The life of Fred Shibley has much to teach us. A curious combination of human will, seemingly "chance" encounters, and social forces inexplicably opposed to a man's will. At a thousand points his life might have been an entirely different story. And yet somehow it was all inevitable. Mr. Shibley's life is just like our own, only much more exciting.
I WAS BORN here in Boston. I was born down on Edinborough St., now it's part of the highway there, in Chinatown it was, Chinatown, we went to the old Quincy School down there, mostly Chinese boys now. Then from there I moved out to West Roxbury, lived out there for a while, my father bought a home out there but he had his business in town, it was quite a job commuting between West Roxbury and Boston, quite a distance you know. He had a wholesale dry goods business in Boston. He had to get up at 4:30-5 o'clock in the morning in order to get the store open at 8 o'clock. It'd take an hour and a half, two hours by street car from West Roxbury. In those days you come in by horse and buggy, there were only a few cars around at the time, we didn't know how to drive, and those people who could drive, had to be engineers practically, or mechanics....
I liked mechanical work. I had a natural aptitude for it anyway. At the same time when I was 10 or 12 years old here in Boston, I used to spend hours writing stories, I used to write poems and stories, I did a lot of writing, you know. Even at that age I'd write these long weird stories and send them off to agencies. As fast as I sent them out, they sent them back. You're young, you don't get too discouraged, anyway. I could write, I mean I always wanted to write, so when I was in show business I started writing skits and shorts, and things like that, plays, you know playettes, blackouts, they call blackouts short plays and skits you know.
I dropped out of school when I was going to Boston Trade, and I had been training at the time as an acrobat down at the gym, at the BYNCU on Boylston St. I was going to be a mechanic, I was studying automotive engineering over there at Boston Trade and I was going to go to Went-worth and finish up over there. But I was down at the gym one day working out down there, I worked after school at a garage for a while, and I didn't think too much of it.... Just something I wanted to learn, something I wanted to do. And I became a pretty good acrobat by the time I was 15, 16. I was a good acrobat, in fact I could have qualified professionally but I don't know. I was down at the gym one day working out one day, I had been working evenings and making $18 a week, or something like that, and a fellow came along and asked me if I wanted to join up with him, said he just came in from the West, and needed a good tumbler and saw me tumbling down at the gym, working out, and said you're just what I need... to put an act together. That's not working I said. I have some kind of a job. I asked him how much money was in it, and he said, Ah, you can make a couple of hundred a week out of it, and it sounded pretty good to me so I decided to take that.
I started out with him as a tumbler, we did a tumbling act for a while--he and I; another fellow joined us. I played the old Washington St. Olympia, here, we played the BFT Theatre, we played the Scollay Square Olympia, we played the Portland, Maine, we broke the act in here before we went to New York. We worked around here about 25-30 weeks and all through New England, and we got the act all set and finished, all ready for New York, when we went to New York with it we started working around New York. And then we went out West. I was about 16, I guess, 15, 16.
WHEN I was 19 I was with a group that stopped in one of your smaller towns in New Hampshire. I was just crossing the street the morning after the show when these two ladies walked by talking to each other, you know; and they were talking in Arabic. The one said to the other one "Isn't that the fellow who was in the show last night?" I turned around and I says yes. I understood Arabic and I knew what they were saying. I just talked to them for a while and then went on. Now when I got across the street this cop asked me why I was assaulting those women. I said I heard what they said and just answered them. He asked me then if I were a wise guy or something. And I says to him "Are you a wise cop?" So then later when I'm sitting in the restaurant having something to eat, he comes in and jumps me from behind. Now I didn't know who he was, he didn't have a badge or or anything, so I turn around and belt him and then hit him over the head with a ketchup bottle. His friend sees this, and he draws a gun on me. They arrest me and take me outside in the alley. They put the handcuffs on me and I couldn't do nothing because one's got a gun on me. Then the sheriff tells the other one to put the gas gun in my face and let'm have it. Well, I didn't know what he was doing so I looked right into it. He shot it and my eyes were burned with hot gunpowder. I couldn't see anything for weeks and it made me partially blind for three years. They partially blind for three years. They healed and got better but I have to wear these glasses some of the time now. I tried to sue the cops, but the trial was in their town and they all called each other by the first name at the hearing. The judge would say "Now what's he say that Tom's done?" It didn't stop the act though because we had the tumbling act and you could do that even if you could barely see.
