By Marguerite Sand, Times-Union Women's Editor
For many years the color and excitement of vaudeville, chautauqua, the lyceum, circuses, road and stock shows were part of the lives of local residents, Reuben and Avis Ferns.
"We loved every minute of it," they will tell you today if you ask them about their many experiences in the entertainment world. They are not completely removed from grease paint, bright costumes, the sound of dancing feet. Mrs. Ferns teaches more than 100 students at her dance studio here. Her husband operates a costume business that ships to all parts of the United States.
Last night at the Warsaw high school the auditorium was filled to capacity as Mrs. Ferns presented her pupils in the annual dance revue sponsored by the Warsaw Dramatics club. The proceeds will be used to help area young people further their education.
Takes Them Back
Getting ready for such an event takes a lot of time and work but the Ferns do not mind, for it takes them back to a phase of their lives when they applied the make up, wore the colorful costumes, stood in the wings waiting their cues, heard the applause, knew they had once again put on a good performance.
In these young people they see themselves as they were many years ago. They keep waiting for one who will have that special spark, that love of the stage that will keep him or her working until the top in show business is reached.
Mrs. Ferns, a native of Warsaw, was the former Avis Schue. Her step-father, Charles Argerbright, was at one time employed by the Northern Indianian. Mrs. Ferns had a fine singing voice and Jennie Frazer, a vocal instructor in the city school system encouraged her to train it. Bess May Lowery, of Warsaw, was her first voice teacher.
Those of the older generation will remember Mrs. Lowery, who at one time was connected with chautauqua. Her husband, Homer was a professor of engineering at Purdue university.
Appears at Winona
Later Mrs. Ferns studied with Prof. W. H. Owens, of Chicago, and a Prof. Blumenshine at Dayton, Ohio. IN the meantime her fine lyric soprano voice could be heard at Winona Lake as she appeared in chautauqua programs. Some will remember her in the role of Yum-Yum in Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado."
At last Prof. Owens believed she was ready to audition in Chicago. IN the office of a theatrical agency the manager of a musical comedy heard her sing, signed her up for a road show. She joined the stock company at Traverse City, Mich. It was there she met Mr. Ferns, who was producer-director and comedian of the show.
Reuben Ferns was born in Newark, N.J., the son of John W. and Sarah (Morris) Ferns. His father was a Shakespearean actor, minstrel and a champion clog dancer. The mother was a short story writer. At the age of two, Mr. Ferns' theatrical training started. When he was four his father taught him to dance. Shortly thereafter the family moved to St. Louis where he received his education. Mr. Ferns instructed four brothers. For three years Mr. Ferns and his brother, Marty, teamed up in a song and dance act. Marty eventually became a clown and animal impersonator at the Hippodrome in New York City. An injury ended his short career.
Learns to Dance
When Mrs. Ferns first joined the company she sang ballads and played piano, while Mr. Ferns taught her to dance. He had been a "pedestal dancer." Elevated above the floor on a 14-inch square pedestal top he could tap out a fast rhythm. Later he was one of the first to adopt the famous style of Fred stone, now identifed with Ray Bolger. That first year they played towns for a week at a time-in tents in the summer, opera houses in the winter. Mrs. Ferns learned not only to dance and sing, but to act, as well.
In 1918, the Ferns were married. Not only did they team up martially but as Ferns and Avis in vaudeville. He was a character comedian, known for his rube, tramp and eccentric characterizations. His wife sang, danced, acted as his "straight man."
Coast to Coast
Traveling from coast to coast and in Canada, the Ferns appeared in such name places as the Wigwam in San Francisco, the Princess theater in Boston. During the War years they played in bond and Red Cross benefit shows. In their travels he was invariably asked by hotel clerks. "Rooms for yourself and daughter?" It was a joke with them, for Mrs. Ferns weighed but 80 pounds.
Those were wonderful years, and the Ferns' experiences were varied as they went from vaudeville to musical comedy to repertoire stock shows, and did some night club work. They were billed in "Peg O My Heart," "Tennessee's Partner," "Little Women," "Abie's Irish Rose," "Silk Stockings" and many others.
In musical comedy Mrs. Ferns not only had prominent roles but she produced chorus numbers and trained the line. Many costumes were of her designing, and she made all her own. There were "fat" days, and there were "lean" days, but they loved it.
With the advent of talkies the bottom dropped out of show business. Not wanting to do night club work, the Ferns returned to Warsaw 18 years ago. He started the costume shop, is a member of the National Costumers association. Upon request Mrs. Ferns started to teach dancing. She is a member of the National Association of Dance and Affiliated Artists. She has taught more than 8000 students in this area.
Darwin Eherenman, of Warsaw, was her first student. Then along came Dorothy May Stookey (Hartman). Her little girl is now attending classes. Other students in those earlier years were Burleigh Burgh, the Emerick sisters and the William Long children, Mary Ann, Arthur and Margie. The latter were with her the longest. Margie now helps her teach Saturday morning classes. Brooks Black, who is well-known for his tap on roller skates, was one of her pupils.
Each year Mrs. Ferns attends the dance seminar in Chicago, and has students appearing at the Hinote dance festival at Flint Michigan.
Although the Ferns are no longer young in years, their interests are young. They love children who return their affection, appreciate Mrs. Ferns; patience and understanding, and Mr. Ferns ability to entertain. They have not really left the bright lights they enjoyed so much in their youth. They have brought them home with them.
Ferns & Avis, vaudeville team in 1918
Avis Ferns, in character role in "Backyard Frolics" in 1936
Avis Ferns, the chautauqua star
Avis & Reuben Ferns as they are today 1957
Warsaw Times-Union Saturday June 8, 1957
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