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January 26, 2013

Oneonta's Arabian Knights tumbled across the U.S. in the 1930s

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The Daily Star

---- — There’s nothing more satisfying to this historian than solving a mystery of local interest. Some are pretty easy, but then there are those that can go on for years. I mentally tuck some cases away now and then, and when I least expect it, a clue surfaces.

Jo Ann Kaufman of Delhi wrote to me in 2007, asking if I had ever heard of the Arabian Knights acrobatic team that originated in Oneonta. Her father, Richard E. Cole, was on that team and she even sent a photo. I told Jo Ann I hadn’t, but said I’d keep an eye out as I do my research for these columns. I spend many hours each year looking through old newspapers on microfilm, and I never know what I might come across at anytime.

Finally in 2011, I came across a first clue. It came from The Oneonta Star of Wednesday, April 15, 1936. At first they were called “Knights of Arabia,” and they performed in a minstrel show for the Oneonta post of the American Legion the night before.

“Diving, pyramid building and tumbling made up the acrobatic exhibition, which was directed by Harry Denmark of the local Y.M.C.A. staff,” the paper reported. 

Several more clues came quickly. About a week later, the Arabian Knights performed for a father-son banquet held in the social hall of the United Presbyterian Church of Oneonta.

As I continued to look through 1936, I found more and more performances, and they were being booked in places outside of Oneonta.

By 1937 the Arabian Knights were competing in contests and performing before large audiences. The Knights won $10 at an amateur contest at the former Capitol Theatre in Binghamton on Monday, March 8. There were 10 acts and there were about 2,500 in the audience.

This continued well into 1938, and the prize money accumulated to the point where they could celebrate their successes.

“The Arabian Knights, juvenile acrobatic troupe,” it was reported on Tuesday, July 5, “will leave this morning for a 40-day motor trip to California. Prize money earned … is being used to finance the tour.” They planned a northern cross-country route west, and a southern route home. This was a bit of a working trip, as the troupe was scheduled to entertain at various places. They brought tents and set up camp each night.

The acrobats making the trip included Richard Cole, Lester Eckert, Floyd Deane, James Powell, William Dana, Wallace Worden, Harry Robbins, Charles Wilsey, Harry Warren, Earl MacIntyre, Arlene Snavely, Viola Deane, Kenneth Watkins and Richard Dobler. 

Harry Denmark, troupe leader, wrote to the Star during the early course of the trip. It had been a very memorable one, and not even half completed.

“While we were camping in Delhi State park in Iowa, James Powell assisted in rescuing a 10-year-old boy from drowning. He and another swimmer … brought the boy in after he had gone down the second time. He revived quickly on shore.”

“In Chicago, the group attended a Cincinnati-Chicago Cub baseball game and the National Barn Dance.” That show was aired live on Chicago’s WLS radio for many years on Saturday nights, carried locally on WGY in Schenectady. “We went backstage, had a picture taken with Uncle Ezra, and took autographs of the Hoosier Hot Shots, Uncle Ezra and cast.”

“We found Iowa to be the richest state of all so far, miles and miles of crops, corn and hogs which it is noted for. No depression on the farms in Iowa!”

My search was going well. Then came an avalanche, of sorts, as Jo Ann informed me she’d discovered a scrapbook that apparently her father had assembled and had been stored away. It was found in an attic in the fall of 2012. 

In it was a wealth of regional newspaper clippings I’d missed, along with memorabilia from the western trip and much more. As it turned out, this wasn’t the troupe’s first long trip, as at one time they had also performed in Washington, D.C., and six other Atlantic states, along with a local Hawaiian music trio, made up of Kenneth Watkins, Ian Davidson and Ralph Ford.

Also in September 2012, Cindy Eckert of Asheville, N.C. wrote, inquiring about the Arabian Knights. Lester Eckert was her father. In the scrapbook, a newspaper clipping told of Lester sending a variety of cactus plants home during the western trip to the Eckert home on Oneida Street in Oneonta.

Mystery solved.

On Monday: A proposed use of a then-vacant Academy Street school lot in early 1978.

City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.