Pioneer Theatre was a big hit in Owen Sound and across southern Ontario, where Vaudevillians like Perth Ontario's Marx Brothers played to full houses.
Winter is approaching.
In the early days of this region the onset of winter meant isolation from the rest of the world and, for some settlers, separation from even their neighbours. But, as this area became more developed, the impact of winter weather on the social life of the community lessened.
As this region developed the residents of this area had more and more leisure time. By the 1890s, Owen Sound's society had become more settled and affluent. Because of this circumstance, sports and other leisure time became a major part of life. Both the men and the women of the area were playing hockey, baseball and many other sports.
But at the same time there was an increasing interest in other forms of entertainment. One of the most popular forms of entertainment at that time and well into the twentieth century were theatrical acts. Consequently, many troupes started making regular visits to the region. One of the most popular of these traveling groups in the era of pioneer theatre was the Marx Brothers.
The Marx Brothers were seven brothers from the eastern Ontario community of Perth. Five of the brothers, Joe, Tom, Ernie, Robert and Alex, each headed up their own troupe of performers. Two other brothers, John and McIntyre, on occasion joined one of their brothers' groups and toured sporadically about Ontario.
Owen Sound was a popular stop for the Marx Brothers. Early in the winter one of the brothers would bring his troupe here and later in the winter another brother would put on performances in the community.
The Marx Brothers would stay in Owen Sound for a week putting on a different performance each evening as well as a Saturday matinee. During breaks in the play that was being performed, other members of the cast would perform vaudevillian acts. Despite the fact that the Marx Brothers played before audiences twice a year in Owen Sound the residents of the community never tired of this popular group.
For more than five decades the Marx Brothers played to packed houses in Owen Sound.
The popularity of these acts is further demonstrated by the fact that in the 1890s money was still a rare commodity as many business transactions were still carried on through the barter system.
Yet the Marx Bothers played to standing room only audiences who paid admission prices ranging from ten cents to twenty cents. To put these pioneer theatre prices in perspective of the times, these tickets were more expensive than a loaf of bread, a pound of butter or a dozen eggs!
The Marx Brothers and other similar troupes made regular trips each year to Owen Sound but with the advent of moving pictures their popularity diminished.
In the 1890s the announcement of the imminent arrival of the Marx Brothers to the community to perform was a sure sign that winter was on its way.
By the end of the Second World War the frequency of visits of such groups had diminished to the point where the announcement of a visit by the Marx Brothers or any other similar troupe was just another date on the entertainment calendar of the community.
The information used in this article describing pioneer theatre in our region came from several early editions of Owen Sound newspapers.
A version of this article originally appeared in my Local History column in the Owen Sound Sun Times on October 27, 2000
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