PLATE 1. From left, “Abner” Leon Weaver and brother “Cicero” Frank Weaver with June “Elviry” June Petrie Weaver.
The Weaver Brothers and Elviry
by Joshua Heston
All but forgotten today, the Weaver Brothers & Elviry, originally of Christian County, Missouri, were one of the greatest stage attractions to ever tour North America and Europe.
Combining down-home hillbilly humor, novelty musical instruments, orchestral scores, dance numbers and popular songs, Leon Weaver (known as “Abner”) and Frank Weaver (known as “Cicero”) performed alongside June Petrie Weaver (“Elviry”).
June would marry Leon about the time the group hit their stride on the vaudeville circuit of Europe. Known even by their close friends and family by their stage names of Abner, Cicero and Elviry, the group became renowned during the Roaring ’20s, and would inspire folks such as Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl.
The Weaver Brothers & Elviry pioneered the concept of a fast-paced live show with rapid costume changes, traditional country music and popular music, all tied together with heaping helpings of comedy.
Sound familiar? From Lee Mace’s Ozark Opry to Hee Haw to the Mabe Brothers’ Baldknobbers Jamboree and the immensely popular Presleys’ Country Jubilee here in Branson, the Weaver Brothers & Elviry prescription for entertainment continues to this day.
What did that original show feel like? The Ralph Foster Museum has graciously allowed the reprinting of the following 1920’s-era script. Let your imagination wander back to the heyday of vaudeville, celebrating Ozark culture all the way
The lights are low, scarcely illuminating the thick red velvet curtains. A fanfare is played by the pit orchestra and slowly the curtain opens. Several young men are seated on stumps and old nail kegs, singing Wagon Wheels in the key of D, accompanied by a trio of pretty girls. A campfire is at the left of the stage — a quaint background of mountains and log cabin frames the scene.
At the end of the song, Abner (wearing a rumpled black hat, checkered shirt, overalls and black work shoes) doffs his hat to the audience, saying, “Folks, howdy! We’re glad to be here on another visit to your town. I ran on out here ahead to tell you what’s going to happen and what we aim to do. Now we’ve gathered up a bunch of folks just a little bit different than we used to have. Always before we had local Ozark folk and neighbors from down home, but we got the idea of taking in more territory so now we’ve got folks from all over the country and they’re right here with us. We’re going to start entertaining you without embarrassing you at any time. They’ll be dressed up at all times. There’s no advertising, no knock-knock jokes and no fan dances.
“I want to start off by introducing this little band [at which point, Don, Floyd, Warren, Ernie, Harold, Everett, Hank and Curly step up and around Abner]. They play be ear and cuss by note and sometimes we get together.
“This is the same little band that went down to the depot to play for the President when he went through out town. Of course, his train didn’t stop, but we played just the same. Now we’ll try to raise a little rural static…”
At that, the boys break into From the Canebreak accompanied by the pit orchestra. At the finish, Abner returns to introduce Harold Blackwolder to sing Down the Oregon Trail. As Harold finishes, the lights dim and Cicero comes from center curtain. Spotlights center on both brothers as Cicero, playing something of a dandy with bowler hat, bow tie, pinstripe suit and oversized black riding boots, strides to center stage.
Never once speaking, Cicero leads Abner and the boys in Down In Arkansas in the key of F on the auto-harp. Abner joins in with the novelty instrument of musical pipes attached to a farm rake. Cicero continues with the tune When I Grow Too Old To Dream and finishes by playing the Anvil Chorus on a series of handbells.
A bugle call is heard offstage and Cicero and Abner move to stage left to the tune of Dixie, Abner saying, “Folks, this is Brother Cicero! I forgot to introduce him awhile ago and he got kinda mad. He wants to get acquainted with all you folk and he thinks I ought introduce him overtime. You gals look over him. He’s a ladies man, all right! Right there stands the Playboy of the Ozark Mountains! Law me, he’s broke up many a home in the hills. You don’t see one like him every day. He’s the pride of our family. The flower of the flock.”
Cicero responds by grinning the audience and then playing the melody of Nobody’s Sweetheart Now with a rubber balloon, leaving stage to pick up a handsaw. Abner continues, “Folks it wouldn’t seem right to be back here and not play the handsaw. After all it was the old saw that got us away from our little farm and here for our first visit which was a long time ago. You’ve heard lots of handsaw music and probably enough of it but I believe Brother Cicero’s got something a little different to offer, other than the way you’ve heard a saw played.
“He’s an experimenter. I should say an inventor. I’ll tell you why. Last summer, up home, he built a chicken coop all by himself and yes, he nailed himself up in it! Oh, he is smarter than he looks. He’d have to be — to get along!
“Now he’s gonna bring out two tones on this common handsaw. In other words, he’s going to play a duet on one saw! Right here’s something that scientists or nobody has ever explained… I mean the saw, not Cicero!”
Cicero plays Moonlight and Roses. Abner walks to center stage and Cicero stands at his side. Abner begins, ”We’ve got another one of our family with us. I don’t know whether or not I can get her to come out, she’s so stubborn. I never know what she’ll do next. I’ll go try to get her out.”
With that, Abner begins off stage with Cicero tagging along right behind. “Whoa! Where are you going? Now, Cic, you stay here! There’s always supposed to be someone on stage all the time. Stay here and get acquainted!”
Abner exits leaving Cicero staring at the curtain. Grinning at the audience, he laughs, then pulls out a large knife and begins whittling on a stick. Abner walks back on stage leading Elviry, a striking woman whose dark hair is framed with a massive checkered bow and matching dress.
“Folks, this is Sister Elviry! This is the one I was telling you about!” Amid the applause, Abner continues, “I finally got her out here. Now go on Elly. Say something to the folks.”
Elviry mere stares.
“You ain’t afraid are you?” asked Abner. “No, I ain’t skeered,” replies Elviry.
Abner: “Well, why don’t you nod like I told you? Elviry: “I ain’t a’going to do it.”
Abner: “You ought to nod or speak. Show ’em you got a little manners.” Elviry: “I ain’t got any manners.”
Abner: “You ought to learn some.” Elviry: “I don’t want to learn any manners… I want to be like you.”
Abner: “That’s no excuse. You should be nice. Tell me one thing: What was you figuring on doing when you come out here?” Elviry: “Not a durned thing. I jes’ come out here.”
Abner: “Well, why would I bring you out here then?” Elviry: “I don’t know. That’s for you to worry about. I could stand here flat-footed and look ’em in the face all night and never bat an eye!”
Abner: “Let me explain. Everyone that comes out here when this is all lit up like this is supposed to be doing something.” Elviry: “No wonder. If I was all lit up maybe I’d be doing something too.”
Abner: “No, it’s entertainment, I mean. A song, dance, speech or something like that. Can’t you think of anything?” Elviry: “Business with sleeves and Abner asks her why she’s scratching her arm. She answers that she’s the only one who knows where it itches.”
Abner: “If you do something for the folks, I’ll take you over to see Sears & Roebuck.” Elviry: “I don’t want to see Sears & Roebuck. I was raised on them catalogues.”
Abner: “Well, I got a better idea. What do you think you can do the best?” Elviry: “Well, taking it all in all, getting down to brass tacks, right down to bed rock, I mean, simmering it all down, culling everything out and leaving that one thing I do best… I don’t know what in the world it’d be.”
Abner: “Can’t you think of something like what you did the last day of school?” Elviry: “I don’t like to think about it. I never passed. Well, can I have my ’druthers? If I can have my ’druthers, I think I’d ’druther sing. I don’t sing good but I sing loud.”
Abner: “Anything to get started.”
Elviry sits on the wheelbarrow.
Abner: “You mustn’t sit down.” Elviry: “They’re sitting.”
Abner: “Well, they’re not singing.” Elviry: “Neither am I.”
Abner: “I know you’re not but you’re getting ready to.” Elviry: “No, I’m gonna sit here awhile.”
Abner: “You can’t do that! What’s the matter with you tonight Elly?” Elviry: “Nothin’. I’m just further behind with my sitting than I thought I was.”
Abner: “I’m ashamed of you Elly.” Elviry: “I’m not proud of you either.”
Abner: “Can’t you see we’ve got a lot of company here tonight?” Elviry: “I never asked them over. What do you want me to do? Make sandwiches?”
Abner: “Go ahead and sing.” Elviry: “I don’t know what to sing.”
Abner: “Name some of them over.” Elviry: “She’s More To Be Pitied than Censured, The Bird in the Gilded Cage, The Wreck of the No. 9, or The Wreck of the ’97. I can wreck either one you want me to.”
Abner: “Oh, sing some old songs.” Elviry: “I don’t know any old songs.”
Abner: “Well, sing a late song.” Elviry: “Three O’clock in the Morning is the latest song I know. Get some music out here. I can’t sing raw!”
