Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick
TOBY AND SUSIE TENT SHOW THEATRE
For more than 35 years, slapstick comedy and good wholesome fun were the themes of skits and plays presented by the Schaffner Players, some of which the Schaffners authored and developed. With his face made up like a clown, Neil Schaffner portrayed the character of "Tobias T. Tolliver," a man with a good heart who always found himself in trouble because of his bragging, laziness, gags, or his tendency to become involved in "get rich quick" schemes, while other characters in the show including "Susie," played by Mrs. Schaffner, covered Toby’s tracks and frequently bailed the lovable buffoon out of trouble.
From the moment the curtain opened until it closed two hours later, the crowds were kept laughing or entranced in suspense due to the crazy antics presented on stage. In between acts of each comedy, singers, dancers, and vaudeville artists delighted the audience. A small, upright piano to the left of the stage provided accompaniment for some of the musicians, and for "talent night" held once each week.
By the time the Schaffner Players arrived in Keosauqua for a seven night stand in July of 1950, they had built a reputation throughout the tri-state area for quality entertainment, as they received rave reviews in newspapers and magazines. Writer Van Johnson in Colliers Magazine reported, "Toby and Susie are as much a part of the Midwest as tall corn itself!"
The first event, sponsored by the American Legion, was a trial run to see if Keosauqua would support this form of outdoor entertainment. Keosauqua had hosted carnivals and small animal shows, but this was a new adventure, and Toby and Susie usually performed in larger communities where they were guaranteed a packed house for each production.
Much curiosity was created during the erection of a large canvas tent auditorium in City Park. For help in setting up the show, neighborhood kids were given a free ticket for opening night! News soon spread that each show was a skilled performance and the entertainers were delightful. By the end of the week, the tent was filled with a lively crowd, and Neil Schaffner happily announced that Toby and Susie were planning a return engagement in 1951. Thus tent theatre became an annual tradition over the next decade.
After Mr. and Mrs. Schaffner retired, cast member Jimmy Davis attempted to keep the traveling theatre going, but it was not the same without their star attractions, and the little troupe could no longer support a large cast of players. Toby and Susie had helped bridge a gap between vaudeville or Chautauqua and television while they entertained audiences within the heartland of rural America.
With an appetite now whetted for live entertainment, tent shows may have set the stage for community theatre to emerge in Keosauqua during the 1960s and early 1970s.
Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick