Sunday, August 30, 2015

LEST WE FORGET ROSE McCLENDON
(August 27, 1884 - June 12, 1936)

"The Negro race's first lady"

Born Rosalie Virginia Scott in Greenville, South Carolina, her parents moved her and her brother to New York City when she was six years old.

She married Dr. Henry Pruden McClendon in 1904. Although a licensed chiropractor, he worked primarily as a Pullman porter for the Pennsylvania Railroad.

She became totally committed to the theatre after 1916 when she won a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She studied with Franklin Sargent and her first professional role in Justice by John Galsworthy followed at the Davenport Theatre in New York.  When she played Octavie in Lawrence Stallings's Deep River in Philadelphia, the noted director Arthur Hopkins urged
Ethel Barrymore to stay through the performance and "watch Rose McClendon come down those stairs. She can teach some of our most hoity-toity actresses distinction."  After viewing her performance Ms. Barrymore remarked, "She can teach all of them distinction."   After the show moved to New York, she received peer recognition and critical success.
                                                           
After her success with Deep River, she was featured in Paul Green's 1926 Pulitzer-prize-winning play, In Abraham's Bosom. Two years later, she played Serena in Dorothy and DuBose Heyward's Porgy.

Dubose Heyward believed that "Rose McClendon was perfect as the Catfish Row aristocrat Serena."
Soon she became known on Broadway as "the Negro race's first lady." Still, she remained modest and often stated that her recognition was quite undeserved.

In 1931 she played Big Sue in The House of Connelly, another play written by Paul Green.  The following year she portrayed Mammy in Never No More, a play about lynching produced by the Group Theatre.  During the 1933 season, she worked on radio in the "John Henry Sketches."  All this time she remained deeply committed to promoting the needs of her fellow black actors and actresses.  She fought with the actors' union for more opportunities for blacks and formed a small black theatre group.

When Hallie Flanagan began organizing the
Black Federal Theatre Project troupe in New York City in 1935, Rose McClendon played a significant part in the planning. The first meeting was held in her home.

In 1935 she starred as Cora in the Broadway production of Langston Hughes's Mulatto, the longest play on Broadway by a black author before Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun.
She received favorable reviews from the New York critics.

Unfortunately during the production of Mulatto, she became extremely ill with pleurisy and was forced to leave the cast.  A year later she died of pneumonia.

Her spirit has managed to live on. In the year after her death, a black theatre group named the
Rose McClendon Players was organized in her memory.


Rose McClendon sculpture by Richmond Barthe

Resource:  Notable Women in the American Theatre.  Harry Elam
Wikipedia


Friday, August 28, 2015

LEST WE FORGET BLANCHE BATES
(August 25, 1873 - December 25, 1941)

A kindergarten teacher who became David Belasco's
leading lady and starred in several of his productions.

She came from a theatrical family. Her father and mother performed in stock companies throughout North America, eventually settling in San Francisco.  The family traveled to Australia in 1874 when Blanche was a toddler and while they achieved great success as visiting stars, her father was murdered in Melbourne in mysterious circumstances. Her widowed mother retuned to San Francisco to continue acting.

Blanche was the first female to graduate from the Boys' High School in 1889.  After a short stint as a kindergarten teacher, she joined L. R. Stockwell's company and played a variety of roles. She became the leading lady of T. Daniel Frawley's Denver stock company in 1894. She remained with his company until 1898 when she traveled to New York to seek engagements.

Hired by Augustin Daly in the spring, she played second leads for several months.  She played the adventuress's role in
The Great Ruby (2/9/1899) only to resign after the first performance, citing an "uncongenial" atmosphere. It was rumored that there had been a dispute over gowns or that she was jealous of Ada Rehan, Daly's leading lady.

A spectacular performance as Hannah Jacobs in Israel Zangwill's The Children of the Ghetto (1899) led to a 5-year  contract with Liebler and Company at $20,000 annually.  She also attracted the attention of David Belasco who hired her to play the lead in Naughty Anthony, a forgettable farce. Belasco added a one-act curtain-raiser, Madame Butterfly, adapted from the story by
John Luther long.  With the role of Cho-Cho-San, the deserted Madame Butterfly, she achieved star status.

