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The Dean of Dayton Showman

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, May 22, 1932

The Dean of Dayton Showmen

By Howard Burba


     Half-buried in the upholstery of a big soft chair in the historic old Beckel House lobby, his snowy hair pillowed against its cushioned back and in his mouth the familiar rattail stogie that once carried the name of Pittsburgh to all four corners of the country, I found Larry Reist.

     Fifty years ago I could have stepped from the office and shouted: “Has anyone seen Larry Reist?” and every man, woman and child within sound of my voice would have known to whom I was referring.  Yesterday I walked along the self-same streets over which Larry Reist has walked for 79 years and I’m confident that in the throngs through which I passed there wasn’t a soul that could claim acquaintanceship with him. But that doesn’t need to disturb Larry Reist, for he has lived in a kingdom they can never know and today wears a crown they cannot deprive him of.

     But to get back to the story, there in the Beckel House lobby sat Larry Reist, and adjoining him a vacant chair.  There was the old-time Larry Reist welcome and the smile that has beamed upon countless thousands as they passed him in theater lobbies and box offices all the way from New York city to Denver.  There was that familiar wave of the hand toward the vacant chair, just as he used to wave Mr. and Mrs. Public to two seats on the aisle away back in the dear, dead days when entertainment was provided by flesh-and-blood artists, instead of by a few yards of celluloid  film shipped about in little tin cans.

     “Start at the beginning and tell me when and where and why you came on earth,” I suggested to Larry Reist

     “April 11, 1853, as to when; No. 1 Jones st., Dayton, O., as the where.  I’ve never been able to determine why,” was his ready reply.

     “There was apparent need of more population in Dayton in 1853, “ he continued, “so I happened along to swell the total to 15,547.  I cannot say as to whether or not the factory whistles sounded for a full five minutes in honor of my arrival.  But I do know that the street cars never stopped for a single second, for there were no street cars in Dayton when I happened along.  The only means of locomotion outside of a few dinky railroads was Chalmers’ canal boat line, plying between Dayton and Cincinnati.

     “That period of my life between 1861 and 1867 was spent in the old Ludlow st. school.  I was farmed out to a rural citizen for two years at the munificent sum of 75 cents a week, but to me Dayton must always remain the big show.  So in 1870 I rolled back to town and found employment with John G. Doren, then editor and owner of the old Herald and Enquirer.  A little later I joined Maj. Bickham, working on his paper for seven years.  It was while I was with him in the newspaper office that the show bug bit me.

     “Dayton boasted a city hall at that time and to it occasionally came strolling troupes of Thespians, lecturers and sleight-of –hand men.  The stage was a miniature affair and the performers used barrels and hogsheads for dressing rooms.  The scenery consisted of one gaudy ‘drop.’  The decorations consisted of a few railroad maps and a picture of Adam and Eve in the garden.  They would not have recognized it, and neither would anyone else, had the names not been painted in bold letters near the lower portion of the fly specked gilt frame.

     “In addition to the city hall, the only other place of amusement was the old Phoenix, located in a hotel by the same name, standing immediately west of the present site of the Beckel.  The hotel was owned and operated by a pioneer prince of landlords, old “Andy” Sprang, and the little hall beneath its roof had a seating capacity of 75 people.  Here the public satiated its desire for theatricals.  Was it any wonder that I saw fame and sudden riches as manager of the city hall?

     “During the reign of these two places of amusement constant and bitter quarrels were indulged in between the bill posters for the two houses.  The show business was considered by many of our people to be a pernicious evil and property owners made strenuous objection to having their bare walls, fences and windows used for advertising purposes.  I guess I learned the art of fighting for place by watching those pioneer bill posters settle their differences.

     “In 1852 Joseph Clegg erected what was known as ‘Clegg’s Hall,’ on the south side of Third st., just back of and over what for years was Sol Strauss’ well-known ‘Surprise Store.’  When completed it sounded the death knell of the Phoenix and City Hall and theatrically speaking, crepe hung from the door of both places.  Clegg’s Hall seated from 350 to 400 people, had excellent scenic embellishment and the seats were of settees and benches—a decided novelty in that day.  Straight-back chairs had obtained in the older amusement places.  The rental—there was no sharing terms in those days—was from $15 to $25 a night, dependent upon the drawing power of the attraction.  The admission fee was 25 and 50 cents.

     “Clegg’s Hall enjoyed years of prosperity, finally giving way to Beckel Hall, erected by Daniel Beckel on Jefferson st. across the alley from the present Western Union office.  It burned during the flood, and remains the only downtown reminder of that catastrophe, no building having replaced it.   Backing against Beckel Hall, but with its entrance on Third st., just east of Jefferson, was Huston Hall, erected a short time later.  The two quickly became violent competitors for the patronage of the amusement-loving public.

     “In 1874 William F. Gebhart opened what was for years known as Gebhart hall.  It was originally intended to be used for church purposes by a branch of the Episcopal church, there haveing been at that time a disagreement among the members.  But their differences were adjusted and for a time the hall was devoted to theatricals.  It was never a glowing success, however, so it was leased by the then young, growing and enthusiastic membership of Sacred Heart Catholic church and here Rev. H. J. McDevitt conducted services for three years preceding the erection of their fine church building at Fourth and Wilkinson sts.

     “About this time the skating rink craze hit Dayton.  The hall was leased to Samuel Johnson, Ernest L. Jackson and Josh Johnson, and the growing city boasted its first rink.  The novelty quickly wore off; the hall became dark.  After an interval of a few months I joined hands with George A. Dickinson, of Indianapolis, later to become famous as a member of the theatrical producing firm of Dickson & Talbott, and we opened Gebhart hall as a place of high-class amusement.

     “We installed a modern stage, folding opera chairs, enlarged the seating capacity and changed the name to the ‘Park theater.’  It was the forerunner of the present Lyric theater, standing on the same site, but with a stage at the southern, instead of the eastern end of the auditorium.  Attractions like the Wilbur Opera Co., Frank I. Frayne in “Lost in New York” and other big hits of that day were played here to capacity houses.

     “Old Beckel Hall was the first to boast a gallery.  It had the old-time roll curtain and six dressing rooms, each of which was so small that an actor had to go out on the stage to change his mind.  The only way he had to put on his tights was to hang them on a nail on the wall of his dressing room and skin into them.  The entrance was on Jefferson st.; the stage entrance on the alley at the rear.  The house was but 96 feet in depth and about the same in width; the seating capacity, including the gallery, being less than 800.

     “Some few there are living today who will recall plays they saw at Beckel Hall.  While I was its manager I brought to the city such notables as Joseph Jefferson in ‘Rip Van Winkle’; Mr. and Mrs. William J. Florence in ‘The Almighty Dollar’; Kate Fisher in ‘Mazeppa’; Ada Isaacs Menken, grand, glorious and brilliant as ever graced the stage, also presenting ‘Mazeppa’; Dupree and Green’s Mocking Bird Minstrels’ Frank Dumont’s and Rumsey and Newcom’s Minstrels.

     “As I recall, Thomas W. Gable was the ticket seller and Joseph Baudendistle was the head stage carpenter.  In the orchestra were Mike Miller, Lucian Cook, the two Latin boys, the four Hellriggle brothers and Henry and Lou Kette.

     “We gave up the hall and it was leased by the old Harmonica society.  They controlled its destinies for years, giving concerts every Sunday night in German, with a resident stock company, at times importing a leading man or woman as occasion required.  It was a part of local history that no performance ever closed at a reasonable hour.  On one occasion at a performance of  ‘Schiller’s Robbers,’ some of  the wives and children of the principals went down to the hall at 3 o'clock in the morning, carrying lanterns with which to light them home when the final curtain descended.

     “Old Beckel Hall was then given over to public dances for several years, and along about 1908 came the one-reel moving picture.  Clem Kerr, at that time selling advertising on an afternoon paper, leased the house, changed the name to the ‘Jewel,’ and gave what undoubtedly must have been the first ‘talking pictures’ in Ohio, if not in the entire United states.  He secured a group of local amateurs and placing them back of the sheet on which the one-reeler was shown they would assume the characters seen in the picture story.  There were no scenarios; they just cooked up words to fit the story, as it unwound on the screen, and resorted to every noise-making device to imitate the sounds that were supposed to tie in with the picture.

