Written by Stephen Johnson
This Playbill is a part of the history of the Peters Family, a large group of early settlers in Southern Ontario, stretching back to the early 19th century. This particular document describes the performance of a boy, probably no more than twelve years of age, as a comedian, ventriloquist, character singer, and magician. The source is southwestern Ontario, likely from the Chatham area. The bill is from the early twentieth century, likely 1900-1905, based on the date of birth of this 'Boy Comedian.' Herbert Omer Hodge was born in April 8, 1887, and would have been 13 in 1900; the bill itself advertises the entertainment as 'a rollicking twentieth century play,' as if that was something new.
The only context to this document is oral history, through the grandchildren of this boy. According to these stories, William Hodge, the 'director' of this performance, was a farmer and house-painter, who in the wintertime travelled to the rural communities with this son to raise additional funds for he family through performance. Although information is difficult to confirm, there are some reasonable assumptions to be made. They would have travelled by sled, the only means of transportation at this time of year in southwestern Ontario. They would have performed either in church basements or halls, or in people's homes, the assumption being that the communities would have been too small for anything like a 'town hall.' They would have had a minimal means of advertisement, primarily this handbill, which would have been distributed shortly before the performance. This assumption is based on the fact that no post or advance announcement would have been possible--although it may be that the phone was then a means of advance warning. The entertainment would have been family oriented, and wide-ranging, for an audience that was steeped in an English cultural tradition, but without any exposure to touring performance. All performance they experienced would have been self-created, for each other.
This kind of performance--the locally touring semi-professional--is particularly difficult to find. There would have been on newspaper to advertise in; and in any event, the performers would not be able to afford to advertise, and no newspaper would have been delivered to potential audiences prior to the rather sudden appearance of the performers. This kind of performance, in effect, was an elaboration on the kinds of amateur entertainments that were most prevalent, by default, at this time in the rural areas of the country. A particularly enterprising (and needful) parent decided that his son was particularly talented--that is, capable of attracting a local audience, and perhaps more widely known than in his own community because of this. News travelled from church to church during regular regional events, and a name might be 'known.' There is little evidence of this kind of performance, making this document of particular importance. It speaks to a local culture that had hierarchies of entertainment, from local amateur through local and regional touring, that was both an education and a preparation for touring professionals when they did come through town.
As an addendum: I have an eyewitness account that saw a performance by Fred Hodge, Herbert Hodge's brother, circa 1948, in the Odessa Methodist Church Hall. The performance was a marionette show, using puppets that were family heirlooms, as I understand it from other accounts, belonging to the father, William, and to Herbert. These 'puppets' (as they were called--not marionettes, which is what they were), were well-remembers in the Peters family, as a part of the expertise of one part of the family, as a regular feature of the family and the community performance experience, and as artifacts. I have recollections of performances in the 1950s at home, and one reference to seeing the puppets in disarray in a garage later. They are long gone. What is of interest is that the culture of performing, and the expertise, persisted so long. It is also of interest to compare the existence of these marionettes with the handbill, which mentions no puppetry, and yet in the family memory is closely tied to those other, long disappeared artifacts. It may be that the puppetry was a later addition to the 'act'; surely if they had been a feature of this performance, they would have been advertised!
If further research was to be done on this subject, a tour of archives in southwestern Ontario would be important, a look through local newspapers (just in case), and a concerted effort to find the descendents of this family, in case there are family archives.
Written by Stephen Johnson, with information supplied by family members James Johnson (brother), Pearl Johnson (mother), and Terry Johnson (cousin). The original of this playbill has not been located, but early photocopies are extant.