- Friday and Saturday, December 16 and 17, 1898, W.C. Fields appearing with "The Monte Carlo Girls" vaudeville troupe at The Opera House in Kent
One legendary Kent story that has been told around this town for generations deals with one of the greatest entertainer/comedians of all time, W.C. Fields. The gist of what has been passed down through the years basically goes like this:
A very young W.C. Fields and his vaudeville troupe did a show at the Opera House on North Water Street and, while he was here, the whole troupe went broke and Fields had to find a place to stay and a way back to New York.
Trying to find the truth in this story has been quite a challenge, as different versions have popped up in different places over the years with each reference or story giving different fragmented and sometimes conflicting details. My quest in trying to nail down what really happened in this town has been one of the greatest history challenges of my life, but through some sleuthing I unearthed some very real information as to what happened here in Kent, Ohio with W.C. Fields 114 years ago.
One of the first things I did in trying to figure out what happened was start asking around town if anyone knew the source of this story. Most had heard the tale, but one friend of mine told me to check out Fields' autobiography because he was pretty sure there was something in there. That afternoon I got a hold of a copy of his book, and I went straight to the index in hoping that I would find a quick listing for Kent, but there was nothing. And this was a thick book, so I decided to just leaf through it to see if I could find anything.
As I was flipping pages and skimming the different letters he had written and the various anecdotes I found myself at times uncontrollably laughing at some of the material that was in this book. Now remember, I was looking at his autobiography for research purposes and not for amusement, but here I was totally engrossed in his hilarious stories. And then — I found on page 468 a letter he had written, dated to February 8, 1942 that went like this:
Dear “Pawnee Bill”
I was talking with Hattie over the phone the other day and she told me that you were well and happy and living in Long Island, all of which was soothing to these aged ears of mine and recalled stirring and exciting moments.
Do you recall the “Monte Carlo Girls” disintegrating in Kent, Ohio, Jim Fulton and Eva Swinburne running out on the show, salaries unpaid, no money for hotel bills or eats not to mention railroad fares. But we all got back to New York somehow. Those were the happy days — I hope they never come again.
My best wishes to you for many happy comfy years.
W.C. Fields Comic Juggler
Given the information contained in that letter from his autobiography I searched online for any information on who Eva Swinburne was or what "The Monte Carlo Girls" was about and found that "The Monte Carlo Girls" was a vaudeville troupe that Fields was a part of in the very late 1890s, and the star of the show was a Miss Eva Swinburne.
With that information I went to the microfilm of the Portage County, OH, newspapers in the main library at Kent State University searching for any local appearances by "The Monte Carlo Girls" or Eva Swinburne. I seriously looked on and off for about two months. I looked through 10 years worth of Kent Couriers (predecessor to the Record-Courier) from 1895-1905 until the microfilm machine made me seasick. I came away with nothing.
As a last ditch effort, I decided to look through a few reels of the Ravenna Republican, which was a newspaper that ran from 1883 to 1928 and by sheer chance I found an authentic and original advertisement for "The Monte Carlo Girls" featuring Miss Eva Swinburne appearing at Reed's Opera House in Ravenna on Saturday, December 10, 1898! A few issues later I found a followup news blurb confirming that the show had actually taken place.
So from there I went back to the Kent Courier microfilm to those dates and found the authentic and original advertisement dated Friday and Saturday, December 16 and 17, 1898 for "The Monte Carlo Girls" playing at the Opera House in Kent. This of course all but confirmed the story was true. A few issues later I found this news blurb buried on the front page of the Kent Courier dated Friday, December 23, 1898:
Monte Carlo Girls Theatrical Co. Ends Its Career.
The “Monte Carlo Girls,” an aggregation of only ordinary merit, and consisting of nine people, were at the opera house Friday and Saturday nights, playing to small audiences.
To all appearances, the members failed to dwell in harmony. A female trapeze performer sued the management and the case was heard before Justice Genet. She got $2 salary and the costs amounted to $7.
After Saturday night’s performance the company went to pieces. One went to Cleveland and the others left for the east in the hope of reaching New York.
According to an Internet inflation calculator I used, $2 in 1898 amounts to $51.71 now and $7 amounts to $180.98 now. Also, it sounds like the show was a bust. Not very many people showed up and the reporter said they were "of only ordinary merit."
Click here to see the full front page of the Kent Courier that this comes off of. Don't miss the story right below about the tramps breaking into the Brady Lake School and using it as their home.
