BACKGROUND About Medicine Shows | Art of the Medicine Show Pitch | Pitching: A First-Person Account | Med Show Glossary | Artist Bios | Black Entertainers and the Medicine Show | Bibliography
USING THE FILM Transcript for Free Show Tonight
Free Show Tonite
Copyright © 1983 Paul Wagner and Steven J. Zeitlin
All Rights Reserved
Transcription of the sound track with commentary to Free Show Tonite
CRAWLING TITLE: The traveling medicine show was a widespread form of entertainment in late 19th and early 20th century America. On these shows, home remedies and so-called natural medicines were bottled, advertised and sold by business-minded pitchmen. To attract an audience for the salespitch, folk music and homespun humor were hoked-up and presented as free entertainment.
Part of the folk culture and humor of the period played upon deep-seated racial fears and stereotypes which are apparent in several scenes of this film. But perhaps by looking at this part of our past, we can learn something about what was good and bad about America, then and now. Because there is a great deal of America in the medicine show. And there is a great deal of the medicine show in America.
TITLE: Free Show Tonite
A film by Paul Wagner and Steven J. Zeitlin
HOLLYWOOD REPRESENTATION OF A MEDICINE SHOW FROM TRAVELING TUMBLEWEEDS, 1935
ANNOUNCER: Ladies and Gentlemen your reception does not go unrewarded. Dr. Parkers Perfection Performers invite you feast of fun and frolic—free, gratis, and for nothing.
ROY ACUFF: (Narrating) My name is Roy Acuff and I got my start in show business on a medicine show. I’d play the fiddle and warm up the crowd with a few jokes then the old doctor would hit them with the sales pitch.
(In the background) PITCHMAN.: What it will bring to each ailing man and woman within the sound of my voice…
ACUFF: (Narrating) It’s been almost half a century since a bunch of country kids chased a medicine show caravan along the back roads of America but before the memory dies out completely we decided to see if some of the old performers were still around who could put on one last medicine show just for the record. We put out the call and believe it or not we actually heard from a few of the old troopers.
ANNA MAE NOEL: My name is Anna Mae Noell. My husband Bob and I both grew up in medicine show families. Ten days after we met we ran off, got married, and started our own medicine show. We were on the road ten more years selling medicine and another 31 years with our boxing and wrestling chimpanzees. Now we are down in Tarpan Springs Florida at our chimpanzee farm, which is a rest home for retired show business animals. 
“WALKING MARY” SMITH MCCLAIN: My name is Mary Smith McClain but they used to call me Curly Head or Diamond Tooth because I had five thousand dollars worth of diamonds in my mouth. And when I didn’t like something, I’d just walk off. That’s the truth. So they started calling me Walking Mary. I only sing spirituals in church these days, but I think I can still remember some of the old blues songs from the medicine show.
FRED “DOC” FOSTER BLOODGOOD: My name is Fred Foster Bloodgood and in the years from 1928 until 1939 I pitched miracle tonics and snake oils in the traveling medicine shows. I always relied on the cardinal rule of the pitchman- never use one word when four will suffice. The medicine shows have gone the way of the dodo, the dinosaur, and the passenger pigeon. When this happened I drifted into a related profession—selling calculators and adding machines for Remington Rand. But I should be deeply honored to pitch the miracle tonic in the last and final medicine show that the world will ever know.
ROY ACUFF: (Narrating) To really recreate an old time medicine show we had to find a town where things hadn’t changed much in the last fifty years. A little town like Bailey, North Carolina.
LADY: Well, why I remember the medicine show. It was in 1923 and we bought some snake oil.
STEVE ZEITLIN: Well, you know we are putting on a show here, just up the road here on Friday and Saturday. . . an old time medicine show.
LADY: Well, how long is it gonna last?
STEVE ZEITLIN: Two days, Friday and Saturday night.
LADY: Is that right?
STEVE ZEITLIN: They are going to have a man pitching medicine and everything. . . with jokes.
LADY: Well I’m going to be out there. I might get some more of it here. (Laughs) I might get some more to help me on through life.
MAYOR JACK FARMER: My name is Jake Farmer I’m mayor of Bailey. We have a lot a half block from this location that was always used by the medicine men. We do have some used cars parked on it now, but if anyone wants to come into town with a good medicine show today, he’s welcome. We still have the lot available.
LADY 2: When the shows came to town we could hear the music a mile away. And well it just thrilled us to death and gave us the greatest desire to go to some of the shows. And it was something that we didn’t have often. It came maybe once a year, and the following year, when people began to have the crops they had a little money. So that’s when the shows came. And they got our money because that was….
LADY 3: Out socializing (All three ladies laughing)
MAYOR FARMER: Back in those days, people could laugh. But today we don’t seem to be able to laugh anymore. Maybe we need another medicine man to come through.
