Monday, May 14, 2012

Let Us Not Forget...The Jolly Entertainers!

Way back in them thar Olden Days, when folks done for themselves through hard work and perseverance, and were proud to stand or fall on their own account, and ne'er relied on none o' that government intervention nonsense, there was this little ol' house full o' wee young 'uns, who came there 'cause they were street urchins and orphans and didn't have no home of their own or family to take care o' them, so they took care o' themselves, and wouldn't even accept no charity.  These little ragamuffins called themselves The Jolly Entertainers, and they showed folks in every little town in the U.S., and even the wilds of Canada, just what they were made of.

The Jolly Entertainers was the brainchild of Herman Mainard Draper, born in Rainham Centre, Ontario, Canada, in 1856 (or so, depending on the source).  He was the son of a preacher, and had eight brothers and sisters.  The family moved to nearby Welland, Ontario, and later to Battle Creek, Michigan, while Herman was still a young boy.  (Eventually he would become a naturalised citizen of the U.S.)  He studied music at the Boston Conservatory of Music, and also earned a certificate from the Tonic Sol-Fa College in London, England.  Tonic sol-fa was a simplified method of reading music, and came in handy when Draper started teaching children music.

On September 18, 1878, Draper married 20-year-old Annie Pacey of Port Stanley, Ontario, a small town about 200 miles from Battle Creek.  Herman was living in Stratford, Ontario at the time of their marriage, which took place at the Pacey residence in London, Ontario.  They had two sons, Harry, born 1880 in Battle Creek, and Cecil, born 1882 in London.

1890s: Herman and Annie Draper, with their two sons Harry and Cecil, and adopted niece, Edith, who was to become one of the original Jolly Entertainers.

They moved to Seward, Nebraska in 1887, and then on to Kearney in 1889, where Draper taught music at local schools, using the tonic sol-fa system, and put together the Kearney Juvenile Band.  Wherever he went, Herman was successful with his musical method: "It has no lines, no spaces, no clefs, no sharps, no flats, no naturals, no time figures, nothing but music in a plain, practicable, sensible notation as simple and natural as the music itself. Children comprehend and enjoy it and can learn to sing by it as readily and as well as they learn to read from books."  Wherever he taught, Professor Draper had the respect and admiration of the community.

When Annie's sister Edith died of apoplexy in 1894, she and Herman took her little girl, also named Edith, into the family.

In the late 1890s, the Drapers moved to Calumet, Michigan, where Herman opened a music store and taught voice and various instruments wherever he could.  He gave up the store in 1903 to take a job as superintendent of the Good Will Farm and Home Finding Association, a shelter for homeless kids.

While there he organised the Jolly Entertainers, a 7-piece children's musical group.  They played wherever they could be heard, including street corners, according to an early newspaper write up from July 19, 1907: "From East Broadway in the vicinity of the city hall last evening came the sounds of music, and on closer investigation by several hundred persons, it was found that the melody was being produced by five pretty little girls and two attractive, manly-looking boys.  Two of the girls played cornets, two were bringing sweet strains from alto horns and the fifth played a baritone horn.  The larger of the boys played a tuba, and the other industriously beat a snare and a bass drum.

The children made a hit with their music, and when they began selling postcards, telling who they were and what their object was in playing on the street, they couldn't begin gathering the dimes fast enough.

Draper eventually resigned his post at the Good Will Farm, saddened to see brothers and sisters parted, typical in orphan asylums, and he was determined to start his own industrial home farther south in Houghton, where siblings without parents could grow up together.  However, government regulations prohibited the Drapers from taking in illegitimate children, babies less than half a year old, and children whose parents wished to pay their board while they looked for work elsewhere.  These rules were harmful and destroyed families, so, in 1907, the Drapers decided to move out west to Washington, where they intended to start a new home in Seattle.  "The home in Seattle will be for the purpose of furnishing a residing place for the boys and girls until permanent homes can be found for them."  Draper would soon change his mind about giving the kids up for adoption.

Postcard, 1907, letting folks know that the Drapers, as well as the Jolly Entertainers, are moving to Seattle.  Below: They've arrived.

Herman and Annie brought along with them the original line-up of the Jolly Entertainers: their daughter Birdie (Edith), as well as (with the permission of their parents) four Norwegian children, Hartell, Doloros, Gudrun and Phillis, and siblings Mike and Maggie.  They were hoping to make it to Seattle by fall, in time for the new school year.

