The Medicine Show
The Great Dr. Balthazar T. Archimedes
History, Variety, Performance and Fun
“Welcome, welcome, welcome Ladies and Gentlemen, to the Medicine Show of the GREAT DOCTOR BALTHAZAR T. ARCHIMEDES and I am THE GREAT DOCTOR and I am here to tell you that you are all DYING! Yes, it’s true. Every mother’s child of you is dying, from the biggest to the smallest, the shortest to the tallest, the oldest to the youngest, the fattest to the thinnest – you are all dying and there is nothing you can do about it.
One day, and I say, one day, a big hand will come from heaven and cover your face and it will be EN FIN – the end. BUT, and I say BUT, why should YOU suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? Why should YOU be subject to the thousand natural cares that flesh is heir to? Well Ladies and Gentlemen, you shouldn’t!
And I THE GREAT DOCTOR BALTHAZAR T. ARCHIMEDES, for I am THE GREAT DOCTOR, am here to show you something and share with you something the likes of which you have never seen before! Watch closely friends, watch closely, don’t look at my eyes, look at my hand, I say don’t look at my eyes and look at my hand, as this hand draws forth [takes bottle from the left hand coat pocket] something the likes of which you have never seen before!”1
And with that the man in the black top hat, upturned collar and fancy vest begins his pitch and a 21st century medicine show is up and running.
The purpose of this essay is to show how creating a medicine show based on but not limited to 19th century American models can provide theatre students (non-majors as well as majors) with four crucial aspects of their theatre education: 1. historical context; 2.collaborative script ownership; 3. presentational performance experience 4. a hell of a lot of fun!
Medicine men and women have plied their wares since the beginning of civilization. In some cultures, medical practitioners were treated with respect and were an essential part of how cultures faced illness and the unknown. Along side those who truly believed in the cures they were peddling, were those quacks, charlatans and mountebanks who sold elixirs, salves and soaps guaranteed to cure any illness from cancer to skin rashes.
Conventional American medicine, from the earliest beginnings through the 20th century was a hit-or-miss affair. Anyone could open a medical school, with the result that many were little more than diploma mills. Few schools had laboratory facilities, libraries, adequate faculty or stringent testing procedures. There were no state or federal examinations. Bleeding and the use of Calomel, a powerful purgative composed primarily of mercury, combined with medicinal wine, laxative salts, opium and castor, were the primary means of cure. One need only remember photographs of Civil War surgeries, with buckets of arms and legs and surgeons up to their elbows in blood to understand clearly the surgical conditions as they existed in the mid-19th century. No wonder people feared doctors and what passed for conventional medicine. It is not surprising, therefore, that an industry developed side-by-side with conventional medicine; an industry that combined extravagant claims and spectacular exotic entertainment. Enter the American Medicine Show.
Along with conventional medical practices, the 19th century Medicine showmen took their inspiration from a host of popular alternatives. They included: the temperance movement; pure food advocates; vegetarianism; phrenology; holy healers; cereal advocates; osteopathy; chiropractic; electric shock treatments; physical culture adherents; organic diet specialists; vitamin proponents; dieting specialists; water cure advocates; mesmerists; and homeopaths. Some of these treatments and their proponents have maintained a hold on the American public and a few, like osteopaths and chiropractors, have been mostly accepted as mainstream by conventional medical practitioners. Herbalists and botanical remedies are found in hundreds of General Nutrition Centers nation-wide, or on specially designated counters in pharmacies which dispense conventional medicines. Many of the traditional as well as alternative approaches to medicine were created and practiced by men and women who truly believed in their healing powers. American medicine men also took their inspiration and persuasive devices from those “practitioners” who were out-and-out quacks. Why were they successful?
Until the mid 20th century dreadful and incurable diseases trod the entire world as well as the American landscape, diseases for which traditional medical practices provided no hope. Such diseases included typhoid fever, typhus, polio, yellow fever, tuberculosis, small pox and hundreds of cancers of various types. It was no wonder that the public was susceptible to alternative siren songs. James Harvey Young, in his The Toadstool Millionaires: A Social History of Patent Medicines in America Before Federal Regulation, writes that “…medical quackery has been – and is – an important theme in American social and intellectual history. Quackery is important because through it vast numbers of our people have sought to bolster or restore their health and because it affords insight into an anti-rational approach to one of the key problems in life.” He also asserts that “…the rise of scientific medicine and the apogee of unrestrained nostrum vending coincide.” He finally concludes “…that a full answer lies hidden in the complex mystery of human motivation.” (vii,viii) I don’t believe that there is much of a mystery. When people get sick they want to get well in the quickest, fastest, easiest way possible. For most people, death is final: very final. If there was a way to cure or prevent a sickness, it had to be attempted. Medicine men provided the easy solutions.