Abner calls to left stage for Cicero to bring out his big ukulele and when Cicero walks on stage, Elviry shuts her eyes, shrugs her shoulders and turns face to right, away from Cicero.
Abner: “What’s wrong Elly?” Elviry: “I can’t look at him and feel good.”
Abner: “Well, go on with the song anyway.” Elviry: “Should I stand or sit?” [Now sitting down in a wheelbarrow.]
Abner: “Get up on your feet.” Elviry: “That’s what I was figuring on getting up on if I got up.”
Abner and Cicero move Elviry and her wheelbarrow to stage left, pick up their instruments and gather around her.
Abner: “When you’re through singing, put in a few steps at the end.” Elviry: “Let me alone. I’ll dance if I get hot.”
Elviry sings Butcher Boy and Lamp Lighting Time in the Valley, pausing to bawl out the bass player during his solo, calling him “a stump jumper, hay barber, plow jockey, corny-on-the-cob, 10-easy-lessons, and put that thing under your chin and play it right.”
At the end of the song, Elviry pulls up her sleeves, saying to Abner and Cicero, “Get out of the way, boys. I’m gonna dance. I’m just burning up.”
Dancing in the spotlight to the applause, Elviry stops to say, “Much obliges,” and walks off stage.
Abner continues, “Now friends, I want you to see Elviry’s boyfriend. Somebody start him out over there [pointing to stage left]. That’s it! Here he is, folks. Totsie Pearson! He’s a friendly little feller. You’ll want to get acquainted with him. He never sees a stranger. He knows everybody in town. Pick out a place there… and start dancing!”
Tots comes on stage, waving his arms to the audience, and begins to tap dance. The boys come on stage left and the music begins and the spotlight follows Tots.
Abner: “Now folks, I know you’ve seen all the big shows in the country but in none of those shows have you ever seen a beauty chorus like Elviry’s. She’s take a lot of time and pains to gather up all the best looking gals from the county fairs down home. She calls them the Weaverettes. Bring ’em on Elly!”
With a martial right, left, right, left cadence, Elviry leads her chorus girls on: Sunny, Willa, Lil, Nanon, Mayno and Madelon. The curtain in back of boys raises. The boys play while the girls march on.
After they’re in line, Madelon breaks rank, pushing her way nearer Elviry. “Where do you think you’re going?” asks Elviry, telling Madelon to get back to her place. The chorus sings When You Wore a Tulip, exiting left on the finish of the song, then making a second entrance from stage left.
As the chorus walks back on stage amid applause, Willa bumps into Elviry from behind. “If you want to ride, I’ll get a saddle,” retorts Elviry.
“I brought the girls back out to show you what Abner said was true. This is the smartest batch of girls I ever had and I’ve had eight or 10 batches. We’ve been out since Septober. No, it was Nowonder and they’ve picked up a lot of things. Of course, I made them put ’em back but they picked them up anyway. They’ve seen a lot of moving pictures and they’ve learned to do some imitations from them nervous photographs.”
“First, now I want my prettiest girls to come out.” Madelon walks to center as Elviry continues without looking back, “She’s just awful smart. I think I’ll just take her home and keep her. Sunny, will you come here?”
Sunny walks out to center as Madelon asks Elviry, “Don’t you think I’m the prettiest one?”
“No,” says Elviry, turning to Sunny. “Sunny, you tell the folks right now what you are going to do. You’ve got such a nice voice.”
Sunny — with perfect, urbane diction — replies, ““I’d like to give an imitation of Dorothy Lamour singing Moonlight & Shadows.”
Elviry: “Gee, I wish I could talk like that.”
As the boys form a semi-circle behind Sunny, the lights dim. Spotlight is on Sunny as she sing’s Dorothy Lamour’s song. At the end of the song, Elviry returns to stand beside Sunny: “Gee, I like that high-class singing. I never could do it but I sure do like it. Now, let’s see…”
Madelon and Willa rush to center stage, fussing for their turn. Elviry chooses Willa and, as Madelon returns to the chorus line, makes a face at Willa. “Oh!” exclaims Willa loudly, causing Elviry to turn. “What’s the matter with you?” asks Elviry. “Madelon made a face at me,” replies Willa. As Madelon shakes her head, Elviry responds, “She did not. Madelon always looks like that.”
Elviry introduces Willa as her own daughter with a naturally pretty voice “that has never been plowed.” Abner corrects Elviry, “You mean cultivated, Sister Elly. Not plowed.”