THE FIRST act we did was the three clowns. It was all comedy that we were doing, hitting each other with broomsticks, and they'd pull the pants off me and I had a dress underneath that flared out this way here, and big rubber sponges for muscles on the thighs and the calves of the legs. It was a very funny act, it was a scream. It lasted for a constant eight or nine minutes; it didn't stop a second. From there on, I get tired of it after a while. Meanwhile, one of the acrobats that was with me started giving me tap dancing lessons. Matter of six or eight months, I was a good tap dancer. We combined that with the acrobatics, we made acrobatic dancing out of it, see. And then later on after a year or two of this clown act, I get sick of putting the make-up on, you know it takes a long time to put that make-up on, and he and I decided to do an acrobatic dancing act so we came back and were very successful with that, went along for about two or three years with that.
And meanwhile of course, I studied music, I studied the banjo while I was on the road. So with the combination of acrobatic dancing and banjo playing I had a good single act and I could work by myself in case the need ever arose, which it does sometimes; without a partner sometimes you can go out and work if you have to.
I worked alone for quite a while after that. Then I worked with musical comedy up with Kid Boots over in New York at the Eddy Cantor Show, you remember Kid Boots, I got a part in that. I went along with the Kid Boots company, I was with the Kid Boots company oh maybe fourteen, fifteen months all together. Then they went on the road and went as far as Colorado and I decided I had had enough of it and wanted to get back to New York. I called my agent meanwhile and talked to him, asked him if he had anything for me in New York, he said sure, come on in, so I got back there and got another show.
It was Five O'Clock Girl, I think it was. In fact the fellow that was in the show had just quit, and I took his place. And then I went with another show called Dance Man, another one Stop, Look and Listen, all these shows were going on all the time, you'd be with one for four or five months, then out of it. You're looking for something better all the time. Eventually--the beginning of the Thirties there--show business fell apart. Barely lingered on until thirty-three, thirty-four; then everything collapsed along with the economy. You recollect that was quite a market crash back in '29 there, and everything went along with it. Theatres started closing one by one. In the latter part of the Thirties the talking pictures came in.
You'd take out girls who would be in the shows, various girls. You get acquainted with them in the show and you get company from one of the girls in the show and you love her until the season close, and then that was about the way it worked out. If the girls in the show weren't available, there were always plenty of girls in the town, the stage door Janes, you know, there were always a bunch of those around, waiting at the stage doors to meet some of the boys out of town. I knew they'd be there today and gone tomorrow so they wouldn't talk.
I finally got out to Chicago and stayed there for two or three years. I worked at the Oriental there, with Paul Ashe's band, I was doing a solo there, acrobatic dancing with them. And while I was there, of course, I decided to go to school so I went over to the University of Chciago, took a few courses over there, liberal arts courses at East 60th St. there and when I got back to New York I went to Columbia.
I said I might as well get an education too while I'm fooling around these places, so I had nothing to do during the day so I thought I'd go to school, cause you're only doing two matinees during the week, so I went to school.
And then when the bottom fell out of the business in the early Thirties I came back to Boston and looked around for something and there wasn't too much to do. I went along until about '35 or '36, struggled through these places, certainly a far cry from the theatres we had played in Boston.
We even played the Old Howard; the Old Howard had a burlesque show and between the first and second half of the show they had vaudeville acts. For us it was just a one-day stand, for a Sunday. Like the Lowe's Orpheum on a Sunday, you couldn't do any dancing on a Sunday, so they put acrobats in for a Sunday. It was against the law to have any dancing, you couldn't even walk to music. It was a peculiar law, but that's the way the law read. They'd have spotters out there watching, in case they did. So if you walked across the stage when the music was playing you had to walk offbeat. You couldn't walk in time with the music, which is ridiculous, I know that. Today when you see them out there doing everything on a Sunday.