Though tall and large-boned, she played the delicate Cho-Cho-San with such believability that critics and audiences were convinced that she was, in fact, petite and fragile.

The next role for Belasco was as the swashbuckling Cigarette in an adaptation of Quida's Under Two Flags which ran for almost two years in New York and on tour.   Her next major role was the tragic Yo-San in The Darling of the Gods which Belasco had adapted from another story by John Luther Long.

In 1905 she stunned audiences as Minnie, "The Girl," in
The Girl of the Golden West with her athletic vigor and stamina.

She ended her association with Belasco after two more plays and married George Creel, a Denver journalist with whom she had two children.  She remained on the stage and retained star status until her retirement in 1926.  Her last stage appearance was in 1933 when she played a character role in The Lake starring Katharine Hepburn.


FROM THE SOUVENIR BOOKLET FOR
UNDER TWO FLAGS
PUBLISHED BY H. R. RUSSELL IN 1901


MS. BATES AS CIGARETTE          
       


(From the collection of Mari Lyn Henry)


She achieved her greatest success as Belasco's leading lady but was not able to duplicate her success after breaking with him.  Unlike other Belasco proteges, she had demonstrated solid professional achievement and capabilities before working with him.

Her background in western stock companies provided her with a wide-ranging versatility, enabled her to shift from the fragile heroines of Belasco's pseudo-Japanese plays to the battling Cigarette or hard-drinking Minnie with no apparent strain.

She was noted for her realistic portrayal of emotions in all of her major characters that when combined with the lush sentimentality of Belasco's scripts and productions, helped create lasting impressions on turn-of-the-century audiences.





RESOURCE:  Notable Women in the American Theatre. 1989. Alan Woods

Thursday, August 27, 2015



LEST WE FORGET DOROTHY PARKER
(August 22, 1893 - June 7, 1967)

When she died in 1967, she made one last strong political statement with her will: her entire estate was left to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a man she had never met but whose cause she espoused.

As is revealed in the quote with this picture of her in 1921 at age 27, "In no way are our producers more wasteful of genius than in their disregard of negro actors."


Poet, short-story writer, critic, and playwright, she was born in New York City, and she recalled her urban childhood as unpleasant and stifling and her father and stepmother as oppressive.  She entered the world of the New York working girl ( a subject for later poems and stories) and went to work for Vogue, writing advertising copy and the following year joined the staff of Vanity Fair.  In 1919 she was promoted to drama critic but was dismissed the following year for writing damning reviews that angered the theatrical interests whose ads helped to support the magazine.


         For a few years after her dismissal from Vanity Fair, she contributed poems, stories, sketches and reviews to several magazines.  When Harold Ross founded the New Yorker in 1925, she became a member of the staff, writing drama reviews when Robert Benchley was on vacation.

It was during the 1920s that she became associated with a number of writers and other intellectuals, including
Robert Sherwood, James Thurber, Franklin P. Adams, 
Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman. With these friends and others she founded the famous Round Table at the Algonquin Hotel. They met over lunch at a table reserved for them to exchange critical views and humorous anecdotes and quick-witted repartee. She was a prime mover in the organization and is generally recognized as having been their leader until she left the circle in 1930.


This was a period of exciting career moves for her. In 1926 she published her first collection of verse, Enough Rope, which became a best seller, and she had had a play produced on Broadway.

But her personal life was extremely troubled by a failing marriage. She twice attempted suicide. Lillian Hellman, her close friend, remarked  that she had felt herself to be unworthy, inadequate, a failure.

The decade of the 1930s saw her involved with Hollywood, writing screenplays which was not to her liking but lucrative. In 1933 she married fellow screenwriter and actor Alan Campbell. Their best known efforts include:
Big Broadcast of 1936, the first A Star Is Born,
Sweethearts, and Mr. Skeffington. They also wrote some dialogue and scenes for Hellman's screenplay of The Little Foxes. 

She was heavily involved in leftist politics and openly acknowledged that she was a Communist. She was an active worker with the Screen Actors' Guild's attempt to unionize the industry. In the late 1930s she went to Spain to work for the Loyalist cause during the Civil War and demonstrated her abilities as a serious journalist.  She, like other illustrious writers of the time, was blacklisted in Hollywood in the 1950s and was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which cited her for contempt.