     “I recall one of these inventions.  I think Clem Kerr was the originator of it. There was a scene where ocean waves were washing up on the screen—it looked like they were going to overlap the footlights and flow out into the audience.  Clem  rigged up some sponges, soaked with water, and tied them at the end of  strings.  Then he suspended them from an electric fan hidden in the darkness at each side of the stage.  When the waves in the picture began to roll, Clem turned on the electric fans and there was showery spray over the audience so realistic that they almost had to carry out the more faint of heart by the heels.

     “The Gay Nineties were all they are now cracked up to have been.  But the ‘80s were not so slow.  Glancing through my old programs of the season of 1883-4-5-6, I find that we played such attractions as Lotta in ‘Mam’zelle Nitouche,’ Hanlen’s ‘Fantasma,’ Emma Abbott in ‘La Traviata,’ Miss Jennie Calef in ‘M’liss,’ Estelle Clayton in ‘Favette,’ William H. Gillette in ‘The Private Secretary,’ Stuart Robson and William H. Crane in ‘The Two Dromios,’ Nat C. Goodwin in the ‘The Skating Rink, ‘ the famous Corrine in ‘Capers,’ Daniel Sully in ‘Daddy Nolan,’ Effie Ellsler in ‘Woman Against Woman,’ Frank Mayo in ‘Nordeck,’ Edwin Mayo in ‘Davy Crockett,’ Robert Mantell in ‘Monbars,’ Donnelly and Girard in ‘Natural Gas,’ Frank Daniels in ‘Little Puck,’ Margaret Mather in ‘The Honeymoon.’

     “Back in those days ‘benefits’ and special attractions staged by local fraternal organizations were numerous. I recall one of the greatest in the history of home talent affairs.  It was given by the Dayton lodge of Elks at the Old Grand Opera House, now the Victory, on April 29, 1889.  I directed it and had as my assistants on the executive staff C. D. Mead, Harry Feicht, C. S. Bigelow,  Rufus L. Worrell, J. W. Weidner, Frank C. Garrett and Holly Blessing.  It was a minstrel show, with Frank Garrett as musical director.  Alonzo Ridgeway as interlocutor.  The end men were Tom Coffman, Henry Pruden, John W. Tyler, Harry C. Snyder, Mose J. Schwab, J. W. Weidner, Harry Feicht, Charles Bigelow, Paul Keenan, W. H. Whittesley, Albert A.. Ohmer, Edward T. Grosvenor, Charles T. Freeman and George L. Grimes.  Robert M. Nevin served as interlocutor in the second part while the ‘olio’ offered such attractions as Joseph H. Crane, and Albert W. Kumler in a ‘Joint Debate,’ John Eberhardt in violin solos with Herman Bimm as accompanist, and Frank Umhoults in a German monologue.

     “Beckel Hall and Huston Hall, neither of which could lay claim to architectural beauty, and neither of which would have been a safe place to be in the event of fire, fortunately escaped tragedy.  If a fire had ever started in either of them when they were in the heyday of their glory, there would have been a frightful loss of life.  There were no such things as fire-escapes in those days; in the matter of exits none of the early halls boasted more than two.  I have often seen capacity houses in both of those old halls when the best the city had in fire-fighting apparatus were a few hand-pumped engines and fire cisterns that were quickly emptied in case of a prolonged fire.

     “I say neither Beckel or Huston hall were the scene of tragedies.  I do not mean that neither of them escaped the fire fiend.  Huston hall was destroyed by fire in 1864, but it was not at an hour when the house was filled with an audience.  It was immediately rebuilt by Elizabeth Huston and her heirs.  After it survived its usefulness as a place of public entertainment it was for years used as a furniture warehouse by W. D. Huber & Co.  It was destroyed in the fire which swept both sides of Third st. during the flood of March, 1913, and passed out of existence at the same time its rival Beckel hall, around the corner on Jefferson st., went up in flames.

