1906: Quincy man among first to perform at Hannibal's 'People's Theatre'
A crisp, autumn morning is represented in this photo of 205 N. Main, Hannibal, Mo. The newly renovated first floor, including a new, historically accurate facade, now serves as home to the Charlee and Tru Boutique. Photo contributed by Martin Meyer.
Among the etchings discovered on the interior walls of 205 N. Main St., Hannibal, Mo., during recent renovations, was this “play bill” of what appears to be the first performance of the People’s Theatre, dated Feb. 5, 1906. Fred Burr’s name is included on the bill. He was in actuality Fred Buhrmeister, a ragtime singer from Quincy, Ill. Photo contributed by Martin Meyer.
MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
German-born Mrs. Fred (Frederika or Rica) Buhrmeister of Quincy, Ill., learned, in early August 1904, that her 25-year-old son, Fred, had taken a bride during a secret ceremony at Canton, Mo. The news came from a newspaper reporter who was walking his beat, when he chanced upon a meeting with Mrs. Buhrmeister and sought a rumor confirmation.
The reporter wrote, for the Aug. 6, edition of the Quincy Daily Herald: “While knowing that her son contemplated marrying Miss (Lulu) LaBrash, she said he had not notified her of its occurrence and was visibly affected by the news. She stated that she had tried to dissuade her son from being married at this time, as she did not think that he was in a position yet to assume the responsibility of supporting a wife.”
Mrs. Buhrmeister thus returned to her home at 237 State Street, amidst Quincy’s South Side German neighborhood, where her husband, two other sons (Herman and John) and twin daughters (Kate and Lydia) would soon learn of Fred’s new marital state.
Making a name
The wedding news was noteworthy in Quincy, primarily because Fred Buhrmeister had already made a name for himself in the entertainment world on both sides of the Mississippi River.
Buhrmeister was a member of the Morey Stock Company of Canton, Mo., which presented variety shows in Hannibal, Quincy and far beyond as early as April 1901.
The traveling vaudeville circuit took Fred Buhrmeister and the troupe to Enid, Ardmore and Oklahoma City, Okla., in February 1903, and to Topeka, Hutchinson and Emporia, Kan., later in the year.
In May 1904, Buhrmeister finished a 44-week tour with the Morey stock company, and as soon as that season ended, he exited for a short season with the Dodge and Bowman company. He told the Quincy Daily Herald that he would be back by Aug. 20, to rejoin the Morey company.
Instead, he returned early for the nuptials, surprising all, and then headed out for the Morey Company’s 1904-1905 season.
By 1904, Fred Buhrmeister had adopted a new stage name, that of Burr. He was thereafter known as Fred Burr, even in legal documents. He wife went by the name of Lulu Burr.
venue in Hannibal
A new entertainment venue - People’s Theatre - is believed to have opened its doors at 205 N. Main Street, downtown Hannibal, at the beginning of the new year, 1906.
If a 114-year-old theater bill, hand sketched on an interior wall of this building, is to be believed, the entertainers associated with the Morey Company were the first performers on this new stage: “People’s Theatre, First Week’s Attraction, Feb. 5, 1906.”
A featured performer during the opening performance was none other than the Quincy ragtime singer and actor, Fred Buhrmeister, now known by his stage name of Fred Burr.
Those who understand the history of Vaudeville know that much of the entertainment associated with that era is considered by today’s standards to be - and rightfully so - politically (as well as morally) incorrect.
Fred Buhrmeister (or Burr), was an accomplished vocalist and actor, but also performed in the early years as a Black-faced comedian.
Also included on the theatre bill sketched on the wall was his colleague Lem Welch, who was described as “The Jew.”
Geo. W. Evers, also on the People’s Theatre’s stage that night, was known as “Pork Chop.”
Two years after the Hannibal theater opened, the year 1908 would prove to be particularly tragic for the Buhrmeister family in Quincy.
Kate, 24-year-old daughter of Fredrick and Rica, and youngest sister to Fred, died in July of complications described at the time as associated with rheumatism. Her twin sister, Lydia, had married druggist David Varns in March and moved with him to Colorado. Fred Burr was on the road with a touring company at the time of his sister’s death, and his whereabouts were unknown, so he couldn’t be notified in time to attend the funeral.
In the months to come, Mrs. Rica Buhrmeister, bereft over the loss of her youngest child, left her husband and sons in Quincy and moved to Colorado, where she would make her home with her daughter until her own death in 1922. (The elder Mr. Buhrmeister died at Quincy in 1913.)
Fred Buhrmeister’s young wife, Lulu LaBrash Buhrmeister, gave birth to the couple’s daughter in early 1905. They named Esther Zoe.
The Buhrmeisters moved to Kansas City with the LaBrash extended family, and they were all living together at the time of the 1910 census. Esther was 4 at that time.
By 1920, Fred had apparently put show business behind him. Still living in Kansas City, he was in charge of the shipping department for Universal Film Co.
By 1922, Fred, Lulu and Esther had relocated to the Seattle, Wash., area, where they would all live out their lives.
Fred eventually went to work as a railway express agent at the historic King Street Depot. He died in 1945 at the age of 65. His body was returned to Quincy, Ill., where he was buried near his parents. Lulu died in 1978.
Esther Zoe Burmeister married William B. Ward in June 1924. He died in 1974, and she died in 1998, at the age of 93. They had one son, William B. Ward Jr., who died in 2008.
Note: By 1907, the People’s Theatre would be renamed the Nickelodeon.
This building, originally constructed circa 1879, was recently purchased and renovated by Martin Meyer, who contributed artwork and information for this story.
Mary Lou Montgomery, retired as editor of the Hannibal (Mo.) Courier-Post in 2014. She researches and writes narrative-style stories about the people who served as building blocks for this region’s foundation. Books available on Amazon.com by this author: "The Notorious Madam Shaw," "Pioneers in Medicine from Northeast Missouri," and "The Historic Murphy House, Hannibal, Mo., Circa 1870." She can be reached at Montgomery.firstname.lastname@example.org Her collective works can be found at www.maryloumontgomery.com