ROY ACUFF: (Narrating) Starting way back in the middle ages there were traveling salesmen called mountebanks who roamed across Europe selling elixirs and tonics. They often hired a singing troubadour or a comedian to draw a crowd for their sales pitch. In colonial America these pitchmen offered an alternative to the home remedies that most families used. But it was only after the Civil War that whole evenings of music, dance, ventriliquolism, pie eating contests, and comedy skits were provided free as a come-on for Kickapoo Indian Sagwa and Hamlin’s Wizard Oil. The classic American medicine show was born.
JUG BAND MUSIC-HISTORICAL FILM FOOTAGE
ROY ACUFF: (Narrating) The medicine show and its cousins the vaudeville, burlesque, xxx and the minstrel show took music and comedy from the far side and barn and put them on the stage. The med show hammered out the show business formula that brought this homespun entertainment to a wide audience.
“HAMMIE” NIXON: I used to blow these things, blow the bottom out of them when I was a younger man. When I was a younger man, I could hit them and knock the bottom plum out there. Yeah. You know we’ve still got the Old Memphis Jug Band going now. I’m playing me up a white boy on that there jug, you know.
JAMES “GUITAR SLIM” STEPHENSON: How’s everybody doing? I expect that you are Miss Mary. This is Guitar Slim.
“WALKING” MARY MCCLAIN: Oh my God, where did you come from?
“GUITAR SLIM”: I came out of Greensboro.
“WALKING MARY”: Jesus. It’s been a long, long time.
“GUITAR SLIM”: It sure is.
“WALKING MARY”: You look young.
“GUITAR SLIM”: I try to look that way to keep people from knowing I’m getting too old.
“HAMMIE”: My old lady ain’t but twenty six and I tell them I’m seventy four. I say well she’s a little too old for me. (Laughs)
“GUITAR SLIM”: I’m still hanging in there yet. You reckon I’ll make it?
“HAMMIE”: Yeah, you’ll make it.
“WALKING MARY”: You can make it if you try. Just keep right on.
GUITAR SLIM AT THE PIANO WITH MARY MCCLAIN STANDING BESIDE HIM
GUITAR SLIM: It’s been a long time, but I played it like this. (Plays piano and sings)
(Mary McClain and Hammie Nixon join in)
ACUFF: (Narrating) The medicine show dug deep into the American experience for its characters and its images: the American Indian—sometimes real but usually fake; the cowboy, dressed like Buffalo Bill; the Midwestern farm boy seen as a freckled face Toby; and the Quaker whose sober, honest image was borrowed by the medicine show doctor. Finally, there was the American Black man. Fascinated by this image, white performers in minstrel and medicine shows blacked up their faces and mimicked Black styles and speech.
ANNA MAE NOELL: We used to buy Stein’s makeup, and this is a little jar of burnt cork that came from the regular makeup companies. But once in a while you would get into the Boonies where you couldn’t buy any professional makeup so the way we got our burnt cork then was to go to the grocery store and we would bum bottle caps. And in the old days the bottle caps had, not plastic as we have it today, but cork. We’d dig these out and we’d burn them ourselves. Where the cork has burned it looks just exactly like what was in the box there. You just take that burnt cork and rub it and it comes out real good and black. (Rubs the burnt cork on her palm) Look at that.
Now Bob’s gonna make up and while he’s making up I’ll tell you something about Bob’s black-face days. Bob used to be one of the funniest black face comedians in the country for my money. Course, that would be natural for me to say that because he’s my husband. We were in…where was that? Virginia?
BOB NOELL: Kenansville.
ANNA NOELL: Was it Kenansville?
BOB NOELL: Kenansville, North Carolina.
ANNA NOELL: Well, that’s right outside here, not too far. Anyway, we were showing and it was back in the days when you had to have a chain down the middle of your lot so the white folks could be on one side and the Black folks on the other side. And we wanted all our customers to see our show the same. So one night I said, “Bob, let’s put on the black face acts”. So Bob put the black on and we went up on the platform doing the black face act. And in the middle of the act I said, “Bob, Bob” and when we looked up all of the Black people were walking off the lot. Bob looked at me and I looked at Bob. That was never done to hurt anybody’s feelings because “Jake” was a wonderful character. “Jake” was actually the whole show in the old days when I was a kid and we loved him. So Bob made the remark when we came off that stage that night, he says, “I’ll never put the cork on again. If its hurt anybody’s feelings like that, that’s not what it was intended for so I’ll never do it again”. And he didn’t. He never did put the cork on again in the public and this is the first time simply because it is part of our past that we loved and enjoyed. And this is something that I hope we can get some still shots of because I don’t think it’s ever going to happen again, this cork going on Pappy’s face.