     “Just as the class and character of theaters changed, so have the shows.  The old style attraction being crowded into the newer houses, the Victoria, as it was originally christened, the Park became a palace of vaudeville.  We had known the same type of show as ‘variety,’ being nothing more than a program made up of separate and distinct feature acts.  The great stars we no longer have with us.  Not one of those I have mentioned are alive today.  Death alone removed them from the scene of action.  There has been none to take their place and carry on—so we have no great names in the few ‘road shows’ that are straggling--and straggling is aptly used—around over the country today.  That vaudeville, too, has failed to live up to its early opportunities is best illustrated by its local history.  And the theatrical history of Dayton is, in a large way, the same as that of other American cities.

     “Actively engaged in the show business, or in direct touch with it through a newspaper office, for 60 years, I’ve seen these changes.  Even the circus is changed.  I strolled out just the other day to watch one unload.  The first thing I noticed was the absence of kids.

     “Years ago the average boy used to walk down toward Miamisburg, over toward Osborn or up to Tipp City to meet the show.  Today he is up earlier on the Fourth of July or Christmas.  In the old days we’d perch ourselves along the pike, four or five miles from the city limits, an hour or two before dawn, and patiently await the first wagon of an overland circus, to sit in pop-eyed astonishment until the other 15 wagons lumbered by on the rutted road; then to fall in behind and act as a rear guard until its arrival at Main st. and Shaw av., or down on Hickory st. b between Wayne and Brown; maybe to the lot on E. First st. where the Erie freight depot now stands, or over on Washington st. between Ludlow and the river.  Can you imagine one of today’s monster tented organizations pitching in a lot of that size?  You’re getting more circus today, but you’re not getting any more happiness for the human heart is capable of holding only so much and in our boyhood days we succeeded in cramming our hearts full of joy every time the circus came to town.”

     For some years after he retired from active theatrical work here Larry Reist resided in New York.  There he was engaged in newspaper work, and in close touch with many of the old stars who had played Dayton during the time he was the city’s leading theatrical manager.  He delights to talk of them, recalling enough of the eccentricities of the various old-time stars to fill a large volume.  While he enjoyed a personal acquaintance with show people perhaps more widespread than any other showman in the middle west could boast, he has always found his greatest thrill in what to him was the red-letter day of his career—the day he brought the world-famed Jenny Lind to Dayton.

     Returning from New York shortly before the flood of 1913, Reist became associated with local daily papers in the capacity of advertising salesman.  When Forest Park was opened in 1933 by its owner, Villie Markey, Reist was selected as manager.  He conducted that popular amusement place for two seasons.  One season he directed the affairs of Kilkare park, an amusement place operated by the Dayton & Xenia traction company between this city and Xenia.

     Within the past few years Otto Schenck and Milton Gunckel, two of Dayton’s pioneer showmen have answered the long roll.  For years they were doormen at Keith’s and the State theaters, respectively.  Their passing left but one of the trio of “old timers” and the oldest in point of theatrical experience of all--Larry Reist.

     He is a bit lonely these days, because there isn’t anyone left who can talk his language--the language of the show world 50 years ago.  Men like Elmer Redelle of the Victory; Clarence Miller of the Lyric and James Weed of Keith’s have spent their lives in the show business.  But they are “mere kids” when compared with Larry Reist.  They are showmen of the modern school, he of the school that counted its great stars by the hundreds, its successful managers on the fingers of two hands.  Today there is not a theatrical manager in the entire middle west who was “in the game” at the time Larry Reist entered it.  Like the stars—like the stage itself—they have passed on.

     But there he sits and reads and smiles and dreams, there in the big upholstered chair in the lobby of the Beckel House.  They’ve shifted the scenes a good many times during his 79 years on earth, but always he has been cast in a happy role.  Life’s curtain may be rung down most any time now for this veteran old showman.  No one realizes it better that he.  But when it is rung down no one who has played upon life’s stage will have made a more polite bow.  No one will have carried out his role more honorably; none more happily than good old Larry Riest.