Tent Shows

By: Clifford Ashby

Type: General Entry

Published: August 1, 1995

Tent shows were popular in the rural areas of the United States during the first half of the twentieth century, particularly in the Southwest, South, and Midwest. Typically, these shows featured a three-act comedy or drama interspersed with "polite" vaudeville. Great emphasis was placed upon presenting inoffensive family entertainment; the master of ceremonies frequently boasted that "nothing would be seen or heard that might offend the taste of the most fastidious." Tent shows offered a repertoire of from three to twelve plays. They reached their peak activity shortly before the Great Depression. In 1927 an article in the New York Times stated that the tented drama constituted "a more extensive business than Broadway and all the rest of the legitimate theatre industry put together." The Charles Harrison troupe achieved a marked success in the southern part of Texas shortly before World War I. Harrison, one of the leading playwrights of "rag op'ries" as well as an actor and manager, toured with one of the most elaborate tent theatres ever constructed. Featuring opera-house boxes and a sloping wooden floor with fixed seating, the outfit required three days to erect and a full day to dismantle. Harrison was quickly followed by Rentfrow's Jolly Pathfinders and by Roy E. Fox's Popular Players. Rentfrow, in fact, may have toured Texas as early as 1880. Fox, with headquarters in Sulphur Springs, became by 1918 the leading tent show operator in the nation. West Texas at this time was viewing shows under canvas sent out by the Brunk brothers, an Oklahoma organization. In 1922 Harley H. Sadler's Own Show began operation. Sadler, an alumnus of the Rentfrow, Fox, and Brunk companies, was able in a few years to claim ownership of "America's Biggest and Best Traveling Stock Company." While these larger shows, often with companies of over fifty, were appearing in the larger of the small towns, other troupes of varying size, some with as few as a half dozen members in the company, were playing the tiny crossroads communities. Holland and Vaye, Haverstock's Comedians, the Musical Grays, the Kennedy Sisters, the Grandi Brothers, J. Doug Morgan, Hila Morgan, Ed C. Nutt, and many other groups of players crisscrossed the vast area of Texas, bringing what was often the only commercial live entertainment ever to appear in the rural hamlets. Unlike such suspect traveling attractions as the carnival and circus, tent shows found acceptance in these farming and ranching communities. With a touring radius of no more than 200 miles, shows revisited towns on a regular basis, so that a good reputation was essential for continuing success. Although there was some opposition from the motion picture show owner and from those religious sects opposed to anything associated with theater, tent shows were generally greeted by communities as a welcome break from a humdrum existence. Sometimes, Wednesday evening church services would be moved to an earlier hour so that audiences could attend both the temple and the tent show on the same evening.

The tent show reached its zenith of popularity just before the depression and collapsed with the falling economy. This once widespread form of entertainment never recovered, for audiences were lured away by radio, the now-talking motion pictures, and the drive-in theatres. The introduction of air-conditioning made indoor gatherings possible during the heat of summer, and improved transportation ended the cultural isolation of rural families. The few small companies that survived turned to broad, slapstick farce centered around Toby, the red-haired, freckle-faced bumpkin who had once been merely a character in a much broader repertoire; the Toby Show, a burlesque of the original tent show, represented the final stages of this form of folk entertainment. World War II, with its travel restrictions and manpower shortages, extinguished most of the few remaining Toby shows. Troupes such as the Haverstock Comedians and the McKennon Players survived into the 1950s, but today, except for occasional revivals, the tent show has passed from the Texas scene.

Clifford Ashby, "Folk Theatre in a Tent," Natural History, March 1983. 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). Jerry Lavern Martin, Henry L. Brunk and Brunk's Comedians: Tent Repertoire Empire of the Southwest (Ph.D. dissertation, Texas Tech University, 1981).

Time Periods:

  • Texas in the 1920s

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

Clifford Ashby, “Tent Shows,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed January 25, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/tent-shows.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

August 1, 1995