- Associated Press - Sunday, April 30, 2017

QUINCY, Ill. (AP) - Everyone knows him as Toby Dick Ellis, but to his family, he is still Richard.

Born in 1927 in Minneapolis, Richard Elsenpeter’s early years came at the height of the Great Depression.

“Nobody knew it,” he said. “Everybody was poor, but you didn’t know that. Everybody was in the same boat.”

He remembers the Great Depression as a good time, one of innocence. Unaware of the extent of the poverty surrounding him, he reveled in the community that sprung up as a result.

“I grew up in a Polish-Czechoslovakian neighborhood,” he said. “I remember, as a kid, you were home no matter where you were. Everybody took care of everybody. There are positives that come out of everything.”

The rampant poverty of the Great Depression did not deter Elsenpeter from his dream of becoming an actor. Nor did it stop his parents from supporting him. Elsenpeter was born with a heart condition, and his mother taught him to tap dance as a form of exercise, in hopes of strengthening his heart. But entertaining people was what appealed to Elsenpeter.

“There were eight of us kids, and we were encouraged to follow our own path,” he said. “They just wanted us to be happy. They had to sacrifice for me to have dance lessons, theater lessons, and for me to get from here to there.”

One of his biggest regrets is never thanking his parents for the sacrifices they made.

“A priest told me one time, ‘Do you think they don’t hear you now?’” he said.

A turning point came with a nursery rhyme-turned-school play more than 80 years ago that has been forever etched into his memory.

“It was ‘Rub-A-Dub-Dub,’ and I was the baker,” he said. “It is odd that I remember something like that, but that was the bug. I knew this was what I wanted.”

When a generation of young men went to fight overseas during World War II, a vacancy was left in the arts community. Only 16 at the time, Elsenpeter quickly stepped up to fill in.

“In 1942, I joined a theater company in Wisconsin. Everybody was in the Army,” he said. “I was a really raw amateur, but they put up with me. During rehearsals, we learned seven plays in two weeks.

“The director took me aside and told me, ‘You never, ever talk back.’ There’s respect. How lucky was I to have someone like that mentor me? I’m so grateful for these things, because it set the pattern for my life in theater.”

He spent the subsequent summer performing tent shows with a traveling repertoire company — performing several plays in each town. During the course of one summer, he played more than 20 venues — all of which he can still name in rapid succession.

“Then I went to Hollywood in ‘43. I lived with a lady, Evangeline Russell, who was a silent-movie star. Her husband was president of what became Warner Brothers,” he said. “It was a crazy time.

“I was between jobs, and she asked if I wanted to be in a movie. I did a small part in ‘The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer.’ That was Cary Grant and Shirley Temple. I knocked Cary Grant down in the food line, carrying a tray. I thought I’d never work again, but he said it was OK.”

His first foray into Hollywood lasted about one year, before he returned to the Midwest and continued performing tent shows with the Schaffner Players - a traveling theater troupe that began in 1951. He would return to Hollywood a few years later for the theater but finally settled back in Illinois.

“In those days, (the Toby part in repertoire companies) was called silly kid, and it was just comic relief,” he said. “An actor went and picked up his mail, and some kids at the post office said, ‘Hey, there’s Toby.’ The next night, he said, ‘Call me Toby,’ and it went over big. Then they started writing Toby plays.

“At the ‘Rush to the Rockies’ Centennial, I was (master of ceremonies),” he said. “Dick Darling knew of me and asked me to perform that show as Toby. I wore the red wig and the bib overalls, and it was really good. Toby is just a silly kid in a play. Toby and Richard are two different areas (of me).”

Elsenpeter soon began making regular appearances on live country music television shows.

“I was on TV in Kansas City — the ‘Jimmy Dallas Show.’ That’s where ‘Possum Holler’ started,” he said. “But there’s a Possum Holler here. My wife was born there.”

In Quincy, while having a vehicle repaired, he ran into representatives of a sponsor from Kansas City, Van Chevrolet.

“They wanted to advertise on TV. I said, ‘This is rural America. You’re going to have to go country,’” he said. “We talked to Joe Bonansinga (at WGEM) with the idea, and he said if I want it I can have it. I took the Sunday at noon time slot. My thinking was the kids come home from church and turn on cartoons. They leave the TV set on for sports, and I wanted to be right in the middle.

“They gave us three weeks. It was an immediate hit. We had the 4-H square dancers. There were like eight or 10 4-H groups, and eight in each group, so you had a built-in audience. We beat the Super Bowl in ratings (locally).”

“Possum Holler Opry” was a benchmark local program for WGEM, and several of the show’s performers went on to have high-profile jobs in the entertainment industry. Elsenpeter was in his late 20s and early 30s during the 10-year run of “Possum Holler Opry.”

After the show ended, he focused solely on puppeteering, a craft he practiced for 60 years.

“I’ve built puppets since I was a kid. They have always been part of my life,” he said. “I did stories with the puppets — Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I signed with the University of Kansas’ concert and lecture series. I did 300 to 500 shows a year across the country. If the town had a schoolhouse, I was there.”


Source: The Quincy Herald-Whig, https://bit.ly/2oKWISH


Information from: The Quincy Herald-Whig, https://www.whig.com

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