Tom McMorrow's Musings on Broadway's Yesteryears

Tom McMorrow, Drama Desk ex-president and Drama Desk News editor, offers his archive of theater history columns: "Broadway 100 Years Ago: Theater from Booth to Bernhardt to the Barrymores." 

(Reprinted with permission from Drama Desk News, 1985-2013)

1885: The Broadway top was $1.50, front balcony 50 cents, rear rows a quarter.  Prime tourist attraction in New York was The Prince of Players, Edwin Booth, in “The Iron Chest,” also John Drew, Ada Rehan and Otis Skinner in the fabulous acting company of Augustin Daly. The multi-talented Daly (called “The Autocrat of the Stage,” he had started as a 21-year-old theater critic), did something 21st-Century producers would envy, keeping together a  company of the highest calibre and presenting new works plus revivals.

Best gossip?  Dion Boucicault the gifted Irish playwright (“London Assurance,” “The Corsican Brothers”) and the lovely Mrs. Boucicault, passing through New York on their way home after a trip over land and sea to Australia, regale the press with accounts of their journey, especially enjoyed by theater insiders who happen to know Mrs. Boucicault is in London.

 

1886: Arthur Wing Pinero’s London success “The Magistrate” is a winner at Augustin Daly’s Theater as interpreted by his all-star company.  Gilbert & Sullivan’s new one, “The Mikado” (its creation brilliantly dramatized in the 1999 film starring Jim Broadbent as W. S. Gilbert, “Topsy-Turvy”) is advertised for presumably unsophisticated Americans as “The new Japanese comic opera” but the Broadway critics hail it as the ultimate in brittle British satire (The Mikado: “Now what time shall we set for your execution? Would ahfter luncheon suit you? Can you wait till then?”) and it becomes the runaway hit of the season, causing a Broadway booking jam.

         At the Bijou Opera House the comedian Nat Goodwin is starring in “Little Jack Shepard,”  the comedy “After Business Hours” is at Daly’s, “Macbeth” is at the 14th Street, James O’Neill in “The Count of Monte Cristo” is at Niblo’s Garden – “Next Week, Lily Langtry in ‘Enemies‘!“

         Edwin Booth, whom we think of as playing Shakespearean heroes, in “The Merchant of Venice” as Shylock: the Times of November 29, 1886 calling it “his most masterful characterization,“ comparing Booth’s with the greatest Shylocks of the era:

 “Henry Irving‘s is magnificently picturesque, and polished to the most infinitesimal detail, but lacks the emotional force of Booth’s. Lawrence Barrett plays the role with force and sincerity, but Booth is easily superior to both.”  Truly, then, the Prince of Players.

The Ten-Cent Theater

An 1880’s theater phenomenon that is infuriating to the Booths and Barretts is The Ten-Cent Theater, an enterprise in which a small group of actors, plus a director, a couple of stage hands and a trunk full of costumes will come to a small town and announce that “Hamlet,” “Macbeth” and “The School for Scandal” are going to be presented all week in repertory at ten cents a ticket. And they proceed to do six nights of ruthlessly truncated, probably quite preposterous productions.  And the next time Edwin Booth shows up, in that era when the road accounted for a large portion of an actor’s income, people will say,“ ‘Hamlet’?  Oh, we saw that. It’s terrible.”

 

1887: Theatrical event of the year: The arrival of Mme. Sarah Bernhardt to do seven plays, in six of which she expires at the final curtain, over which French elitists protest that she is “prostituting Racine before cowboys.” But the New York Times unprecedentedly makes its review the lead story on the front page (I read it in the New York Public Library’s file in 1987, and as I reported at the time, it was a review befitting a titan, 2,500 rapturous words.)

The Herald and the World are also ecstatic, reading them all a theater-lover’s dream of gluttony. And this unique artist thrilled audiences without being physically beautiful. Nym Crinkle of The World cited “a charm of demeanor with which some of the most beautiful women of our stage are totally unacquainted.”  George Montgomery in The Times: ”Her face, never handsome, but remarkably expressive, is uncommonly intelligent, a voice  strangely sweet in moments of tenderness, endowed in one moment with sensuous charm, while in the next its fierce tones can create a thrill of horror,” these critics expressing the same reactions to a lovely unlovely woman as their great contemporary the novelist Henry James had to author Mary Anne Evans (“The Mill on the Floss,” “Silas Marner”), who had to write as George Eliot to get published..

Mary Anne was, James wrote, not merely not pretty. She was ugly. “Magnificently ugly, but in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty, which in a very few minutes steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end as I ended, in falling in love with her.”  Less than beautiful girls take heart!

 A lovely story, as my father used to say “Interesting if true.”  As it happens, it is not true. I have found pictures of Mary Anne showing an attractive woman, which further indicts James as a clever writer showing off because of a phrase I did not quote because sight unseen I just did not believe it, “She is deliciously hideous.”  Hideous?  Like a revolting monster in a horror movie, that pleasant-looking lady?  The famous writer as cheap-shot artist.

Back to Bernhardt, the rave reviews above were for Sarah the sublime artist. But for one of the plays she performed the reaction was diametrically opposite. The Mail & Express: “A tale of reptilian lust and unabated horribleness.”  The Times: “Repulsive to all persons of refined taste.” And The World: “A more sensational and dreadful presentation I never saw.”

Those who would love to see this orgy of awfulness can, in another form. It’s called “Tosca,” written for Sarah by the French king of melodrama Victorien Sardou. Giacomo Puccini saw it, loved it, and the rest is history.

For a shocking other side to this story, see our 1891 report.

 

1888-89: Broadway’s bible, The New York Dramatic News, announces a step forward that will make possible greatly improved stage lighting, the big new, all-electric Broadway Theater.  The imposing Broadway was at Broadway and 41st Street, near where the Nederlander would stand a century later. This incarnation of a theater named for the street of dreams lasted only 41 years. As all the grand 19th Century theaters would be, it was torn down in 1929, long before theater people persuaded the city to institute the tradition of landmarking.

