Broughton Couple Will Miss Traveling with Tent Show

By William Searles Journal Feature Writer 6/1/1968

For the first time in 48 years Audrey Hardesty, 66, of Broughton, will not be traveling with a tent show this summer. He did not retire, but simply became a victim of the changing times.

Hardesty and his wife, Virginia, who has had 39 years of work on stages with her husband as a comedienne while doubling as a pianist and accordionist, spent the last two years with Sund's comedians of Des Moines, Iowa, and had signed a contract to tour with the tent theater again this season, but the management of the show was unable to secure enough good actors to go out on the road. As far as he could learn, Sund's was the last Comedy-drama Company left in the entire country. The Hardesty's have a musical stage show of their own and for many years have been spending the winter months giving performances in schools throughout Illinois, Kentucky, Indiana and Missouri. They entertain student s with comedy routines, popular, classical and folk music under the title of "The Musical Hardestys." Bookings are obtained for them by the International Lectures Bureau of Independence, Mo., and it will be remembered that they delighted the students at the Eldorado High School with programs two consecutive years, 1965 and 1966.

The couples are talented musicians with the piano, violin, cow bells, iron skillets and hand saw. Usually their school tours start late in September, but they plan to begin about the middle of July this year, due to the fact that they will not be tent show people. Hardesty's career working under canvas began at the age of 18. He was hired by the late Artie O. Choate at the show's winter quarters in Cambria, Ill., to play the violin in the orchestra and vaudeville and the slide trombone in the street band. Although only a youth, he was a member of the Broughton village band at the time and his musical experience with that organization helped him land his first job. He soon was also given parts in comedy dramas on the stage. After several years with Choate's Comedians, Hardesty purchased a half interest in the Ray Zarlington Comedians, but continued as a performer along with Zarlington. The partnership lasted from 1931 through 1942, when Zarlington retired and Hardesty and his wife began working for other organizations. These included the Ben Wilks Show, headquartered at Albion, Ill., Toby and Susie of Wappella, Iowa Bisbee's Comedians of Memphis, Tenn., the Donegan Big Fun show of Mobile, Ala., J. V. Rotner in northern Wisconsin and at various times with the Sund's Comedians.

The two best-known tent shows to visit Eldorado annually for many years were Choate's Comedians and Zarlington's Comedians. Others have been the Shankland Stock Company, Starnes Stock Company, Curtis Stock Company, the Stevens Comedy Company and Melville's Comedians.

After retiring from show business following the depression, Arlie Choate purchased a motion picture theatre at Wayne City, Ill., where he died two years ago following a heart attack. His wife, Mae, who played romantic leads on the stage, now resides at Cambria. Ray Zarlington, best known for his red-haired " Toby" parts as a comedian, also passed away two years ago in Mankato, Minn.

Except for the three-day visit of a stock company sponsored by the Jaycees a few years ago, it has been many years since a tent theater has had Eldorado on its itinerary. Before the depression years of the early's it was not uncommon to see a tent set up in the L & N Grove or on some vacant lot close to the business houses about a month during warm weather. At one time there were more than 500 of these shows working over the country. Now they are all gone from the scene, at least for the time being. Some of those which folded up were victims of the depression, but rising cost for salaries of performers and laborers, plus the fact that there is a shortage of actors and a lack of interest in the shows on the part of the public, are factors in their demise.

The shows had their beginning during the latter part of the 19 th century, probably as an outgrowth of the old showboats that played all the river towns up and down the Mississippi. In a time when indoor theaters were few and far between and the quality of silent motion pictures was not too good. Family groups would come for miles around just to get a chance to forget themselves for awhile while laughing at the antics of the comedians or listening to good music and the jokes of vaudevillians. Then there were the three-act or four-act melodramas, some of them real " tear jerkers."

Advance publicity men put up posters some two weeks before the arrival of a show and residents could hardly wait for the tent to go up. After a band concert downtown about 6:30 in the evening each day, customers started their trek toward the tent to purchase tickets, which were cheap in those days. For the 8:00 O' clock performance, preceded by another short band concert. The actors doubled as musicians in the orchestra and played old favorite tunes, with a few new songs thrown in for good measure.

The plays, by modern standards, were corny, but they never failed to make the audience lose themselves in the earthy dialogue and comic costumes. Usually there was what show people called a " concert" after the regularly scheduled performance and of course this cost a little extra for those who cared to stay. The owner of the show relied upon "concerts" to make a little more money, which he often needed to pay salaries and expenses.

After the final curtain was rung down on Saturday night or Wednesday night, if the tent theater was making a three day stand-the stakes were pulled up, the tent folded and stored on one of the trucks and the truck left town to head for the next advertised show place. Nothing was left but the memory of evening well spent and trampled grass where the folding chairs had been placed for the spectators.

During nearly a half century behind the footlights Hardesty has seen many misfortunes befall the tent shows. Trucks transporting the equipment have been wrecked, there was always windstorms to be reckoned with and the main tents caught fire and burned on two separate occasions. One of the fires occurred at Raleigh in broad daylight and the cause has never been determined. The other was at night in a southern city when sparks from a burning building blew across a street onto the show lot and ignited the canvas.

The Broughton couple are not ready to retire and are hoping that next spring conditions will be such that Sund's Comedians can resume their tour.