ANNA NOELL: And when “Jake” left our show it was like somebody had died. Somebody very dear had died. [Referring to Bob, now fully made up in black face] And that’s Jake. That’s my honest to John “Jake” (hugs Bob, laughs) That’s “Jake.”
BOB NOELL: We started out with nothing now we’ve got twice that much.
ANNA NOELL: You missed some spots, Pappy, you did. A few spots, you missed a few spots. That’s beautiful, it really is. I never thought I’d ever see it again.
DRAMATIC INTERPRETATION OF THE WORDS OF BLACK MEDICINE SHOW PERFORMER GEORGE WALKER (1873-1911): “I was often much amused at seeing white men wear black cork on their faces trying to imitate Black folk. Black face white comedians used to make themselves look as ridiculous as they could when portraying a darker character. The one fatal result of this to the colored performer was that they imitated the white performer. Nothing seemed more absurd than to see a colored man make himself seem ridiculous in order to portray himself. The white comedian who blacked up stood in the way of the natural Black performer.”
DEWEY “PIGMEAT” MARKHAM: In those days everybody blacked up, everybody put on cork. It was the image that you had to create for the people. And we knew how to mug, make different expressions, and the people went for it. See, they loved it. They loved it.
(Mary Smith McClain sings while Guitar Slim plays the piano)
FRED “DOC” BLOODGOOD: Picture, if you will, a lot in South Georgia. It is during the Great Depression. It’s about 7:00 in the evening. The lights are on. The magic moment has almost arrived. When I came on this lot and saw that old stage, a great lump came to my throat and a thrill when up and down my spine. And it was just as though the clock had turned backward in it’s flight a half a century.
JULIAN “GREASY” MEDLIN: The most beautiful one is when you hit one of these mountain towns down in the ravine, down in where’s the ground levels off. We set it up out there and you look at it. And I’ve often wondered, you know, all that background mountain coming up you know along the sides and all that beautiful…you don’t see anybody. Maybe one little store up yonder and the post office is in the store. And a gas station, now one is your pump. That was all that were in the town. And I can…. The beatifulest thing that I’ve often thought about is at night, when about just at sun down, getting dark, is to watch them mountaineers coming down out of them mountains for the show. When it gets dark, that whole side of that mountain is lit up with little firebugs, it looks like. Everybody’s got his own lantern. He’s coming from all through them mountains. You see them flashing and going behind trees. That’s what makes it look like that, with these lanterns. And they’s all coming down to the show. And they came down to the show. Then the funny part about it, when that first night, it’s not going to get crowd up to that stage because he don’t know you too good. “You one of them show fellers.” That’s what they called you, “them show fellers.” “I don’t trust you too much,” you know. And then you have to work two nights real hard. I mean double hard before I break them. And when you break the crowd, and I get them in my hand, I can go out there and say, “Good morning gentlemens,” and they’d laugh five minutes.
(Homer “Pappy” Sherill plays the fiddle while DeWitt “Snuffy” Jenkins rhythmically taps the fiddle strings with a small stick.
ACUFF: (Narrating) It was typical of life on a medicine show that our first night’s performance was rained out. Going on the road with the show often meant long days in a strange town and flat tires in the mud. We lived in flimsy canvas and wood house cars—sort of a recreational vehicle, nineteen and twenties style. As we criss-crossed America we traded jokes and songs until they were familiar to audiences all across the country and yet, every show was different. They ranged in size from a single street corner pitchman, to family run shows, to elaborate variety shows with a full orchestra. And so it was not so easy to organize one last medicine show that would represent them all.
ANNA MAE NOEL: Now what we are trying to do right now is get the program lined up. In other words, they said they want to know what we open with. Doc opened with a concert, Bob and my dad opened with ventriloquism. What did you open with?
“GREASY” MEDLIN: Well now well you’s have to open with a bit ‘cause you couldn’t open with nothing else. But that works from two to three to four people.
REV. “BRONCO” WEST: My daddy used to open with magic. He had the stage full of magic set up there. That was the first thing on the program…magic, magic, magic
“GREASY”: No, no, no just play a band number and lead off with a fast number and get it off and then do what it ought to be.
“BRONCO”: With an opening song and have everybody come out who is participating in the show.
ANNA NOELL: Let me say something. Certainly it is. Let me say one thing.
“BRONCO”: One time we had an aerial trapeze act with us for a couple of years.
ANNA NOELL: My dad would do the….he would do the dummy first.
“BRONCO”: But that’s your show, you see. When we run our show, we run our show.