On the way they bought the chassis of a truck in Chicago and built the prototype of a mobile home on top of it.  The children cut their teeth on the road, performing daily.  They played at the newly-opened Orpheum Theatre in Rockford, Illinois: "The bill at the Orpheum for the first three days of the week is one that will fill the theatre at each performance.  Draper's Jolly Entertainers are one of the features of the bill, and at the performances yesterday were given the highest honors.  The little folk are good entertainers on the stage, and have a prettily arranged act of songs and dances.  Before the performances the entertainers give a band concert and are certainly clever instrumentalists."

Postcard, from a photo taken September 11, 1909.  The industrial home -- and the band -- was growing rapidly.

While in Montana, they played in Havre (where they did 62 shows at the Family Theatre), Great Falls, Helena, and Missoula (where they had a week-long engagement at the Union Theatre).

But the roads in Montana, being too crude and muddy in those days, forced the family to travel by train the rest of the way, including their odd vehicle, which was loaded on a flatbed.

Few of the Jolly Entertainers' ads included a photo of the troupe.  (From the February 23, 1914 edition of the Oregon newspaper, Ashland Tidings.)

In October they found themselves in the city of Ballard, now a part of Seattle, but stayed only a while.  In June 1908 they moved to Des Moines, where they bought a hotel built in 1890 by John Hiatt (not to be confused with the Hyatt chain of hotels).  The hotel, known as Bidgler's House, was formerly owned by Captain F.W. Hanke, but when his schooner sank in rough waters in December 1904 and the entire crew drowned, he left his wife with four small children. Desperate for money, she sold the hotel to the Drapers, where they were to live for the next 19 years.

The Children's Industrial Home, Des Moines, Washington, home of the Jolly Entertainers for 19 years.

The brood kept growing, consisting of homeless waifs, orphans, and abandoned children, mostly children no one else wanted, or that state-run orphanages weren't permitted to keep. Despite being three storeys high and having 28 rooms, the hotel was small, not any bigger than one you'd find in a lawless one-horse town in the Wild West, and the Drapers found it impossible to keep more than three dozen children at a time.  As with Oliver Warbucks, the children called Herman "Daddy", and Annie was "Mother".

The house was christened The Children's Industrial Home -- at least, that's what it was usually called -- and the kids learned to play musical instruments and to sew and knit.  A barn, also part of the property, was converted into an opera house, with a stage, curtains and scenery, where the kids provided vaudeville entertainment for the locals, usually musical comedy and theatre.  Draper had a small water tower built, to provide for running water and a toilet on each floor.  In addition, a play area was built on the grounds for the children.

Playground at the Industrial Home, back in the days when playgrounds weren't shut down just because some kid skinned his knee.

There was also a print shop set up in a little green house out back, "an old shed", as Draper described it.  There were three presses (run by gasoline engine), a composing stone, 55 fonts of type, and other tools.  (By 1915 there were four presses and 75 fonts.)  The press was run by the children, who typeset and printed their own newsletter, The Good Will, as well as programmes and promotional postcards and flyers.  The Good Will contained articles written by the children, sometimes essays about their experiences travelling as the Jolly Entertainers.  These experiences were summed up in a 1917 newspaper article: "The teachers are carried right along so that their education is not neglected and they are always taken to visit all the interesting or instructive features wherever they stop, having seen already what most children only read about.  Going down in the mines, watching the building of ships, going through the great sugar refinery on the coast.  On one occasion they saw sugar from the cane to the table and each received a bag of sugar as a souvenir."  The paper was published monthly, and yearly subscriptions could be had for one dollar.  They also accepted commercial printing jobs: "We guarantee satisfaction and we need your help."

Postcard, 1910.  The kids must have had fun printing all these postcards.  It's a good thing they did, otherwise we might not know their band ever existed.

Perhaps their most ambitious printing effort, a small (6" x 4") book, 92 pages.  Small press publishing at its finest.  The price was steep, but the cause worthy.

The Jolly Entertainers travelled in a caravan of trucks, or sometimes a bus, with "Daddy" and "Mother", and usually with one or two teachers in tow.  The children brought their school books.  Wherever they journeyed on their tours, the Drapers were always able to find overnight lodging for the children.  This usually wasn't a problem, and the good citizens of the community would take in three or four at a time.  As one newspaper put it, "Instead of finding it difficult to place the children there were not enough in the party to go around."

Draper described his home as self-supporting, perhaps the only self-supporting children's home on the planet: "We do not have any support from the county, town or any public institution or state.  The only way we make money to run the home is by giving concerts in different cities."  And so they did.  Within the first three years they performed hundreds of concerts in the state of Washington alone.

