Dr. Bumstead's Celebrated Lenape Liquid Show
Mark Osterman ran a well-known traveling medicine show from a folding stage built on the back of a 1919 Model T Ford for twenty years. Dr. Bumstead's Celebrated Lenape Liquid Show sold an elixir called Lenape Liquid and musical instruments (Kazoos and Humanatone Nose Flutes) using the spectacular rhetorical and musical talents of the celebrated Dr. Bumstead (Mark Osterman), trick shooting by K.T. Oakley (France Scully Osterman), and an Indian named Screaming Weasel (played by ten different people over twenty years). Mark Osterman worked out of the Philadelphia area and performed throughout the Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware region.
Mark Osterman contacted Dr. Wilson through this web site because of our mutual interest in traveling medicine shows; together we have assembled these photographs and stories.
|The Business||The Show|
|Hair Growing||Bullet Splitting|
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!
The show was made up of many four minute routines, which could be plugged in at any time depending on the sense of the audience. In between the bits we would play popular music from the early thirties with the audience. In the beginning of the show we instructed four people to play instruments whenever we pointed at them. These instruments were a duck call, a car horn, a drum and a pair of cymbals. During the musical numbers (like "I Had Someone Else Before I Had You and I'll Have Someone After You've Gone") if they played well and in time, it was amazing; if they played poorly, it was very humorous. A win-win situation!
The ballyhoo with the galvanic battery established the first row, then we would start playing music. Or we would just use the music to bring the people. I would also start up the model T when I had a few people, and tell them that it was lubricated with our product, Lenape (pronounced len a pee) Liquid.
One by one I would remove the spark coils (there is one for each piston) with the engine running saying that the ability of the engine to run on three, then two, then one cylinder was due to the properties of the golden elixir. Then I would tell them to watch as I pulled out the last coil...and the engine would go dead. The punch line was that "No engine can run on no cylinders! And that anyone who tells you that a medicine can cure anything is a scoundrel, but if you suffer from etc., etc., etc., Lenape Liquid is what you need!
By the time I pulled the last coil...which I made a big deal about and milked for all that is was worth...there was a big enough audience to start a show; and they were in the right mood.
We would then hand out the instruments and test each player by pointing to them. Then we tested the whole group of four by pointing in a sequence which we changed, like Simon Says. Once tested, we got up on stage and started the show with music. After the music a typical show would go as follows:
Music with audience "band." We never did sing along, because while some people liked to participate, it never, ever sounds good. We wanted people to enjoy the music and we were good.
Introduction and salutations. How I came to develop Lenape Liquid and how I met the Indian Screaming Weasel (who never spoke, only screamed whenever his name was mentioned during the show). It was also implied that this character was never actually an Indian, but a not-so-bright white man doing a very poor job of playing an Indian.
The first medicine show pitch, for Lenape Liquid, from a typical pitch man's tripes-and-keister set up near the stage. "It doesn't actually grow hair, but shrinks the scalp making the hair move closer together giving the same effect..." and other benefits, etc.
The hair growing machine (Capillerator) routine. This was a large machine mounted on a wheeled base with a removable dome and a plunger in the base. We put funny goggles used for sunbathing on the person. The dome, when on the head of a volunteer, deposited a wig of natural brown hair standing up on the head. The wig had an elastic band that was stretched inside the dome and fitted onto sliding metal fingers. When the dome was set on the head, the wig released and was set firmly upon the head and felt to the volunteer like interior brim of the machine. When the dome was lifted (after pushing a plunger down and making lots of smoke, made from baby powder, emit from the dome) the volunteer had the wig on his head but didn't know it.
The second pitch, for Kazoos or Humanatone Nose Flutes: "If you have a nose and a mouth and a working knowledge of how to use them, you can play the Humanatone."
Trick shooting including the bullet catching trick and shooting two targets from my hands by splitting a bullet in two.
The invitation to the first person to come up to the stage to buy Lenape Liquid to get the target which we would autograph...then sales.
We had several other routines: rain making, phrenology etc.
We made a big deal about dividing the audience to make an open path from the stage out to about sixty feet. We would announce K.T. Oakley and she would have Screaming Weasel set up a tripod bearing a small ax and set this up about fifteen feet from the stage. K.T. Oakley would then take her 22 caliber rifle and walk out beyond the tripod and ax and set her self up so that she would rest the rifle on her shoulder, looking at a hand mirror held with the other hand. So, she was facing away from the stage with the gun pointing towards the stage and the ax.
I held up Christmas balls in each hand with my arms stretched. Prior to this I would remove my hat and throw it down on stage and put on some sun tanning goggles. I would also wear the wig we had used in the hair growing sketch as added protection. The look was very funny.