ANNA NOELL: First he would do the act
(Music with “Greasy” Medlin playing guitar, “Pappy” Sherrill playing fiddle, “Hammie” Nixon singing, “Snuffy” Smith playing the washboard)
“HAMMIE” NIXON: Thank you. Ladies in gentleman, thank you. [Laughs] Now, what is that verse I left out, man?
“GREASY” MEDLIN: (plays and sings the verse) “I can tell by your shape that your mama was ape. You gonna look like a monkey when you get old.”
ACUFF: (Narrating) Finally, the great moment arrived. After one day of rain and several decades of neglect, the stage of the old time medicine show came back to life.
FREE SHOW TONITE MEDICINE SHOW, BAILEY, NORTH CAROLINA
(Show opens with “Hammie” Nixon playing kazoo and singing, Harold Lucas playing guitar, “Greasy” Medlin playing banjo, and “Snuffy” Jenkins playing washboard, with “Pappy” Sherrill and “Hash House” Harvey Ellington playing twin fiddles)
BOB NOELL: (with ventriloquist dummy—“Sambo”) Well there’s a lot of new faces out there tonight Sambo. Did you ever get up before a big crowd of ladies and gentlemen like this and make a speech?
“SAMBO”: I certainly did.
BOB NOELL: Where?
“SAMBO”: Down at Wilson.
BOB NOELL: Oh, you made a big speech in Wilson. What did you say?
“SAMBO”: Not guilty, judge. Not guilty.
BOB NOELL: Well, listen Sambo.
“SAMBO”: Look down there.
BOB NOELL: That there be somebody’s wife down there too.
“SAMBO”: I don’t give a dadburn, she’s winking at me.
(“Snuffy” Jenkins plays banjo and “Greasy” Medlin plays guitar)
DEWITT “SNUFFY” JENKINS: What’s the matter? You think you’re gonna make it alright?
“GREASY” MEDLIN: (coughing) Well, he’s down.
“SNUFFY”: What’s down?
“GREASY”: Didn’t you see that bug? That rascal must have been as big as my thumb. Boy, I swallowed him though. Yeah I thought he was coming back one time, but I got him down. I don’t mind swallowing them, but I hate for them to drag their feet all the way down.
ANNA MAE NOELL: Let me hear you whistle. (Crowd whistles) That’s the loudest you can do? Come on. Ok, that one, that one, and these two, we need four. One, two, and a half sing! (Kids eat saltine crackers)
Hurry up. Put them all in your mouth at once. Now you’ve got them in your mouth, let me see you whistle. Down there on the end, let me hear you whistle. This is the good ear here.
(Girl whistles) She did it! (Laughs)
(“Pappy” Sherrill, “Snuffy” Jenkins, and Harold Lucas come out on stage)
“PAPPY” SHERRILL: You told me one thing all the way…
“SNUFFY” JENKINS”: I know blang well I can do it!
“PAPPY”: You argued all the way from Columbia, South Carolina up here this afternoon telling me that you could do one thing better than me and that was dance, and you can’t do it. There ain’t no way.
“SNUFFY”: Man, I come from a long line of dancer. My daddy died dancing.
“PAPPY”: He did?
“SNUFFY”: On the end of a rope.
“PAPPY”: Let me tell you something. Now you’ve argued all…
“SNUFFY”: You know you can’t beat me at dancing.
“PAPPY”: I can beat you at dancing.
“SNUFFY”: Give me a little sample as to what you can do.
“PAPPY”: You just want a little sample of what I can do?
“SNUFFY”: Just a little bit, you know.
(“Pappy” Sherrill dances)
“PAPPY”: (to the crowd) Was that good? Huh? Come on.
“SNUFFY”: Nah. Whatcha call that?
“PAPPY”: Snuffy, I call that little step, mashed potato.
“SNUFFY”: Mashed potato?
“PAPPY”: That’s mashed potato.
(“Snuffy” Jenkins dances. Audience applauses.)
“SNUFFY”: You know what that was?
“PAPPY”: No, what do you call that?
“SNUFFY”: That’s gravy on your mashed potato. (Audience laughs and applauds)
(“Snuffy” plays banjo and Harold Lucas plays guitar while “Pappy” dances)
“PAPPY”: You told me that you’d dance.
“SNUFFY”: Well, get out of the way. I need to get warmed up.
“PAPPY”: All right, you ready? All right now.
(Harold Lucas plays guitar and “Pappy” plays fiddle while “Snuffy” dances)
ANNA MAE NOELL: (Looking in her family’s photo album) When I look at these…this is my book. And I have fond memories of these people. This is my father. I’m satisfied that you see him. Can you see him? He was a ventriloquist and a black face comedian. And my mother and she was a dancer that’s a clog dancer and a tap dancer. And here we have one picture that shows all of the old time cars going down the highway. And then the set-up that we have out here in Bailey almost duplicates this particular picture here of the platform and the two trucks, one on each side. Oh boy, I wish we could go back and do some more. I really would. I had more bloomin fun then than I ever had in my life.
