Eldon Henthorne In Show Biz
Janice A. Sime
Epitaph - News
18 Jul 1991
In April of 1928, 21 year old Eldon Henthorne was working for a roofing company in LaCrosse. He was laid off - two weeks before his wedding to Sophie Hammer of Avalanche. He accepted the only job he could find. He and Sophie joined the Dalton Show, a vaudeville company passing through this area.
The company was owned by Mr. and Mrs. Carl Dalton and was showing a combination of melodrama and acrobatics called "Sis of the Circus." Including Eldon and Sophie, the show employed fifteen people. They were people of varied talents ranging from musicians to acrobats to loose wire artists. The only problem was that the show was losing money. In the twenties, many people in small towns felt that they had been cheated by circuses and circus people. As a result they were reluctant to come to the show with the word "circus" in the title.
Mr. Dalton decided drastic measures were called for - so he laid off the entire company except for Eldon and Sophie. He then took the show to Ortonville, Minnesota where for the next two weeks they did nothing but read lines and fish. Presently, they opened in Big Stone City, South Dakota (across the lake from Ortonville) in a new show called "The Swede, the Tramp, and the Girl". Mr. Dalton played the Swede - the hero, Sophie played the Girl, and Eldon played the villain of the piece, the Tramp. Eldon also helped out by playing the piano. For their work, the Henthornes were paid $65 per week plus traveling expenses. Eldon says: "It was a good, clean show - a good show that made people laugh." The Dalton Show toured Wisconsin, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, and Montana. They gave a performance six nights a week. Each performance was in a different opera house in a different town.
Although the Daltons had a caravan wagon in which they slept, the Henthornes lived in a tent. Eldon recalls that it was really quite comfortable. They had a bed, a camp stove, and a little cupboard.
When they weren't performing or rehearsing, the company spent a lot of time fishing. In Minnesota there were many private lakes owned by Norwegian farmers, however, these lakes were often posted for "No Fishing." Eldon would send Sophie down to the farm houses to ask if they could fish there, as she could speak Norwegian. Many times they were allowed to fish where others could not.
Eldon notes with interest that Mr. Dalton was a very nice person, although he was very superstitious. Perhaps this is a trait of many performers. He would drive miles out of his way to keep from crossing a black cat's path. Every day in a new opera house, he would count the rows of seats. If there were thirteen rows he would insist that one row be added or removed. At the end of the 1928 season, the Daltons asked Eldon and Sophie to go to Florida with them. However, the young couple decided that since they were going to start a family, they would come back to Readstown [WI]. Here Eldon got a job working in the creamery. Several years later the Dalton Show did play the Shamrock Opera House in Viola [WI]. At that time, Eldon and Sophie introduced their growing family to their former road companions.
Although Sophie's foray into show business was the season with the Daltons, Eldon had performed before. He began his musical career with a clarinet and piano duet with his sister Mildred on the platform of the Sugar Grove Church of Christ. They played "Love's Old Sweet Song." While recovering from a particularly serious appendicitis operation at the age of seven, he learned to play the clarinet. He was taught to play the instrument by Sam and Neli Asperheim, who were proprietors of the Sugar Grove store. He also took piano lessons from Helen Lake, who lived in the present day Don Krahenbuhl farm. After he finished school, one of the bands he played in was Readstown's own "Wisconsin Five." This band was headed by Leon Callaway (brother of the late Bernie Callaway) and included Elmer Mason, Orvin Salmon, Ted Callaway, and Eldon. They played at dances all over the area. In those days, bands played for a 60/40, 60% for the band and 40% for the management. A musician could average $14 per night. Admission was often $1.00 with 10› War Tax. The bands typically played waltzes, one steps, and fox trots. Popular songs included "Three o'clock in the Morning," "Sleep," "Stuttering," and "Moonlight and Roses." He played at a dance in Mt. Sterling on the night of the mysterious Clara Olson murder in that town. He remembers seeing both Clara and her husband at the dance.
Eldon was working at the village creamery in 1927 when the Rusk Comedy Show came to Readstown. They pitched their tent in the uptown park. This was a medicine show run by a son of former Governor Rusk - Frank Rusk. He sold such things as patent medicines and candy. Tickets were imprinted with the letters "SS." The buyers were told that these were the initials of the prizes the holders of the tickets would win, for example, a pair of shoe strings or a sugar shell. Once in a great while a silverware set was given away. The show was looking for a musician, so Eldon left his job with the creamery and signed on for $45 per week. The band included Eldon on clarinet, Gene Mitchell of Thorp on trumpet, Floyd Shepherd of Mt. Sterling on trombone, and Leona Barry of Alton, Illinois on piano. Leona's husband, Bert, was a tap dancer.
Eldon did not have to do any of the show's hustling and selling but the musicians did have to help put up the big tent. The show stayed about a week in each place. Eldon's last engagement was at the Viroqua Fairgrounds.
After he left the Rusk Comedy Show, Eldon and several friends (George Ewing, Pearlie Gochenaur, and "Skinny" Walters) took off for Carter, Oklahoma to pick cotton. Eldon and George had a career as cotton pickers that lasted exactly one day. Pickers were paid a penny a pound. For his day's work Eldon earned 37›. By chance Eldon and George met up with the local postmaster. He also managed the local opera house, which showed silent movies six nights a week and twice on Saturday. Week days he showed the movies in rural school houses. He hired the two boys to play for these movies and paid them $3 each for every performance. He also allowed all four boys to sleep in the opera house at night. Eldon spent several months in Oklahoma. He returned to Readstown on Thanksgiving Day.
Eldon was born in 1907 to Mertie and Herman Henthorne in the Sugar Grove, [WI] area. His parents farmed where Leroy McKittrick lives today. He attended the Coher school from grades one to seven. In 1921 his family moved to Readstown where Eldon went to eighth grade and two years of high school. After high school, Eldon did farm work and worked with his father in the creamery. He also worked in other creameries in the area, including Steuben and Soldiers Grove.
In 1932, Sophie and Eldon moved to Jump River, Wisconsin. They would later live in Ft. Atkinson and Hannibal, Wisconsin and Marquette, Michigan. Eldon retired in 1969 and the couple moved back to Readstown in 1980. Sophie passed away in 1989.
Looking back on their experiences on the road, Eldon says: "I liked it and Sophie liked it too. We saw a lot of country and got to know a lot of nice people. We saw life as it really is."
(The article appeared on page 1 and included two photos - furnished by Arthur Glick)
Posted: 25 Sep 2009