My home town had many medicine men. One was particularly famous. He began “practicing” in the early 1940s, and was finally tried for mail fraud in January 1965. While he was convicted of seven counts of mail fraud, no one testified against him except the government. In fact, twenty-one of his “patients” offered to testify in his defense! His elixir, named Doc Hagedorn’s Famous Liniment, good for man or beast, made many claims, not the least of which was that it “stops any kind of pain.” Further, “It relieves stiff joints and all kinds of swelling and sprains. Stops all kinds of skin diseases – eczema, athlete’s foot and ring worm. It stops headaches, toothaches, ulcer pains, heart pains, cramps, does away with back troubles, relieves sore feet, ingrown toenails, takes off corns, bunions, warts and pimples. Good for insect bites, itching piles, and old sores. Just two tablespoons of medicine in a glass of water for washing.” And then, if you needed extra help, he had “ Special medicine for goiters, enlarged blood veins, asthma, sciatic rheumatism, arthritis, prostate gland trouble, heart trouble, stroke, polio…It is fully guaranteed.”2
This, then, was the context within which medicine shows were created, as well as some of the claims that medicine men made. I shared all this with my students and had them read the best book on American medicine shows, Step Right Up: An Illustrated History of the American Medicine Show by Brooks McNamara. Beautifully written and thoroughly illustrated, it documents the history and variety of medicine show types and advertisements from the 18th century through the 20th . Also, it contains authentic medicine show sketches and bits. It was, and is, an invaluable resource.
Upon reading McNamara’s book over thirty years ago, I became fascinated with the medicine show and decided to create a character who could perform by himself as a one-man show or with a company of variety performers. Besides McNamara’s book, there was one place that I knew medicine show performers and memorabilia could be found: the Theatre Museum of the National Association of Tent, Repertoire and Folk Theatre in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.
As a board member, I had been going to their annual meeting for twenty-five years. At one of the earliest meetings I met a man who had been a medicine showman. When I told him that I was thinking of putting together a show with me as the medicine man, he asked what I intended to call myself. I said “Doctor Balthazar T. Archimedes,” thinking that was snappy enough name. “No”, he said. “That’s not enough. You must call yourself The GREAT Doctor Balthazar T. Archimedes!” That appealed to my vanity as well as my sense of the theatrical. And so the medicine show of the Great Doctor Balthazar T. Archimedes was born.
Over the years I have performed the opening pitch (which can run anywhere from five to fifteen minutes) for retirement homes, arts organizations and our annual Rivercade Celebration. But I wasn’t satisfied. How I wondered, could I involve my students? I wanted to give them experiences that they couldn’t get anywhere else or in any other way. What would they have to do to collaborate in the creation of a script and the development of a presentational acting style? Once again, McNamara provided an answer. In his book, he states that “medicine shows carrying as few as two or three performers and as many as forty, operated throughout the United States and Canada from about 1870 to 1930, and even later in some out-of-the-way areas.” (45) Troupes traveled year round, utilizing such facilities as opera houses, grange or town halls in the winter, and in the summer set up in tents or on platforms. “…the medicine showman was essentially a theatrical producer, packaging shows that were interrupted periodically for sales pitches and the sales themselves. About one-third of most of the shows was given over to the lectures, demonstrations, sales and the rest to entertainment, most frequently some sort of variety show.” (48). Shows played all over the United States, but the favored territory was the South and Midwest. Medicine showman Harry Leon Wilson, in the character of Sooner Jackson, “…chose Iowa as the medicine man’s paradise…In fact give me Iowa where the boobs…simply come up and ask to be had.” (49). Perfect. McNamara had provided me with exactly what I needed. Now I had to put a rough draft of the show together, leaving room for input from my performers. I also had to convince students that this was an experience they were not likely to forget!
My university has a small theatre department; two faculty members, some adjuncts, and a population which ranges from 5-15 majors, depending on the year. As a liberal arts university, the purpose of the department is to provide opportunities for all students, regardless of major. In fact, we cannot mount a season without student participation from other majors. Fortunately, every time we produce the show, we have plenty of participants.
