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Eugene Leitensdorfer

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

On Saturday evening, January 20th, 1814, in St. Louis, Missouri, Eugene Leitensdorfer became the first person on record to appear in a public performance on the Upper Mississippi River. Unfortunately, for all those actors and actresses who performed at theaters in the hundred towns along the Upper Mississippi River during the rest of the 19th century, Leitensdorfer, also known as Gerrasio Santuari, was a hard act to follow.

Certainly, no one could match his life for adventure and romance. He was born in 1772, near Trent in the Tyrol. He had become a soldier of fortune in the Near East but had taken time out on several occasions to become an engineer, farmer, shoemaker, mapmaker, bird-catcher, interpreter, and spy. He also found time to become a Capuchin monk, a Jewish rabbi, and a Mohammedan dervish. He had met some American officers in Tripoli, come to America with them, where he had become surveyor of public buildings in Washington, D.C., before settling down in Carondelet, a village a few miles south of St. Louis.

It was from Carondelet that he took the stage in St. Louis on that January 20th, 1814, to offer "A Spectacle of Recreative Sports of Mathematics and Physicks." His program included "The Egyptian Prophet," Hubdala Rackmany, a three-foot high automaton who could foretell any card drawn from a pack by a member of the audience; "The Enchanted Pistol," which fired torn up pieces of a card at Mr. Leitensdorfer, only to have the card appear whole on his breast; and a grand finale in which the performer placed a burning coal on his foot, threw it up, caught it in his mouth, and ate it "just as if he were eating a sugar plumb."

Twice more that year, Leitensdorfer came out of retirement to put on shows. He astounded his audience by growing a chicken from an egg in successive stages, then cooking it in two seconds, complete with gravy, and having a member of the audience carve it to share with everyone.

It was hard to compete with Eugene Leitensdorfer. The following year, when the first theater troupe arrived to perform in St. Louis, all they could offer was Shakespeare.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.