Most of her best prose and poetry is distinguished by her sophisticated, caustic, tough though elegant approach.  She said what she had to say in the fewest posssible words.  Her themes involved the position of women in society she often viewed as phony and shallow, the alienation of human beings in the modern world, and the sorrow of love gone wrong (from her own experiences).


She wrote several plays, most of which were not successful. But her last contribution to American drama occurred in 1956 when, along with John La Touche and Richard Wilbur, she contributed lyrics for the momentous musical Candide, with book by Lillian Hellman and score by Leonard Bernstein.

She belongs to that group of writers---including figures as diverse as Samuel Johnson and Oscar Wilde---who are remembered more for what they said than for any piece of literature they ever produced. Her short story "Big Blonde," won the O. Henry Award.  Her memory lives on in the isolated verses like "Men seldom make passes/At girls who wear glasses." or "Brevity is the soul of lingerie."

Lillian Hellman devotes one chapter of her autobiographical An Unfinished Woman to Parker, close friend and collaborator. It contains a tribute that reveals much about the woman who hid behind the mask of barbed comments.  Dorothy Parker's "view of people" she writes, "was original and sharp, her elaborate ever-delicate manners made her a pleasure to live with. She liked books and was generous about writers, and the wit was so wonderful that neither age nor illness ever dried up the spring from which it came fresh each day."

RESOURCES:  Notable Women in the American Theatre. 1989.  W. Kenneth Holditch
Keats, John. You Might As Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker. 1972
Kinney, Arthur F. Dorothy Parker. 1978
Gaines, James R. Wits End: Days and Nights of the Algonquin Round Table. 1977
Woollcott, Alexander. While Rome Burns (a chapter "Our Mrs. Parker") 1934.
Her papers are the property of the NAACP. Most of her letters and memorabilia are at the
Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

LEST WE FORGET ZONA GALE
(August 26, 1874 - December 27, 1938)

The first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama
in 1921 and a vigilant supporter of progressive causes.

She was an active member of the National Women's Party and she lobbied for the 1921 Wisconsin Equal Rights Law.  She attended the founding meeting (in New York) of the Lucy Stone League and became a member of its executive committee.

Her activism on behalf of women was her way to help solve "a problem she returned to repeatedly in her novels:  women's frustration at their lack of opportunities."

It is therefore fitting to pay tribute to Zona Gale on her birthday which in 2015 has been named Women's Equality Day to support the Equal Rights Amendment.

Born in Portage, Wisconsin, a small river town that remained her lifelong spiritual home, and was, under various fictitious names, the setting of many of her novels and plays. She was a descendant of a colonist who had settled in Watertown, MA in 1604 and her great-great-grandfather Henry Gale had fought in the Battle of Lexington in 1777.   Her father instilled in his sheltered, delicate child his homespun philosophy of human perfectibility and her well-read and overprotective mother was the dominant influence in her life.
      When she was eight, she decided to become a writer.  Her early sentimental stories, written during her Portage public school years (1891-1895) at the University of Wisconsin were never published. Upon graduation she moved to Milwaukee and became a reporter for the Evening Wisconsin and later for the Milwaukee Journal.  Among her more interesting assignments were her interviews of touring theatrical celebrities like Ellen Terry and Sir Henry Irving.

A graduate with an MA in literature from the University of Wisconsin in 1899, she was employed by the New York Evening World. But during the summer of 1902 she became Edward Clarence Stedman's
secretary.  The position gave her a chance to concentrate on free-lance and fiction writing and helped her to form important literary friendships.

Beginning in 1911 she lived in Portage and visited New York for two months each winter.  Her initial return to Wisconsin coincided with the beginning of her activism for social issues. She lectured often on behalf of women's suffrage, pacifism, better labor conditions, and Senator Robert M. La Follette's Progressive Party movement.

MISS LULU BETT

When her 1919 novel Miss Lulu Bett became a best seller, producer
Brock Pemberton encouraged her to dramatize it, which she did in ten days.   Pemberton responded to the adaptation by writing: "The play has the same direct, incisive quality the book had; it cuts to the quick, and lays bare the lines of the characters. In its simplicity, sincerity, and reality it strikes a new note in the theatre."