Money was never solicited, but Draper said he wouldn't refuse a "friendly donation".  A 1920 flyer sent round to labour unions asked that each member contribute one penny to the home: "It certainly seems small, but think what it means to those children!"  But he stopped short of calling it charity: "Oh, no!  These kiddies print 'Good Will,' and for each dollar sent as per capita on the one-cent basis they will send a copy of their little paper, which should be passed around at your next union meeting, so that as many members as possible may read it and pass it on to others."

Claire and Neva Stitt, ages 11 and 9, "The Two Youngest Soloists in America".

He believed in God, but kept religion out of the equation: "Personally, I have no creed."  The children attended public school in Des Moines, and the entertainment provided by the Jolly Entertainers was secular.

Draper was convinced he and his wife gave the children all the love, care and fostering they needed.  One of the home's fold out cards stated: "We have no children to give away or place in homes.  This is their home and here they remain until they grow up and want to leave."

Flyer, circa 1912

Folded postcard, circa 1913.  Similar to the flyer above, but in this updated version the number of children has grown from 35 to 44.  It was always a struggle: though the Drapers were able to pay $500 on a $4000 debt for five acres of waterfront property where they hoped to build a new house, they now owed $600 in mortgage for their home and $500 "floating indebtedness."

When the Jolly Entertainers first arrived in Washington, there were seven members in the band.  The number quickly grew, and eventually there would be as many as two dozen boys and girls in the band, aged 4 to 16.  A January 1912 newspaper article stated: "There are twenty members in the troupe, and each of them dances, sings, recites, or plays a solo instrument."

Folded postcard

Their concerts seemed to be successful, if not financially, at least critically.  Attendance was good, and sometimes houses were packed, and always to appreciative audiences, as the many newspaper reports (often nothing more than a paragraph) attest.  An excerpt from a 1911 newspaper article describes in some detail one of their earlier shows (with some typos corrected):

The program was a continuous play and was pronounced the best ever given by these little folks.

The first was a scene on the street.  A bunch of children on their way to a picnic are met by Uncle Josh, who is persuaded to go along.  They are followed by Happy Hooligan and Gloomy Gus, who also go to the picnic and get
"filled up."

Scene 2 is the picnic full blast, children swinging, skipping, playing ball, boxing, etc.  Uncle Josh is there, according to agreement, gets dumped out of the swings and has a general good time.  Happy and Gloomy are the biggest toads in the puddle and the only break in the festivities is the appearance of a cop who attempts to arrest Happy, but the tables turned on him.  Scene 3 finds a host of people buying tickets for the
"big show."  Scene 4 is the big show, given by the Lilliputians and it certainly is a "Big Show."  This part of the program is made up of the most catchy songs, beautiful motions and poses, marches, graceful dances and the most laughable vaudeville ever presented on a Port Townsend stage by young performers.

The company will remain over and give another program tonight with an entire change of bill.

The price for the evening show: 35 cents general admission, 50 cents for reserved seats, and 15 cents for children under 14.

No venue left untrodden, they even performed for a Washington chain gang in 1910.

When the children grew up, some left the home, but others stayed on.  A fella named Lloyd Sawner became the stage manager for the Jolly Entertainers, arranging lights and special effects for the shows.  Julia James, nine years at the home, became a band leader, helping to rehearse the kids.

There's no telling how many concerts were given during the band's 20-year existence, but evidently there were a lot.  One of their tours covered 38 states and parts of Canada.  It might have given the children a sense of self-worth to earn their own keep at a cruel time in history when they might have been left on the streets to fend for themselves; but they weren't sponsored by Pepsi, and so the Industrial Home was often in arrears, sometimes owing thousands of dollars.  But, bless their little hearts, the kids kept performing whether they made a profit, broke even, or incurred a loss.

The Jolly Entertainers were able to support their Des Moines home for 19 years, but in April 1927 Annie died suddenly from heart failure, followed by Herman, who died the day of her funeral, no doubt from a broken heart.  Unfortunately, the home couldn't be maintained without the guidance, inspiration and management of the Drapers, and so the Children's Industrial Home was closed, and the hotel eventually demolished.  Today, only the little green house where the children printed their newsletters and postcards still stands.

But the kids were determined not to sink into historical oblivion.  The Harrington Opera house, built in 1904 in the tiny town of Harrington, Washington, was bought and restored in recent years, but the walls of the dressing rooms were left untouched.  The children were only too happy to deface the walls with their signatures, and "The Jolly Entertainers, Sept. 18-19, 1916" is visible, along with other such scribblings for each time they performed there.  Way to go, kids!

Camping in East Potomac Park, Washington, DC, November 25, 1924

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