I would have never connected the Theatre Museum with the Old Thresher’s Reunion. If I had not seen the building right across the street from the show grounds, I probably never would have ventured into this wonderful museum that is dedicated to the art and preservation of the early repertoire theatre. The costumes, the painted curtains, the pictures and more tell the story of these tent troupes that came to the rural communities entertaining those that lived in the small towns and toiled in the land. These theatre groups brought joy and excitement to the lives of those living in the heartland.
The museum was built by the Midwest Old Settlersand Thresher association, Inc. in 1973. The museum was the dream of Neil and Caroline Schaffner who owned the Repertoire theatre. The museum is run by the National Society for the Preservation of Tent, Folk, and Repertoire Theatre.
Monie Hayes, a volunteer for the museum took me on a tour. “The theatre came to town by train. They traveled on Sunday. Monday was a costume drama alternated with a comedy or farce.”
When cars became more pre eland the troupe would travel by auto and the cars and trucks proved to be valuable advertising space for traveling shows.
The troupe would perform alternating dramas offering wholesome stories appropriate for family members of all ages.”These were plates for small town folk,” Monie said. “People were conservative and this was a big thrill. They came to town all dressed up.”
The actresses and actors appeared very glamorous although Monie said,they were the actors, the band, the candy sellers and the clean up crew. The troupe wore many hats. The tent dramas were very popular at the turn of the century. “They survived World War I and the Depression,” Monie explained, “but not television.”
“The National Society for the Preservation of Tent, Folk, and Repertoire Theatre work with the Old Thresher’s.who built the museum,” Monie said. During the Thresher Reunion they offered a drama and there are other dramas offered at other times during the year as well.
One of my favorite items from the museum was the amazing painted curtain. Monie showed me one that had what she called all necessary views. The curtain she showed me came from a small town opera house and pulled back to reveal views of the front room, back room, timber and town. Neil Schaffner who along with his wife Caroline had owned the troupe had written several plays and they have many of his original scripts on hand. “He wrote his own plays, then he didn’t have to pay royalties,” Monie said.
Jimmy Davis and his wife Grace took over the troupe and while Jimmy is gone, Monie said that Grace Davis still serves on their board. Monie showed me a script, parts that she called sides. “The actors would just let their lines, just the way they were written.”
Neil Schaffner wrote many adventures of Toby Tolliver, the country bumpkin that would save the day from the evil city slicker. “In their heyday Toby shows were 400 plus theatre companies,” Monie said. “They played 18,000 small towns to almost 8 million people.”
I had no idea the impact of these small troupes and the entertainment they brought the the countryside. “Life was hard,” Monie said. “Most farm wives had a lot of isolation. Events like this were a big deal.”
She said the actors did not ad lib, because they actor would wait for the right lines to be said before they would step in and recite there own. “They didn’t get rich, but they did okay,” Monie said.
The actors averaged $50 to $60 dollars a week during the late 20’s early 30’s and also got a percentage of the candy sales.
If you get a chance and you are in the area stop by, this museum offered history I knew nothing about and was fascinated by. Open Wednesday – Saturday during the summer they are open the rest of the year by appointment.