 A revival of Dion Boucicault’s 1848 comedy “London Assurance” is a hit, and our older 21st Century readers will recall that it was revived again on Broadway in 1975, starring Donald Sinden, whose performance won him a Drama Desk Award.        

It is of course the year of the historic Blizzard of ’88, the snowstorm  that turned into a monster, the snow torrent starting on Sunday, March 11 and lasting through Tuesday, March 13, and it’s included here because  theater people, seeing a challenge to their The Show Must Go On tradition, fought their way through snow drifts. howling wind, flying snow and ice to their temples to the thespian art.  Sir Henry Irving and Ellen Terry defied the blizzard and got to the Star Theater to appear in “Faust” and the Augustin Daly company, whose “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was one of the big hits of the season, made it to Daly’s at the height of the storm.  And although the audiences were small to tiny, they gave the actors the experience of being cheered at every entrance and exit, with loving “Bravos!” at the end.

The Savoyards made merry on Broadway again, with Gilbert & Sullivan’s   “The Yeomen of the Guard (or) The Merryman and his Maid” getting the season started at the Casino Theater with the first of 100 performances. But beyond the number of performances to identify the hits, records give only name of theater and opening date.

A reason for the number of plays that opened and quickly closed was the low cost of putting one on. Actors could be forced to rehearse for months without being paid, and could be stranded in a town a hundred miles from home when the play closed and the producer disappeared – see our report on the 1913 establishment of Actors Equity at the end of this series.

“Waddy Googan,” definitely not from Gilbert & Sullivan, a hit with 112 perfs at the New York, Broadway and 21st St., the musical “Pearl of Pekin” plays 80 times at the Bijou and something called “Nadgy” claims to have played somewhere (“Unknown”) 162 times.

 

1890: The first performance in America of Ibsen’s “Et Dukkehjem,” translated as “A Doll’s House,” its stunning realism exposing the artificiality of the fustian posturing which had too long debased the American stage – the critic of the Herald asked plaintively why, in drawing room scenes in other plays, the villain never left the stage without pausing in the doorway to make a face at the hero.

It was before the era of awards; if such there had been Ada Rehan would surely have won one in a hit comedy translated from the German by the astute Augustin Daly. The Times praised “her wonderful and magnetic personality” and predicted that “the infectious humor, sincere feeling and bewitching buoyancy of her acting” would long be remembered.

Scandal of the year: the inept company d’Oyly Carte sent us, after the riotous success of “The Mikado” two seasons before, in Gilbert & Sullivan’s latest, “The Gondoliers: - great opening duet: “I Have a Song to Sing-O! / What is your Song-o?”, but they apparently botched that and much more because, the article tells us, “the New York critics weren’t just negative, they were angry.” The Times: ”New York is not some English province, to be entertained by such a company of sticks, murdering both the text and the music.”

 

1891: Sarah Bernhardt was not only as a critic has described her “the most famous actress the world has ever known” (the book “Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt” by Robert Gottlieb, Yale University Press 2010, is a superb biography and a page-turner to rival a best-selling novel) but one of the most notorious – and proud of it. The illegitimate daughter of a courtesan and a courtesan herself while with the Comedie Francaise, she had affairs with the then Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, and Victor Hugo, but most notoriously  with the nine years younger impressionist painter Louise Abbema – a painting by Abbema of them in a boat on the lake in the Bois de Boulogne was donated to the Comedie with the caption “Sur l’anniversaire de leur liaison amoureuse.” Arriving to do more classics in New York, Sarah brings with her two dogs and four small snakes, which will take turns playing the asp and pretending to bite her in the spectacular final scene of “Caesar and Cleopatra” – no prop snakes for the one and only Sarah!  (Can anyone imagine an actress today taking a live snake to her bosom?)

“Nadjezda”

But in the Lest We Get too Carried Away Department there is this story in which The Divine One would seem to be a little less so. On a visit to France Maurice Barrymore met her and gave her a copy of a play he had written called “Nadjezda.” 

Sarah had it from 1885 to 1887 and at some point gave it to the French king of melodrama Victorien Sardou, to “review.” ???  Sardou’s next play had the same plot and parallel characters.

Barrymore was outraged at this plagiarism of his work, and his protest was nothing new to the Frenchman, who had frequently been charged with that literary offense – a caricature of him in the Paris press showed a sign on the wall behind him “Idées des Autres,” (Ideas of Others).  But he had given it to Bernhardt without copyrighting it, a failure which became doubly painful when Puccini made the story into an opera that would delight audiences across the centuries.

It was in “Tosca” that Sarah suffered the injury that eventually would lead to the amputation of her right leg, after as Tosca she jumped from the parapet to her death in the final scene and there was no mattress awaiting her. When the leg had to be removed because the injury became gangrenous, almost any other actress’s career would have ended. Not Sarah’s. With a wooden leg she came back for repeated “farewell” tours of America – and was greeted by adoring audiences.

 

1892:  Another “A Doll’s House” is played at Palmer’s, Broadway and 30th, this report adding the news that it has been revived on Broadway 12 times over the past century and a quarter. Mrs. Fiske played Nora in 1902, then Ethel Barrymore in 1905, and the flamboyant Russian star Alla Nazimova in 1907, Nazimova obviously enjoying the role as she came back to do it in 1918 with the future major Hollywood character man Lionel Atwill; an all-star cast of Ruth Gordon, Dennis King, Sam Jaffe and Paul Lukas, directed by Jed Harris, revived it in 1937, Liv Ullman and Sam Waterston starred in it at the Vivian Beaumont in 1975, and most recently Janet McTeer was Nora at the Belasco in 1997.  A 21st-century version should be along any season.

