"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

King Kennedy: What a showman!

By on November 24, 2019 in Columnist with 0 Comments
Rod Molzahn

By Rod Molzahn

Wheat harvest was in full swing on the Waterville Plateau. 

The threshing machine had been shut down for a small repair and the crew took a break. With the trouble fixed, the crew boss ordered the driver to start up the thresher again.

To the crew’s astonishment and horror a voice came from inside the workings of the thresher. “For God’s sake, don’t start the machine — I’m stuck fast here.” 

The crew boss shouted back, “Where are you and what are you doing in there?” “I’m here!” wailed the voice from the innards of the machine. 

The boss and crew looked into and over the machine from all sides and found nothing. The voice moaned, “Right here, right here,” then faded away.

The men gave the thresher one more thorough examination and, finding no one, slowly started the machine and finished the day’s work. A few of the crew quit that evening fearing the thresher was haunted. 

Samuel “King” Kennedy, one of the crew, seemed un-moved by the experience and was back to work the next morning.

A page from the Spring 1978 History Notes by the Lake Chelan Historical Society. The author of the article Samuel “King” Kennedy is John M. Marshall. Photo courtesy of the Lake Chelan Historical Society

King Kennedy was described in the Chelan paper in the 1890s as a “Prestidigitator, Conjuror, Slight of hand performer and ventriloquist.” He was the premier traveling performer in north central Washington from 1891 until his death in 1925.

Kennedy’s skills at ventriloquism were legend. 

An observer  at one of his shows remembered, “At one point in his show at Conconully, he would turn his back on the audience, face that end of the hall looking up on the west side grade and carry on a realistic shouting exchange with a seemingly distant voice atop Mineral Hill… He could carry on conversations with one or more voices coming from different places in the building’s attic or from the depths of a chest on stage.”

Leif Carlsen, in his book, Lake Chelan’s Union Valley History, recalls that, “Native Americans in his audiences watched in spell-bound awe as he appeared to hold conversations with ‘spirits’ in nearby furniture or the ceiling… they believed he had supernatural power.” 

Kennedy’s skill was, no doubt, helped by the huge walrus moustache that covered most of his mouth.

King Kennedy also worked with Punch and Judy puppets as well as other wooden doll dummies including the Irishman, John O’Toole. 

In the winter of 1911/1912 a fire, likely at Loomis, destroyed all of Kennedy’s equipment. He was back the following season with, “a new set of talking dummies… and one watching very closely would declare that the dummies were doing the talking.” 

Another writer recalled that, “King was a really good ventriloquist, his two dummies affording much hilarious amusement especially for the juvenile portion of his audiences.” 

A daughter of early Chewiliken Valley homesteaders remembered seeing Kennedy’s show when she was a teenager. “He presented his Punch and Judy show at Anglin. I cannot remember being more thrilled by anything I have seen or heard since.”

In addition to his voice-throwing and puppetry skills, Kennedy’s card tricks and magic never failed to amuse and amaze his audiences. 

A 1913 writer for the Quad City Herald wrote, “Never has King failed to deceive his audience by his slight-of-hand tricks and they are so good that they will deceive almost anyone.”

Winifred Thomas was 10 when her family moved to Conconully and she saw King Kennedy’s show for the first time. 

“Standing near a cloth draped table, in a swallow-tailed tuxedo, he performed mystifying card and slight-of-hand tricks with flashing speed accompanied by occasional low, weird utterances of ‘abracadabra, abracadabra.’ He pulled a rabbit from a hat when there’d been no rabbit an instant before.”

In Sally Portman’s book, The Smiling Country, Walter Nickell remembered seeing Kennedy’s show as a child in the Methow Valley town of Silver. 

“After requesting a hat from the crowd and receiving a brand new Stetson, King broke a half-dozen eggs into the hat and whisked up an omelet. The fellow who owned the hat looked livid until King handed back the head-piece without a trace of egg in it!”

King Kennedy’s skills at puppetry, slight-of–hand and magic are made more impressive in light of his crippled left hand. 

He had fallen on a chisel when he was young. The accident severed nerves in his wrist leaving the hand mostly paralyzed.

Kennedy homesteaded 160 acres just north of Chelan Falls in 1891. He had been told about the Chelan Valley after performances in Spokane and Waterville. 

He had been a touring performer in Canada since he was 20 then began working out of Chicago. 

He performed all across the West into Washington and British Columbia before settling in Chelan. 

He began touring his show in north central Washington during his first winter in the valley. Kennedy did 33 annual late fall and winter tours then came home to develop his farm during spring and summer. He grew a variety of fruits and vegetables including grapes, almonds, walnuts, nectarines, quince, peaches, plums, cherries and asparagus.

Kennedy performed 80 to 100 shows each season starting in the Chelan area playing in Beebe, Chelan Falls, The Ruby Theatre in Chelan, Manson and the First Creek School. From there he went south to Entiat and Wenatchee before turning north to Orondo and Waterville. In later years he added Spokane, Palouse and Chesaw.

Kennedy recounted a show in Chesaw’s Odd Fellow’s Hall, a second floor room over a store. The audience filled the room. 

During a conversation with one of his dummies, ”There was an awful ‘whang’ and the floor dropped about two feet in the center. There was a mad scramble for the doors but when the building showed no further signs of collapse I managed to get my audience back. Distributing themselves around the room next to the wall they seemed to enjoy the rest of the show immensely.”

Winter travel with a two-horse team and wagon loaded with his equipment was challenging. In the spring of 1923, he was caught in a thaw on Crab Creek. Unable to see the bridge, one horse fell into the raging torrent. Kennedy struggled with the animal for half an hour but was unable to save it.

King Kennedy used this hand-cranked movie projector to bring the first moving pictures to north central Washington audiences. It is on display at the Chelan museum. Photo courtesy of the Lake Chelan Historical Society

In his constant effort to improve his show, Kennedy brought new technology to his stage with the first phonograph and records heard by his audiences, then a magic lantern slide show and finally the first moving pictures seen in north central Washington shown with his high-tech, hand cranked projector. 

He didn’t get rich charging 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children but for 33 years he lit up the winter months with magic and mirth through all the towns on his tours.

When asked in later years if the threshing story was true the King answered, “Well now — if that yarn amuses the people — just let them continue to tell it and believe it if they want to — I don’t mind.”

Historian, actor and teacher Rod Molzahn can be reached at shake.speak@nwi.net. His third history CD, Legends & Legacies Vol. III – Stories of Wenatchee and North Central Washington, is now available at the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center and at other locations throughout the area.

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