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Sadler, Harley Herman (1892–1954)

Clifford Ashby Biography Entry

Harley Herman Sadler, Texas legislator, oilman, and "the first man to make a million dollars from a tent show," son of Junius and Lula T. Sadler, was born near Pleasant Plains, Arkansas, on September 4, 1892, the fourth of six children. He evinced an early interest in show business, to the consternation of his father, who, after several years of marginally successful farming, had settled down to the life of a general merchant in Stamford, Texas. The stagestruck youth, with no training beyond participation in high school plays and the town band, left home before completing high school to join a small carnival. By the age of twenty-two, Sadler had worked in repertoire in Fort Worth and Waco; barnstormed to the West Coast; failed in Chicago variety; appeared in tableaux and a medicine show, and on a Mississippi River showboat; and played under canvas for twenty-six weeks with Rentfrow's Jolly Pathfinders in Texas City. A year past his majority, he joined Roy E. Fox's Popular Players as second comedian and baritone horn player and toured much of Texas. He remained with Fox for several seasons and became first comedian with the company, entitled to top billing. In 1917 he married Willie Louise (Billie) Massengale of Cameron; the couple left to join Brunk's No. 1 show, with Harley serving as principal comedian and stage director for this Kansas-based company. When Glen Brunk was drafted during World War I, Sadler became manager of the company.

Upon Brunk's return, Sadler entered into a partnership with the Brunk organization, thus becoming manager and equal owner of the newly constituted Brunk's No. 3. Sadler took the show into Texas, where he proved an immediate success as an independent manager. "I really believe that Sadler would do business on the Sahara Desert," a correspondent wrote to Billboard after visiting the show. In 1922, after completing his contractual obligations with the Brunks, the thirty-year-old Sadler bought out their interest and embarked upon a career as the owner, manager, and principal comedian of Harley Sadler's Own Show.

Like most tent shows, Sadler's was a family affair. Billie, in addition to duties as business manager, became the leading lady of the troupe. Gloria, the Sadlers' only child, born in 1922, performed in the vaudeville as soon as she could walk on the stage. Sadler's mother-in-law worked backstage; his brother-in-law was boss canvasman; Ferd, his brother, served as advance man; and Ferd's wife worked in the box office. Numerous nephews and nieces spent summer vacations working in their uncle's show. The show prospered, and Sadler quickly became a favorite in the sixty-odd communities of West Texas and eastern New Mexico that he visited biennially. His popularity, both onstage and off, was phenomenal. It was prompted in part by his memory for names, faces, and local events, but more by a sympathetic understanding of the people who made up his audiences. His generosity both with his talent and his money assured his popularity.

No amount of prodigal expenditure seemed to affect Sadler's prosperity until the coming of the Great Depression. In 1931, instead of cutting back, he purchased a new tent that seated 2,500 spectators and enlarged his company to over fifty. But he quickly found that his audience no longer had the price of admission. An attempt to manage a circus resulted in financial disaster, and a Texas Centennial pageant entitled The Siege of the Alamo proved equally unrewarding. His very substantial holdings quickly melted away. Rather than declare bankruptcy, Sadler sold off all his remaining properties, paid what bills he could, and promised eventual payment on those remaining. Within two years, operating a tiny tent show in the Rio Grande valley, the showman had paid off some $25,000 in debts and returned to a state of solvency.

Around 1940, with the tent-show audiences eroded by the air-conditioned movie houses and drive-in theatres, Sadler branched out to become an independent oil operator. Like most wildcatters, he enjoyed occasional periods of plenty interrupted by prolonged stretches of famine. He continued to operate his much-reduced tent show until the death of his daughter in 1941, when he sold all of his equipment. His retirement from show business was short-lived, however. He remained intermittently active on the stage until a farewell tour in partnership with Joe McKennon in 1947.

Sadler entered state politics in 1941 and was elected in 1942 as a Democrat to the Texas House from the Sweetwater district. He proved to be an honest and diligent, if somewhat naive, legislator. "There has never been a milder, more sincere sort of man in the Legislature than Harley Sadler, within the memory of the old-timers of the press corps," wrote Raymond Brooks in the Austin American. After serving three terms in the House and rejecting suggestions that he run for the United States House or the governorship of Texas, he lost a race for the Texas Senate. In 1950 he moved to Abilene, where he was again elected to the Texas House, and two years later ran unopposed for a seat in the Senate. In spite of his failing health, Sadler found himself unable to refuse the many requests for help that came his way. While emceeing a fund-raiser for a Boy Scout troop in Avoca, he was stricken with a heart attack. He died the following morning, October 15, 1954, in the nearby Stamford hospital. He is buried with his wife and daughter in the Massengale family plot in Cameron.

Clifford Ashby and Suzanne Depauw May, Trouping Through Texas: Harley Sadler and His Tent Show (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1982). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.


  • Oil and Gas Industry
  • Politics and Government
  • Government Officials
  • Oil Entrepreneurs and Wildcatters

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Clifford Ashby, “Sadler, Harley Herman,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed October 26, 2020,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.