Kansas City, Kansas, who is one of the last living practitioners of an extinct form of American entertainment known as tent repertoire theatre. I, like a few of my readers knew of a certain subset of this kind of theatre, known as the Toby Show. I saw a documentary about Toby Shows about 20 years ago; they were a series of plays and skits starring a sort of folk hero, a red-headed rube named Toby. I mentioned the form briefly in No Applause, and several years earlier had named the main character in my play House of Trash Toby in honor of the tradition. But Ms.Wilkes wrote to inform me that the tent shows were much more wide-ranging than just the Toby Shows. They presented the entire repertoire of stock melodramas and farces, the kinds of fare you would also get at brick and mortar theatres as well as show boats, stuff like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Up in Mabel’s Room, complemented by vaudeville style performances: songs and dances and whatever entertaining skills could be brought to bear. From the mid 19th century through about 1980 entire companies traveled with these shows, presenting them in large circus-like tents, mostly through the rural midwest although sometimes as far east as Tennessee and Kentucky.  This form may indeed be one of the last survivals of something organically connected to old time vaudeville. I’ll let Ms. Wilkes take it from here:


“[it was a] form of travelling theatre that was – in my opinion – a very “American” form of theatre that was popular from the time of the Civil War until the late 1970s.    Of course, it had started its decline before that!

In any event, vaudeville was a part of this type of production.   Plays with vaudeville between the acts.  Typically shows played a town for a week or so – with a different play each night – then jumping to the next town.   In the winter – a form of circle stock was sometimes used.

I was born in 1942 to a family of troupers in tent rep.   My father had been in such troupes for a decade or so before that – my mother was younger and started in about 1940, I think.   My father played heavies in the plays, but was also the piano player – playing for the specialties.  My mother was an ingenue and a talented dancer/singer/comedienne.

I trouped with my parents until I was 8 – at that time my mother became ill and died.  I trouped with my father for two more summers, but then he took a job with the Black Hills Passion Play in South Dakota – and my sister and I went to live with my maternal grandparents.  When I was 18 years old I went out for another season – as leading lady on the then quite decrepit Sun Players Show.   By then there were just 3 or so of these shows left – that was 1960.

There are very few of us left who were born into this business and actually trouped.  Most of us are members of the National Society for Preservation of Tent, Repertoire and Folk Theatre.   I know – quite a mouthful!   This little group meets annually in April at The Theatre Museum located in Mount Pleasant, Iowa – which is a little gem of a museum dedicated to this type of theatre.  It contains a wonderful research library…

…As a child I played Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.   I also did specialties from the time I was 3.  Although my day job is as a lawyer I have continued my involvement in theatre in many ways.  I am also a pianist and have written rag time compositions.”

Watch her in action here:

Ms. Wilkes also wrote the book you see pictured at the top of this post, a charming little fictionalization based on her personal experiences on the road, and what it might be like to do it again sometime in the present day. Best of all it has some amazing family photos from the trouping days. Get your copy of One More Season: Trouping with the Laberta Stock Company One Last Time here.


  1. I read Roberta’s post and this weblog. I find it very interesting. I am also a member of the Theatre Museum in Iowa. My Mother, several sisters and brothers were also members. I will be 89 in about three weeks. Except for one sister in Texas the rest are departed. We were all born on my Father’s tent show, The Lew Henderson Players. I have a small web page consisting of photos and ads. You might find it interesting.


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