When the Carnival Came to Town

July 5, 2019 NEBRASKAland Magazine


The Flying Baldwins were a popular feature of the Walter Savidge Amusement Company. History Nebraska RG1667-1-15

Story and photos by History Nebraska

Years ago, the peak of Nebraska summer entertainment came with the Walter Savidge Amusement Company as it pulled into the depot aboard its 20-car, red-and-yellow Pullman train. The Wayne-based traveling show and carnival toured Nebraska and surrounding states from 1906 to 1941.

View from the stage of Savidge Players tent theater. History Nebraska RG1667-1-13

Walter Savidge was born in Holt County in 1886. He began dreaming of show business at age 12 after attending a Ringling Brothers circus in Humphrey. He practiced tightrope walking on a rope tied between his family’s barn and shed. At age 16 he ran away to “join the circus” and worked as a professional tightrope walker.

Some forms of old-time entertainment have not aged well. Similar to many traveling carnivals of the day, Savidge included “freak shows” featuring people with physical abnormalities. Performer George Thompson is shown here with his son. History Nebraska RG1667-6-1

The Savidges were an adventurous clan. You may have heard of Walter’s aviator cousins from Ewing. The Savidge Brothers built their first airplane in 1911 and barnstormed the state for several years.

Walter was no aviator, but he and his brother Arthur formed an amusement company in 1906, when Walter was only 20 years old. It started as a one-tent show, with Walter doubling as an acrobat and Arthur performing as one of the actors. The brothers split several years later, and Walter and his wife, Mabel, continued the company. It remained a family affair, with Mabel managing the finances and playing piano for the vaudeville acts.

Looking east along Farnam Street, Omaha, 1889. History Nebraska RG2341-28

The company got bigger and bigger, with acrobats, sideshows, an orchestra and dramatic company, carnival rides and concession stands. It was so big they brought their electrical plant to power it all. The big tent could seat 1,600 people, and it took 125 employees to keep everything running.

The Savidges were known for providing clean, family-friendly entertainment. Despite the bad reputation of “carnies,” the Savidge crew “is not made of crude fellows who ‘flop’ in strange places, no indeed,” said the Omaha World-Herald. “Savidge and his company are welcomed with open arms each year in towns that he has played before.”

The “Eli Wheel,” a competitor of the Ferris Wheel. History Nebraska RG1667-3-1

Interest in the show dwindled in the late 1930s, probably due to newer forms of entertainment, such as movies. The Savidges closed their show and retired in 1941. Walter died eight years later. Mabel lived until 1989, dying at age 104.  

Adapted from Rebecca A. Buller, “The Walter Savidge Amusement Company,” Nebraska History (Summer 2017). history.nebraska.gov

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