Way back in them thar Olden Days, when folks done for themselves through hard work and perseverance, and were proud to stand or fall on their own account, and ne'er relied on none o' that government intervention nonsense, there was this little ol' house full o' wee young 'uns, who came there 'cause they were street urchins and orphans and didn't have no home of their own or family to take care o' them, so they took care o' themselves, and wouldn't even accept no charity. These little ragamuffins called themselves The Jolly Entertainers, and they showed folks in every little town in the U.S., and even the wilds of Canada, just what they were made of.
The Jolly Entertainers was the brainchild of Herman Mainard Draper, who may have been born in Canada, as so many of his relatives were, in 1858 (depending on your source). He was the son of a preacher, and had eight brothers and sisters. Herman was raised in Battle Creek, Michigan, where he studied music at the Boston Conservatory of Music, and also earned a certificate from the Tonic Sol-Fa College in London, England. Tonic sol-fa was a simplified method of reading music, and came in handy when Draper started teaching children music.
In 1879, Draper married Annie Pacey of Port Stanley, Ontario, a small town about 200 miles from Battle Creek, and they had two sons, Harry, born 1880 in Battle Creek, and Cecil, born 1882 in London, Ontario.
|1890s: Herman and Annie Draper, with their two sons Harry and Cecil, and adopted niece, Edith, who was to become one of the original Jolly Entertainers.|
When Annie's sister Edith died of apoplexy in 1894, she and Herman took her little girl, also named Edith, into the family.
In the late 1890s, the Drapers moved to Calumet, Michigan, where Herman opened a music store and taught voice and various instruments wherever he could. He gave up the store in 1903 to take a job as superintendent of the Good Will Farm and Home Finding Association, a shelter for homeless kids.
While there he organised the Jolly Entertainers, a 7-piece children's musical group. They played wherever they could be heard, including street corners, according to an early newspaper write up from July 19, 1907: "From East Broadway in the vicinity of the city hall last evening came the sounds of music, and on closer investigation by several hundred persons, it was found that the melody was being produced by five pretty little girls and two attractive, manly-looking boys. Two of the girls played cornets, two were bringing sweet strains from alto horns and the fifth played a baritone horn. The larger of the boys played a tuba, and the other industriously beat a snare and a bass drum.
The children made a hit with their music, and when they began selling postcards, telling who they were and what their object was in playing on the street, they couldn't begin gathering the dimes fast enough."
Draper eventually resigned his post at the Good Will Farm, saddened to see brothers and sisters parted, typical in orphan asylums, and he was determined to start his own industrial home farther south in Houghton, where siblings without parents could grow up together. However, government regulations prohibited the Drapers from taking in illegitimate children, babies less than half a year old, and children whose parents wished to pay their board while they looked for work elsewhere. These rules were harmful and destroyed families, so, in 1907, the Drapers decided to move out west to Washington, where they intended to start a new home in Seattle. "The home in Seattle will be for the purpose of furnishing a residing place for the boys and girls until permanent homes can be found for them." Draper would soon change his mind about giving the kids up for adoption.
|Postcard, 1907, letting folks know that the Drapers, as well as the Jolly Entertainers, are moving to Seattle.|
On the way they bought the chassis of a truck in Chicago and built the prototype of a mobile home on top of it. The children cut their teeth on the road, performing daily. They played at the newly-opened Orpheum Theatre in Rockford, Illinois: "The bill at the Orpheum for the first three days of the week is one that will fill the theatre at each performance. Draper's Jolly Entertainers are one of the features of the bill, and at the performances yesterday were given the highest honors. The little folk are good entertainers on the stage, and have a prettily arranged act of songs and dances. Before the performances the entertainers give a band concert and are certainly clever instrumentalists."
While in Montana, they played in Havre (where they did 62 shows at the Family Theatre), Great Falls, Helena, and Missoula (where they had a week-long engagement at the Union Theatre).
But the roads in Montana, being too crude and muddy in those days, forced the family to travel by train the rest of the way, including their odd vehicle, which was loaded on a flatbed.
In October they found themselves in the city of Ballard, now a part of Seattle, but stayed only a while. In June 1908 they moved to Des Moines, where they bought a hotel built in 1890 by John Hiatt (not to be confused with the Hyatt chain of hotels). The hotel, known as Bidgler's House, was formerly owned by Captain F.W. Hanke, but when his schooner sank in rough waters in December 1904 and the entire crew drowned, he left his wife with four small children. Desperate for money, she sold the hotel to the Drapers, where they were to live for the next 19 years.
|The Children's Industrial Home, Des Moines, Washington, home of the Jolly Entertainers for 19 years.|
|Playground at the Industrial Home, back in the days when playgrounds weren't shut down because some kid skinned his knee.|
|Postcard, 1910. The kids must have had fun printing all these postcards. It's a good thing they did, otherwise we might not know their band ever existed.|
|Claire and Neva Stitt, ages 11 and 9, "The Two Youngest Soloists in America".|
Draper was convinced he and his wife gave the children all the love, care and fostering they needed. One of the home's fold out cards stated: "We have no children to give away or place in homes. This is their home and here they remain until they grow up and want to leave."
Their concerts seemed to be successful, if not financially, at least critically. Attendance was good, and sometimes houses were packed, and always to appreciative audiences, as the many newspaper reports (often nothing more than a paragraph) attest. An excerpt from a 1911 newspaper article describes in some detail one of their earlier shows (with some typos corrected):
The program was a continuous play and was pronounced the best ever given by these little folks.
The first was a scene on the street. A bunch of children on their way to a picnic are met by Uncle Josh, who is persuaded to go along. They are followed by Happy Hooligan and Gloomy Gus, who also go to the picnic and get "filled up."
Scene 2 is the picnic full blast, children swinging, skipping, playing ball, boxing, etc. Uncle Josh is there, according to agreement, gets dumped out of the swings and has a general good time. Happy and Gloomy are the biggest toads in the puddle and the only break in the festivities is the appearance of a cop who attempts to arrest Happy, but the tables turned on him. Scene 3 finds a host of people buying tickets for the "big show." Scene 4 is the big show, given by the Lilliputians and it certainly is a "Big Show." This part of the program is made up of the most catchy songs, beautiful motions and poses, marches, graceful dances and the most laughable vaudeville ever presented on a Port Townsend stage by young performers.
The company will remain over and give another program tonight with an entire change of bill.
The price for the evening show: 35 cents general admission, 50 cents for reserved seats, and 15 cents for children under 14.
No venue left untrodden, they even performed for a Washington chain gang in 1910.
When the children grew up, some left the home, but others stayed on. A fella named Lloyd Sawner became the stage manager for the Jolly Entertainers, arranging lights and special effects for the shows. Julia James, nine years at the home, became a band leader, helping to rehearse the kids.
But the kids were determined not to sink into historical oblivion. The Harrington Opera house, built in 1904 in the tiny town of Harrington, Washington, was bought and restored in recent years, but the walls of the dressing rooms were left untouched. The children were only too happy to deface the walls with their signatures, and "The Jolly Entertainers, Sept. 18-19, 1916" is visible, along with other such scribblings for each time they performed there. Way to go, kids!