Skip to content. | Skip to navigation

Personal tools

Navigation

A Sawdust Heart

My Vaudeville Life in Medicine and Tent Shows

2011
Author:

Henry Wood
Michael Fedo

A Sawdust Heart

A glimpse into a forgotten era of popular entertainment

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’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 Wood died in 1983, just shy of his 85th birthday. How fortunate that Fedo took the time to write down his memories of an almost-forgotten period in the history of entertainment.

Mary Ann Grossman, St. Paul Pioneer Press

In the early twentieth century, before radio and motion pictures became widespread, rural Americans had few options for entertainment. While vaudeville theaters were prominent and popular in the cities, they were scarce in rural and small-town America, which was hungry for both diversion and news from the rest of the world. It was here that the traveling show thrived.

Leaving his hometown of Viroqua, Wisconsin, to travel with a medicine show, twelve-year-old Henry Wood became hooked on show business. He joined a traveling theater troupe, and leading lady Clarabelle Fendell helped the boy become “Jack,” a gentleman and vaudeville performer, so transformed that he was barely recognized by his own mother when he returned home.

Wood spent the years 1910–1941 in traveling medicine and tent shows that featured a variety of vaudeville acts, from skits to full-length dramatic plays. Whether recalling his experiences skydiving from hot-air balloons, serving in the air force, or being accosted by angry theatergoers unable to distinguish him from the villains he portrayed on stage, Wood’s story paints a lively and vivid picture.

While most books on this period of American theater history focus on major names in vaudeville and the entertainment industry, A Sawdust Heart shows what it was like for the real show-business workers and the performers who never made it big but eked out a living doing what they loved on minor stages across America.

Introduced by Wood’s grandson-in-law Michael Fedo with a concise history of these traveling shows, A Sawdust Heart is an amusing read for anyone interested in early-twentieth-century rural America.

A Sawdust Heart

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.

A Sawdust Heart

Henry Wood died in 1983, just shy of his 85th birthday. How fortunate that Fedo took the time to write down his memories of an almost-forgotten period in the history of entertainment.

Mary Ann Grossman, St. Paul Pioneer Press

It would be a treat to be able to hear the recording Fedo made of Wood’s autobiography, but this respectful and smoothly-rendered transcription is storytelling at its best.

Duluth Budgeteer News

A Sawdust Heart

Introduction Michael Fedo
A Sawdust Heart
Preface
1. A Viroqua, Wisconsin, Boyhood
2. Big Doings in Budd
3. Leaving Home Again
4. On Stage with the Leading Lady
5. Success, Acclaim, and Disappointment
6. The Star Returns Home
7. Bindle Stiffs, Tobies, and the Musical Saw
8. Sky Diving, the Great War, and a Comeback
9. The Rewards for Fine Villainy
10. Leaving Brooks for the Millionaire Swedes
11. Downtime and a Rebound
12. The WLS Barn Dance and Beyond
Acknowledgments

A Sawdust Heart

UMP blog - From the often-unnecessarily-shunned performer Henry Wood to the now-impossible Charlie Sheen: My, how times have changed.

Who would have thought that a poorly educated meat cutter's son from Viroqua, Wisconsin, might one day stand on the threshold of stardom in one of the world's most glamorous professions?
—Henry Wood