Richard  Mansfield enthralls 1892 audiences at Augustin Daly’s Theater at Broadway and 30th St. (as the heart of the theater district continues its march uptown with the growth of the city) in the role of the troubled Arthur Dimmesdale in the dramatization of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “”The Scarlet Letter,” about a New England woman in the Puritanical 1600’s forced to wear a large A on her dress for Adulteress – apparently an example of sexism rampant as there is no mention of a similar punishment for the adulterer.         

That march uptown, over the centuries since the The Old American Company (sad irony: they were all British) played down at the Battery in the 1700’s at the John Street Theater was always on or just off The Broad Way, in 1892 centered on Union Square, where there were the 14th Street Theater, the Star Theater and the Union Square, where Maurice Barrymore once played, at the top of the square on 17th Street, one of the few from that era still entertaining the public today.

 

1893: The theatrical year got off to a good start in February with the birth of a baby named Katharine Cornell, that central a in her name, just as in Katharine Hepburn’s, put there by proud parents expecting her to be special, as each would be in her generation . . . The theater district’s march uptown continued as prolific producer Charles Frohman opened the Empire Theater at Broadway and 40th Street. The actress who had become a star as Minnie Maddern, and retired from the stage when she married millionaire Harrison Grey Fiske, returned to star in a revival of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” in that Victorian day no longer permitted to use the name she had made famous, now to be known as Mrs. Fiske. A parallel today would be a star like Meryl Streep marrying a man named Jones, thereafter to be known as “Mrs. Jones.” Ridiculous, of course, as that sexist practice was then – there were also Mrs. Leslie Carter, the British star Mrs. Patrick Campbell (Beatrice Tanner), and others.

Sir Arthur Wing Pinero’s “The Second Mrs. Tanqueray,” about a Woman With a Past trying to win a place in society, is the season’s big hit. As Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House”, with its stunning realism, had exposed the posturing and bombast plaguing the American stage in 1890, Pinero’s play “marked a decided step in advance in American theater” wrote critic Barrett H. Clark in his 1915 book “British and American Theater,” and another critic called it “epoch-making.”

 

1894: Herbert Arthur Chamberlayne Blythe, born in India in 1849 as the son of a surveyor for the British East India Company, educated at Harrow and Oxford, an athletic hero, collegiate boxing champion and football captain – with all that and a classic profile thrown in, wanted to use all that Nature had bestowed on him as an actor, to the dismay of his parents, who considered acting to be a “dissolute” profession. So to spare them shame he called himself Maurice Barrymore after William Barrymore, an earlier-generation actor he admired. A highlight of the 1894 season was his playing opposite Mrs. Leslie Carter in “The Heart of Maryland.” The Blythe a.k.a. Barrymore genes were strong. He fathered the three major stars Ethel, Lionel and John, in that area outdoing Junius Brutus Booth, father of the nonpareil Edwin and the handsome star who through his one horrific act transmogrified into the hideous villain of our history John Wilkes Booth.

The 1894 New Year’s Eve saw a moving tribute to Edwin at The Players, the actors’ club he had founded, actually his home in Gramercy Park which he had turned over to his fellow thespians with the sole proviso that he be allowed to live on the top floor.

The legendary Joe Jefferson greeted the new year standing before the great fireplace and proposing a toast at the stroke of midnight to “The elder [Junius Brutus] Booth, with whom I acted the Duke of York at the age of five to his Richard III in the year Edwin was born, 1833. I next encountered Edwin at 16, a handsome youth, lithe and graceful in figure, buoyant in spirit, and with the loveliest eyes I ever looked upon.”

Edwin had died the year before.  Joe Jefferson concluded: “One year ago tonight he said: ‘They drink tonight to my health. When they meet again, it will be to my memory.’ I now drink to that memory.” And he raised the Players’ loving cup to his lips as the assembled members called out: “To Edwin!” and drank.

The must-see plays: What you as a lucky visitor from another century would certainly want to see would be Minnie Maddern Fiske doing “A Doll’s House,” John Drew in “Butterflies,” Lillian Russell as “Princess Nicotine” (Newspaper ad: Autograph Night Jan. 28!) and Mrs. John Drew playing another Mrs., in this case the hilarious Malaprop, in Sheridan’s “The Rivals.”

 

1895: Prime news of the season: The arrival of the Oscar Wilde play considered the culmination of his career, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” with a cast including Mae Robson, William Faversham, Viola Allen, Henry Miller and Ida Vernon as Lady Bracknell . . . Sad post script: During the play’s London run – Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” was also in the West End that season – the Marquess of Queensbury outed Wilde as a homosexual because of his relationship with his son young Lord Alfred Douglas – Queensbury wrote to Wilde, “If you are allowed to leave the country, so much better for the country. If you take my son with you, I will follow you and shoot you.”

Reported lighter moment in a depressing trial as a string of young men testified about Wilde’s relationships with them:

Prosecutor: And did you kiss him? 

Wilde: That ugly boy? Certainly not!

Young Douglas did have a bit of the swine in him. To his father’s agonized, furious letter on learning of the affair, his only reply was “What a funny old man you are.” Found guilty of whatever the crime was under the law of those days Oscar served a term in prison, which, this prisoner being Oscar Wilde, produced “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” about inhumane prison conditions.

1895 Broadway saw “Trilby,” played by Virginia Harned, with W H. Thompson as the truly rotten villain Svengali, and Mark Twain’s “Pudd’nhead Wilson,” adapted for the stage by Don B. Wilmeth, who played the title role opposite the same Virginia Harned. Being busy was nothing new for Virginia. She had been acting since her childhood, playing both Lady Macbeth and Juliet – in the latter case exactly as Shakespeare had indicated, at age 14 – in her local stock company.

Productions of Ibsen's “An Enemy of the People,” “The Prisoner of Zenda” and Sardou’s “Madame Sans-Gene” “are reported, but with no further information.

