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MEMORIES IN FOCUS: When towns provided their own entertainment years ago

MARION HISTORICAL MUSEUM PHOTO

Members of the cast of a 1909 talent extravaganza at Marion’s newly built Auditorium, near where the town’s post office now is located, pose for a photo.

In the days before movie houses, local talent shows were common forms of entertainment.

The highlight of each year often was a traveling extravaganza orchestrated by an itinerate author, composer, and director.

Carolyn Elinor Staley of Wichita and later Topeka was one such a “dynamic whirlwind directress,” as a Kansas newspaper described her toward the end of her career.

From 1906 to 1919, she traveled the state, including to Marion, staging charitable performances, often featuring 100 or more local performers in musical comedy sketches and chorus work.

The scope of each of her shows was far beyond what routinely could be staged locally and thus became the highlight of each theater season.

She typically spent a week in each town, with auditions and rehearsals on the first day and public presentations beginning on the fifth day.

She traveled to a different town three weeks each month, 10 months each year, typically putting on two shows in each town, mainly in Kansas but occasionally in Nebraska, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Texas.

Staley wrote the material herself and often appeared in her productions, taking a different show on the road each year.

Admission cost between 25 and 50 cents, the equivalent of $7.50 to $15 today. Proceeds after her costs typically went toward local charities.

By 1914, Staley’s business had begun to decline as theaters around the state were being transformed from opera houses to movie houses. However, state newspapers contain stories about her extravaganzas through the end of the 1910s.

In Marion, she put on several shows, each featuring between 50 and 100 local performers.

Included, according to accounts in the Marion Record and Marion Review, were “The County Fair” in December 1909, “The Union Depot” in February 1911, and “Isle of Spice” in January 1912.

All were put on in Marion’s Auditorium, a newly constructed “patent stone” (concrete block) building, later destroyed by fire, near the present site of the town’s post office.

Charities benefiting from the productions here included the city library, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and the under-construction Masonic Temple at the northeast corner of 4th and Main Sts.

Various women’s clubs were local sponsors of the events.

The stars of the 1909 show, according to notes accompanying a photograph of its cast, included Harry K. Rogers (1889-1956), 10th from left in the second row, who played Widower Jones with “tenderness and zeal,” the Record of the day reported.

Rogers went on to perform in many other civic productions before becoming famous nationally as Sparky, later Smoky, the Fire Clown.

Director Staley and local pianist Elizabeth Powers, who the Record said “maintained her position as an accomplished performer,” are at right in the second row in the photo.

The photo was donated to Marion Historical Museum by performer Ruth Adkins Lindenberger (1895-1989), ninth from left in the first row.

“The first thing on the program,” the Record wrote at the time, “was a vocal stunt by 40 little girls. It was a heart warmer, worth the admission price to hear and see those sweet-faced tots sing ‘Childhood.’ You old crab-faced bachelor, if you don’t think so, keep your grouch to yourself.”

The 1909 show brought in $217.75, the equivalent of $6,150 today. Receipts were donated to the building fund of the Masonic Temple, which was constructed that year.

Last modified Feb. 13, 2020

 

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