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Entertainment in Wilton

By Frances Frymoyer

Transcribed by Elizabeth Casillas, February 2, 2016

     Just how early the residents of Wilton became interested in dramatics is not known, but in October 1874 the editor of the Wilton Exponent urged the revival of the Amateur Dramatic Club which “has property and necessary curtains, fixtures, etc. by which a good amateur entertainment can be got up without much expense.” One year later in October 1875 the Wilton Dramatic Club was organized to improve its members, provide good entertainment for the public and to raise money for the public school.

     For their first offering, given in February of the centennial year, the group chose the appropriate play, “Our American Cousin,” which was the drama President Lincoln was watching when he was shot. There was a cast of 16. Admission was 25 cents, 35 cents for reserved seats. There were two productions, February 17 and 18, which brought in $149.75. This same play was being performed in Philadelphia during the centennial season at $10 a ticket.

     The production was given in the new school house just completed that year. The Exponent tells us that “Two flights up in the new school building in the southwest corner of the hall is one of the best arranged and neatest appearing stages ever seen in Wilton.” The school board had made the platform and the members of the Wilton Dramatic Club, particularly Messrs. Tufts and Eaton, did the stage work. It had a width of 20 feet and a depth of 12 feet. There were 4 wings on each side, each being beautifully papered. There was a door in the center back with panels on each side; on the right panel was a portrait of Franklin, on the left one of Washington. A panel on each side of the front curtains had a figure representing Europe on the right and America on the left. The curtains rolled up on 10 inch rollers.

     In March the W.D.C. gave two short plays, “The Idiot Witness” and “The Quiet Family.” In April the three act play produced was “Leap Year.” The net sum of $95.76 for the season was given to the Wilton schools. Credit was given to the Wilton Independent Band for furnishing the music during scene changes.

     In 1877 the club gave “The People’s Lawyer,” “Out in the Streets” and “Married Life” with the profits again going to the public school.

     In 1878 a new group was formed which was known as the Home Dramatic Club. They produced “Above the Clouds.” The school benefited from the profits. The following year they gave “Among the Breakers” in January and in 1880 their choice was “Better than Gold,” for which Charles Gabriel arranged the music.

     In May 1876 Prof. Danforth arrived in Wilton to produce the cantata “Queen Esther,” which he had also directed the year before. There were 75 voices in the chorus and they were accompanied by an organ and a double bass. “Queen Esther” was evidently a favorite of the Wilton people as it was given again in the 1890’s under the direction of Mr. Rider and Dr. D.E. Smith. Prof. Berg sang the part of the King and Ola Sherberger sang Queen Esther. This production was given in the old opera house above Nelson’s hardware store

     The idea of an outside director coming in to produce a musical was. . .

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Will Be Given At The

By The Pupils Of That School, on
Monday Eve, March 20th 1876



Song - "Always Cheerful" By the School
Essay - "Our next President" Jos. Jennings, Jr.
Recitation - "Fory Years Ago" Miss Addie Walton
The Little Orator Master Louis Kiser



This is one of the choice serio comic dramas of the day. Was first rendered in New Royalty Theater, London, February 1st, 1868, and in New York at Daly’s Fifth Avenue Theater in 1870. It will be rendered in three acts and six scenes on that evening.

Cast of Characters

DADDY GRAY - C. P. Butler Johnny - Master Theo. Jennings
Peter Bell - E. C. Thomas Post Man - Chas. Kiser
Harry Garden - J. E. DeForest Mrs. Bell - Miss Rinnie Boydston
Mr. Travers - A. Hartsen Jessie Bell - Miss Louella Jennings
Augustus Jinks - Jos. Jennings, Jr. Kitty Clatterby - Miss Laura Walton
Mr. Drudge - Louis Hiller Lottie - Kitty Kiser
    Policemen, Lawyers, etc., etc.

