Sam Scribner and the Columbia Burlesque Wheel

Sam A. Scribner (1859-1941) was born on this day. Scribner is best known for founding the Columbia Amusement Company, a.k.a. the Columbia Wheel or Eastern Wheel, the cleaner and more profitably run of America’s two burlesque circuits, in 1902. In 1913 the Eastern wheel merged with the raunchier Western Wheel, and the larger company was run by Scribner and Isidore Herk. In 1915, a subsidiary called the American Amusement Company was founded to producer “hotter” burlesque shows. It was headed up by Herk, who left in 1922 to form the Mutual Burlesque Wheel, which presented even hotter shows. For his part Scribner always swam against the tide to make burlesque cleaner and more like vaudeville, avoiding suggestive comments, lewd behavior etc. But towards the end of the ’20s, with competition from cinema, the writing was on the wall, and gradually striptease was allowed in order to gratify the rapidly evaporating audiences. Columbia and Mutual merged in 1927, but to no avail. In 1931, the combined circuits folded. Smaller chains like the Minskys, and individual venues, continued to exist for decades, but burlesque, in the sense of big national chains that rivaled vaudeville, was dead. Folks who’d performed on the Columbia circuit ranged included Weber and Fields, Bert Lahr, Fanny Brice and Mae West.

Originally from Western Pennsylvania, Scribner had gotten his start in circuses and travelling stock theatre troupes. He initially was a tuba player, then went to work for Rogers and Campbell’s circus in 1879. By 1892 he had amassed enough capital and managerial experience to open Scribner and Smith’s All New Enormous Combined Shows. By the end of the decade he sold out to Barnum and Bailey in order to go into the burlesque business.