 

1896: The three young Barrymores, on their way to becoming Broadway’s royal family, were all working, but the overshadowing theater news of the season was the founding, by the powerful producer Charles Frohman, of The Theatrical Syndicate, theater owners and producers who would exert monopolistic control over the Broadway theater for two decades before being broken by the Boys from Syracuse, the Shubert brothers, no angels themselves, just a bit smarter and tougher (see their lawyer Gerry Schoenfeld’s book “Mr. Broadway.”)

The Shubert name became so iconic on Broadway that their lawyers, who succeeded them, Schoenfeld and Bernard Jacobs, were known as “The Shuberts,” and the ’tween-44th-and-45th Street alley in which you catch the elevator up to their offices was and is Shubert Alley.

 

1897: “The Little Minister” is the big hit of the season, J. M. Barrie’s play from his 1891 novel making a star of young Maude Adams. She will play the part hundreds of times (Barrie had been reluctant to dramatize it till he saw her in another play and realized she would be perfect in the role.)

Broadway veteran E. J. Henley (“The Man without a Country,” 1894 and “Pudd’nhead Wilson,” 1895) played the title role in Ibsen’s “John Gabriel Borkman.”

Definitely not a hit in New York is “The Belle of New York,” starring Edna May, a musical which has only 64 performances, but on being carried to London by astute British producers who instead of hiring British replacements transported all 63 Americans to London, where the British loved them! – the play, with 674 performances, becomes the first musical to run for more than a year in the West End (over the next four decades there will be nine West End revivals) and completing its European conquests it has long runs in Paris and Berlin.

On Broadway the important news is the arrival of George Bernard Shaw’s “The Devil’s Disciple,” starring Richard Mansfield in the big hit that assures the young playwright’s career.

 

1898-99:  “Way Down East,” a melodrama about an innocent girl seduced by a scoundrel who stoops to the device of a sham marriage to have his way with her (necessarily a group enterprise, as you would need three fellow-scoundrels, a “Justice of the Peace” (heh-heh) and two witnesses (repressing their snickers.)  Some muttering about its resemblance to an earlier Steele MacKaye play in which this playwright had been an actress, but never mind, it’s a big success and revived repeatedly in future years.

And the man who was far and away Broadway’s premier playwright of the ’90s (from his home in faraway Norway), Henrik Ibsen, was back with another blockbuster, following “A Doll’s House” and “John Gabriel Borkman” with “Hedda Gabler,” bringing the world the ultimate bitch.

“Degenerate, selfish, morbid, cruel, bitter, jealous,” the critic of the Times wrote about her, going on to add that she was “something of a visionary, something of a wanton, something of a lunatic.”

To see all that awfulness people of course scrambled to get tickets, and the play became a classic, revived in decade after decade. Charles Isherwood of the Times summed Hedda up in 2008, coining a word in the process: “A more repellent personality would be hard to imagine, yet Hedda is one of the ultimate frascinators of the world stage.”

Ibsen’s ”An Enemy of the People” also opened, at Abbey’s Theater on W. 23d St. on April 8. In this case the bare-bones listing of theater and date is unhappily sufficient, since Closing Date is also April 8.

That must have been a bad, even terrible production of a superb play, because the drama with that ironic title has been revived seven times on Broadway, most recently in 1971, at the Vivian Beaumont with Stephen Elliott as Dr. Thomas Stockman, the “Enemy” who wants to clean up a town’s polluted waters.

Another revered European playwright, Arthur Wing Pinero, brought us “Trelawny of the ‘Wells,’ ” starring Mary Mannering, which would be revived with Ethel Barrymore in 1911 and with Laurette Taylor in 1925, and made into a silent movie in 1928 with Norma Shearer as Rose Trelawny, Hollywood giving it a catchier title for Americans, “The Actress.”

 

1900: Prudishness rears its ugly head, as it often will in the early years of the 20th century, as Olga Nethersole, the leading lady of “Sapho” at Wallack’s, is accused of mounting an immoral play.  It’s adapted from Alphonse Daudet’s  French (of course) novel about a wicked woman who seduces a pure young man and keeps him as her lover. (How many pure young men wouldn’t jump at a chance like that?) The Times pans the play as “objectionable, coarse and vulgar,” and it closes after 23 performances.

Surprising to many will be this report about “The Fantasticks,” nicknamed The Little Play That Could, about the families of two lovers acting like the Montagues and Capulets that opened at the cozy Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village in 1960, caught on as a must-see little musical and played on through generations of casts till it was the longest-running musical in history – that “Fantasticks” had been done in London’s Royalty Theater in 1900.

Adapted from Edmond Rostand’s “Les Romanesques,” it had three stars, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, George Arliss and George DuMaurier. But even with that stellar cast it did not have a noteworthy long run, so an extra Bravo! is owed to its American adaptors Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt for what they accomplished.

Edmond Rostand made another contribution, and a major one, to Broadway in this final year of the 19th Century, his classic “Cyrano de Bergerac,” which would be revived 16 times into the 21st Century, most recently with Kevin Kline in that grand role at the Richard Rodgers Theater in 2007.

A 148-performances hit of 1900 was “David Harum,” the story of a small-town banker and horse trader. The role was a perfect fit for the folksy humorist Will Rogers, who starred in a film version in 1936.

“Florodora,” a solideme (two words mated, as opposed to a hypheme, hyphenated) ) of Flor and Odora, odor of flowers, a musical about a Philippine island famous for its perfume, opens to mixed reviews – and has a giant run of 505 performances.

Patronizing critics failed to appreciate the appeal of those six girls, the Florodora Sextette, coming out coyly twirling parasols and being serenaded by adoring boys singing “Tell Me, Pretty Maiden, Are There Any More at Home Like You?” they manage to have an appeal matching that of the Ziegfeld Girls while keeping their clothes on.