Fields later said of touring with "The Monte Carlo Girls,"
"We moved from city to city. I used to do my act, shift scenes, perform other useful jobs, and play in a musical comedy as well." The act was a rough affair. "I knew (it) was rotten, and I reckoned I'd surely be found out sooner or later"
These newspaper advertisements and blurbs coming from the Kent Courier and Ravenna Republican confirm that not only was W.C. Fields in Kent, but because we see that he did a performance in Ravenna on Dec. 10, 1898, we now know that it's likely he was in the area for at least a week. And because we know an exact date, we can confirm that W.C. Fields was just 18 years old when all of this went down. A quick Google search for young W.C. Fields photos lead to me to this photo taken just a year and a half after he was stranded in Kent.
Another lead I had was that some of the W.C. Fields biographies reference this passage quoting W.C. Fields from Bernard Sobel's 1931 book Burleycue: An Underground History of Burlesque Days when referring to the debacle that happened in Kent:
"In those days — and this was 1898 — the railroads were sort of personal, human organizations. You could talk to them as you would a friend.
"Once when I was stranded I went up to the agent of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad ticket office and said:
"'I want to get back to New York. I have eight dollars.'
"'Well,' replied the agent, 'the fare is about seventeen dollars or seventeen twenty.'
"'Sorry. I have only eight dollars. What can I do about it?'
"'I don't know, but I can wire to the president of the railroad if you want me to.'"
"'I'd be much obliged.'
"'All right. If he's willing we can have the ticket for tomorrow.'
"The next day I went back, anxiously. The agent was at the window.
"'The president says, it's O.K. We'll take the eight dollars.'
In this passage Fields refers to getting his tickets from the Baltimore and Ohio railroad ticket office. If that's the case, it's likely that when W.C. Fields left Kent for New York that he picked up the train at a now long gone old boxcar depot that was situated on the lower tracks downtown and not at the building that is currently The Pufferbelly. Click here to see a photo of that now long-gone depot.
There is one more part of this story that everyone talks about. And it is the story of the trunk that W.C. Fields left behind in town. The trunk shows up in two totally different references. It actually is mentioned in Fields very earliest writings about Kent sourced from a 1912 advertisement in the Salt Lake Evening Telegram:
"When I was a boy and gaining my first one-night stand experience," said Mr. Fields, "I went to Kent, O., where I was given the joyful task of passing bills (flyers) and I did that work with a great good will for I wanted everybody in Kent to know we had arrived.
"Up hill and down I went, passing circulars to everyone. Then I went to a pond where a number of young people were skating and threw an armful of dodgers on the ice. That was my finish for the skaters.
"Maddened by having their fun spoiled they made after me, and some husky fellows advised me not to appear on the stage that night, but to leave town. I hid myself at the hotel until their anger had cooled. Then I secured a band sled and loaded my trunk on it and started for the station. I was too much frightened to jump on the sled and coast down the hill, so when the trunk began to crowd me and the sled began to bruise my heels I only ran the faster, thinking only to reach the station in time to get on the incoming train before the angry skaters discovered my escape."
The juggler finishes the story by remarking. "I think I hold the record of being the only man ever chased out of Kent by his own trunk."
This "trunk" Fields refers to in that 1912 passage shows up again in probably the most told angle of this story (at least around here in Kent.) This story hangs on the wall at Ray's Place on Franklin Avenue in downtown Kent:
The Central Hotel
by Paul W. Mosher
According to stories handed down to me, Fred E. and Mary Ann Mosher, owned the Central Hotel, across from the Erie RR depot on Franklin Avenue. They operated the hotel business from 1900-1907. My grandmother, Mary McMahon Mosher, also had a dining room on the first floor, with two large windows looking out on Franklin Ave and The Depot.
Since Kent was a division point for the Erie RR, it was a layover for the trainmen. There were various hotels and boarding houses catering to the railroad people and others, including salesmen and entertainers. The show people played at the Kent Opera House on Columbus Street at North Water.
According to what I understand, one famous entertainer to stay at my grandparents hotel went by the name of W.C. Fields. Apparently down on his luck, he wasn't able to pay his hotel bill, so he offered to leave his two trunks for security until he could send my grandparents the money for the hotel bill. As time passed, they did not hear from Mr. Fields. My grandparents then opened the trunks, as the story goes, and all they found were show bills, etc., no personal items whatsoever. The bill was never paid. The location of the old Central Hotel is now called Ray's Place.
Ref: Record Courier 11-13-82, Loris Troyer.