“GREASY” MEDLINE: But I wouldn’t give my medicine show days for all of that, even now. Not even Hollywood, I wouldn’t swap it for. Cause that was the greatest life.
FRED “DOC” BLOODGOOD: All of those memories are very beautiful, of course. And to further enhance that illusion is the fact that you never think about the bad things that happened through those years. If any money would come in, we’d eat, and eat quite regularly. But there never was any great flow of cash. It was surely, as I said, two or three hundred bottles a night. But, again, there would be those terrible nights when you would work your heart out and never break the ice at all. That happened, many, many times.
“GREASY”: It was hard. But I made a living in it ever since I started which I was about thirteen years old when I went on the road. And I’ve been into it ever since then, up until now. I never went hungry too much, but now I’d lie if I said I didn’t go hungry.
ANNA MAE NOELL: You look at when you were a child and you have fond memories and there are times when you wish you could go back to those days. But since you can’t, you have to go on like you are. I would like to go back. Bob says “No. It was too much of a drag.” (Laughs)
BOB NOELL: I’ve seen enough of that. I want to see what’s on up ahead.
(“Greasy” Medlin plays guitar and “Snuffy” Jenkins plays washboard. SONG TITLE: “Step It Up and Go”)
ROY ACUFF: (Narrating) It was a thrill for me to come down to Bailey and relive my medicine show days.
ACUFF: (Greeting “Snuffy” and “Greasy”) If you was ever on a medicine show, you’ve got to be old.
FREE SHOW TONITE MEDICINE SHOW, BAILEY, NORTH CAROLINA
(Roy Acuff sings and plays fiddler and Charlie Collins playing guitar. Acuff balances his fiddler on his chin using his bow)
ACUFF: (Narrating) My very first experience in work was on a medicine show and these were the type of things that we were doing back then. Here’s on of them. (Plays a fiddle tune)
“GREASY”: Well, we’re digging up something now that we haven’t dug up in forty years.
ACUFF: (Narrating) More than anything else on my visit, I enjoyed getting to know comedian “Greasy” Medlin. Listening to his wonderful humor some of the old lines came back to me.
“GREASY”: (telling a joke) Then when I get good and high the patients start to coming in.
ACUFF: (Narrating) Suddenly I was back on Doc Howard’s show playing straight man to a great black face comedian.
ACUFF: Greasy, he’s full of them. He’s a real medicine show man. He has… his roots are in the medicine show.
“GREASY”: What made it so good for us, we was young. Now I’ll tell it on him, he didn’t bring it out like that. But we were young see.
ACUFF: And it’s not going to be long. You can look at me and you can look at him and you can say, “Listen it ain’t going to be long for both of you to be gone.” And your medicine show people are going to be out of there.
FILM FOOTAGE OF A MEDINCE SHOW
PITCHMAN: All right, just a moment. Bear with me boys. The Cincinnati manufacturing company of Cincinnati, Ohio has sent me out to advertise Doctor Duncan’s Dandy Dandruff Remover for hot headed people. Now any man, woman, or child can apply this remover. You lay it gently on the outside surface of the tentacles of the head. Removes corns, warts, bunions and xxx. That’s it.
ACUFF: (Narrating) Although the Food and Drug Act of 1906 put many of them out of business, there were always a few quacks mixing their medicine in hotel bathtubs. They called their medicine a cure-all, and even exhibited huge tapeworms supposedly passed by grateful customers. And during prohibition they used alcohol as something more than a preservative. But for the most part, the classic American medicine show existed because large patent medicine companies found it to be a useful tool for promoting their product. Companies like the Oregon Indian Medicine Company and the Shaker Medicine Company sent out hundreds of medicine shows to entertain Americans under the company banner.
“GREASY”: Of course you know you’ve always got to have a tie if you dressed up. You know that. I always keep a good tie. See, and don’t do it like some of your friends do it. You got to learn how to tie cause you in a hurry. Now, you’re ready to go with your tie. So, you’re ready to go with your wig. And you’re ready to go with your hat. So, now you’re ready to work. You’re ready to work.
FREE SHOW TONITE MEDICINE SHOW, BAILEY, NORTH CAROLINA
(“Greasy” Medlin and “Pappy” Sherrill perform the popular medicine show skit, “Niagara Falls”)
“PAPPY” SHERRILL: You know what?
“GREASY” MEDLIN: What’s the matter?
“PAPPY”: I’m going to give you something free. I’m going to take you on a long trip. It’s gonna be all paid for.
“GREASY”: Hold it.
“GREASY”: You’re going to take me on a long trip all paid for?
