hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News November 2018


Lessons from the ‘professor’ of the road

Maury Thompson


It doesn’t rise to the level of a bucket list item, but for about three decades I’ve contemplated traveling coast to coast by Greyhound bus and writing a travel narrative.

You can imagine my intrigue recently when I came across the epic poem “A Gregarious Greyhound” that Walter Brown Leonard wrote in 1936 about a trip by bus from Glens Falls to Florida.

Leonard, a St. Lawrence County native who died in 1949, had a long and varied career as a circus and vaudeville performer, composer, music teacher, entertainment promoter, theater owner, real estate developer and writer.

He lived for the road, but almost always came back to either Glens Falls or Cobleskill for extended stays between trips.

For most of his career, he went by the stage name Professor W. B. Leonard, a title he had given himself in recognition of his mastery of the academics of fun.

Leonard used his full name in his latter decades as a poet and newspaper columnist, reminiscing about his travels through every state in the United States, every province in Canada and many cities in Mexico.

“It was Music and Amusements that had taken up my time, from my youth until the present. Now I’m simply making Rhyme,” Leonard wrote in the column “Old Show Days.”

His columns and poetry are preserved in four volumes of scrapbooks on file at The Folklife Center at Crandall Public Library in Glens Falls.

In the column “A Memorable Meandering,” Leonard offered sage advice about staying content while on the road.

“Should your room prove not to your liking, don’t let it worry you,” he wrote. “Take it philosophically, as tomorrow night you will find qualities more to your liking, which you will enjoy much more after a night passed in an undesirable room.”

The witticism sums up Leonard’s knack for adapting.
Leonard’s daughter, Eleanor Niedeck, wrote a biography of him in 1980. She said he grieved the end of the vaudeville era.

“Minstrelsy is dying. It can’t compete with the movies,” Niedeck quoted him as saying. “Most of the old minstrel men are dead. Those of us that are alive have been forced to give up our chosen profession.”

But as always, Leonard adjusted to the new era. He bought some portable projection equipment, powered by a bicycle pump, in Burlington, Vt., and began showing movies in Glens Falls.
“At that time, one could rent an alleyway, hang up a sheet in the rear, close the front with plaster board, put in a player piano,” Niedeck wrote in her biography, “W.B. Leonard and the Black Trunk.”

In 1914, Leonard bought the Bijou Theater in Glens Falls and operated it for several years.
At one point some year earlier, Leonard settled down in Glens Falls for an extended time and taught private banjo and music lessons to students all along the Hudson Valley Railway, the extensive trolley system that ran between Waterford and Warrensburg from the late 1880s until the 1920s.

But when the trolley workers went on strike in 1902, Leonard was out of a means of transportation. The strike lasted nearly three months.

He launched a new venture writing and producing all-women vaudeville shows which he staged to raise money for women’s charitable organizations.

“Elite Lady Minstrels,” the first of the shows, debuted for two nights at Lake Luzerne to benefit the Ladies Aid Society of the Presbyterian Church

Leonard went on to stage it, and a series of other productions, in small towns throughout Vermont, New Hampshire and New York.

In December 1909, he debuted “From the North Pole to New York in an Airship” at Fort Ann to benefit the local chapter of the Eastern Star fraternal organization, The Post-Star reported at the time.

Leonard also staged “Kountry Kollege Kapers” in Rochester, Vt., on Aug. 10-11, 1911, to benefit the Town Improvement Society,

“Rochester is one of the most beautiful mountain resorts in the state, and the large audiences were made up principally of Boston and vicinity people who are spending the summer there,” The Post-Star reported upon Leonard’s return to Glens Falls on Aug. 16.

Leonard’s efforts to promote his entertainment events tapped into the same spirit of fun as the shows themselves.

“It is even reported that some of the advertising matter was found on tombstones and monuments in a certain cemetery on their route,” The Post-Star reported on Aug. 25, 1913, about Leonard’s promotion of The Pottersville Fair in northern Warren County.


Maury Thompson retired in 2017 after 21 years as a reporter for The Post-Star of Glens Falls. He is now a freelance writer focusing on the history of politics, labor and media in the region.