Introduction

The Time: 1904.

The Place: Vaudeville.

Robert and Amanda Engford are performing their acrobatic act while traveling throughout Wisconsin on the Vaudeville circuit.

Many explanations have been offered as to the origin of the term “Vaudeville, one origin was; “What town is this?” “Vaudeville.” The town “Vaudeville” doesn’t exist. It’s imaginary. It refers to the many stops that performers made performing their acts one night and moving over night to the next unnamed town. These early performers provided entertainment in countless towns, usually along rail lines, before electricity, radio and movies began to penetrate American theaters, homes and gathering places.

Who were these Vaudevillians’? Some of the greatest names in American Entertainment History began in Vaudeville. Entertainers like George Burns, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, and Milton Berle all got their start traveling the circuit. Many of these performers were able to transition into radio; some eventually helped create television entertainment; most notably Milton Berle.

As theaters began to show motion pictures Vaudeville theaters began to disappear. Performers that created visual entertainment; acrobats, slapstick comedy, magicians etc., could not go over to radio and these acts did not make good movie material. One available option was the circus.

Robert Engford found himself in this situation. His answer was to purchase a truck in 1920 and travel from town to town performing in available theaters. By 1923, Robert and Amanda operated a motorized ‘circus’; one of the first in Wisconsin. Incorporating other acts, they could provide entertainment to areas that had neither electricity or a theater. This same year they purchased a house in Plover, Wisconsin. Located in the center of the state, Plover provided a convenient location for the operation of a motorized circus traveling throughout Wisconsin, eastern Minnesota, and northern Illinois.

Robert and Amanda established a family entertainment tradition that continued until 2000 when third generation Ruthie Engford Clark and her husband Frank Clark retired from active performing. Ruthie is the Wardrobe Department Head and Frank is Props Department Head for the Sarasota Opera in Florida.

     

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