“PAPPY”: I’m going to give you a long trip and it’s all paid for. Now listen. Everybody loves to go to Niagara Falls, right?
“GREASY”: Oh yeah, I want to go to Niagara Falls.
“PAPPY”: I’m going to point that right over yonder…that big bucket hanging.
“GREASY”: That big bucket hanging.
“PAPPY’: I want you to concentrate on that bucket right over there.
“GREASY”: Boy, if that ain’t the bucket that carried the whale.
“PAPPY”: Yes it is. Now I want you to look at that thing…
“GREASY”: I’m a looking at it.
“PAPPY”: All right you look at it. I’ll tell you what I want to do. I’m going to put this thing right… (Places a funnel down the front of Greasy’s pants)
“GREASY”: Oooh. Man, what’s the matter with you?
“PAPPY”: You’ve got to put it down there.
“GREASY”: You ain’t cramming that down in my britches.
“PAPPY”: Greasy, there’s no way you can go on this trip unless you do.
“GREASY”: Give it to me. Let me do that.
“PAPPY”: All right you put it in there. Put that right in there. I tell you what, we’re going to Niagara Falls. You’re going to feel the cool breeze off the water. You even going to feel the mist of it just coming…
“GREASY”: I do?
“PAPPY”: Yes, you are.
“GREASY”: All I gotta keep my eyes on it.
“PAPPY”: But you’ve got to keep your eyes… Concentrate over yonder of that bucket.
“GREASY”: Oh, I’ve got it.
“PAPPY”: You’ve got it. All right. You hold it on there then. We’re going to take the trip and you’re going to enjoy every minute of it. OK?
“GREASY”: Yeah, I’m going to enjoy every minute of it.
“PAPPY”: Hold it, hold it there. Keep your eye on it.
“GREASY”: As long as I can drive I don’t mind.
“PAPPY”: You’ve got your eye on the bucket?
“GREASY”: I’ve got it on the bucket.
“PAPPY”: Well, look, look at the bucket. We’re going to Niagara Falls. Niagara Falls. (Pours water down the funnel in the front of Greasy’s pants)
“PAPPY”: Wasn’t that refreshing? (Laughs)
“PAPPY”: Now, I’m going to tell you what. You’ve been there now, but where the good fun comes in…You want to get that on the next fellow that comes along.
“GREASY”: I don’t…
(Enters “Snuffy” Jenkins. The scene begins with Snuffy holding the funnel in the front of his pants)
“GREASY”: You ready? Get over this way a little bit. I swear I hate to do this.
“PAPPY”: (Whispering to Greasy and pointing towards the bucket) Get his eye on that.
“GREASY”: Oh yeah. Buddy, you’ve got to keep your eye on that bucket up yonder. Don’t even look down while I’m a pouring the water.
“GREASY”: Don’t even look at all. Look at that bucket.
“SNUFFY”: What’s the matter? There ain’t nothing but…
“GREASY”: I know. But you’ve got to constipate.
“PAPPY”: No, no. Concen-trate.
“GREASY”: Oh, is that what it is?
“GREASY”: Well, that’s what you’ve got to do to the bucket. Yeah, don’t look at this water. Or at me.
“SNUFFY”: You’ve got to look at that bucket, hunh?
“GREASY”: Yeah. (Laughs)
“PAPPY”: Now, take him on a trip.
“GREASY”: (Laughs and pats Snuffy’s head) He’s so pitiful.
“PAPPY”: Pour the water. Pour it. Go on.
“SNUFFY”: I’ve got my eye on the bucket.
(Greasy and Pappy laugh)
“PAPPY”: Let him have it.
(Greasy pours the water down the funnel. Snuffy does not react.)
“PAPPY”: Pour some more.
(Greasy pours the rest of the glass. Snuffy still does not react.)
“GREASY”: I ain’t got no more water. (He checks Snuffy’s left pant leg while Pappy runs to get another glass of water).
“PAPPY”: Check the other leg. Check the other leg.
“GREASY”: There ain’t a thing coming through.
“PAPPY”: Here, here, here.
“GREASY”: Hey, look here buddy. You don’t feel kind of a little mist.
“SNUFFY”: I don’t feel a thing.
“GREASY”: You don’t feel kind of a little dampness at all?
“SNUFFY”: No, I don’t feel nothing.
“GREASY”: You dang sure going to feel it this time buddy. (Pours the contents of the second glass into the funnel. Still not reaction from Snuffy.)
“GREASY”: Hey Snuffy, you ain’t felt nothing?
“SNUFFY”: No, I ain’t felt nothing.
“GREASY”: You ain’t felt no, you know, uh, nothing in your britches.
“GREASY”: Well, what’s the matter with you boy?
