Remember those old-timey publicity posters from those traveling shows which would slide into town? Here in The Shoals, some us more senior folks remember the shows the Sam Phillips brought to Sheffield’s Recreation Center (where our QCD offices are now located). We can remember the playbills of Elvis, and Jerry Lee. And those traveling shows which would come through here… Yep, it was different time and the recollections of them are rapidly becoming lost to the past. But hold on! There is a dedicated cadre of collectors of old memorabilia helping keep this rich history alive. Tom Murphy is one such collector. A long time colleague of this author, Murphy has one of the largest collections of show posters in America. Tom has authored a special article for the Quad Cities Daily. We happily present it here.
“Americans have always loved to be entertained. Before there was the Internet, or video streaming, or Netflix–even before there was television–most rural communities across the country were starved for entertainment. To fill that need, a whole host of traveling shows roamed the countryside from town to town charging admission to their performances and selling whatever products they could peddle to the public. There were circuses, carnivals, medicine shows, minstrel shows, dramatic troupes, vaudeville variety shows and string band concerts, and the public loved them all.
The primary, and cheapest, form of advertising for these upcoming performances was printed paper or cardboard posters. Each traveling show would send an advance man who would arrive a week or so ahead to post bills and cardboard placards in store windows, on the side of buildings and barns, and tack them up on telephone poles. The posters were produced by letterpress printing shops, also known as show printers, on very inexpensive paper and cardboard and were only expected to last for a couple of weeks before they were torn down, thrown away, damaged by the elements or covered up by the next show’s advertisements.
These shows, which were prevalent from the 1900s through the 1950s, are now long gone and mostly forgotten. When radio–and then television–came along, the popularity of the traveling shows diminished. Audiences quit paying admission fees and opted for free entertainment over the airwaves. The biggest exceptions to this were the musical acts of the ‘30s through the ‘60s. Especially in the southern states, string music bands–also called country, folk, old-time, mountain or hillbilly–gained a huge following on the radio—in big cities and in small towns. Many aspiring groups and musicians performed live fifteen to thirty minute musical segments in local radio station studios, often for no money. In return they were allowed to promote upcoming concerts where they would charge admission. Many fame-seeking musicians climbed the proverbial ladder in this manner, including legendary names such as Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, Jim and Jesse and Flatt & Scruggs. The biggest dream for these recording artists was to land a spot on Nashville’s WSM Grand Ole Opry Saturday night radio program.
Big names and small, these bands of troubadours would travel from town to town, state to state, performing concerts at community centers, schoolhouses, theaters, cotton and tobacco warehouses and churches. And how did they promote their concerts? Just like the old traveling circuses, carnivals and drama troupes, with posters announcing the date, time and location of the upcoming concert, sometimes with a photograph of the artist and/or band. People over 50 years old, like me, remember seeing those cardboard posters in store windows or plastered on walls and telephone poles, enticing everyone to come out and see their favorite recording star. Younger folks might ask, what’s a telephone pole?
While announcement posters weren’t made to last, surprisingly some of those old pieces of paper and cardboard Americana have somehow survived for these many years. After being placed in stores or tacked on telephone poles, some were just tossed in a storeroom after the event and forgotten. Fans also tore them down and put them in the attic or in a drawer as a keepsake. Some were saved because people used the back of the cardboard card to make a sign like “Brunswick Stew Dinner this Weekend”.
Whatever the reason, these rare pieces of advertising preserve the names, venues, community gatherings and musical history of our nation. My particular fascination is with early country and bluegrass window cards, generally 14”X22” in size. While I collect the big names like Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, I also search for lesser knowns such as the Louvin Brothers, the Delmore Brothers, the Loden family (Sonny James), Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, the North Carolina Ridge Runners, Charlie Poole, Tobacco Tags, the Sauceman Brothers, the Maddox Brothers & Rose, and the list goes on. Hundreds of these hillbilly string bands entertained thousands and thousands of fans in rural America before anyone ever dreamed of computers and the Internet. All that documents the existence of many of them today is a cardboard piece of history hiding in someone’s trunk, attic or barn.”
Tom says, “Got Posters? I’d love to hear from you!”
Email Tom at firstname.lastname@example.org