During auditions, I provided students with medicine show scripts, but I also encouraged them to perform any type of entertainment they felt comfortable doing. As a result, I had jugglers, singers, mimics, dancers, tumblers, bird whistlers, and karate experts. The scripts I provided them with came, again, from McNamara. He was a prolific collector of medicine show memorabilia, including scripts. The back of his book contained four appendices, each an original medicine show script. There was one major problem, however. The comics were black-face and the material blatantly racist. What to do?
Clearly, we had to change the speech characteristics so that dialogue sounds were not identifiable to any race or group but to a particular character. Also, this was a chance for a teachable moment. I harp on the fact that if you are going to do a play, you must do it as written. If there are aspects of the script that offend you or that you think might offend your audience, then don’t do the play. It is unethical to change it. In this instance, however, I felt change was justified and I explained to my students why I thought it was so. This was not a museum piece. The culture has changed markedly since the 19th century. There are still many parts of the medicine show script that are humorous and appeal to a modern sensibility. The important thing was not doing a medicine show, but the fact that students could participate in the creation of a once extremely wide-spread theatrical endeavor.
Beside the medicine show scripts, there were other medicine show bits that were not in any way racist, but were extremely funny. Clearly, a number of these bits originated in vaudeville or were “borrowed” by medicine showmen. Very popular ones included “Niagara Falls,” and “Prickly Heat.” I include the McNamara “Prickly Heat” sketch from his American Popular Entertainments: A Collection of Jokes, Monologues & Comedy Routines, and my own version of “Niagara Falls,” to give the reader a sense of what these sketches were and how they might be utilized by student actors in a variety-type medicine show.
Cast: Chuck, Straight, Juvenile, Ingenue [nurse].
Set: In two. Office desk. Chair back desk. Phone. 2 chairs. Juvenile has foot wrapped up. Straight has head wrapped around. As curtain goes up, phone rings.
Ing: (Answers Phone) Hello: Yes, this is Dr. Cuttem’s office. No Dr. Cuttem is out of town but his assistant is here.
Str: Oh, that’s the guy that ruined me.
Juv: Yes, and he sure ruined me too. Say, what did he do to you?
Str. Oh, I came in here and told him that I had erisiplas, and he cut my ear off. (Bus.) Say, what did he do to you?
Juv: He did the same thing to me. I came in here and told him I had ptomaine poisoning and he cut my toe off. (Both Cry Bus)
Ing: (Bell Offstage) Come in.
Chuck: (Enters bus. X’s to nurse) Is the doctor in?
Ing: No: But his assistant is in.
Str: (and Juv.) Oh, that assistant. (Bus.) Look out for that assistant.
Chuck: Why, what’s the matter mister?
Str: (Str. explains again about his ear)
Chuck: (to Juv.) And what happened to you?
Juv: (Explains about his toe)
Chuck: (Repeats both cases. Turns to nurse) So long Letty. (Starts to ex.)
Ing: (Grabs Chuck) Why, what’s the matter?
Chuck: Lady, there’s nothing wrong with me, in fact I have never felt better in my life.
Ing: I know. But there must have been something wrong with you when you came in.
Chuck: Weel, Lady, I didn’t feel so good when I first came in. But I’m alright now.
Ing: Well, come with me.
Chuck: Oh, well that’s different.
Ing: Now what’s wrong?
Chuck: (Goes over to the two men again)
Ing: That’s right.
Chuck: Lady, that doctor can’t do me a damn bit of good.
Ing: Why not?
Chuck: I got prickly heat.
Doctor Balthazar: (Enters from the add drop and hears a yokel singing off stage. Yokel enters and is pushing a broom and bopping around the stage singing. He wears baggy pants, red suspenders, a non-descript shirt and a goofy hat. He has a funnel stuck in the front of his pants and he drives it like a steering wheel around the stage. Dr. Balthazar gets close to the audience to share his strategy)
Dr. Balthazar: Let’s have a little fun with this rube!
Rube: Yessssssss. (Makes car noises by blowing through lips and riding his imaginary car around the stage, steering with the funnel.)
Dr. Balthazar: Sir, excuse me, Sir. (Chases Rube around the stage. Biz for several turns. Finally corners Rube and brings him downstage right).
Dr. Balthazar: I say, sir, you have got quite a thing there.
Rube: What, oh this. Yes, it is quite a thing.
Dr. Balthazar: What do you plan on doing with it?
Rube: Oh, I just use it for trips (Tries to get away but Dr. Balthazar collars him)
Dr. Balthazar: Oh, you want to go on a trip, do you?
Rube: Oh yes, yes, yes I do, deedy-do, I do. (Smiles broadly just like he did something great)
Dr. Balthazar: How would you like to go on a vacation?