Synopsis of the Play

    Peter Bell, an artisan, finds himself, by reason of a strike, out of work, with himself and family in a starving condition. Jessie, Bell’s daughter, desires to marry Harry Garden, a young miller, who’s mill has been destroyed by fire. The Bell family are visited by Daddy Gray, a retired tradesman, who not only remits their rent, affords them the necessities of life, but supplies the children with toys and play things. To the consternation of Jessie, the insurance company caused the arrest of Garden upon a charge of arson. Daddy Gray employs counsel for the prisoner, while secretly determined to marry Jessie himself. The young girl is induced to promise her hand to her family’s benefactor in the event of her other suitor being found guilty. At the last moment of the trial, while the jury are out, Jessie overhears one of the lawyers asserting that Garden’s mill had been fired by a half-witted lad having a personal animosity against him. She fails to have this evidence introduced, and a verdict of guilty is recorded against her lover. Yielding to the importunities of her parents, Jess ie Bell consents to marry Daddy Gray, who, arrayed in his wedding-garments, receives the felicitations of his friends. Immediately prior to his departure for the church, the bridegroom receives a letter from Garden, intended to be transmitted to Jessie, announcing the arrest of the half-witted lad and his confession as to having been the incendiary. Blinded by his selfish desire to espouse the young woman, Gray suppresses the letter, but is surprised by the arrival of Garden, a free man. Jessie, in bridal attire, is astonished at her young lover’s liberation, and explains to him the reason for her reluctant promise to marry a man old enough to be her father. Daddy Gray, conscious of the girl’s intended sacrifice, relinquishes all claim upon her, and bestows her hand upon his juvenile rival.


"Good and Bad Fortune" Willie Jennings, et. al.
COLLOQUY Cassie King, et. al.
"Shuffling Witness" J. P. Walton, et. al.

The entertainment will close with one of the most laughable burlesques of the day, entitled “THE AMERICAN COQUETTE.”

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Good Music will be furnished by Grant Brothers, of Wilton.

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General Admission 20 Cts.
Children, Exception in arms 10 Cts.
Children in arms $5.00


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Picture: Wilton High School junior class play – 1913 – Courtesy of Gale McClean
Class of 1914 gave their junior class play in spring of 1913
From left to right – Irma Port, Wayne McGinnis, Grace Hain, Bette Kiser, Mary Powell, George Mockmore, Clorinda Thede, Emma McSwiggin, Frank Budelier, Herman Thurston and Gale McClean behind Frank Budelier.

. . . revived in the early 1930’s when a local organization contracted with a professional director who brought costumes and settings for a musical. Singers and dancers were chosen from local people. For two years such a musical was produced in the Wilton movie house. Some of the songs in the plays were “Bye, Bye Blues “ “Down that Lonesome Road” and “Singing in the Rain.”

     An interest in drama was revived in the late 1930’s and early 40’s when the Wilton Library Association held a one act drama contest. Any local group could enter and so many did that it was necessary to have two nights of performances. Outside judges were hired to place the plays and to give constructive criticism. The name of the winning group was engraved on a loving cup which may be seen in the Wilton library.

     Before the turn of the century there were many places in Wilton that were used for public entertainment. In the earliest days of Wilton meetings of a public nature were held in Hesselgesser’s hall. In 1867 the three story Ross building was completed on the east side of Cedar Street. The third floor was used for public entertainments. At one time it was a skating rink. In 1880 the Wilton Gymnasium Club met at the Ross Hall and here they led exhibitions for the public. Within the memory of present Wiltonites this hall was used for a ballroom.

     “The Hall” was the auditorium on the third floor of the Wilton schoolhouse. The chapel room in the academy was used for public meetings. “The Opera House” was the large room above the hardware store with a stage at one end and a balcony at the other. There was a very narrow inside staircase on the east side of the building with a door opening directly onto 4th Street. In September, 1879, soon after the building was erected the O pera House stage was improved by adding a neat drop curtain and a Venetian scene, a landscape, a kitchen, a parlor and a jail for stage scenery.

     The grand opening of the Opera House on September 12 and 13 1879 featured the operetta “Little Effie” under the direction of Prof. . . .

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Picture – Wilton High School class play 1920 – Courtesy of Arvella Atwill
“All On Account of Polly”
Sitting in front (left to right) – Seymor Vestermark, Edna Schroeder, Zella Noble, Gladys Hamilton, Ruth Rick, Arvella Atwill, Emma James, Cloe Gill, Ruth Austin, Ruth Christiansen, Dorothy Ringgenberg.
Standing in back – Perry Nelson, Cecil Wilkerson, James Dwyer, George Schroeder, Cecil Duncan, Henrietta Rate, director and teacher.

. . . Cushman, who furnished $400 worth of costumes. There were 75 local people in the chorus assisted by the town’s best musicians and singers.

     This was quickly followed on September 23, 24, 25 and 26 by the thrilling war drama “Dutch Recruit” presented by the Wilton Dramatic Club assisted by Mr. and Mrs. James Burton of Aurora, Illinois. The cast of 50 local people presented battle scenes tableaux, fancy drills, etc.

     Later the Leo family appeared at the Opera House with 12 members presenting a variety program, including a brass band and a man shot from a cannon.

