What is an elocutionist? Remember how they make you recite things when you went to school? Remember public speaking? That was it– but with more flair and flamboyancy. People ate that up in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They also had on some rural areas what one could call then ‘penny readings where amateurs could have a go of it. read-Trouble at The Penny Readings Lanark Count orThe Penny Readings of Lanark County
Timothy Eaton, (read-The Eaton’s Sewing Girls) the department store founder, was so tickled with elocutionist — Miss Jessie Alexander’s recitation of “Friday, Bargain Day” — a humorous piece about two women shoppers storming the bargain counters — that in 1896 he engaged Miss Alexander to recite her piece at a meeting of all his employees. Eaton’s also took it up once notch futhur and offered elocutionist classes.
But, for most professional elocutionists, earning a dollar meant a few nights each year before big-city audiences, and the rest of the time on the small rural town hall and Sunday-school-auditorium circuit. Jessie Alexander recalled in 1916, towards the close of her public career, that she had given recitations in prisons, universities, drawing rooms, hospitals, churches, military camps, mining and lumber camps, barns, school rooms, opera houses, town halls, hotel lobbies and porches, front and back.
It wasn’t an easy life. Miss Alexander toured the West, traveling as often in a caboose as in a coach. She had met William White, superintendent of the CPR western division, following a recital in Winnipeg. She mentioned that one passenger train a day each way across the prairies made it difficult to fill as many engagements as she would wish. White had been so captivated by her performance that he arranged for her to be allowed aboard the caboose of any freight at any time.
Once, while traveling by horse and rig from one Manitoba town to another, she decided to shorten the trip by cutting right across the fenceless prairie. She got lost and long after nightfall drove into a homesteader’s yard. The homesteader led the horse to a Presbyterian manse a couple of miles further on, where Miss Alexander spent the night.
She missed her engagement but when she appeared the following evening the schoolroom was packed. “We waited quite a spell for you last night, then went home,” a member of the missionary society sponsoring the concert told her.
“But we knew you’d show up sooner or later so everyone came back tonight.” It was at that concert that a burly Scot approached her at the conclusion and congratulated her thus:
“I liked your recitin’ fine, and ye’ll be a guid lookin’ wumman when ye fill oot.”
Another time when returning to her hotel from a recital where she had included “McGlashan’s Courtship” in her offerings, and a large, swaying figure loomed up on the board walk and whispered,
“Say, I’ll bet you ain’t no matchoor at the sparking business, eh?” He was closing the gap when sober and more chivalrous characters rescued her.
Even such stars as Jessie Alexander, Owen Smiley, Pauline Johnson, Clara Salisbury Baker or Walter McRaye seldom got paid more than a hundred dollars. Two or three hours of reciting with no prop other than a potted plant on a pedestal table was a greater drain on nervous energies than acting in a play, or in any group w’here each individual is supported by others of the company.
Jessie Alexander, of Toronto, one of Canada’s top elocutionists, was always sure of an encore when she gave:
I wish that there were some wonderful place
Called the Land of Beginning Again,
Where all our mistakes and all our heartaches
And all our poor selfish grief,
Could be dropped like a shabby old coat at the door,
And never put on again.
She could also be sure of scoring with a Riley whimsy, such as:
What makes you come here fer, mister,
So much to our house — say.
Come to see big sister,
An Charlie says ‘at you kissed her,
And he ketched you, t’other day.
|Notes||Jessie Alexander co-authored a play, “The Fairy Poodle,” with Margaret Bell.|
|Birth date||1873 and died 1955|
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