The Toby and Susie Show - Honorary Maconites for Many Summers
By Maria L. Evans
Every summer beginning in the 1950's - and not ending until the late 1990's - Macon was the
host of one of the longest running traveling tent shows, the Schaffner Players,
better known to Maconites as the Toby and Susie Show. Although the members of the
Schaffner Players Company were not from Macon, they were welcomed as
'honorary Maconites' for many, many years - and as such they are as much a part of our
history as our town itself.
Most people don't realize that the Toby and Susie Show did
not refer specifically to the Schaffner Company but a genre of
popular theatre that has roots dating back to the Civil War or possibly earlier.
Some authors of theatre history say this genre is as old as Shakespeare! The
character of Tobias T. Tolliver of Hogscratch, Arkansas is believed to have been
derived from a character named Toby Haxton, in a 1911-12 play called Clouds
and Sunshine. In the early 1900's over 50 different Toby Shows were believed
to have toured the United States.
The general theme of these shows revolved around the antics of
red-headed, clown-faced Toby, who on the surface was a real country bumpkin.
He was prone to get rich quick schemes, bragging and just a touch of laziness.
He often got bailed out of a jam by his girlfriend, Susie B. Sharp, a clever country
gal whose appearance and dress were reminiscent of the Grand Old Opry star
Minnie Pearl. But in the end, the country folks would prevail and the city slickers
would get their due. It was pure cornpone humor, but was bread and butter
fare for small towns throughout the Midwest. After all, every small towner secretly
wants the city folks to look bad, right?
The Schaffner Players Theater Group traced their roots back to
1851 to "Yankee" Robinson (Fayette Lodawick Robinson), the first man in
America to tour the country with a traveling tent theatre show. He moved his
company to Davenport Iowa, and then sold it to Charles Emerson in the
1880's, who ran it until 1910. J.S. Angell was the next owner of the show, who
sold it to Neil Schaffner in 1925. This is when it became the Schaffner Players. Schaffner
sold the company to his star James V. "Jimmie" Davis, who ran it until his death
in 1998. It was Toby as portrayed by Jimmie that most Maconites remember when they think
of the Schaffner Players. During that time, Susie was played by Jimmie's first wife, Juanita,
until 1979. Jimmie later remarried and his second wife Grace took over the Susie
role from 1983 to 1998. Maconite Mark Moehle toured with the company in the
Maconites eagerly looked forward to their annual visits when the Toby and Susie Show came to Macon every summer,
and set up their tent at the Jackson Street Park. The plays would usually have a bit
part or two open so some of the up and coming local talent would be able to make cameo appearances in each
show. Young and old enjoyed their old-fashioned country humor with the
occasional newfangled twist.
Davis' death signaled the end of the last traveling theater of its
type. The trucks, trailers, folding chairs, costumes and equipment were put on
the auction block on May 18, 1998 in Mt. Pleasant Iowa, after the tent was put up
one last time on May 13th of that year in preparation for the auction. Locals were
disappointed when they stopped by, asking when the show was going to open, only
to discover it was being sold. That sale marked the end of 146 years of
continuous traveling theater - and for Maconites another part of Macon's
present passed into its history.
Perhaps the ghosts of that canvas tent, the
distant echoes of the crowd's laughter, fragments of memories recalling the mashed grass that remained after
the tent show left and the light, sweet smell of cotton candy still linger in the Jackson
Street Park today ... if one were to venture there on a humid moonlit summer night and stretch out their imagination.