Living on the West End: The Medicine Show
Editor’s note: This is a reprint of a Bill Shepard column that appeared last year.
By Bill Shepard
Where it came from and where it went when it left Darlington, I never knew.
I am writing about the Medicine Show that came to Darlington in 1932. I was a 10-year-old at the time and I remember it well. Nothing as exciting as the Medicine Show had ever been to the Village, at least not in my lifetime, and this proved to be a once-in-a-lifetime happening!
I suppose the only other things that came to our village in the way of excitement were the visits of the traveling preachers when they came with their tent and held a camp-meeting style of revival.
Now a small tent was being raised on a vacant lot behind a store building on Phillips Street in Darlington and the village folk were excited!
The tent was different from the preacher’s tent. This one had a high platform in the front that would serve as a stage. The small tent behind the stage was where the Medicine Doctor and his two comedians lived. From the tent they could easily step out onto the stage and perform.
There was a lot of guessing and questioning going on as everything was in preparation for opening night!
In 1932, the nation, indeed the world, was in the grip of the Great Depression that had a stranglehold and wouldn’t let go. It was hard to earn enough money for food, much less entertainment!
The Medicine Show consisted of the Medicine Man himself, who introduced his medicine each night, and the two comedians who kept the crowd laughing at the jokes (clean) they would tell.
I know the above doesn’t sound like a lot of entertainment in today’s world, but in 1932, the world was a far different place. Of course there was a radio if a person could afford one. There was Amos & Andy, Lum & Abner and Cedric down at Pine Ridge. Anybody remember?
The Medicine Man would step out on the stage and introduce his medicine, which was a form of herbs that were supposed to cure whatever a person had ailing them. A different herb was introduced each night! He had something for each kind of the rheumatism once could mention, and there were a number of them! Then he had tablets for the hard of hearing, and those whose eyesight was growing dim.
When the doctor finished his speech, the comedians would go through the crowd, selling the packages of medicine. Following a time of introducing and selling the medicine, there would be more entertainment on the stage. Then the two comedians would mingle through the crowd, selling chocolate Bon-Bons, which were a few candy kisses in a box. “Chocolate Bon-Bons, 10 cents!” and that would continue until the last 10 cents had been found.
Various little games would be held on stage involving participants from the crowd. Did you ever try this one? Eat a handful of Saltine crackers and try to whistle! The one being the first to whistle would receive a prize. There were others and I remember them well. Too many to write about.
At the beginning of the show, the Medicine Man explained that each box of medicine and each candy box had a coupon on the box. At the end of the show a prize would be given to the person having the most coupons.
A large board with the names of those entering the contest would be posted each night at the beginning of the show. After the first week, a number of names were on that board, but as the show continued into its second, then its third, week, the names had dropped to only two names. Of course by that time, the show had dropped much of its drawing strength.
The last night arrived and it was time to announce a winner!
The Medicine Man stepped out on the platform and called for the winner to step forward from the crowd.
Imagine his surprise when my Dad stepped from the crowd holding my 5-year-old sister! Virginia Shepard was the winner!
The mantel over the fireplace at home had herb medicine stacked from end to end! The prize was a genuine diamond ring! All these years later, she still has it! The Medicine Show ended and folk went back to listening to Amos & Andy and Lum & Abner down at Pine Ridge. Where the medicine went, I never heard, nor have I ever heard of another one since!
(Note: I have searched for information about Medicine Shows and learned that they all had ceased to be. It seems that they sort of blended it into the vaudeville and minstrel shows of those times.)