When K.T. Oakley shot the rifle, Screaming Weasel, who had long since gone back stage, pulled a rope and squeezed a lever. The rope was attached to a device I designed, set in the upturned base of a nail keg set on one side of the stage. It was a piece of pipe with a spring loaded bolt. When a pin was pulled the bolt would quickly shoot out about three inches and then drop back. Mounted on the underside of the keg top, it struck the bottom of a carefully placed tin cup, which would fly up in the air as if it had been hit by one half of the bullet.
The lever was the handle of a garden sprayer which had the mister removed and a length of plastic tubing attached. This ran up to the front of the stage and was fitted into another prop water keg. The tubing came up from underneath and was carefully set into a small hole in the front of the water keg. When the handle was depressed, water would flow in a steady stream onto my hat (filling it up) as if the water keg had been struck by the other half of the bullet. The Indian allowed this to run for some time allowing it to run out slower all the while and the stream would eventually cease.
As both of these shots fell about two feet lower than where the target were being held, this gave the routine some comedy (a straight line drawn from cup to keg intersected my crotch!) but also some shock value as everyone expected the Christmas balls to be struck the first time.
After this first shot, K.T. Oakley would go up to the ax and take out a nail file to dress the edge. She then went back and fired again and I would squeeze the Christmas balls making them shatter in little pieces. Very effective, and even though the first shot was also fake, for some reason everyone thought the second shot was the real thing.
The ax and tripod was removed from the pit area and Screaming Weasel went out to where K.T. Oakley was with a cast iron frying pan. This pan had a spring loaded clapper. K.T. Oakley would come back to the downstage area, but not on stage, and face the Indian. During this set up I would put a waxed pewter bullet of the same type K.T. Oakley was shooting in my mouth. I would then pick up a plank of wood bearing a paper target. I drew a new target for every show...if it was in the fall, it was a very nervous pumpkin. This plank was really two pieces of wood with a spring loaded device that made a small black powder explosion through a thin copper pipe.
When K.T. Oakley fired the gun, Screaming Weasel let the clapper go and I released the lever allowing the black powder charge to blow a hole through the paper target. I would then recoil from "catching" the bullet in my teeth and soon after, the Indian would run back to the stage with the upturned frying pan, into which I spit the caught bullet with a "ding." We would then take a bow and end the show, though my speech was slurred by the effect of the bullet. We announced that we offered free Lenape Liquid to the first adult to come up to the stage and when they got there we offered the Liquid for free, though the bottle cost four dollars. We also offered the target for the first kid to buy a Kazoo or Humanatone Nose Flute. Those two things "turned the tip" to flash their money.
"Don't be afraid to be the first person to step right up and buy, but feel sorry for those who do not have the courage and foresight to do the same."
During the height of selling just after the show, K.T. Oakley and Screaming Weasel who were working from boxes on either side of the stage would yell out, "We're running out Doctor!" This always made the audience push harder toward the stage and buy more.
Typically I would end the show by saying something like, "If you enjoyed the show we are Dr. Bumstead's Celebrated Lenape Liquid Show from Newtown Pennsylvania...if you did not, we are the Give and Take Jugglers from Germantown"... or some other act we knew that was performing at the same festival.
In between shows we would do 1920s-30s music from the comfort of the back stage through our old sound system. People thought they were old recordings. Then we would enlist kids to put together the selling stock for the next show...assembling boxes and filling them with Humanatone Nose Flutes. We would always give any kid who helped a free Humanatone Nose Flute...and they would play them all over the festival...which brought more sales.
The show was well researched and everything we had or did was authentic for the 1930s except for an occasional newsworthy joke from time to time.
Phrenology was an interesting bit. My great, great grandfather was a phrenologist as is my current boss here at the Eastman Museum! I included it in the act (for the first eight years or so) because I had the opportunity to purchase a machine for making circumferential measurements. We used this on a volunteer and then raised a large painted phrenological head (bearing a chart) from behind the stage through pulleys and ropes. As it rose above the stage, the eye would turn towards the volunteer. We made up information about the character of the volunteer and then taught him to play the Humanatone Nose Flute on stage...bringing us to the Humanatone Nose Flute pitch.
The rain making was the most fun. We ran garden sprayer hoses up through the backdrop pipes with the sprayer nozzles terminating at the top facing the audience but pointing up.