Willa does an imitation of the broken phonograph record (with Bub playing guitar).
Then “hillbilly” Ella Sue does Sophie Tucker’s song Some of These Days as well as a number of imitations including the bird (swallow), the dog (spitz), the bee and the honey and limburger cheese, and the mockingbird five miles away. At the finish, the lights come up and Elviry says, “Now…” as Madelon prematurely walks up front from the chorus line.
Elviry looks at Madelon hard and the girl turns and hurries back to her place.
Elviry: “I want you to hear my quartet of three girls. They just sing so pretty I can hardly stand it. Here are Mayno Van Zandt, Charlotte Wood and Sunny Clarkson! These girls are from KTWO, Keep Watching the Ozarks, Springfield, Missouri!”
The trio of girls walk to center as the boys step up behind them. The lights dim as the trio sings With Plenty of Money & You.
The song ends, the girls walk back to their place and, as the lights come up, Madelon pushes her way to center. “Do you know what I’m going to do?” asks Elviry, patting Madelon on the shoulder and smiling. Madelon shakes her head and smiles back sweetly.
Elviry: “I’m gonna slap you flatter than a wet sock.”
Madelon turns and runs off stage. Elviry continues, “Nanon, come here. What would you like to do?”
Nanon: “A tap dance like Eleanor Powell.” As Elviry says OK, the chorus separates, toes to sides of stage. The intro music begins, the lights dim and the spotlight hits Nanon as she sings and dances to You Are My Lucky Star.
At the finish, Elviry continues: “That’s all! I just wanted to show you how smart…” “Pssst!” interrupts Madelon. “How smart, I was saying…” says Elviry. “Hssst!” goes Madelon, waving.
“Gotta cold?” asks Elviry. “No, I wanna act! Please!” responds Madelon, jumping up and down and throwing kisses. “Well, come here!” commands Elviry, “What do you think you could do?”
Madelon: “An imitation of Martha Raye.” Elviry: “An imitation of Martha Raye? You think you could do it?”
Madelon opens her mouth but before she can make a sound, Elviry interrupts her, “Good, that’s all.”
“No! That’s just a sample!” exclaims Madelon. “Oh, you want to sing?” says Elviry and Madelon sings the swing number You’ll Have to Swing It Mr. Paganini. At the end, Elviry commands the chorus girls off stage.
Abner comes on from stage left: “One of the boys in the band has his own original ideas of musical combination. First he’ll play the clarinet and the accordion at the same time. Introducing Everett Sanderson!”
Everett Sanderson comes on playing clarinet and accordion simultaneously, the two clarinets in harmony while Tots dances. As the lights go up, Abner explains, “Not long ago in Ripley’s column Believe It Or Not there was a man quoted as playing three clarinets at once. That man was none other than our Everett Sanderson, this man right here. And he’s going to play three clarinets at the same time, just like he played them for Mr. Ripley.”
Everett stands in the spotlight, playing all three clarinets. At the finish, the lights go up and Abner goes off stage with Elviry coming back on from left, asking, “If Everett can play three clarinets at once, I wonder how many Joe E. Brown could play?”
Elviry: “Ladies and friends, I have a couple of girls that made up a little dance they want to do for you. You won’t believe it but you will when you see it. They made their own dresses too. It’s Willa Weaver and Madelon McKenzie. Come on kids! Play boys!”
Willa and Madelon do the double dance to Red Wing.
After the dance, Elly goes off stage left; Willa and Madelon goes off stage right. The curtain closes in behind Abner as he walks front stage: “Now I’ve got another one here — get him down here!— Bugling Sam! Come here Sammy. This is the village bugler down home. Now Sammy’s got an ordinary bugle just like they used in the army. Some folks get it mixed with a trumpet or cornet because it looks like one. It is shaped like one but it lacks an awful lot of being one. A lot of the time Sammy doesn’t get the credit for playing the bugle on that account.
“Here’s the one thing we all know. A trumpet and cornet have valves right along here [reaching over to touch the bugle] and have to be fingered to be played. The boy in the orchestra [points to orchestra pit] has one. But this bugle [pointing to Sammy] was made only to play bugle calls on. Sammy’s the only one we know of that can play tunes on it.
“Now Sammy, just show the folks you don’t finger it. Grab ahold of the bell with both hands will you?”
