"Come one and all, great and small"
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Who's Who in Med Show History: Take the
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Show, one of the leading ways rural 19th Century America sought good times
The Med Show recipe was unique: Combine burlesque with
melo-drama, provide plenty of foot-stompin music and dazzling theatrics,
add a touch of hokum with a strong dose of serious-minded medicinal hokum.
To keep the audience coming back night after night, no two shows were the
same. The medicine show artist had to maintain a deep repertoire of
material and be able to improvise at a moments notice.
Most shows began with a banjo solo or two. A rapid exchange of
jokes, often provided by a blackface comedian, would warm the crowd. Next
came music or a specialty item, such as sword-swallowing or ventriloquism.
Interwoven with the entertainment was the "pitch," in which the show
"doctor" would promote his medicinal wares.
To keep 'em coming back, the Med Show often promoted a contest. Audiences
would line up their young-uns for the most-beautiful baby competition or
feast until sick in a pie-eating contest. The prize? A bottle of snake
oil, of course.
The Medicine Show had mostly died out by the 1920s. Movies, radio
and other modern entertainment had taken over. Lost was not only a unique
form of family entertainment but a community-building event that brought
generations of people together in Americas hinterlands.