"I remember", Karl P. Mosher
While the dates on this writing by Paul Mosher put his grandparents Mary and Fred Mosher at the Central Hotel at 1900 to 1907 there are actually earlier writings in the Record-Courier from Paul's uncle, Karl Mosher, putting Fred and Mary Mosher even closer to the dates of the December 1898 W.C. Fields story. Karl as a young child lived in the Central Hotel with his parents Fred and Mary Mosher.
The Record-Courier article referenced in Paul Mosher's essay is pretty interesting. It pretty much says the same thing Paul says in the essay that hangs in Ray's with the addition of a mention that the trunk (at least one of them) "remains in the Mosher family to this day," which would have been 1982, although nobody in the Mosher family (that I talked to) recalls seeing it that recently.
The 1982 Record-Courier article was written by Loris C. Troyer who was the longtime editor for The Record-Courier and is probably the most respected of all of the Portage County/Kent historians. In the piece Loris identifies the ticket agent who provided Fields his way back to New York as a man named George E. Hinds, who worked at the depot for 37 years before becoming a cashier at the Kent National Bank (now Huntington Bank.) The story even goes on to say that George E. Hinds paid for Fields' ticket out of his own pocket, which contradicts what W.C. Fields said in the interview from Bernard Sobel's 1931 book Burleycue. If you would like to read the article in full feel free to come on up to the Kent State University main library where you can read it on the Record-Courier microfilm.
Karl Mosher's son, Bob Mosher (first cousin to Paul Mosher), age 91, who now lives in Raleigh, NC, recalled the story well and distinctly remembers one of the trunks. In December of 2011 he said this:
"I remember one trunk had a hatchback – a roll-top or humpback. It was in my grandmother’s bedroom upstairs on Depeyster Street."
Fred and Mary Mosher's great-granddaughter Mary Mosher still lives locally and told me what she knew about that old story:
"The first time I ever heard this story was when I was little: My great-grandparents Fred and Mary Mosher owned the Central Hotel business where Ray's Place is now. Up until the early 1960s, there was a third floor on top and it had a mansard roof.
"The top two floors of that building were for the hotel and on the first floor there was a small dining room and a small drug store and a reception area. I was told the hotel had one of those big round couches in the middle of the reception area.
“We never went into Ray’s for some reason when I was little. But one time when we were in Kline’s Market, my father (Paul Mosher) and grandfather (Charlie Mosher) started talking about the old hotel and I asked where that building was. They took me to the parking lot behind Kline’s and pointed to the back of the building that had been the hotel.
"W.C. Fields as a very young man came through Kent several times. He was in a tumbling acrobatic company and often the promoters would leave their people stranded without any money, so one time he ended up in this situation in Kent without any money. For some reason when he left the hotel he left behind his trunk — and that trunk was in my grandparents’ basement for a long time. I used to play with it when I was little. My great-grandmother apparently sold all the contents but kept the trunk. I remember the trunk and I remember seeing the old label that stated that it was made by a theatrical trunk company and there were little drawers for makeup and wigs and stuff like that. It also had stickers on it showing where they had been. The last time I saw the trunk was before my grandmother died in 1969.
"I read a book about Fields once that said that he got so afraid about being stranded without money that when he started actually making money in vaudeville, he would open up bank accounts all over the country with like 5 or 10 dollars because he never again wanted to be in that horrible predicament that happened in Kent."
The telling of this story has also given me a chance to show some different historic photos of Kent from around the time this story took place. Since we now know these events happened in December of 1898 I felt I would show some of the incredible Kent Historical Society and Kent State University Libraries, Special Collections and Archives, photos of Kent from between 1890 and 1910 so that you can see the Kent that W.C. had been abandoned in. In addition to this I have provided a few other images to add even more context to the story along with 2 of the great videos created by the GeoHistorian Project of Kent.
There are a lot of unknowns and gaps in this whole story, which is not surprising considering it is 114 years old. One thing is for sure, W.C. Fields showed up in Kent in the middle of December 1898 and it left a permanent mark on this town — and it left a permanent mark on W.C. Fields.
In closing I leave you with this classic W.C. Fields clip...
Big thanks to Adam Steele, Roger Thurman and the Mosher family for all of their help with the research. An additional thanks to Charlie Thomas of Ray's Place for hanging Paul Mosher's essay on the wall many years ago, thus helping to keep this great story alive for further generations to enjoy. And one more thanks to the Facebook group, You know you are from Kent if/when........... Additional editing by Shane Hrenko.
If you enjoyed this Kent story don't miss my others here on Kent Patch concerning Bo Diddley, DEVO, Ray Charles and Louis Armstrong, George Carlin, Phish, Duke Ellington, Bruce Springsteen and Jackass star Ryan Dunn.