Sammy plays Bugle Call Rag. “Sammy here comes from way down in New Orleans,” continues Abner. “That happens to be Louis Armstrong’s hometown too and Sammy’s known him all his life. Heard him play when Sammy was just a little boy. Now Sammy’s going to do an imitation of Louie on the bugle,” as Sammy plays Basin Street. The boys come out from curtain for this number.
At the finish, Abner says: “I’ve been doing all the talking. Why don’t you say something Sammy?”
Sammy steps to front: “We are glad to be at this theater this week—” Abner interrupts, “—Or any other theater as far as that goes.” Sammy steps back and won’t go on. “That’s all,” he stammers.
Abner: “I’ve got to give Sammy a little time here to catch his breath. It takes a lot of air to play that thing. I know! I tried it once and looked almost as bad as he did. Have you got another little short one you can play Sam?”
Sam: “Yes, but I got to have my drummer.”
Abner: “Well, I’ve known this drummer [pointing to drummer in orchestra pit] a long time and he’s all right.”
Sam: “Yes, he’s all right but I’ve got my own drummer with me this week.” Abner: “Well, where is he? Let’s see him.”
“Here he is!” announces Sam, the curtains open and Cicero is at center stage with drums. Cicero laughs and goes into drum routine with Sam, playing Diana.
The curtain closes as Abner says, “This next scene looks something like our little home down in the hills. As near as we can get it here. The idea is to take you all back to where we live for a little visit. You’re going to see and hear just about what you would if you were over to our house some day.”
The lights dim and, from off-stage, the choir sings Twilight on the Trail and Hills of Old Wyoming. The curtain slowly opens to reveal a cabin with four boys and four girls [Charlotte at the little organ on the porch] informally grouped about the porch. Others are sitting on the stumps, at sides of stage sewing, knitting, or looking at the choir. An old lady is rocking a baby in the rocking chair.
Elviry comes out the cabin door as the lights come up. “I reckon we should dance,” says Elviry and the musicians start the square dance music. The boys choose their partners with Cicero being left out.
Elviry takes the baby. Charlotte plays the organ. Lights dim.Cicero sits in the rocking chair. Elviry tries to get him to take the baby, which he does. She whispers in Cicero’s ear and goes back to place by the well next to the porch, pats her foot and watches the dancers whirl about the stage. Cicero rocks the baby. Abner is on the porch, playing for the dance. Spotlight is on Cicero.
Suddenly, Cicero stops rocking and hurries off stage. A shot is heard. The dance breaks up and the group separates to either side of the porch as Grandpappy comes out the door of the cabin, wearing long nightshirt and nightcap, gun in hand.
“What in the sam hill’s going on out here? How do you think I can get any sleep with all this racket going on? Go on home! Every dad’blamed one of ye! Er, Elly, you get in this house and go to bed!”
“What fer?” demands Elviry. “It’s derned near eight o’clock!” says Grandpappy.
Elviry: “Eight o’clock ain’t late! Why you used to stay up till midnight and you never had any good music to dance by either.”
Elviry puts her hand to Grandpappy’s ear, enabling him to hear the hoedown that beings softly. She talk to him, coaxing him to dance. The group calls to him. Finally, he gets into the spirit and begins to pat his foot in time to the music. Elviry retires to the arm of the rocking chair. Grandpappy throws his cane and gun to the floor, steps forward, gets out his harmonica and plays a tune for the gang. Then he does some jigging. At the finish, Cicero hands him his cane. Grandpappy puts his harmonica back in his pocket and, with a little difficulty in getting up the two steps into the cabin, bids the group “Goodnight.”
Elviry comes to center stage to go on the porch and stand by the door. Cicero and Abner are on either side of the steps.
“I guess Grandpappy is a little tired,” says Elviry as the announcer’s voice says, “We’ll come back some other time.”
Elviry nods assent and take her place on the porch. The group pairs off, singing Wagon Wheels. The spotlight is on Abner, Cicero and Elviry on the porch. All wave in intervals and the thick red curtain closes slowly.
The pit orchestra continues as Elviry, Abner and Cicero take bows at the curtain. The end.
Weaver Bros. & Elviry: State of the Ozarks
RALPH FOSTER ARTICLE REPRINT — THE STAFF OF COLLEGE OF THE OZARKS’ RALPH FOSTER MUSEUM HAS GRACIOUSLY ALLOWED THE REPRINT OF THIS HISTORIC SCRIPT FROM THEIR ARCHIVE.
Photography by Joshua Heston, March 4, 2011