In 1870s Joplin, the Vaudeville Variety Theatre was the place to be for rowdy miners looking for ribald entertainment.

In 1870s Joplin, the Vaudeville Variety Theatre was the place to be for rowdy miners looking for ribald entertainment.
A. S. Johnson arrived in Joplin about 1872 and opened a vaudeville show in a building on Broadway, and he and his wife, Cora, also ran an adjoining saloon. The Vaudeville building had rooms to house the itinerant players, and Cora usually kept a stable of prostitutes on the premises as well.
Shaner’s Story of Joplin, published in 1948, paints a colorful picture of Johnson’s Variety Show:
“This amusement hall provided a cheap vaudeville show of song and dance numbers.     Occasionally a burlesque troupe from St. Louis acted before the brilliant kerosene floodlights, replaced later with more brilliant gas jets; burnt cork artists, Indian club swingers, slack rope walkers, banjo pickers and German bands entertained. It was a bad place for decent people, because many women who frequented the vaudeville reddened their cheeks with rouge and penciled their eye brows. They were even seen there in red petticoats or red scarfs…. As if this were not enough, the     “hussies” on the stage, in the amusement emporium, were bold enough to appear in knee length     skirts and whirled about showing a glimpse of lace on white muslin undergarments.”
During the late 1870s and into the early 1880s, Cora was occasionally indicted in Jasper County for keeping a bawdy house. Like most of the madams of early-day Joplin, she was, as a rule, merely slapped with a minor fine and released to resume her avocation. She or her husband was also occasionally cited for selling liquor without a license or selling liquor on Sunday. Like most activities in early-day Joplin, the goings-on at the Vaudeville Theater were scarcely deterred by the Sabbath. The liquor cases, too, usually resulted only in small fines.
The Vaudeville Theatre drew well throughout most of its stay in Joplin, even though it was open nearly every night of the week and even when it faced competition from other venues, like the more sophisticated Opera House near 2nd and Main.
“No matter what the number of counter attractions they may offer to…the amusement seeker,” remarked a Joplin Daily Herald reporter in January 1878, “Vaudeville claims her full share.”
Johnson made periodic trips to large cities to secure new talent for his vaudeville show. In early February 1878, for instance, he went to Kansas City and brought back seriocomic vocalist Jennie Southern. Later in the year, “the great Negro delineator” Billy Diamond, sometimes called “the black Diamond of America,” played to full houses on Joplin’s Broadway.
On the night of Nov. 17, 1879, the brass band that Johnson employed in conjunction with his vaudeville stirred up Joplin when it marched down Main Street and got into a noisy competition with another band that was playing at the Opera House at the time. “It was a sight and sound never to be forgotten,” said a Daily Herald reporter the next day.
The Johnsons sold their theater in the spring of 1881 and then sold their adjoining property in the summer of 1881 to Joplin’s boss beer man, Charles Schifferdecker. They hung around long enough for Cora to be cited in June of 1882 for running a house of ill fame but apparently took their leave soon afterward.
Larry Wood is a freelance writer specializing in the history of Missouri and the Ozarks. This column is condensed from his book Wicked Joplin. Next week, he’ll detail a couple of incidents at the Vaudeville that crossed the line from rowdy to violent.