The sight of big top tents going up in Napa during the early 1900s brought delight to Napa County residents. Although these massive canvas structures were a trademark of traveling circus troupes, these tents also housed touring theatrical companies, such as “Sweeney’s Big Top Show” in June 1904.
The Napa Daily Journal reported, “The tent has been pitched on E.W. Hottel’s lot, the south west corner of First and Franklin Streets.” As a means of promoting the show in advance, the Journal reprinted excerpts from other community newspapers where the Sweeney troupe had already performed their production.
For instance, the May 31, 1904 Santa Rosa Press-Democrat reported, “Last night the Sweeney Show opened to a crowded house. The company, which is an excellent one, made a good showing in a clever play. The piece was one of exceptional merit, possessing heart interest and abundant comedy. Mr. Sweeney and his company have been highly recommended by the press of other cities where they have been and they proved that they are entitled to the praise bestowed.”
Once the troupe arrived and performed in Napa, the local newspapers had plenty to write about. In review the Napa Register reported “a large and enthusiastic audience gathered to witness the opening performances of the Sweeney’s Big Show, in its own handsome canvas opera house (tent)...The play ‘Avenged,’ was one of unusual merit, and the splendid manner on which it was presented reflected great credit upon the manager and actors, who so ably portrayed their parts.”
The Register review continued, “Richard Scott essayed the character of ‘Jerry, the outcast,’ in a way that classes his with our best actors. He is well and favorable known (throughout) California (and), in fact, the entire Pacific Coast. Mr. Scott is the equal if not the superior, of many of America’s heavily advertised actors and is a great favorite wherever he has played.”
The Register was equally as complimentary in their review of the leading lady, Monda Glendower. “She created a good impression as Frances, the outcast’s daughter. Miss Glendower is an Eastern actress of ability and one of the youngest — if not the youngest — leading women of the American stage. Her strong emotional scene of the third act was exceptionally well done.”
And, of course, no play would be complete without its antagonist. “Chet Stevens as the unscrupulous villain, was roundly hissed by the audience, which proved that his end of the play was well looked after.”
The Register added one final notation about the cast. “Harriet Jocelyn as Mrs. Lee, the foster mother of Frances, did very clever work; she is known as one of the best character ladies in the United States.”
About the orchestra and its conductor, the Register reported, “The music program was in the hands of Prof. Stevens, an accomplished artist and competent director. Prof. Stevens is well known, having directed some of America’s foremost musical organizations. The orchestra is a very good one and furnished beautiful music during the evening.”
Following a brief notation about the set, its elegance and artistry that would silence “the criticism of the most astute connoisseurs,” the Register ended its review with high praise for F.E. Sweeney, the company’s proprietor. He “comes well recommended as a first-class showman and he certainly deserves the credit of having the best repertoire company that has ever visited here.” The Register added, “With his excellent company and band, the big tent show will continue to be crowded nightly.”
Based on this review, in 1904, Napa County residents enjoyed several evenings of high quality entertainment under a “canvas opera house.”