     Traveling shows often stopped in Wilton. The better shows might have an open date between large cities such as Davenport and Iowa City, and would book Wilton to fill their schedule. The Enoch Arden Traveling Show appeared on July 30, 1875. The year of 1881 was an especially entertaining one in our town as the John Thompson and Co. gave “around the World” in which Mr. Thompson “assumed nine distinct characters and discoursed sweet music from 15 different musical instruments and introduced four new songs and dances”; the Anthony and Ellis troupe produced “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” with a live donkey and several savage looking bloodhounds and five days later Burnham’s Dramatic Co. appealed to the intellectuals with Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”

     “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was a recurring favorite. A present Wiltonite remembers seeing it given by a traveling troupe in the Opera House at the turn of the century. Another person recalls a performance in a tent theater about the time of World War I. A local resident remembers Tom Thumb’s wedding at the Opera House. Besides such one-night stands sometimes a troupe would come for a whole week of entertainment. The Walters Dramatic Troupe who appeared at the Opera House for a week in January, 1880, advertised their entertainments as “chaste and nothing appears but what is strictly moral.” In the early 1900’s the Morgan Bros. played in. . . .

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Picture – Thanksgiving Program, Wilton H.S. 1910 – Courtesy Melroy Thede
Back row, left to right: Otto Sessler, Helen Brammeier Wacker, Harold Martin, HGladys burris, Edwin Wacker, Ruby Robinson, Melroy Thede, Irene Kelley Atkinson, Marshall Miller.
Middle row – Clarence Fulton, Herman Thurston, Paula Dornseif, Goerge Mockmore, Edwin Bannick, Winnie Cronin, Clarinda Thede, ?, Emma McSwiggin Newton, Helen shuger, Laura Silverhorn.
Front row: Arnold Wacker, ?, ?, Walter Scull, Harold Brammeier.

. . . their tent for a week at a time.

     It was once the custom of the upperclassmen of the high school to give a class play. Some of the plays remembered by local alumni were “Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch” given in 1905; “When Patty Went to College” (1910); “All on Account of Polly” (1920); and “The Girl Who Forgot,” (1943).

     Early Wiltonites could join literary societies and the Lyceum group. Lyceum was organized in Wilton Dec. 1, 1874, for all who wished to participate. The Wilton Exponent said, “Nearly all the citizens of this town have signified their intention to join.”

     At the Wilton Academy there was the Didacton Literary Society which was open to both students and townspeople. The public high school students also gave literary programs. Every country school district had a literary society and some had a Lyceum. The programs usually consisted of music, recitations, papers on intellectual topics, essays and a debate. There were one or two critics appointed for each meeting.

     Soon after 1900 and lasting until about 1920 the Wilton high school had two competitive literary societies. Every pupil belonged to either the Alpha or Adelphian Society and they were required to take part in a program.

     In the 1880’s and 90s the Chautauqua Literary Study Club, composed of both men and women, made a serious study of books prescribed by the Chautauqua group of Lake Chautauqua, New York state. Diplomas were given to those who completed the study course.

     Those of intellectual bent attended the 6 lectures a season . . .

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. . . sponsored by the Scientific Club, as well as attending weekly meetings where papers were presented by the members.

     By 1914 or earlier the tent Chautauqua came to Wilton. For the majority of its years the tent was pitched on the school grounds. Redpath-Vawter supplied the talent for a number of seasons. There was music, junior town, lecturers, monologists, and three act plays. The Tull Players appeared several times. The Montaqua Light Opera Company performed in 1920. About 1921 a severe windstorm blew down the tent. The Wilton businessmen who sponsored Chautauqua began to have serious thoughts about the possibility of liability if anyone was hurt and they refused to underwrite the activity any longer, which brought a close to Chautauqua in Wilton.

     For the musicians there were several bands and an orchestra composed of local young people. Church groups gave monthly concerts. Singing schools were conducted by various leaders among whom was Charles Gabriel. This local young man became nationally famous for his musical compositions, especially his hymns. Often Rev. McAuley of the Presbyterian church wrote the words and Charles Gabriel composed the music. Gabriel also composed cantatas, oratorios, orchestral music and band pieces. While living in Wilton he kept a black board in his barn so he could jot down a tune when it came to him. Gabriel’s most famous hymn is “The Glory Song.”

     In 1884 the Union Band built a skating rink on 4th St. with a stage at one end so the group could have a place to perform. In later years at a different rink Charles Gabriel’s orchestra furnished the music. The Union Band rink would hold contests to draw crowds. One night they had a mile race. Another night it was a turkey contest. A turkey was hung suspended just within reach. The contenders were blindfolded and the skater who could first get hold and bring down the bird could keep it.

     Did our forefathers ever say, “There is nothing to do in Wilton?” It would seem that they were always busy creating their own entertainment.

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