Rube: A vacation?
Dr. Balthazar: Yes, a vacation. How would you like that?
Rube: Oh, great, great, great, great, great. Where?
Dr. Balthazar: Where?
Rube: Yes, where?
Dr. Balthazar: How about, ah, New Orleans?
Rube: Too hot!
Dr. Balthazar: How about North Dakota?
Rube: Too north.
Dr. Balthazar: How about Seattle?
Rube: Too wet!
Dr. Balthazar: How about Hawaii?
Rube: Too far.
Dr. Balthazar: I’ve got it! How about Niagara Falls?
Rube: Niagara Falls?
Dr. Balthazar: Niagara Falls. Have you even been to Niagara Falls?
Rube: Nope. Caint say that I have.
Dr. Balthazar: Oh, you love it. The wet, the spray. Here look over there. (Points up at the sky or some object that is in the distance over the audience’s head)
Rube: Over there?
Dr. Balthazar: Yes, over there.
Rube: Over where?
Dr. Balthazar: No, not over here, over there.
Rube: Over there?
Dr. Balthazar: Yes, over there. Don’t look at me, look over there. (Rube looks at him) Don’t look at me, look over there. (Rube again looks at him) Don’t look at me. Look over THERE! Pretend in your mind’s eye (Balthazar looks quizzically at the audience) Yes, well, your mind’s eye and pretend you are at the Falls.
Rube: I am
Dr. Balthazar: You are. Feel the spray, feel the wet. Do you feel the spray, feel the wet?
Rube: Why yes, yes I do.
Dr. Balthazar: Now keep your eyes shut. Don’t look at me, look over there. Don’t look at me! Look over there. Keep your eyes shut. (Dr. Balthazar begins to exit) Keep your eyes shut and keep feeling the wet and the spray. Can you still feel the wet and the spray?
Dr. Balthazar (Come back on stage with a pitcher of water and dances up to the side of the Rube)
Don’t look at me. Keep your eyes closed and feel the spray, feel the wet.
Rube: I feel it, I feel it. It’s wonderful!
Dr. Balthazar: It certainly is. (Raises pitcher in the air but keeps it away from the Rube’s eyes). Now, I only have one more question for you.
Rube: (With a look of ecstacy on his face) Shoot!
Dr. Balthazar: Are you sure you’ve never been to Niagara Falls?
Rube: Yes, I’m sure.
Dr. Balthazar: (As he pours the entire pitcher of water down the front of the Rube’s pants through the funnel) Well, NOW YOU’VE BEEN TO NIAGARA FALLS!!!!! (Runs offstage with the Rube standing there, the front his pants soaked)
Rube I: Now known as Rube I. Rube I stands there waiting for the laughter to die down) Ok, now I’ve got to find someone dummer than me!
Rube II: (enters stage sweeping and singing) Oh, hi there!
Rube I: (Smiles knowingly at the audience) Oh, hi yourself. Commer buddy.
Rube II: Names not Buddy –
Rube I: Doesn’t matter. I got something for you.
Rube II: Ya do?
Rube I: Yeah, it’s a funnel.
Rube II: What do I do with it?
Rube I: You stick it in there. (Puts it in the front of Rube II’s pants.) And you drive yourself on a vacation, in your fancy car!
Rube II: Wow. I’d like that.
Rube I: I bet you would. Now, on top of that, you’re going to get a vacation package.
Rube II: A vacation package?
Rube I: Yep. Its gonna allow you to take a trip – free of charge.
Rube II: Free?
Rube I: Yeah. Free.
Rube II: Where to?
Rube I: Niagara Falls
Rube II: But I…
Rube I: You don’t gotta thank me. Just keep your eyes closed and imagine you’re there.
Rube II: But I…
Rube I: Hey, you want a free trip, don’t ya?
Rube II: Well, ya, but…
Rube I: No buts about it. Just keep your eyes closed and pretend you’re there.
Rube II: Well, ok.
(A hand comes out from behind the add curtain with a pitcher of water in it. Rube I does a Dr. Balthazar to get it and dances back) Now, my friend…
Rube II: Yep.
Rube I: You are my friend.
Rube II: Yep. You’re my friend too.
Rube I: Indeed I am. Now, don’t look at me. Just keep your eyes closed and pretend you’re on vacation.
Rube II: Ok.
Rube I: (Starts pouring water in funnel in the front of Rube II’s pants. Nothing happens. Biz. Does it again. Still nothing happens. Rube II still has a blissful look on his face. Rube I looks questioningly at the audience and then back to Rube II). Ah, don’t you feel anything?
