While some traveling performers joke about living out of a suitcase, it was a reality in growing up for Roberta Wilkes.
“I remember being backstage pretty much since I was a baby,” the 77-year-old recalled. “I grew up backstage watching my parents rehearse and actually perform plays, and by the time I was 3, I was on stage performing them too.”
Wilkes and her parents were performers in tent repertoire theater, where they would travel a region of the country – in their case, northern Illinois, southern Wisconsin, Iowa and northern Missouri – playing a variety of plays, with vaudeville acts in between.
“My dad played what was called the heavy, the mean part, and my mother was really an ingenue. My mother was really little, and her specialties were dancing and acrobatics and singing, and my dad always played piano on the shows,” Wilkes recalled.
Wilkes will relive those days in “Sheiks, Neckers & Jellybeans,” described as a “vaudeville fantasy” for two performances this weekend at Roxy’s Downtown.
In the production, Wilkes will spend the first act reminiscing about life as a trouper, with help from Karla Burns, a longtime Wichita entertainment fixture.
“In the second act, I’m in a dream that I’m a great vaudeville star, someone like Sophie Tucker or Fanny Brice,” Wilkes said, which also features Burns.
Although Burns didn’t know Wilkes before seeing her in a production in Kansas City, they found much common ground, including both working with Wichita theater legend Mary Jane Teall.
“I found tent theater very interesting because I didn’t know much about it myself, even though I had a father who was a traveling musician of sorts, a jazz and gospel musician who traveled all over the country,” Burns said. “We have an appreciation for a lot of the same music, the same period and the same time.”
David Sewell and Bill Dunn are also featured.
The show’s title comes from the first line of the song “I’m the Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” popularized by Tucker.
Other tunes in the production include “You’ve Gotta See Mama Every Night,” “I Don’t Wanna Get Thin,” “Tall, Dark and Handsome,” “St. Louis Blues,” “Birth of the Blues” and “Sisters.”
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Wilkes said. “It’s lots of songs and jokes and bits.”
Wilkes and the show’s director, Rick Bumgardner, also hopes it educates its audiences, especially with a stream of photos – many from her own family – projected during the show.
“I really got an understanding of our theatrical history during that period, and it fascinated me,” Bumgardner, who directed Wilkes in a similar production in Kansas City, said. “Some of the pictures moved me to tears. This is a long-gone art form.”
From the Civil War through the 1970s, tent productions would come to town for several different performances over several days.
“These tents are like the size of Century II,” Bumgardner said.. “Five hundred chairs could be lined up in them. It’s mind-boggling,”
He said it has a message for today’s performers.
“I would love for these kids who think that theater is with everything electronic and technical and always-miked to see where we came from to get to this privilege we have now,” he said. “I think it will help them understand the craft of theater a little better and the excitement of going to a new town and these people having access to new theater that they might not have had in a little rural community.”
Wilkes wrote a book, “One More Season,” chronicling her backstage life.
She lived in Wichita from 1960-73 while attending Wichita State University. Billed as Roberta James, she appeared in the Wichita Community Theatre’s commedia programs. She has a law practice with her husband, Bill Dunn, in Kansas City, Kansas.
Wilkes said she hopes “Sheiks, Neckers & Jellybeans” is as entertaining as it is nostalgic. “I hope they’re entertained, and I hope historically they learn a little something that they might not have learned before,” she said. “And I hope people laugh.”
‘SHEIKS, NECKERS & JELLYBEANS: A VAUDEVILLE FANTASY’
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, May 25, and 2 p.m. Sunday, May 26
Where: Roxy’s Downtown, 412 ½ E. Douglas
Tickets: $20, or $15 for season pass holders, by calling 316-265-4400