Two theater men of genius died much too young in 1900.  Oscar Wilde, only 46, died in Paris and Sir Arthur Sullivan of Gilbert & Sullivan at 58, his story and that of the creation of their masterwork, “The Mikado,” brilliantly dramatized in the 1999 film “Topsy-Turvy” (plugging this a second time; theater-lovers really should get a video and see it).

        

1901: DeWolf Hopper, the orator famous for his recitation of the baseball poem “Casey at the Bat,” appears in the Weber & Fields musical “Hoity Toity” along with Lillian Russell and Fay Templeton, and though there is no report of this (remember the press is only there on opening night) it has to have occurred, and more than once, that when he was bowing during the curtain call a call came from the audience: “Do ‘Casey at the Bat!’ ” and they got an extra treat when after they had taken their bows the others stepped back and he launched into “It looked extremely rocky for the Mudville Nine that day, / The score stood two to four, with but one inning left to play . . .”  Yes, your editor used to recite it as a boy.

Typically, producer Charles Frohman of The Theatrical Syndicate has four plays running whereas no other producer has more than one . . .

Virginia Harned is back in another leading role, as Alice in “Alice of Old Vincennes,” adapted from a novel about Revolutionary War America; in the cast with her is a young actor named Cecil B. DeMille.

As we’ll never see any of the great stars of 1901 beyond the Barrymores, the only ones still acting when talking pictures came along, it helps us to appreciate performances through the eyes of a critic, like the Times man on Mrs. Leslie Carter, protégé of David Belasco, in his “DuBarry” at the Criterion: “To those who assert there is no ‘art’ to acting, that the theater is just a museum for exploiting the personality and idiosyncrasy of the player, Mrs. Carter stands as a concrete refutation.”

 

1902: The American musical as we know it does not exist. Called “comic operas,” musical spectacles are closer to vaudeville, featuring star turns unrelated to each other as the art form marks time between the Victor Herbert operettas and the coming of Irving Berlin (Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” 1911) and Jerome Kern, both teenagers at this point. Plays are generally either theatricalized novels or European imports. “Dolly Varden,” at the Herald Square, is a musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’s “Barnaby Rudge.”

Meanwhile he who will be the king of one aspect of musicals vulgarly referred to as “T and A” in a song in “A Chorus Line,” but in a classy, never vulgar fashion, Florenz Ziegfeld, is on the rise managing the careers of his wife Anna Held and Sandow The Strong Man – always playing the sex card, Ziegfeld would allow ladies (especially Wednesday matinee ladies, when hubby was busy in the office) to come backstage and feel the flexed muscles of this gorgeous young man for a donation to charity.

“Was that play any good today, dear?”  “Oh, yes (secret smile), very good indeed.”

When his “Follies” were rolling in high gear, Ziegfeld would charge men $500 to meet one of his spectacular showgirls, the money this time going directly to F. Ziegfeld.

A nasty story about The Theatrical Syndicate, that cartel of theater owners and managers to whom you had to kowtow if you wanted to produce a play. In 1902 the composer Isidore Widmark was barred from ever doing a Broadway show after a dispute with the Syndicate.

Stars: John Drew and his promising nephew Lionel Barrymore are together at the Empire in “The Mummy and the Hummingbird” and his niece Ethel is at the Savoy in “A Country Mouse,” an import from London’s West End.

Trixie Friganza and Eva Tanguay, the legendary “I Don’t Care” girl, together in the musical ”The Chaperones,” Eva’s big number “My Sambo” a coon song, a popular genre in which whites cruelly mimicked uneducated Southern blacks. Here is a sample, “The Coon Song,” which I heard jovially sung at parties when I was a child in the early 1930s:

 

Coon, Coon, Coon, I wish my color would fade,

Coon, Coon, Coon, I’d like a lighter shade,

Coon, Coon, Coon, morning, night and noon

I wish I was a white man ’stead of a Coon, Coon, Coon

It must be pointed out that lyricists and composers of taste above the Tin Pan Alley level handled the patterns in which Southern blacks of earlier generations had spoken with affection and admiration for their universal good humor, e.g. the great Ethel Waters in “Cabin in the Sky” singing Yip Harburg’s lyric.

 

It seem like happiness is just a thing called Joe.

 He got a smile dat make de lilac want to grow,

 He got a way dat make de angels heave a sigh

When dey know little Joe passin’ by . . .

 

Sometime de cabin gloomy and de table bare –

Soon he kiss me, Lord! It’s Christmas everywhere!

Trouble fly away and life is easy-go

Because happiness is just a thing called Joe

 

And Ethel would wind up with a lovely drawn-out

 

Little Joe, Little Joe, Little Jo-o-o-o-o-o-o-e . . .

 

1903: Long before Judy Garland was born the 1903 Broadway season saw a dramatization of Frank L. Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz,” in a season also brightened by Victor Herbert’s “Babes in Toyland.”

Happy landmark: The first all-black musical to play in a major Broadway house, the New York Theater, “In Dahomey,” starring Bert Williams, becoming a hit and going on to play seven months at the Shaftesbury Theater in London, dispelling one more racism-tinged notion, that all-black shows would never be successful.

Barrymores: Lionel was at the Criterion in “The Other Girl,” Ethel was starring in “Sister Kate” and their handsome younger brother John was  making his Broadway debut in the Clyde Fitch comedy “Glad of It.” The powerful Minnie Maddern Fiske was back, playing Hedda Gabler opposite  a young British actor named George Arliss, who would become a movie star 30 years later in such roles as Disraeli and Cardinal Richelieu.

The elegant Englishman was also a leading fighter for an actors’ union, leading his arrogant fellow star Blanche Bates to speak the line for which she is unfortunately best remembered: “We are actors, not plumbers!” More about this star’s role in the creation of Actors Equity later in this report.

 

1904: Marie Dressler, the young Broadway star who 28 years later will play the old Broadway star Carlotta with Lionel Barrymore and that all-star ensemble in the film version of “Dinner at Eight,” wins cheers as she sings “A Great Big Girl Like Me” (and she certainly was a big one) in “Higgledy-Piggledy.”