Rube II: Nope. Just thinking about my wonderful vacation.
Rube I: (Scratches head and then pours more water down the funnel of Rube II’s pants). You still don’t feel anything?
Rube II: Nope.
Rube I: (Pours the last of the water down Rube II’s pants). Still don’t feel anything?
Rube II: Nope.
Rube I: WHY NOT!
Rube II: (Pulls hot water bottle from the front of his pants where all the water went) CAUSE I’VE BEEN TO NIAGARA FALLS. (Rube I chases him offstage).
Besides McNamara’s contributions, there are such collections as Intermission Specialties: Vaudeville Specialties for Presentation Between the Acts of Full-Evening Plays by Arten Casey, The Specialist, by Charles (Chic) Saleand Encyclopedia of Stage Material by Jimmy Lyons. Many of these texts contain what I call “groaners” – or “why am I laughing – its not that funny!” Lyons has one in his collection called NO MORE. “Mary had a little lamb, She fed it kerosene; One day it got too near the fire, Since then it’s not been seen.” (36) Those and other short bits work well for students who don’t have a great deal of experience, but still want to be part of the show. When the script is poor, the delivery must be rich. Such an approach gives students the opportunity to deliver a punch line with a clear understanding of what the voice and the physical expressions must do to get the audience to “buy” the bit. When you’ve only got thirty seconds on stage, every second counts. There is no opportunity to repeat or to come back in another scene. Also, short bits allow set changes to occur and still keep the action moving. Keep the action moving. That is the key to performing a medicine show.
When you create a show like this, you are limited only by your own creativity. For example, one of our majors was a recent mother. Her baby, a sweetheart, was five months old. I introduced them as follows: “And now, ladies and gentlemen, direct from San Diego, California, and I might add, at great personal expense, Victoria Sandhurst in Mother and Child!” Vicky entered the stage with her five month old son – held the baby up – bowed – and left the stage. This bit can also be done with a father and child. If there are foreign students who can sing and dance in native dress – we used that. One of our majors was from the Ivory Coast. She danced in her native dress and was a big hit. Not too many people in this part of our state knew much about the Ivory Coast, let alone knew anybody from there. And, you don’t need to limit yourself to the 19th century. We did a sketch with four ladies who could sing well and performed the “Bugle Boy of Company B,” an Andrews Sisters’ W.W.II song.
Rehearsals took about five weeks. We rehearsed Monday through Friday. Because the show was essentially a variety show made up of various sketches, songs, dances and bits, we could rehearse individual sections and then put it all together during production week. Sometimes students had classes or other obligations, so a lot could be accomplished in a short time.
We developed a new show at least once every four years, keeping the sketches and bits that worked well and then adding or subtracting material depending on the creativity of the students and the type of material they brought to the performance. It always has found a receptive audience.
Our only set piece was a colorfully painted stage drop with advertisements listing the various acts. The drop was held aloft on a batten positioned between two light trees. It was placed in front of our proscenium opening. We used the curtain to make our entrances and exits.
Finally, remember the miracle elixir Dr. Balthazar, oops excuse me, the GREAT Dr. Balthazar, alluded to in opening pitch at the beginning of the article. The elixir is named Universitatis Rupis Spinozae. Roughly translated that means my university. So if you drank this miracle elixir, my school would provide the cure for whatever ailed you: sure, an in-joke, but fun.
If anyone is interested in reviewing or even performing our latest iteration of the medicine show, just email me –I’ll be glad to send it to you – no royalty payment necessary. Just be sure to spell my name correctly!
1 The Medicine Show of the Great Dr. Balthazar T. Archimedes, unpublished playscript.
2 Advertising on Hagedorn’s elixir bottles
Armstrong, David , and Armstrong, Elizabeth Metzger, The Great American Medicine Show: Being an Illustrated History of Hucksters, Health Evangelists, Healers and Heroes from Plymouth Rock to the Present. New York: Prentice Hall, 1991. Print.
Casey, Arten, Intermission Specialties. Minneapolis: The Northwestern Press, 1933. Print.
Lyons, Jimmy, Encyclopedia of Stage Material. Boston: Walter H. Baker Company, 1925. Print.
Brooks, McNamara, ed, American Popular Entertainments: A Collection of Jokes, Monologues and Comedy Routines. New York: Performing Arts Publications, 1983. Print.
---, Step Right Up, Revised Edition, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995. Print
Sale, Charles (Chic), The Specialist. St. Louis: Specialist Publishing Company, 1929. Print.