Pitching: A First-Person Account
“Sold out, Doctor!” To millions of people during the 1930’s this clarion cry meant that there was a medicine show in town. For two glorious, fun-filled hours each night that week, audiences could forget the worries of the Great Depression and revel in a miraculous montage of mirth, melody, and merriment.
When I was seven years old, my dad took me to my first medicine show. What a marvelous moment that was! There were singers, dancers, and comedians. There were ventriloquists and jugglers. A veritable ocean of fun, with a laugh on every wave. I was enthralled as the program proceeded. But the best was yet to come.
After about 30 minutes of entertainment, a hush fell over the audience. Suddenly from the wings, with magisterial dignity, stepped the hub of the whole unbelievable operation: the doc himself!
Next came the Legendary, Lilting, Language of that Lecturer. When that Mesmeric Maestro of Mercantilism started his verbal artistry, he was electrifying!
The role of the lecturer, or pitchman, was an awesome responsibility. On his shoulders rested the welfare of an entire company of 10 to 14 performers and their families. Since admission to the show was absolutely free-probably the only acceptable price for people struggling through hard times- a troupe depended on its pitchman’s sales.
From 1928 until 1939 I worked in this capacity throughout Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas. Many times as I stood on that platform on a cold winter night in Georgia, attempting to allay the sickness and suffering that mankind is heir to, at just a dollar a bottle, I would get a pitiful mental picture of the little children of the performers. In my mind’s eye I saw them raise their fleshless little arms in helpless supplication. If there were no sales, there would be no bread on the table the next day.
It was feast or famine.
In one particularly dire financial period, we found ourselves unable to pay our hotel bill at the end of the week. My partner was forced to leave his elderly father as collateral. Two weeks later we were still trying to raise money without success. Then we received a telegram from the hotel, “begging for mercy.” The old gentleman had been eating in the hotel coffee shop and hi appetite was more than the manager could afford.
And you had to be versatile. The show stayed in town for a week or more with a complete change of program nightly, including the lecture. Monday night would be “Rheumatism Night”’ Tuesday, “Catarrh”; Wednesday, “Female Weakness”; and so on throughout the week.
Perhaps the most challenging, yet fascinating, aspect of this profession was the actual construction of the lectures or pitches themselves. Unlike established salesmen, medicine pitchmen usually arrived in town unknown to their potential customers. They had no national advertising to create a demand. Single-handedly, and in only one week, they needed to instill confidence, create a desire, and close the sale. Faced with these obstacles, the pitchman’s presentation had to be of sterling quality, rendered with the golden tongue of oratory.
We relied on alliteration, words beginning with the same letter, or phrases having a pleasing, musical sound. For example, it would be unthinkable simply to say, “It’s a clean show.” Rather it would be: “There will be nothing seen, heard, said, or done that will mar the impunity or injure the propriety, in any way, shape, form, or manner of the most fastidious little lady in the community.” A good pitchman used repeated rhythms and balanced sentence patterns. A lecturer or doc was a master of rhetoric, waving euphonious phrases into a colorful tapestry of vivid images-all to the end of selling a bottle of “Hospital Tonic.”
One of the first goals of a medicine show doc was to establish credibility. He had to overcome the stereotype of an unsavory character created by western movies. One method was to undersell rather than oversell. For example, people expecting to hear us insist that we had a cure for every disease known to the medical world were much more impressed to hear us say, “We don’t have a cure-all. Our product is good for three things and three things only: the stomach, the liver, and the kidneys, or any disease arising therefrom.”
Similarly, they were receptive when I told them, “Even though you will be hearing people call me ‘doctor’, I am really not a doctor. I am not licensed, even though I did attend Northwestern Medical School for two years.”
A cardinal rule in composing a pitch was: Be Specific! Never, for example, would I display a tapeworm and simply say that it was from a patient. Instead we would mention that man’s name, his occupation, the railroad he worked with, and of course his hometown. Better credibility? Of course!
The magic moment when the actual sale started was a study in perfect timing. Each performer involved would be in the wings with a bottle of tonic in readiness. The piano player’s hands would be poised over the keyboard for the first frantic bars of “Stars and Stripes Forever!” The doc would bring the lecture to a stirring, emotional close. With the announcement, “And the price is just a dollar a bottle,” the waiting performers got ready to move. “Raise your hands and turn on your headlights,” the doc would conclude, “and the agents will wait upon you.” Then the action would start! A single error in timing by anyone distributing the tonic could produce a sales disaster!
When spring came, I would leave the medicine shows and tour the North and East with circus and carnival attractions. Again in the capacity of a “talker,” I would construct and create the lectures to be used.
The material was similar to what I used for medicine shows, perhaps even more flamboyant. Again, alliteration ran rampant. For example, on one snake show I operated, even the ticket box proclaimed: “BOMBAY BONE BREAKERS, CALCUTTA CHILD CRUSHERS, SINGAPORE SEA SERPENTS!” a canvas enclosure became a “Steel Bound Arena,” the snakes were “Hissing Seething Monsters.” Whether sideshow, or med show, the word structure came from trial and error. Phraseology that seemed pleasing to the ear and proved effective was retained. If not, it was eliminated.
Lectures were adapted to have greater impact in different geographical areas. In the “Bible Belt,” for instance, we related the product to Scripture. “This,” I would say, “is the same medicine which the Bible describes when it commands: ‘Go ye into yonder fields, gather roots and herbs and brew them for the sickness that mankind is heir to. And the fruit therof shall be used for meat, and the leaf therof for medicine.’”
The medicine show used many sales stimulators. Upon arrival in town, the doc would usually sell local merchants advertising banners that were “artistically designed” and displayed throughout the week on either side of the stage. He also conducted the “Most Popular Contest.” The purchase of a bottle of medicine entitled the buyer to 100 votes for his favorite lady or baby in the community-with a genuine diamond ring for the winner.
Every medicine show had a “Prize Candy Sale,” for which the doc composed the pitch. The names of the prizes were arranged in groups of two, four, or six, always perfectly balanced for pleasing, rhythmical structure, such as: “Safety razors, silk hose, silk lingerie, opera glasses, field glasses, pen and pencil sets, boxes of stationery, garter and hose sets, Beacon blanket, tilt-top tables, and many other valuable and useful articles.” During the Great Depression, the sale of this candy, which cost 10 to 25 cents a box, often generated the wherewithal a show needed to move from one town to another.
Here at the American Place Theater, we are presenting what conceivably may be the last, the final medicine show the world will ever know. The quaint rhetoric you hear will vanish, like the medicine show people themselves. As I used to say in the show: I want to thank you, one and all, for your kind, courteous, and undivided attention. Wishing you a safe return to your respective homes and destinations-and a very, very fond goodnight.
Bloodgood, Fred Foster. 1983. Pitching on the Physic Opera: A First-Person Account. The Vi-Ton-Ka Medicine Show program book, The American Place Theatre, 1983: 13-16.