Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Huntress 2: Bright lights and baseball, too

This is the second of several posts about Chariton's Harry Hemphill, a star of the vaudeville stage who performed from 1894 until 1916-17 as "Huntress," a musician, dancer and female impersonator. When the last post ended, Harry, age 18, had just given notice at The Chariton Patriot and set out to join his first vaudeville company. The photo at left was taken during 1907, when he was at the mid-point of his dancing career.


Harry's first engagement as a vaudeville musician, dancer and female impersonator was with the Goodenough Indian Medicine Company, based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. That 10-month gig lasted from January of 1895 until late October, when the company closed its season and he returned to Chariton to take a break.

Information is scarce about most of the hundreds if not thousands of traveling shows and their itinerant vaudeville performers who blanketed the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but most likely the Goodenough company performed in rented halls during the winter and traveled with its own tents during warmer months. The outfit's success or failure depended primarily upon sales of Dr. Goodenough's Tonic, a patent medicine with no medicinal value whatsoever.

Back in Chariton during November of 1895, Iseminger Post No. 18, Grand Army of the Republic, and Co. H., Iowa National Guard, brought the Harry Kimmel Company to town for benefit performances. The centerpiece was a production of the popular Civil War drama, "The Confederate Spy," but there were other acts as well, including Harry. "The dancing and female impersonations of our young friend, Mr. Harry Hemphill, were particularly good and won for him the praise of the entire house," the Patriot reported in its edition of Nov. 21.

Also during November, to bridge the income gap between engagements, Harry launched a dancing school for children younger than 12. He rented rooms upstairs in the east-side Hickman Building and commenced teaching a class of 22 youngsters. A second term of classes opened during late December, and on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 1896, he rented the Armory and invited the public (for a fee) to attend a "fancy dress ball" that featured his students. There were plenty of local musicians, including Harry, to provide music.

He also held regular social dances in his rented rooms, including one on New Years Day 1896, and performed as a musical soloist at social gatherings around Chariton. He had more down time between engagements during his early career and continued to use these ways to supplement his income.

During late February, 1896, Harry closed his dancing school, ended his break and headed for Sidney in far southwest Iowa to join another traveling theatrical troupe, but this engagement didn't go well and by late April he was home in Chariton again, telling his friends at The Patriot that he was done with life on the road. He re-opened his dancing school, but soon had found a job with another troupe and was off again.

Harry joined the Star Specialty Co. during February of 1898, but was able to come home for his sister, Maude's, high school graduation in May before rejoining the company later that month in Burlington. That September, he came down with typhoid while performing in Bonaparte and was forced to return to Chariton to recuperate. Fortunately, he recovered from what at the time was a very dangerous illness.

Harry lost his position while recuperating, but quickly found another with old friends and by mid-October he was well enough to travel to La Crosse to join the Goodenough Entertainers, formerly the Goodenough Indian Medicine Company, with whom he signed on for two more years. When he returned home for a break during December of 1900, the Patriot reported, "Harry is quite a successful lady impersonator and has been playing the role of leading 'lady' for this company for more than two years."

While in Chariton for Christmas 1900, the Hemphills enjoyed a visit from one of Harry's friends, Vernon Bestor, "a lady impersonator with the Darymple Comedy Co." Then during early January, he was off to Des Moines to join the Nelson Combination Company, again as a "lady impersonator."


If anyone had the patience to wade through it, I could go on and one here about the details of Harry's career during the next few years, but I'm going to jump ahead to 1908. During the intervening years, Harry continued to perform with various companies, including H. C. Conrad's Comedy Company, the Great Bunker Comedy Company, the Haley Vaudeville Company and the Fitzgerald German Medicine Company. Most of his performances were in the Midwest, but he traveled to other parts of the country to perform, too, and was especially taken with California.

During April of 1904 he was in Chariton briefly to serve as best man during his sister, Maude's, marriage to James D. Sullivan, an Iowa City barber who had gotten his start in Chariton. He was too  busy by now to conduct dancing schools, but did find time occasionally to conduct classes in La Crosse, Chariton, Leon and elsewhere in his other passion --- "high art embroidery and modern lace making."


Harry frequently organized benefit performances for local causes while spending his breaks in Chariton and during June of 1908, when his vacation coincided with that of another act also home-based in Chariton --- the Martins, the Chariton baseball team benefitted. Harry and Dave Martin and Dave's wife, Percie Martin, rented the Armory and organized a big show on the evening of Friday, June 26. The advertisement for it at the beginning of this post appeared in The Patriot of June 25.

Here's the story that accompanied the advertisement:

There is a treat in store for all who go to the armory tomorrow (Friday) night. They will be entertained in a delightful way and one that is novel and unusual in Chariton.

Chariton has produced several professional stage people who have won for themselves notable recognition throughout the United States. Among these are Harry Hemphill, son of Mrs. E.A. Hemphill, and Dave Martin, son of Thos. H. Martin. These people, together with Mrs. Dave Martin, are home for a vacation from their labors and on tomorrow night they will give an entertainment in the armory.

Mr. Hemphill is known on the stage as "Huntress." His specialty is female impersonations and fancy stage dancing. In this line of work he ranks among the best in the country, appearing throughout the United States in all of the better grades of vaudeville theatres. He wears beautiful and costly costumes and draperies, all of which are his own handiwork. His stage settings, curtains and the like are magnificent. He gives imitations of leading actresses and dancers, does the serpentine and other fancy dances, one of which he does on a large revolving ball. In each of the different numbers on the program he wears a different gown. Calcium lights, with beautiful colored slides, are used in some of the dances to add to the effect of the yards of flowing draperies which he wears. One of Mr. Hemphill's pleasing impersonations will be an imitation of the famous French actress, Anna Held, in which he will sing her song, "The Gay Parisenee."

The Martins are musicians. They present an original one act musical playlet entitled "Harvest Time." Mr. Martin plays the part of an old farmer, and Mrs. Martin appears in the role of a stranded actress. this is a delightful little comedy in which they introduce their specialty of performing, singly and together, on a number of musical instruments. Song numbers are also a part of this act. The Martins are among the best instrumentalists on the vaudeville stage and their act is clever and original. They have presented it in all of the best theatres in the larger cities. They use a beautiful stage setting of rural design.

Assisting in the entertainment will be eight of Chariton's leading young lady vocalists, Mrs. Howard Copeland, Misses Ruth Leonard, Carrie Custer, Dorothy McCollough, Mattie Penick, Marie Bown, Josie Swift and Ollie Connell. They will appear in chorus both with "Huntress" and the Martins. The Chariton Orchestra and Miss Lillie Wood, pianist, will also assist. The entertainment will take up about two hours time. It will be well worth seeing. Reserved seats are only 35 cents and are on sale at Jones drug store.

In connection it may be said that a share of the net proceeds of this entertainment will be given to the players on the Chariton baseball team. Attend and give our home stage folks an enthusiastic reception, and lend encouragement to our ball team too.


The Friday night performance was such a success than an encore performance on Saturday night was added --- and everyone was happy  about the outcome.

The baseball team was having a busy weekend, too. It defeated Carlisle 9-1 on Friday, lost 5-1 at Hiteman on Saturday, claimed an "unfair deal" when the boys lost to Hocking on Sunday, but the team redeemed itself the following Wednesday by defeating the Buxton Wonders 3-2 in a hometown match.


Having done his duty to the hometown folks, Harry hopped aboard a train at the Chariton depot during early July of 1908 and headed for Burlington to join friends for a camping expedition along the Mississippi, then continued east to Alton, Illinois, to commence a new stage season.

Next time: Harry's Cottage

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