Monday, June 13, 2011

A Sawdust Heart

A SAWDUST HEART: My Vaudeville Life in Medicine and Tent Shows
By Henry Wood
As Told to Michael Fedo
University of Minnesota Press | 152 pages | 2011
ISBN 978-0-8166-7479-4 | paperback | $16.95

Leaving his home in Wisconsin at the age of twelve, Henry Wood spent the years 1910-1940 traveling in medicine and tent shows that featured various vaudeville acts, from skits to full-length plays. Wood worked in medicine and tent shows during a time in America when actors who portrayed unsavory characters on stage were often accosted and bruised on the street by angry patrons. Many were also refused service in restaurants and rooms in hotels. During this age of American innocence many residents of isolated small towns and villages believed the actor and the character he played were one and the same. From 1910 until 1940, Wood was one of these loathed stage villains and not only survived the indignities, but thrived.

But would Wood's stories and experiences survive him? All his memorabilia from that era had been destroyed in a house fire. In 1974 Michael Fedo (Wood’s grandson-in-law) was an occasionally published freelance writer. Wanting to document the old man’s show business life for a family legacy, Fedo recorded Wood’s theatrical memories and photocopied the transcribed typescript for Wood’s daughters and grandchildren. Fedo gave no further thought to this story until 2008. Meanwhile, Fedo had gone on to publish seven books and scores of articles, essays, and short stories in magazines and newspapers. But in 2008, his wife’s aunt presented him with a privately printed and bound copy of the Henry Wood manuscript he had organized 34 years earlier. Upon re-reading it, Fedo saw the uniqueness of the narrative that described the often hardscrabble existence of medicine and tent show performers from that period. This was a chronicle unfamiliar to all but a few Americans, as these shows visited towns and villages far from major metropolitan centers, and few alumni from those productions advanced to Broadway, radio, television, or films.

Fedo tweaked the story and showed the manuscript to editors at the University of Minnesota Press who agreed with his assessment. So this year Fedo’s first book—a manuscript now nearly 36 years old—is being published.

Wood’s story paints a vivid picture of the lives of performers who never made it big but eked out a living doing what they loved on minor stages across America. Henry's life was spent entertaining the good folks of the Midwest, so he had visited quite a few cities in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Henry Wood spent more than thirty years as a performer and director in old-time medicine shows and touring vaudeville troupes in the Midwest.

Michael Fedo is the author of several books, including The Lynchings in Duluth, The Man from Lake Wobegon, and the novel Indians in the Arborvitae.

For more information, including the table of contents, visit the book's webpage:

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University of Minnesota Press
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