The Business  

by Mark Osterman

 

I started by playing the banjo and singing old songs for tips on a steam train in New Hope, Pennsylvania when I was sixteen. At that time I had already started to collect Edison record players and learned the old songs from those recordings. I drove a 1929 model A Ford to the train station on weekends and played on every ride for tips...it was more fun than bailing hay, which is what I did prior. In that era, a young man with short hair singing the old songs was a real novelty.

 

I did only primary research for my show...that's why it rang true, both visually and content. The best source is Billboard Magazine from the turn of the century to the mid-to-late thirties. There was a section called Pipes for Pitchmen in each issue. This was a "letterbox" for traveling pitchmen. There are all kinds of descriptions of shows written by those who performed them at that time, also references to larger articles whenever they bragged about the press they received.  My 1933 Plymouth Rumbleseat Coup show was an exact replica of one described in a 1933 Pipes article. The products I sold were also based on that research. There are also some silent movies depicting medicine shows at a time when they were still being performed...so, more likely to be authentic plus some artistic license.

 

The main product was called Lenape Liquid but we also sold tin Kazoos and Humanatone Nose Flutes as well. Our ballyhoo was an electrical galvanic battery with which we shocked the children. We could get a line of about twenty people to hold hands and shock them all...once we got them that close to the stage we established the first row. The others would fill in during the musical part of the program, then we would start the pitch. I played banjo, my assistant played wash tub base or tuba, and my wife, who also did Anne Oakley-style trick shooting, played washboard. The biggest tip we turned was a $700 day, all in Kazoos and Lenape Liquid! Oh, the sight of tight-fisted hands waving dollars as they rushed the stage at the end of the performance!

 

At one time or another I played the following instruments in the show: ukulele, five-string banjo, four-string banjo, guitar, tenor guitar, fiddle, mandolin, tuba, and naturally the Humanatone Nose Flute and Kazoo to perfection. I also had a one-man band with bass drum, banjo, washboard, Kazoo, car horn, duck call and cymbals.

 

Regarding the pitch for the mirliton (aka Kazoo) we would say "The mirliton dates back to biblical times...of course, back then they used a comb and a piece of waxed paper" and "Cast off the tedious hours of practicing normally associated with instruments of greater investment, but no greater musicality." At one time we sold more Kazoos directly to the public (retail) than any other account with the Kazoo Company. Then the Kazoo Company changed their painting technique by baking on a resin finish, and we had parts falling off the instruments before the customer left the festival. We stopped that pitch and switched to Humanatone Nose Flutes.

 

In those days, Humanatone Nose Flutes were sold loose in a glass jar on the counters of music stores. If you didn't know what a Humanatone Nose Flute was....you didn't buy one. I designed a box and set of instructions and sold them after demonstrating them in the show. We taught some kids how to play them as soon as we arrived at a location, and they would play them all day long, bringing new customers to the stage for every show. Two years after ending the show, I bought an original Humanatone Nose Flute in its original box. I have had the original instruments but never saw a box with instructions until then. It was amazing that the graphics were very much like mine!

I still run across items at flea markets and antique stores which we sold in the show; some even bearing my likeness (the Humanatone Nose Flute box and a political button).

 

We would "buy" two-dollar bills new from the bank and stack them carefully, then run some glue along one long edge. When dry, we would have a two dollar bill "tablet" from which we would tear off bills when needed for change for the customers. If they came back to buy other things with that money, we would never take back the two dollar bills...this made them really wonder about the money. Occasionally people would ask just to buy the two dollar bills and we sold them for $2.50 each!

 

Photographs

 

Morning Calm Life on the road is hard, making small moments of pleasure priceless. Here Mark enjoys early morning coffee before the whirl of the medicine show pitch. Mark Osterman writes: "I have no plans to do the medicine show again. I'm too old for that...it took a lot of energy."  Mark Osterman,

 

Banjo Player "There is one performance image of me working the medicine show at a small fair with a stage I built in the rumble seat of a 1933 Plymouth. The seat cover opened up and a podium and backdrop folded out. I then stood in the area were the seat used to be, facing the rear of the car. I clamped on electric lights powered from the battery of the car."  Mark Osterman aka Dr.Bumstead's

 

 


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