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Doc Barth’s Medicine Show, still captivating crowds

In Entertainment, National News, Opinion, Travel, Uncategorized on August 6, 2013 at 3:16 pm

DIH LOGOOver the last couple of decades, I have worked all over the country as a writer and performer. From small hometown stages to Hollywood television projects, I think I’ve seen just about everything. Recently, however, I had the privilege of working at a festival in northern Indiana alongside a gentleman who, in my mind, is the quintessential entertainment professional. His name is Dan Barth and for the last 40-plus years, he’s been in the medicine show business.

From the 1850s through the 1930s the traveling medicine show was one of the most effective advertising endeavors in history. Moving from town to town by horse and wagon, these performing salesmen practiced what has become the foundation of the most successful modern advertising.

With a few magic tricks, some ventriloquism and a plethora of bad jokes, the medicine show brought to town a live, often interactive stage performance long before there was radio or television. At the end of the show, the performer would give a lecture about the health properties of some kind of tonic, the tastiness of a box of candy, or any other positive attributes about whatever product he was selling.

The salesman’s performance was the way he got people to sit there long enough to listen to his advertisement. Now, if you think you’re too modern to fall for such things, you should know that this method still works today – every eight minutes or so during your favorite TV show. Think about it.

Dan Barth's traveling historical medicine show.

Dan Barth’s traveling historical medicine show.

With his 19th Century medicine show wagon in tow, Dan and his charming wife, Ulli, have traveled all around the country educating and entertaining crowds with the same kinds of routines used in the original presentations. From ventriloquism to magic, Dan told the story behind his artifacts and the history of the shows. I watched nearly every show he did over our four days together and marveled at how his audience was so taken with his work.

In today’s high-paced world of Wi-Fi, cell phone apps and squirrel-like attention spans, I was fascinated to watch people of all ages sit in the hot, Indiana sun and hang on Dan’s every motion and word. It was gratifying to see that people still have an interest in this kind of entertainment; a type that now seems relegated to the odd variety act or child’s birthday party and even then, thoroughly under-appreciated.

Not this weekend however. People loved watching Dan’s performance, me included. Ironically, I felt good about the fact that we are using some of the same routines in my family’s variety show. Now I think I finally understand why those simple routines are always so well-received.

But from my own standpoint, Dan’s presentation and his audience’s reaction to it allowed me to see more about my work – both in print and on stage – than I have ever noticed before. As a writer or stage performer, if our mind is in the right place, our ultimate goal is to entertain our audience.

I have always believed that most skilled writers and performers spend far too much time showing off their respective talents and not enough actually entertaining anyone but themselves; but not Dan Barth. His mind is always on the audience. He may be in it to make a living, but he really wants his audience to have experienced something unique for their time and he genuinely appreciates their attention.

Gery L. Deer (left) with Dan Barth

Gery L. Deer (left) with Dan Barth

Personally, I’ve seen just about every possible incarnation of sideshow, Wild West performance, medicine show and variety act. But there was something unique about this performance. It was unassuming, generous and genuine. It had my attention every time, even though, by the end of the first day, I could practically recite his script verbatim.

With a 25 minute show, he captivated the audience with no more than four or five routines. But, in the end, it’s not what you do or say on stage or in print, but how you present it. No matter how great your technical skill, there is always room to be more engaging to an audience. From stage shows, to newspaper articles to television advertisements, it’s the consuming audience that matters. After all, they’re the ones paying for the ticket.

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