American History

Tent Show King

n a balmy day in 1928 in a remote Texas town—Muleshoe, maybe, or Sweetwater or Spur or Dickens, perhaps Big Springs, Junction, Eldorado, or Matador, the big state has so many such places—folks from near and far jam either side of Main Street, drawn to the opening fanfare of what promises to be a thrilling week. Along comes a slickly uniformed marching band led by an exuberant fellow whacking a big bass drum, often off the beat, as he smiles and greets onlookers. “Hi Butch, how’s the family? How Ya’ doin’, Mitch?” Harley Sadler calls out. “Mornin’ Millie! George out of college yet?” Behind the musicians trail brilliantly costumed performers smiling and waving to fans. When the procession reaches the town square or the central park, Sadler sets aside his drum and starts his “ballyhoo,” as he calls it, describing the show that will occur at dusk that evening—a panoply of dramatic and comedic sketches, musical interludes, dance troupes, raffles—something for everyone, conveniently staged at the edge of town, and priced at only a quarter for adults and 15 cents for kids. The band plays a few rousing songs. Sadler takes up his drum and leads the ensemble to the big tent. Grownups head for the ticket booth. As always, boys follow, volunteering to set up folding chairs in exchange for admission. Roustabouts have unpacked and put up the big tent, a huge rectangular canvas affair; above the entry hangs a sign: “The Harley Sadler Show.” Stagehands are making last-minute adjustments as customers queue for a three- or four-act play punctuated by announcements, candy hawkers, and “specialty acts.” The script might be new or a long-time favorite, but always it’s an engaging melodrama leavened

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