The story was that we had a purgative pill, (like a Tic Tac mint) which we energized with a centrifuge and then loaded into a large Civil War musket (which was already preloaded with a charge). The gun was fired into the air making lots of noise and a cloud of white sulfurous smoke; at the same time Screaming Weasel stepped on a button which was a valve for the garden sprayers. They sprayed way up into the air, unseen by the audience because of the smoke, and then gently rained on the audience. They were amazed for about three seconds, then we made a big deal about Screaming Weasel not being able to turn off the water. He would then turn the sprayers to aim behind the stage. This usually allowed us to enter into a pitch for Lenape Liquid.
We did do a show at Kutztown, Pennsylvania in August where it actually started to pour as soon as we shot the gun. We could see the storm forming as it came up from behind the audience. So, we kept adding old routines to keep the show going until the right moment. The wind was so strong that after we came down from the stage (soaking wet) we had to stake down the rear wheels of the T to keep it from tipping over...the canvas backdrops were acting as a sail! We had some of our stock ruined and it was hard on our props and instruments...but it was really worth it, and people talked about that event for years.
That was a nine day show and we did three shows a day. I think we did that for about five years in a row. We really made a lot of money there, as we charged $1000 a day for performing and easily $500 a day in sales. The other people there were selling Pennsylvania Dutch crafts and were juried in, had to pay to be there and paid a percentage to the Festival office. We were the only ones with a contract...and never paid a percentage. We were the only real traveling medicine show selling its own product. It was enjoyed by kids and adults...a rare show then and now.
I remember one day when France and I were eating in a restaurant and we overheard someone describing our show to another person in great detail. We leaned over to thank them for their enthusiasm and they just could not picture us as Bumstead and Oakley. Then I put on my round reading glasses and ...they were amazed that we were telling the truth. I always wondered how Clark Kent got away with it...until that day. Ah, the twisted lumber of humanity.
The name Bumstead came from a patent medicine bottle well known by bottle collectors: Bumstead's Worm Syrup. The "BB" Bumstead is in reference to a dear man, now departed, who first taught me to play the ukulele and some of the greatest songs I ever knew. His name was Beauveau Borie Beals, a Harvard graduate in the late twenties and dear friend of my father. Beau was in advertising with N W Ayer, one of the most important agencies in the East. My father was also a writer, my mother, an artist. France's father was also in advertising and was an artist as well. As they say, the apple doesn't rot far from the tree.
France was written into the show as K.T. Oakley, daughter of Annie Oakley, because when we met in 1990, she was bored with just watching the show over and over again. She has a very soft voice, but very funny body language; so her part evolved as all action....narrated by me. She also played fiddle, washboard, wash tub bass and did a solo on a 1" harmonica she used to sell at the end of the show.
She was said to be the daughter of Annie Oakley, even though the real Annie (married to Frank Butler, also a trick shooter) never had children. We gave her a vintage type military hat to wear because a western hat didn't seem appropriate for a show on the east coast. Actually, I understand that Buffalo Bill wintered his show just ten miles from where we lived in Pennsylvania.
France had (still has) a really nice early 22 caliber rifle that had the lines of a much more serious gun. She also used a very small, brass bound 32 caliber cap and ball pistol with real ivory grips which she could twirl. The little girls really looked up to her character....as did the older men.
Regarding Screaming Weasel; ten different people played that part in the twenty years we performed. Most of them were teachers. Throughout the period we did the show I was a fine arts photography teacher at the George School, a private Quaker boarding and day school in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The first "genuine Faux Indian" was my father, John Osterman. We did a very funny routine where we played duets. I played a rare bass banjo (sporting a 17" head!) and my father played a very long harmonica or one of the 1" varieties.
The show was really a monologue. The second "Indian" after my father, was great on guitar but had a stuttering problem. So, I never wrote a part for him. When he couldn't do the show for one reason or another, I hired others to play that part. I was never sure who would be available at any time. So, the Indian was mute except for some humorous asides; remember that he was not portrayed to be an actual Indian...but a fool or "zany" in European mountebank lingo. Screaming Weasel's main purpose was to hand me props so that I would never loose eye contact with the audience.
My biggest fans were the boys from age 8-15. We called them "Sted Heads." On a long show, say several days with four shows a day, there would be dozens of them who came to every show and knew every line. They were usually the children of other people working the festival. From time to time we would have to pull them together to let them know how "special they were" and to not shout out the punchlines of the jokes during the show.
One summer day, on the last day of a seven day show, two young boys offered to perform our show for us. We dressed them up in parts of our gear set up all the props and let them toss the pitch. By the end of the ballyhoo, they had an audience of around three hundred and then put on the entire show, line for line. I laughed so hard the entire time, that my stomach hurt and my eyes were swollen with tears. I often wonder what ever became of those two.
Contact Mark Osterman (aka Dr. B. Barabus Bumstead).
See his current activities at collodion.org.