This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
Harley Sadler, a household name throughout West Texas, made his last personal appearance at a benefit for the Boy Scouts on Oct. 9, 1954, but this time there would be no curtain call for the much loved king of the tent shows.
Though born in Arkansas, Harley came to Texas just as soon as he could. The rest of his growing up was done on a farm near the Hopkins County hamlet of Cumby.
The lad learned two things early in life. First, the backbreaking toil and daylight-to-dark workday of the family farmer was not for him. Second, in his own words years later, “I have had from my earliest childhood an unexplainable desire to get into show business.”
So in 1909 the stage-struck 17 year old ran away from home and joined a carnival. He discovered almost at once that he had been recruited under false pretenses — there was no band much less an opening for a trombone player — but refused to go home.
The strong-willed youth survived by selling popcorn and cotton candy until his next brainstorm. He sweet-talked a couple of classmates into forming a traveling troupe, and the trio headed for Kansas City to take vaudeville by storm. But a bad case of homesickness broke up the act leaving Harley all alone.
Finding a job as a billposter, he worked his way to the Pacific Coast and back plastering multicolored advertisements on everything that stood still. Taking sick upon returning to Kansas City, he was forced to swallow his pride and write his relatives for help.
Harley’s oldest brother fetched the prodigal son and escorted him by train to the Sadlers’ new home in Stamford. During his absence, his father had sold the farm, moved the family halfway across the Lone Star State and bought a general store.
Harley promised his worried mother, who nursed him back to health, that he would settle down and make something of himself. He meant every word, at least at the time, and went back to school. But his heart was not in it, and the next year he left for good.
Harley spent six months in Texas City with Rentfrow’s Jolly Pathfinders, the top traveling tent show in the country. He knocked around as an apprentice comedian before landing an extended engagement at the Alamo Theater in Waco with a so-called “tabloid company” which featured dancing girls, comics, singers and variety acts. Then in late 1914, he was hired as a permanent performer by Roy E. Fox’s Popular Players, an established repertoire company headquartered in Sulphur Springs.
Harley had graduated to first comedian with Fox, when he met and married Billie Massengale of Cameron in 1917. Five years later, the savvy couple went into business for themselves with “Harry Sadler’s Own Show.”
Touring tent shows in the 1920’s were, according to an entertainment expert for the New York Times, “a more extensive business than Broadway and all the rest of the legitimate theater industry put together.” Tent dramas were presented in 16,000 communities annually compared to 300 cities with Broadway-style productions.
People knew when to expect Harley because year after year he followed the same route. Starting around Waco and Brownwood, the grease-paint gypsies took a northwesterly course through small towns like Monahans, Odessa and Kermit. After playing El Paso, the only big city on the itinerary, the troupe turned north into New Mexico for stops at Carlsbad, Hobbs, Clovis and Roswell before their Texas Panhandle pilgrimage. The season ended with a Christmas banquet at San Angelo, where the gigantic tent and equipment were put into storage.
The program consisted of a three or four-act play, a “rag oprie” with plot and characters drawn from the everyday experience of the rural audience, with vaudeville at each intermission. Specialty acts like trained dogs were an occasional treat, but cast members usually filled in as jugglers, magicians, ventriloquists, musicians and singers.
Harley was a stickler for clean, wholesome entertainment. “I don’t believe the people out here care for bedroom farces and sex plays,” he told a skeptical reporter, “and they do like a play that has a moral theme running through it.”
He carefully screened new acts for objectionable material. “But, Harley!” a first-time offender protested, “That line gets my biggest laugh in Dallas!” “This ain’t Dallas,” the censor snorted. “This is the country, and out here such things just don’t go!”
Harley’s folksy personality and amazing ability to remember everybody’s name made him perhaps the most popular man in West Texas. He was a soft touch for any hard-luck story and never hesitated to loan his last dollar.
When radio and air-conditioned movie theaters took the fun and profit out of tent shows, Harley turned to oil and politics. He drilled a lot of dry holes but struck it rich with voters, who elected him to three terms in the legislature.
Two years after winning a race for a state senate seat, Harley Sadler emceed a fund-raiser in Avoca for the Boy Scouts. Stricken on-stage with a heart attack, he died the next morning in the hospital at Stamford.
San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.