Podcasts

Bob and Mae Noell

Bob and Mae Noell

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(54:58, 50.3MB; S1576 T80-62, T81-102,T81-103, T81-105, T82-39, T82-41, T83-52)

In this podcast we will listen to Bob and Anna Mae Noell of Tarpon Springs as they discuss and re-enact old-time medicine show routines.

Transcript of the Introduction

Welcome back to the Florida Folklife Collection Podcast Series from the Department of State and State Archives of Florida. In this podcast we will listen to Bob and Anna Mae Noell of Tarpon Springs as they discuss and re-enact old-time medicine show routines.

The old-time traveling medicine show is a tradition that flourished in the rural United States during the late 19th century and can be traced all the way back to entertainment troupes of the Middle Ages. Nomadic performers brought a wide variety of entertainment free of charge to small-town audiences throughout the Midwest and the South. The performance routines included comedy, music, and magic tricks, with the underlying purpose of drawing a crowd to whom the medicine man would pitch his latest cure-alls. In order to sell their various tonics, herbs and liniments, medicine promoters would successfully engage the audience with numerous scare tactics, including suggestion of false symptoms, display of grotesque visuals, and staged scientific experiments. Often they would exploit the perceived exotic nature of traditional Native American and Eastern remedies as well. However, the popularity of the medicine show greatly declined by the 1940’s with the advent of radio, television, and stricter health regulations, in addition to a rejection of the negative portrayals of African Americans projected by the blackface comedy routines that were an integral part of many performances.

Two longtime medicine show performers, Bob and Anna Mae Noell, grew up in show business. While Mae was raised by parents who were touring Vaudeville comedians, Bob left his Virginia home at the age of 12 and learned the trade when he joined a medicine show passing through town. The two crossed paths in 1931, quickly married, and eventually began their own traveling show. They sold jewelry and candy, and amused crowds with ventriloquism, Vaudevillian comedy, and fighting chimpanzees who would box and wrestle any daring human challengers. The Noells retired from traveling in 1971 and shifted their focus to caring for and adopting primates at the Noell’s Ark Chimp Farm, which they ran full time from their Tarpon Springs home. The haphazard roadside zoo drew the attention of animal rights activists throughout the 1990s, and was forced to close after the U.S. Department of Agriculture revoked its federal exhibition license in 1999. Bob Noell died in 1991, Mae in 2000. In 2008 their granddaughter reopened Noell’s Ark as the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary.

Throughout their lives the Noells recognized the uniqueness of their trade and worked to preserve both the stage routines and history of the medicine show. Mae Noell wrote and published Gorilla Show, a book about their travels and experiences running Noell’s Ark. The Noells continued to perform their medicine show routine locally in Florida, and granted interviews for both radio and film documentaries on the topic.

The following recordings are taken from performances at the Florida Folk Festival and interviews conducted by folklorists Peggy Bulger and Landon Walker from 1980-1982.Take a step back in time as the Noells recount their experiences on the road and perform classic medicine show routines including “Sambo the Dummy,” “The Three O’Clock Train” and “Crazy House, or Room 44.” Enjoy.