Making the Film Free Show Tonight

Making the Film Free Show Tonight

In the 1980s, I was working as a folklorist at the Smithsonian Institution [in the Office of Folklife Programs] I had been working with Paul Wagner on some films on family stories and family traditions. At the same time that Free Show Tonite was made, Jack Santino and Paul made Miles of Smiles about the Pullman Porters1. And Marjorie Hunt and Paul made The Stone Carvers2. It was an era where we were all working with Paul, who was a wonderful collaborator for folklorists to work with. As you can see, the films are co-credited, and they really were a collaborative process. He had a lot of respect for folklorists and worked closely with us.

One of the things that we learned to do was to raise money to make a film. That was one of the issues that we were working with at the time. At first, because we were working at the Smithsonian, we were under the impression that maybe the Institution itself was going to fund whatever film projects we chose to do. But it became very clear that it was not. It was then that we discovered the possibility of applying to places like the National Endowment for the Arts to support making a film.

In some ways, the film grew out of an interest that I had in folk poetry of different kinds. I was very interested in carnival pitchmen, street criers, and auctioneers. The idea that somehow pitchmen were the last oral poets to hold the attention of American audiences. Before we made Free Show Tonite, we did a film on street criers at a market in Washington, D.C., at the Northeast Crab Market where a white crier and black crier used to try and sell crabs and fish down by the docks, right near our offices, in fact. And some of the pitchmen that I had met had been in medicine shows at one time. At that time I also came across Brooks McNamara’s book, Step Right Up, about the traveling medicine shows. From talking to people like Ralph Rinzler and George Holt, who I had met at the Smithsonian, I knew that a lot of the folk musicians that they had worked with had participated in medicine shows, including Clarence Ashley, for instance. I also knew about the film that Tom Davenport made about Peg Leg Sam, Born for Hard Luck. It was shown at the American Folklore Society’s meeting just as I was showing one of my family traditions films back in the 1970s. I think the Peg Leg Sam film was made about three years beforehand.

So, all of those things combined to create an interest in doing a festival program on medicine shows for the Smithsonian’s annual Festival [of American Folklife] in 1979 and 1981. We met with Brooks McNamara and he knew about [Anna] Mae Noell, who is one of the characters in the film. Brooks had run an ad in amusement businesses some years before and identified two people who had traveled in medicine shows when he was writing his book. One of them was [Anna] Mae Noell, and one of them was Milton “Doc” Bartok—who is not in our film—who traveled with the Bardex Minstrels Show. To work on the medicine show festival we hired folklorist Glenn Hinson. George Holt was then at the North Carolina Arts Council, and he had worked with guys like Hash House Harvey, Starvin’ Sam, Snuffy Jenkins, and Pappy Sherrill. Through Doc Bartok we learned about Mary Smith McClain and others.

Like all folklorists who were working in making films, we worked on shoestring budgest. Our films are oftentimes not as well-known as the Ken Burns projects on public television. I’ve worked with Ken Burns, and his films are made with budgets of $500,000 or more. Our films, on the other hand, are made for budgets of $40,000. We were making our film on a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. We made a decision to spend all of the money on shooting the film. And we didn’t know how we were going to develop the film. We didn’t have money to even process the film that we were shooting with. We just were hoping that it would somehow come along. Paul Wagner managed to talk UNC Public Television into developing the film for us. Without them, the film would have been left undeveloped. We were also working with a cameraman supplied by the Smithsonian Institution, which was not the ideal cameraman to be using. It was the one thing that we could get for free—the Smithsonian offered us their Office of Media cameraperson. We made the film on an incredibly low budget.

The medicine show in Bailey was filmed over two nights although we combined the footage in the film. It was difficult choosing which sketches had to be cut from the film. The Smithsonian has the outtakes in their archives. When the performers saw the film for the first time, they were all essentially happy with the film. It was a while before we were able to send them video copies of the film; however, it was shown many times on UNC Public Television.

There are a few things that I still think a lot about from those days. One of them is that wonderful line by Greasy Medlin when he says, “I wouldn’t trade my medicine show days for all of it. Not even Hollywood, I wouldn’t swap it for.” I feel like, yeah, I wouldn’t trade those medicine show days for anything myself either--the chance to get to know those guys and a chance to be down there in Bailey. Also, there is that scene where Mary Smith McClain and the other African American performers are sitting around and she says, “You’ve got to keep on, on.” We still use that saying. It has become a family expression.


Based on a tape recorded conversation with filmmaker Steven J. Zeitlin on May 16, 2005.