John Barrymore plays the title role in a farce about a banana republic by Richard Harding Davis, “The Dictator;” sister Ethel won’t be with us this season. She’s starring in London.

The multiply-talented 26-year-old George M. Cohan – sing-dance-write-direct-choreograph – has the first of many hits in “Little Johnny Jones,” with the hit songs “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” the latter expressing his unashamedly flag-waving philosophy. As impressive a figure in the drama as Cohan is in musicals, David Belasco, directs a hit, “The Music Master,” starring David Warfield, in the newly built Belasco Theater on 44th Street east of Broadway (still there), where it runs for nine months. Born Velasco, of Portuguese-Jewish parents, he had changed his name to the less foreign-sounding Belasco when he embarked on a career as an actor. He had run away from home and was taken in by a priest, Father McGuire, whose kindness to him he said he was honoring by wearing the clerical collar that led the press to refer to him as The Bishop of Broadway. The press always mentions that reversed collar, but a photo from the period shows him in full priestly vestments, the clerical black vest and coat, and one has to wonder why the Catholic Church never protested this theater man’s going through life dressed as a priest.

Two newcomers on the scene, composer Jerome Kern and Julian Eltinge the popular female impersonator, make their Broadway debuts in the musical “Mr. Wix of Wickham.”  The team of Minnie Maddern Fiske and George Arliss, who were together in “Hedda Gabler” in 1903, is back in “Leah Kleschna.”

 

1905: In “The Squaw Man,” a drama about love between a cowboy and an Indian maiden, the rugged-visaged William S. Hart, a Shakespearean actor, is the cowboy, and the virile image he projects will take him eventually to Hollywood, where he will become the silents’ first cowboy hero.

Victor Herbert gives the world a song so plain gorgeous in “Mlle. Modiste,” starring Fritzi Scheff at the Knickerbocker, that it seemingly will forever thrill those who hear “Sweet summer breeze, whispering trees, / Stars shining softly above, / Roses in bloom, wafted perfume, / Sleepy birds dreaming of love . . . “ and on to the climactic “Kiss me, Kiss Me Again!” recorded by Richard Tauber and Rosa Ponzelle of the Metropolitan Opera, Frank Sinatra, Deanna Durbin, Frankie Laine, Vaughn Monroe, The London Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony Orchestras and many more, truly a historic contribution to our culture.

Heart-breaking news from an insane asylum: the iconic Maurice Barrymore has died totally and violently mad – when Ethel visited him he tried to strangle her – of tertiary syphilis, that horrific disease for which there was no cure in its third stage going to his brain.

 

1906: Theater people show their class after the disastrous April 18 San Francisco earthquake, in which 10 of the city’s 11 theaters were destroyed, never to reopen. Sarah Bernhardt, in Chicago, rents a circus tent (not to make profits for the grasping Theatrical Syndicate) and organizes a benefit tour which will take her to San Francisco. George M. Cohan sells newspapers on the streets of New York, getting as much as $1,000 for a paper. Boston suspends its laws banning Sunday performances so James K Hackett can give a benefit.

A triumph (169 perfs) of silly fun is “Twiddle Twaddle” at Weber’s Music Hall, Weber (no longer speaking to Fields) using his burlesque German dialect to lampoon hit shows, comic gem Marie Dressler does a Spanish dance; Trixie Friganza and Aubrey Boucicault (son of Dion) also featured.

Unthinkable on Broadway today would be “The Clansman,” telling the murderous Ku Klux Klan’s “side of the story,” this sympathetic-to-slavery play ironically at the Liberty Theater. On the encouraging side it was not a hit, with only 51 performances. Also encouraging was the fact that in “The Redskin,” starring Tyrone Power, father of the movie star-to-be, William A Brady cast not white men in makeup and wigs but ten Sioux Indians.

In “The Man of the Hour,” Douglas Fairbanks plays a reformer out to expose corruption at City Hall in a story that never mentions Tammany Hall, the Democratic machine, but as the audience is heading up the aisle to go home the orchestra plays the Tammany theme song, which angers the mayor, which in turn delights the press agent because it sells tickets. Your editor knows that song, because my father as a young lawyer was a member of Tammany, and he sang it for us. (The Tammany symbol was an Indian.)  It’s short, but to the point.

Tammany, Tammaneeee

(Boom-booming Indian war drum)

Swampum, swampum, get the wampum,

TAA–MAA-NEEEE!

Wampum, an Indian word  for money, also a Tammany code word for graft.

In one of those interesting American-British audience reaction comparisons, “Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman,” about a smoothie of a thief, closes in New York after only 21 performances. It opens simultaneously in London, with Gerald DuMaurier’s Raffles apparently a whole lot smoother, because he will get to take his bow at the final curtain – are you ready? – 351 times. And in an almost identical case, “Brewster’s Millions,” a foolishness about a young man who must spend a million dollars in a limited time to get a million, does extremely well in New York with 163 perfs.  But the London production also breaks that 300 barrier, playing 321 times – and the star is Gerald’s brother George DuMaurier.

 

1907: One of those crackling good Bret Harte western short stories, “Salomey Jane’s Kiss,” comes to the stage as “Salomey Jane,” starring Eleanor Robson, with H. B. Warner and Holbrook Blinn, and runs for more than 17 weeks at the Liberty.

Future movie star Wallace Beery plays the lead in “A Yankee Tourist” by the war correspondent Richard Harding Davis , , , John Drew and Billie Burke star in “My Wife,” a marital comedy, adapted from the French (of course) at the Empire.

The musical “The Girl Behind the Counter” is adapted from a London show for Lew Fields, broken up with his longtime partner Weber, with the insertion of the already popular song “The Glow-Worm,” from the German “Das Gluhwurmchen.”  Fields for some reason doesn’t want this, and in a showdown with the music publisher Edward Marks, the publisher is forced to promise to pay him $1,000 any time the song fails to stop the show. One suspects the publisher didn’t worry. It stops the show every night, with encores, for 33 weeks. 