“SNUFFY”: I been to Niagara Falls before. (Snuffy pulls out a water heating pad. Audience laughs)
END OF SKIT
“WALKING MARY” MCCLAIN: And so a lady took me up she said, “You know what, I’m going to make a performer out of you”. I said, “what you mean?” Said, “I’m going to learn you how to sing and dance.” I said, “I don’t believe it”. And so, sure enough, she did. Eleanor Reye, she’s dead and gone now. And she’d play up on the piano. This great big fat lady and she hit on the piano. And she made me rehearse all night long one song, one song. I had to do that song there by my lonely self.
(Sings a capella)
And that was the song.
FREE SHOW TONITE MEDICINE SHOW, BAILEY, NC
(James “Guitar Slim” Stephens plays the piano)
“WALKING MARY”: Is everybody happy?
“WALKING MARY”: I want to know, is everybody happy?
“WALKING MARY”: Are you sure you’re happy?
“WALKING MARY”: I’m happy too.
(“Guitar Slim” plays the piano while “Walking Mary” sings “The St. Louis Blues”)
ACUFF: (Narrating) Up until the turn of the [twentieth] century, medicine shows were common in every part of America. But over the next three decades they began to lose their appeal for all but small towns and rural audiences. By the 1940s, the medicine show was hardly more than a memory.
ANNA MAE NOELL: The reason the medicine show did slide out of existence was partly because of radio.
ROY ACUFF: I presume that the government kind off cracked down on the patent medicine, for one thing.
“DOC” BLOODGOOD: Of course when the War came along that was the end, definitely.
ACUFF: Then came along your radio.
“WALKING MARY” MCCLAIN: TV
“GREASY” MEDLIN: Well, the state did that.
“WALKING MARY”: TV is responsible for all of this today.
“GREASY”: They run the license up so high you couldn’t pay them.
“WALKING MARY”: But now people don’t have to go. They sit in their house, by the TV, seeing what they want to see, hear anything they want to hear. You understand me?
“GREASY”: They didn’t tell you couldn’t work. But they run the license up so high that you couldn’t afford to pay their license. So we said, “What the heck.”
“WALKING MARY”: So, that’s the cause of it. TV’s the cause of it.
ACUFF: It got to a point where they couldn’t draw the crowds. The crowds stayed at home.
“WALKING MARY”: Sometimes we’d sit for hours at a time waiting for a crowd to gather, and I’d say, “This thing’s going to be a flop.”
ACUFF: And I think it just gradually played it’s own way out. It just didn’t… You couldn’t draw the crowds.
“WALKING MARY”: So, next thing I know it, they say we’re faded on out of the picture. So I just faded on out with it, ‘cause I see it was going down. It was like anything else, you see.
ACUFF: So, there really no hardly place for something like the medicine show to ever get started again.
“DOC” BLOODGOOD: Well, it is sad to think that after this week we will never return again. We all know that. Even now it kind of bothers me to talk about it because it’s a pretty sad thing to see it go. But it moves on, just like other things. There’s just nothing you can do about it. You can’t call it back or to cancel half a life.
FREE SHOW TONITE MEDICINE SHOW, BAILEY, NC
“DOC” BLOODGOOD: (Pitching the Hospital Tonic) I’m going to paint a word picture that the smallest boy or girl in the audience can understand. Those of you that keep house, you have sitting at your back door what we call a slop bucket or a garbage can. You get through with breakfast dishes you scrap it off in there. You do the same with lunch, the same with dinner. I don’t care what you do with it when it gets full. Take it out bury it, feed it to the pigs, but just don’t wash it. Keep it in that capacity for just one weeks time. Then I want you to see the filth that adheres to the sides. Smell the stench that comes from it, and stop and think, ladies and gentlemen, I’ve been putting that same food into my stomach not for a day, not for a week, a month, or a year, but for five years, for ten years and I’ve never cleaned it out.
Well, I’ll guarantee, friends, that the very first dose, the very first dose of that Hospital Tonic will bring from your body double handfuls of filth, slime, mucous, corrosion, fecal matter, maggots and even worms. Not very long ago we asked the Finley Company to put one more ingredient into that tonic, something that would pass a tapeworm head and all. And I’m extremely proud to say that that condition now exists. I have some specimens in my office. Greasy, would you please bring me one of those specimens, please? Right out here, yeah that’s right. All right, thank you, thank you very much.
“DOC” BLOODGOOD: Now, this one came from a Mr. Adams—a brickman on the Baltimore and Ohio railroad. He got a bottle of medicine on Monday night. And on Friday he came down with this in a tin can. (Holds up a specimen jar)
He said, “My God Doc, what’s this?” And I washed it and measured it, and it’s a tapeworm that measures just over sixteen feet in length. And I have Mr. Adams sworn statement in my trunk in there that he used no other medicine but the Hospital Tonic in the passing of that worm. Now, I’m going to have our agents pass among you just one time and one time only. The price so low you cannot afford to miss it. It’s just one dollar a bottle. Just raise your hand, or turn on your lights. They’d be glad to wait on you.
