Encouraged by his success as an entertainer for the Wizard Oil Company, Riley began giving public recitations of his poetry and essays as early as 1875. He had yet to establish himself as a poet of significance and so his performances were not widely attended. Nonetheless, Riley, the consummate actor and keen observer of humankind, learned much from his audiences and mentally tucked it away for future use. Before the end of the decade a ticket to a Riley lecture was in high demand. His acting and oratory abilities combined with his shrewd sense of the audience's temper and made him one of the finest performers of his time. People came to see what sort of rustic fellow would deliver the homey verses they were reading in the newspapers and weeklies. They were greeted by an elegant, urbane man, finely dressed with a watch chain and boutonnière, who possessed the ability to slip seamlessly into the Hoosier persona.
Riley's popularity soared in the 1880s with performances almost
nightly by 1889. Public lectures with musical interludes were a
form of popular entertainment and brought people from all walks of
life to the theaters. Riley's program alternated poetry, character
sketches and prose stories. He often appeared with other
noteworthy writers and entertainers such as Eugene Field, Mark Twain,
George Cable, Robert J. Burdette, and
Bill Nye. When it came to
finances, Riley was incapable of managing his affairs to advantage.
Although he became the most celebrated of the platform lecturers
and maintained a grueling performance schedule, Riley's contract
gave most of the profit to the Western Lyceum Agency. For a
performance that would bring in receipts of $1,000 per evening
Riley's take would be $40.00. In 1890 Riley decided to stop
touring fulltime and devote his energies to his manuscripts and
book publishing. Although he never again lectured as extensively
after 1890, Riley continued to appear on the winter lyceum circuit.
He lectured during the 1892-1893, 1893-1894, 1896-1897, 1897-1898,
1898-1899, 1900 and 1903 seasons. Some of these tours, including
the 1892-1893 season when he lectured on the West Coast making his
only appearances in San Francisco and Los Angeles, lasted three