It appears that there have always been roving showmen: minstrels, montebanks, travelling players. Being such a trouper is a bit different from being an actor, or performing artist per se. You are not booked, your coming is not arranged for. You do not depend upon any of the machinery that makes the showman an organization man. You just take to the road and keep moving.
Such showmen differ from pure vagabonds in that they have a calling; to perform. This distinguishes them from the great American character the Confidence Man, although the Confidence Man (as in Huck Finn) is often a sham showman, and the showman practically has to have a bit of the con artist in his make-up in order to survive.
The conditions for doing this sort of thing have become increasingly difficult to find. A widespread population endowed with leisure, loneliness and a capacity for wonderment is required. Even in the 1890's when Gus Rapp first set out with a magic show, the proper field for the truly independent showman was not visible to the untrained eye. The small Midwestern towns of that golden era were already pretty self-sufficient and sophisticated social units. It wasn't hard to get the theater dates, but without the made-up glamor of a reputation, your show didn't attract enough of the citizens to turn a profit. Too many had something else to do when the sun went down, had places to congregate and had learned that wonderment was only for children.
Someone had to point out to Gus that beyond the outskirts of these communities lay a network of unnamed crossroads settlements where civilization was but dimly felt, a hinterland where a fellow still could make a buck and remain his own master. Rapp disappeared across the fresh fields as completely as though he had followed his friend Carl Ackley into uncharted Africa. He remained lost for 50 years. His route did not appear in the columns of the Sphinx or the theatrical papers. Aside from a few friends, no one in the business ever heard of him. Yet there he was, moving with his little caravan across the lovely hills and meadows of the dairy country, through the byways of the corn belt and the wildernesses of the rural south.
Rapp was a wonderful magician and a delightful performer. His repertoire consisted of the old time classics. Once you have seen these tricks performed by masters, it is pretty hard to find anything else that will stand up in comparison. It isn't just that they have an antique charm. As another aged gentleman named Gus once said to me, "If Kellar used a trick, you could be pretty sure it was a good trick." These tricks all had the elements that magic should have. The old-timers who became masters had a sense of how much you had to put into these tricks in order to reveal their greatness. Kellar writes of how long he worked on the Growth of Flowers, while an employee of the Fakir of Ava, before the Fakir would put his stamp of approval upon the presentation. Rapp comments that after performing steadily for five years, he felt that he was beginning to do his tricks in a satisfactory manner. After fifty years he could say with confidence that he had a good show, but he made no claim to being a great magician.