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Moments In History

The Show Wagon

A bit of a showman himself, Father Flanagan knew the value of entertainment when it came to spreading the Boys Town message. He understood that seeing is believing, and if he wanted people to support Boys Town's mission, he needed to educate them about the organization and show them the results. So, during the early 1920s, Father Flanagan's "Boys Shows" traveled the countryside in a bright red circus wagon, stopping in various towns to perform a two-hour variety revue of singing, dancing and light comedy. Some communities weren't so eager to welcome these racially diverse groups, but others did so with open arms. Today, a replica of the show wagon is on permanent display at Boys Town's Hall of History.

 

Narrator: In the summer of 1922, a group of young performers rolled into dozens of small towns and dusty hamlets dotting the Great Plains. They sang, danced, joked, and hammed it up with locals who were curious to see this motley crew claiming to be the world's greatest juvenile entertainers. It was quite a sight to see. They arrived by donated, second-hand circus wagons pulled by teams of draft horses in decorated harnesses. Inside these crimson carriages were the members of Father Flanagan's Boys' Show. They had come to put on a two-hour variety review punctuated by band music, vaudeville skits, and comedy routines.

This travelling roadshow was one of Father Flanagan's first efforts to increase the public's awareness of Boys Town and raise funds. Always a bit of showman himself, Father Flanagan relished the opportunity to nature the artistic talents of children. But the group had an even larger purpose, to dispel the ugly stereotypes some had about his work and his boys.

Father Flanagan: I'd like to think of music as being the language of the soul. It reveals to us truth and beauty beyond the power of words to describe. Musical goes beyond the barriers of race, creed, or geography. It is a spiritual medium of mutual fellowship for all people, for the rich and the poor, for the mighty and the meek, for the old and for the young.

Narrator: The show carried a message of inclusion as boys of every color and creed performed under the direction of Dan Desdunes, an African-American musician and civil rights activist. The racially integrated troupe was shunned in some communities, but many others offered friendship and even provided warm meals. Unfortunately, opening minds and softening hearts proved to be an expensive endeavor. Keeping the show on the road cost as much as $90 a day which was often more than the day's receipts.By the end of that summer, The World's Greatest Juvenile Entertainers returned to Boys Town flat broke.

The Boys' Show was later revamped, and the group travelled by rail to reach new audiences and raise financial support. Travel by train proved far more efficient and economical. Whether by horse or by train, the musical adventure was educationally and culturally rich because the boys experienced new places, cultivated new supporters and sharpened their artistic talents. So while the roadshow had to be retired, the values it instilled, like commitment and self-discipline remained, and the beat went on.

Today, the home continues to provide girls and boys with many musical outlets. The voices of Boys Town can be heard at local and regional performances, and the Boys Town marching band can be seen high stepping in area parades and at sporting events. As for the original crimson circus wagons, they were lost to history. But thanks to the skilled hands of Boys Town students, a replica was built in 1967 for the State of Nebraska's centennial parade. That wagon was later refurbished to better resemble the original circus wagons and it's now on permanent display in the hall of history.

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