Old-timers will remember The Mills Brothers’ gorgeous close harmony on “Glow little glow-worm, glimmer, glimmer, / Swim through the sea of night, little swimmer / You’ve got a cute vest-pocket Mazda / Which you can make both slow and faster”  Over the decades new lyrics have been invented, like “. . . turn the key on, / You’ve been equipped with tail-light neon”– those sage elders may wonder whether Fields, who had broken up with Weber, was the one at fault in the breakup.

 

1908: In a regrettable sign of the times, Europeans’ idea of the uncultured American is reinforced at performances of “The Man from Home,” which Booth Tarkington and Harry Leon Wilson wrote as a humorous look at the awkward American tourist in Europe. It plays before audiences who, instead of laughing at the bumptious characters, cheer their anti-European rants, delivered with a jingoism which would make George M. Cohan blush.

Flo Ziegfeld, playing the sex card as we reported in our 1902 review, presents a Devil-temptation musical, “The Soul Kiss,” about a character named J. Lucifer Mephisto who tempts a sculptor to be unfaithful with a series of beauties. His biographer Ethan Mordden says in “Ziegfeld, The  Man Who Invented Show Business” (St. Martin’s Press, 2008): “Ziegfeld’s shows were about re-opening Western Civilization’s conversation between the sexes.”

Top ticket price for this musical, which we reported as $1.50 in 1885, is now $3.30, which long-range forecasters are grimly predicting will some day go as high as $10.

In Ziegfeld’s “Follies of 1908” the great Nora Bayes introduces a song for which the composer, her husband Jack Norworth, will receive royalties for the rest of his life, “Shine on, Harvest Moon.”

In a salute to Ned Harrigan of the 19th-century team Harrigan and Hart George M Cohan sings “H, A, double-R, I, G A N spells Harrigan” in “Fifty Miles from Broadway”.  The song will in turn be sung by James Cagney in his salute to Cohan in the 1942 film “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

And in the musical “Three Twins” the delightful lyric “Cuddle up a little closer, lov-ee mine, / Cuddle up and be my little clinging vine” was written by Otto Hauerbach, a name that does not ring a bell today. That is because during the anti-German prejudice of World War I (sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage” and other stupidities) he changed it to Harbach and with Jerome Kern would compose the score for the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers “Roberta” including “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “Lovely to Look at” and the haunting “Yesterdays”: “Yesterdays, yesterdays, Days I now recall as sweet sequestered days” – how’s that for finding a rhyme with “Yesterdays”?

 

1909: The 1908-09 Broadway season is a shining exemplar, in this reactionary era (see “Victorianism Lives!” below) in the fight for social justice, with “The Easiest Way,” “The Fair Co-ed,” “A Woman’s Way,” “The Climax” and especially  “Votes for Women,” personally endorsed by George Bernard Shaw, all dealing with women’s struggle for equal rights.

Dudley Digges comes to America from Ireland’s Abbey Theater to appear in Clyde Fitch’s new play, “The Happy Marriage” at the Garrick. A generation later he will be a Hollywood character man, playing key supporting roles in such films as “The Emperor Jones,” “Mutiny on the Bounty” and “The Invisible Man.”

Sign of the times: In Boston an actor in the Clyde Fitch drama “The City” speaks the line “You’re a God damn liar!” and discovers he has committed some kind of a crime. Under a threat of arrest the line is stricken from the play. When it opens in New York the line is back, there is no police intervention, but a newspaper reports that “several people fainted” on hearing those words, an account so transparently false that one sees the sly work of a press agent hoping to make his show sound wicked and exciting. In a similar case of audience reaction later in the 20th century a play about a despicable cad who victimizes women was doing poorly at the box office till one night an outraged woman in the audience climbed up on the stage, cried, “You son of a bitch!” slapped the actor across the face and walked off. The actors pulled themselves together and finished the scene, but the audience was all a-buzz. The next day there was a line at the box office and the press could not find that woman for an interview, for a good reason. Her outrage had been paid for by the legendary press agent Jim Moran, pulling possibly his most spectacular stunt.

       Our headline in the theater critics’ journal: Victorianism Lives!

       In London the Lord Chamberlain’s office has banned George Bernard Shaw’s political drama “Press Cuttings” because the names of his Prime Minister and War Minister resemble those of the real gentlemen. 

And in Ireland (to be under British rule for another 10 years) Lady Gregory, the militant founder of The Irish Theater Movement, fights with the Lord Chamberlain over his refusal to grant a license to Shaw for a production of his parody of his own satirical one-acter “The Shewing-up of Blanco Posnet,” about a horse thief in the American Old West.  The list of theater notables who protested this censorship to Prime Minister Gladstone is too long to publish here (71 names!); here are a few: Sir Arthur Wing Pinero, J. M. Barrie, W. S. Gilbert, Granville Barker and the American novelist Henry James.

 

1910:  When this editor was a boy, his father chuckled when Victor Herbert’s 1910 operetta, “Naughty Marietta” was mentioned. He, then 24, and his young buck pals bought tickets thinking they were going to see a girlie show, and instead were treated to the glorious sounds of “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life,” “I’m Falling in Love with Someone” and the rousing “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp! (the boys are marching)” in what is considered the greatest success of the Irish immigrant’s career.

Two kids named Fanny Brice and Bert Williams, the first black artist to be cast in an all-white musical, in “The Follies of 1910,” produced by Florenz Ziegfeld for the last time without his magical name with its two z’s in the middle (“Jones” or “Johnson” Follies would lack that exotic appeal) in a series that it seemed would go on forever. (It actually ended in 1931 as the Depression began to throw its cloud over America.)

