On January 22, 1880, the Skaneateles Library Lecture Course hosted Robert J. “Bob” Burdette at Legg Hall. Burdette was an American humorist who first gained notice for his writing in the Burlington (Iowa) Hawkeye newspaper. His humorous “Hawkeyetems” prompted his wife to suggest he begin speaking in public. After his first lecture, he and the church where he spoke split the take – $16 each – and he was on his way. In 1877, the Redpath agency in Chicago added him to their list of lecturers, and he began touring the nation.
He was an unlikely success on the platform. He was only 5’ 3” tall with a voice described as “thin and piping.” Because of his voice, he refused to lecture outdoors. His reply to one would-be host read:
“If the exercises are held in the church, I will come; if they are in the open air, I will send my blessing. If they are sort of mixed, a little one way and some of the other, well—then I will fall into harmony with the occasion—that is to say, maybe I will come and maybe I won’t. Yours, one way or the other, Robert J. Burdette.”
He trembled with stage fright before he lectured and had some on-stage oddities, including swinging his arms like a high jumper when excited. But with all that, audiences loved him. He had an irresistible warmth, an engaging sense of humor, and a way of putting things that summoned smiles, sentimental tears or both. He was never at a loss for words; it was said of him, “A Golconda of language poured out like a mountain torrent.” *
One reviewer noted, “He kept his audience in a continual flutter of laughter.” And the Skaneateles Free Press, when it was announced he would speak here, said, “His subject, ‘Home,’ is universally styled a masterpiece of droll pleasantry and wit.”
The village was lucky to catch Burdette early in his career. As his popularity soared, he commanded $150 to $250 a night. His epic lecture was “The Rise and Fall of the Mustache,” a two-hour, cradle-to-grave story about a boy named Tom, which he delivered more than 4,000 times. “It was only necessary to start it and it would say itself,” he later said.
He also wrote the poem “My First Cigar,” which was read and recited thousands of times, in which a dizzy, perspiring, nauseated boy writes, “I heard my father’s smothered laugh,/It seemed so strange and far,/I knew he knew I knew he knew/I’d smoked my first cigar.”
After three decades as a lecturer, Burdette became a Baptist minister and the head of a congregation in Pasadena, where he spent his remaining days among the orange groves.
* * *
Robert J. Burdette: His Message, edited from his writings by his wife, Clara B. Burdette (1922)
Skaneateles Free Press, November 1, 1879
* Golconda, in India, was renowned for the quantity and quality of the diamonds brought forth from its mines. In the 1880s, “Golconda” was used generically by English speakers to refer to any source of great wealth.