Critics and audiences welcomed the play with enthusiasm when it opened at the Belmont Theatre on December 27, 1920. However Zona decided a few weeks later to alter the play's ending from the ambiguous tableau of a newly liberated woman facing an uncertain future to a more conventional "happy ending."  She explained her revision in a statement to the
New York Tribune (1/21/1921) and the Miss Lulu Bett went on to a 600 performance run and won the Pulitzer Prize.

From the womenscivicleagueofportage.files.wordpress.com
"She was loyalty incarnate. With her, friendship was a holy thing like love or religion. But her ultimate loyalty was to truth, to justice, to sincerity..She was unmoved by considerations of place, power, or prestige. Her heart went out the the lowly, the underprivileged, and those to whom the community never gave the warmth of its attention."  Dr. Glen Frank, former president of UW Wisconsin-Madison and close friend.

Her contribution to American drama is best expressed in terms of her regionalism.  According to Robert Gard: "It is impossible to estimate the effect of Zona Gale's writings on the feeling of Wisconsin people for Wisconsin places.  Her accomplishments threw playwriting and theatre in general into a very favorable light on the stage and made subsequent drama development easier in Wisconsin."  (Grassroots Theater)

In broader terms, Ludwig Lewisohn wrote, "Now it is not too much to say that no other American dramatist has succeeded in so fully and richly transferring to the stage the exact moral atmosphere of a class, a section, and a period, as Miss Gale."
(The Nation, February 2, 1921)


Resources:  Notable Women in the American Theatre. 1989.
Felicia Hardison Londre

Derleth, August.  Still Small Voice. 1940, a thorough and affectionate biography of Ms. Gale.
Wikipedia

Monday, August 24, 2015


LEST WE FORGET MAE WEST
(August 17, 1893 - November 22, 1980)

The most famous "Sex Goddess" of the 20th Century made a successful debut as "Baby Mae" in a song and dance act at age seven. She demanded and got her own spotlight at the Royal Theatre, Brooklyn.

At age eight, she joined a theatre stock company to play child parts.  When she became too old to play children, she continued to perform in vaudeville and went on the road with a partner who she secretly married when she was seventeen.

In 1911 after performing at the Columbia Theatre on Broadway, she received offers from Ned Wayburn and Flo Ziegfeld.  She found she was most successful in a smaller theatre where she could work more closely with audiences.  In her autobiography,
Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It, she wrote "The entire effect of my personality depends on audiences being able to see my facial expressions, gestures, slow, lazy, comic mannerisms, to hear me properly."    After starring in Vera Violetta at the Winter Garden Theatre, she teamed up with two male dancers and returned to the vaudeville circuit with star billing and a top agent from the United Booking Office.  She was making $750 a week.  Although nudity was never part of her act, she was developing a sexually seductive wiggle in her routine and adorned herself with elaborate satin and velvet gowns, rhinestones, furs and feathers.   She parodied and glorified conventional sexuality.  "It wasn't what I did, but how I did it. It wasn't what I said, but how I said it and how I looked when I did it and said it. I had evolved into a symbol and didn't even know it."

During her years on the road with vaudeville acts (1912-1916) she became interested in jazz and visited black cafes in Chicago, where she observed blacks dancing the Shimmy.  When she was cast to play the lead, Mamie Dyne, opposite Ed Wynn, in Arthur Hammerstein and Rudolph Friml's Sometime, she introduced her version of the shimmy dance.  The dance amused and titillated audiences and critics, but she soon was in trouble with the Society for the Suppression of Vice in New York City.

She had long taken liberties with lines and lyrics in her performances. Unable to find a role she liked, she wrote her own.  She produced Sex which opened at Daly's Theatre in New York on April 26, 1926. Because of the title, newspapers refused to carry ads, but a poster campaign and word of mouth made the show a success. She played the lead who was a waterfront prostitute. In its forty-first week the play was closed by the aforementioned Society.  While Mayor James Walker was on holiday, his vice mayor decided to crack down on pornography.    In court, unable to establish that the text was obscene, the prosecutor secured a conviction on the basis that West, fully clothed in a tight metallic evening gown, moved her navel in an obscene way when she danced.  She was sentenced to serve 10 days in prison at Welfare Island for "corrupting the morals of youth."