But as those who remember Billie Burke’s delightful performances as the ditsy hostess in the movies “Dinner at Eight” and again in “The Man Who Came to Dinner” may not know, she, who had been Mrs. Florenz Ziegfeld since 1914 (a lighter moment: they were married by a Justice of the Peace in one of those quickie ceremonies, and the story goes that the good gentleman, told that the names were Billie and Florenz, asked the man, “Billy, will you take this woman – ?“ and the bride, “Florence, will you take this man – ?”)

Billie was still working in her aging years to support her fabulous showman husband, who was also a heavy gambler, and had gone broke after the stock market crash of 1929.

in 1910 Billie, then a 25-year-old Broadway sparkler, was starring in “Mrs. Dot,” a comedy, always her forte, by novelist W. Somerset Maugham.

 

1911:  George Arliss plays possibly his greatest role, which he will repeat when sound comes to motion pictures in the 1930’s, in “Disraeli” at Wallack’s, for 280 performances . . . The female impersonator Julian Eltinge puts his special skill to good use, playing a man who disguises himself as a widow to expose a two-timing scoundrel in the musical “The Fascinating Widow.”         Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “Feathertop,” dramatized as “The Scarecrow,” about the plight of a scarecrow who falls in love with a young woman, demonstrates that 1911 Americans apparently aren’t ready for sophisticated fantasy, because it closes after only 21 performances, but it is admired abroad and seen in both French and German versions, including one by Max Reinhardt.

And in another step backward for America’s image, newcomer Al Jolson, in blackface makeup, sings “Paris is a Paradise for Coons” in “La Belle Paree,” a show described as “A Jumble of Jollity.”

For those who crave the inspiration of some well-played Shakespeare two of Broadway’s finest, E. H. Sothern and Julia Marlowe, play a repertory season of The Bard at the Broadway Theater, doing “Macbeth,” “The Taming of the Shrew,” “Hamlet,” “The Merchant of Venice,” “”Romeo and Juliet” and “Twelfth Night.”

And she who will be Hollywood’s zoftig sex bomb of 1930’s comedy, Mae West, makes her considerably slimmer Broadway debut 25 years earlier in “A la Broadway” at the Folies Bergere Theater.

 

1912: For “Sumurun,” a pantomime with music in eight tableaux first done in Berlin, the great Max Reinhardt brings over the entire cast, with the Deutsches Theater’s sets and costumes, to complete his wordless spectacle of a lady and a sheik and a slave-dealer. Sumurun is the sheik’s favorite wife and the other characters include a hunchback, the other ladies of the harem and “a slave of fatal enchantment.” An impressed critic writes: “The Reinhardt method is more graphic than the Italian pantomime” which he says can confuse the audience not familiar with the art form – an art apparently lost in our 21st century.

The Shuberts’ new star, Al Jolson, is in the musical “Whirl of Society” at the Winter Garden, the show including two spoofs of “Sumurun” – such lurid drama easy to parody.

George Bernard Shaw’s “Easy Play in Three Acts” about children of respectable families thrown in jail for boisterous behavior, is imported from London and plays at the Comedy Theater for 356 performances.

And speaking of Shaw and British-American exchanges, early in World War II when we were lending Britain old Navy destroyers and battleships under the Lend-Lease Act, one of the great Shaw plays was coming to America and an intrepid newsreel crew went to Shaw, who had never been seen on film, and there indeed was GBS in your movie theater, in a country setting as I recall, in a tweedy outfit with knickers. “Hello!” he said. “They said you want to see me. Well, here I am.” He smiled, and then slowly turned around so we could see both the front and the back of him. Then he explained Lend-Lease: “You are sending us your old ships, and we are sending you my old plays.”

 

1913: Praiseworthy indeed in this prudish age when police can strike the words “God damn” from one play’s script and close another show that deals with the world’s oldest profession for “public indecency” is the staging at the Fulton Theater of “Damaged Goods” by Eugene Brieux by four stars functioning as producer-actors, Richard Bennett (father of future movie stars Constance and Joan), Wilton Lackaye, Margaret Wycherly and Laura Burt.  The play deals with venereal disease, and they present it initially in a one-matinee performance. The reaction is so encouraging that they bring it back as a full-time production a month later and it plays 66 performances.

Billie Burke, apparently a favorite of the great W. Somerset Maugham, is back co-starring with Lumsden Hare in Maugham’s “The Land of Promise” at the Lyceum. She played in his “Mrs. Dot,” also at the Lyceum, in 1910.

And in the historic event of that season, it could be said that there was a tide in the affairs of men that year, and the actors were taking it at the flood. On the day they took that step forward the two big stories in the papers were the Suffragettes’ parade for women’s rights on Long Island and the silk mill workers’ strike in New Jersey. On Long Island 500 women with Suffragette banners unfurled marched, led by Suffragette General Rosalie Jones and with political leader Suspender Jack McGee leading the parade on horseback in his old Rough Riders’ uniform. And a roaring crowd of 25,000 in Haledon, NJ was responding to the urging of Big Bill Heywood and the fiery Elizabeth Gurley Fllynn to hang tough in the bitter three-month silk mill workers’ strike.

This being a time when newspaper publishers, fearing the organizing of their own non-union, all-male shops, were demanding fiercely anti-labor stories of their editors, a New York Times headline read:

Lawlessness of Women the Threat of the Age

At the silk mill workers’ rally Elizabeth Gurley Flynn cried: “The biggest scabs in this strike are the newspapers!”

Three Days in May

On May 24, 1913 Chicago business leaders made their attitude clear, denouncing the idea of an 8-hour day as “ruinous to business.”  

On May 25 Big Bill Heywood gave Labor’s answer at a rally of the silk mill strikers with “We have repealed the ten-hour day!”

And on May 26, 1913 a group of actors rented the Elks Hall in the Pabst Grand Circle Hotel in New York City for $15, with 150 chairs thrown in, and organized a union they called Actors Equity Association.

Mae West: Before the Hollywood Hubbub