Father Edward J. Flanagan loved music. Growing up in Ireland, he would gather with his family in the evenings to sing and play instruments as they sat around their home’s hearth. Father Flanagan also believed that music was a positive hobby and outlet for children. After he founded Boys Town in 1917, he immediately began to organize a musical program for the boys.
One of the earliest Boys Town band leaders was Dan Desdunes, leader of the Dan Desdunes Band, which was named Omaha’s official city band in 1918. Desdunes volunteered his time to teach the boys how to sing and dance. Father Flanagan also had a plan to create a musical troupe, which performed all around Omaha to raise awareness about Boys Town. After several shows, Father Flanagan felt the boys were ready to take their show on the road.
Father Flanagan’s Traveling Troupe
In 1922, Father Flanagan purchased three circus wagons and had them painted red with the words “World’s Greatest Juvenile Entertainers” painted in yellow across the sides. The Mothers Guild refurbished old surplus WWI army uniforms for the boys to wear during performances. Pulled by teams of horses, the troupe set out from Overlook Farm in the summer of 1922 to tour Nebraska.
At each performance, the boys entertained audiences with song and dance. They also showed a film describing the ministry of Father Flanagan. At the end, they asked the public to help support Boys Town. Father Flanagan’s nephew, Pat Norton, led the troupe, which began to struggle after just a few performances.
After feeding the boys and the horses, the troupe made no money and came precariously close to folding. The troupe did attract interested crowds in each town they visited, though, and for some patrons, it was the first time they had seen people of different races in their communities.
Finally, in one town, the troupe came to a complete stop. A local member of the Ku Klux Klan informed the troupe they were not welcome due to the diversity of the performers and because Father Flanagan was Catholic. The show ended; the wagons returned to Boys Town and were never used again.
The Show Must Go On
Not one to become easily discouraged, Father Flanagan later approached Union Pacific Railroad, which agreed to rent him a Pullman passenger car for $1 a year. With it, the troupe could travel across the Midwest to put on shows, and the boys could sleep in the train car.
After each performance, the public would go onstage and meet the boys. Father Flanagan dreamed that maybe a family would meet a boy and want to adopt him. Often, though, they returned from the trips with new residents for Boys Town, as families or community members brought orphaned or unwanted boys to Father Flanagan and requested that he give them a new home at Boys Town.
Father Flanagan’s traveling troupes flourished until the early 1940s. When WWII began, the troupes stopped traveling as America focused on the war effort. The musical troupe was eventually restructured as the world-famous Boys Town Choir.