Her second play, The Drag (1926) condemned current views of homosexuality and asked for tolerance and understanding.  Her next play, The Wicked Age (1927) was an expose of bathing beauty contests with their crooked operations and fixed winners. But her greatest success was Diamond Lil (1928) a comic melodrama with a gay nineties theme set in New York's Bowery.  As was her custom, she wrote the leading role for herself and it became the personification of Mae West as she was and wished to be and solidified the type of role she would play when she moved to Hollywood.  She realized that Diamond Lil, descending the stairs of a western dance hall, clad in extravagant turn-of-the-century costumes, lying in a golden bed reading the Police Gazette, spoofing the Salvation Army, love, and marriage and belting out the popular ballad, Frankie and Johnny, was her other self. It was a huge success. But her play Pleasure Man (1928) opened at the Biltmore and was closed by the police.  She went to court and won, but did not reopen the show.

All of her plays, never meant to be "classics" of the theatre, have aged well.  When she revived Diamond Lil 21 years later, critics compared it to American folklore like the minstrel show and burlesque.  In more ways than one, West had wiggled her way into popular culture.
     In 1948 Brooks Atkinson, reviewer for the New York Times, asked what all the 'patrol wagon ruckus' was about twenty years earlier because Mae's burlesque of sex (Diamond Lil) was "about as wicked as a sophomore beer night and smoker." (NY Times)

She decided to accept a $5,000 a-week contract from Paramount Pictures in 1932. Her twelve films included Night After Night in which she had ad-libbed an answer to an admiring remark, "Goodness, what beautiful diamonds," saying "Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearies."
          Then came She Done Him Wrong, I'm No Angel, Belle of the Nineties, Klondike Annie and 
Every Day's A Holiday. Her pictures rescued Paramount from financial problems, made a star of the unknown Cary Grant, and made West the highest paid star in Hollywood.  She teamed up with W. C. Fields to make a mock western, My Little Chickadee, writing the script and leaving room for Fields's improvisations.

Audience response to her was always strong.  Modern audiences know her primarily through her films. Like W. C. Fields and the Marx Brothers, she continues to be  in the iconoclastic tradition of Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin, and Buster Keaton, who ridiculed the sweet, the nice, the polite, and the accepted social customs.

"Come up and see me some time."



Resources:  Notable Women in the American Theatre. 1989.  Fran Hassencahl
Mae West. Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It.  1959. Revised in 1970

Sunday, August 23, 2015



LEST WE FORGET ETHEL BARRYMORE
(August 16, 1879 - June 17, 1959)

The queen of the American stage is best remembered for her forceful and compassionate portrayal of Miss Moffat in
The Corn is Green by Emlyn Williams.


Born into a theatrical family, the sister of John and Lionel Barrymore, she really had no choice about her destiny. She was literally born to be an actress.  However when she was in school, she developed a passionate desire to become a concert pianist, sometimes practicing as much as five hours a day. When she was fifteen, after her dear mother had died and her grandmother informed her she would have to earn her own living, she joined the tour of The Rivals starring Mrs. Drew, her grandmother, as Mrs. Malaprop  and Joseph Jefferson as Bob Acres.  "Acting was, after all the only thing I could do best."

After the tour her uncle, the charismatic John Drew, was able to secure her a small role in the Charles Frohman production of The Bauble Shop (1894).  Due to leading lady Elsie De Wolfe's decision to remain in New York when the play went on tour, Ethel who had been playing a "tea-tray carrier" and was her understudy was allowed to play Lady Kate.  She was not yet sixteen.  In Chicago she received her first mention:  "An opalescent dream named Ethel Barrymore. . .came on and played Lady Kate."

One night, while touring in J. M. Barrie's Rosemary with her Uncle John Drew, she received a telegram from playwright William Gillette asking her to appear in the small role of Miss Kittredge and to understudy the ingenue in his play
Secret Service.  She was delighted to appear on the London stage. Laurence Irving, Sir Henry Irving's son was infatuated with her and Sir Henry and
Ellen Terry asked her to remain in England to play a role in The Bells and Peter the Great written by Laurence Irving.