(Audience members buy bottles of Hospital Tonic while the band plays music)
ACUFF: (Narrating) The medicine show had wonderful songs and skits, but really the whole thing existed for only one purpose- to sell medicine. You might say it was a unique American invention, an ingenious combination of entertainment and salesmanship. Big business got its hands on American entertainment and it hasn’t let go since.
BOB NOELL: I sold another one, Doctor.
“DOC” BLOODGOOD: That’s all, sorry.
BOB NOELL: They ain’t got no more.
“DOC” BLOODGOOD: No more, that’s all.
BOB NOELL: Oh Lordy, sick looking people….Need a lot more of that medicine.
“DOC” BLOODGOOD: I’m sorry that we did run out of stock, we’re going to try…
REV. “BRONCO” WEST: I’ve got some more.
“DOC” BLOODGOOD: They brought in another shipment from the Finley Company here we go one more time.
(Audience buys more tonic)
“DOC” BLOODGOOD: Up to this moment, I sometimes dream about that…a night just exactly like this one. I’m standing on the platform, beautiful night, you can see people as far as you can see them and everywhere you look dollar bills coming in. I suppose that’s about what heaven must be like somewhere for an old retired man, probably is. I never thought I’d see it again.
HOLLYWOOD REPRESENTATION OF A MEDICINE SHOW FROM TRAVELING TUMBLEWEEDS, 1935
ACUFF: (Narrating) The medicine show which had once drawn together so many American images and characters passed them on to the popular entertainment forms that followed. The first was radio.
RADIO ANNOUNCER: Do you feel tired and sluggish? Are your nights sleepless? Do you have dull, depressing headaches? Is your tongue coated? Do you wake up with that old, bad taste in your mouth? Then nature is giving you warning signals. These are often caused and always aggravated by faulty elimination. If you are suffering from any of these disorders today take an easy simple way to relieve what may be there very cause. Crazy Water Crystals will help you do this. They cleanse the digestive tract safely and thoroughly. Just add them to your ordinary drinking water and drink and keep smiling.
ACUFF: (Narrating) Entertainers like String Bean and myself used the medicine show mix of jokes and songs on country music radio shows like the Grand Ole Opry. Red Skeleton, who also got his start on the med shows, used some of the stock characters like the carrot top Toby on his radio and TV shows.
MAN: All right are you ready?
BALD MAN: I’m ready
ACUFF: (Narrating) Comedians like Abbot and Costello, who were never even on the shows, used routines like Niagara Falls.
Beyond any individual performer the mass media caught on to the basic idea of the medicine show- use free entertainment to attract an audience and then hit them with a sales pitch.
ALKA-SELTZER TELEVISION COMMERCIAL
FREE SHOW TONITE MEDICINE SHOW, BAILEY, NC
(“Greasy” Medlin, Harold Lucas, and “Snuffy” Jenkins perform a skit. “Snuffy” enters the stage dressed as a ghost and sits down next to “Greasy,” who does not notice)
“GREASY”: Look hear, buddy. You’ve been telling me stuff all night. I’ll tell you one. I’ll tell you one about my gal. I was sitting there a while, you know, kind of inching up to her. I said, “Honey. You know, my right arm is kind of…kind of weak, or something like that. If I was to lay it around your neck, what would you do about that? She said she wouldn’t do nothing. (Puts his arm around the neck of the “ghost”)
ACUFF: (Narrating) “Greasy” Medlin was truly a master of medicine show comedy. He died on July the15th 1982. Not long after these scenes were filmed
“GREASY”: …We sat there about two hours like that, walking. And I said, “Honey, you know I’ve been coming over here a long time. If I were to put my ash-trap on your ash-trap and we were to swap a little slobber, what would you do?” She said she wouldn’t do nothing. And I thought I would just…dang. (Surprised to see the ghost for the first time, “Greasy” screams and begins shaking. The audience laughs)
Mama come get your brown-eyed baby. He done done it again. (Screams and runs off of the stage)
LADY FROM THE AUDIENCE: This made us all feel good. This brought something to us that we needed. We really have needed it for a while. It’s been real rejuvenation for me. I’ve had the time of my life.
“DOC” BLOODGOOD: I’ll remember it, even unto this... I’ll say that when the last grand cataclysm of earth’s disintegration resounds with thunderous cacophony, as bursting stars and blazing fragments go hissing into uncharted stratosphere, the medicine show will still live in our hearts forever.
Permalink (Permanent link to this page.)