Returning to the United States,  playwright Clyde Fitch offered her the leading role of Madame Trentoni in his play Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines.
The New York opening on Feb. 4, 1901 made theatrical history. Not only was her charm as an actress applauded, but during the run of the play a fashion writer noted the development of "a real Barrymore cult among the girls, who model themselves on her." Young girls copied her clothes and hair styles.
       Further acting triumphs included Zoe Blundell in Mid-Channel (1910), The Shadow in which she played the role of a paralyzed woman confined to a wheelchair, Emma McChesney in the play
Our Mrs. McChesney by Edna Ferber and George V. Hobart.  Charles Frohman was never to see her in the play because he died when the Lusitania sank after being struck by a German torpedo on May 7, 1915.

She was looking forward to starting rehearsals for Zoe Akins' play Declassee when early in August, 1919 the New York shows were closed by the actors' strike.  She was drawn into the strike and became a leader of the Actors' Equity Group. As a result she was one of the people chosen to sign the five-year pact between actors and management that ended the strike.


Declassee opened on October 16, 1919 at the Empire Theatre. She played Lady Helen, a slightly tarnished lady, which turned out to be one of her greatest triumphs. With her two hundredth performance she broke the Empire Theatre's all-time box office record.

During the 1920s many actors were moving to California to work in film, but she gave no thought to deserting the stage.
In 1926 she made her greatest hit as Constance Middleton in Somerset Maugham's The Constant Wife. On December 17, 1928 the new theatre built by the Shuberts on W. 47th St. was named in honor of Ethel Barrymore.

Ethel's two brothers were both in Hollywood and in 1932 they convinced her to appear with them in a film. They had never appeared together in the same play and now they were co-starring in the film Rasputin and the Empress. Although she did not enjoy the experience, reviews were good and press agents began calling the Barrymores the "Royal Family of the American Stage."

The depression years of the thirties were hard times for her. Stage roles were not frequent and she was reduced to playing James M. Barrie's lead in the short play The Twelve Pound Look, which accompanied a feature film.  She was also in financial straits. In 1936 she began a 26-week series of radio programs of her own featuring her in revivals of plays in which she had appeared on Broadway. She was able to achieve financial stability.

It wasn't until 1940 after out of town tryouts she opened in New York as Miss Moffat in The Corn is Green.  'Magnificent" was the word most often used by the critics. John Mason Brown wrote that she "gives the finest, most thoughtful and concentrated performance she has given in many years. (New York Post, 11/27/1940). She played Miss Moffat for a total of 461 performances on Broadway before beginning a national tour.

She wrote in Memories, her autobiography:
Herman Shumlin had secured the American rights of The Corn is Green, and asked me to read it. When he came to the Colony Club to talk to me about it, I said, "You can't be Stanislavskyish about this. It's a simple play about a simple Englishwoman with the gift of teaching, who gets a wonderful chance."
   He looked a little startled that anybody should have an opinion about anything, but he controlled his apparent amazement and we came quickly to an agreement.
   The play and I were instant and terrific successes and believe me it was high time for that success. It came at a crucial moment in my life and made all the difference."

In 1944 she interrupted her tour of The Corn Is Green to play the role of Ma Mott in the film
None But the Lonely Heart with Cary Grant. She received the Academy Award for best performance by an actress.   She started to receive more film offers and could be seen in The Spiral Staircase,
Night Song with Merle Oberon and Alfred Hitchock's The Paradine Case. During the 1950s some of her best roles were in  Portrait of Jennie, Pinky, Kind Lady, and Young at Heart.

On her seventieth birthday, the Motion Picture Academy, in cooperation with the NBC radio network, presented a half hour tribute to her.  In 1950 she went to New York to participate in the American National Theatre and Academy (ANTA) Album, the theatre's annual benefit for itself. She agreed to do a scene from her old vaudeville standby, The Twelve Pound Look. It was to be her last appearance on the stage.

The Twelve Pound Look

One hundred admirers from Harry S. Truman to the leading stars of stage and screen sent messages and happy birthday wishes when she celebrated her 70th year. "They were broadcast in a half-hour, pre-recorded program over the ABC network scheduled at 10:30 o'clock in each time zone across the country." (New York Times, 8/16/ 1949).

Ms. Barrymore wrote: "To hear the dear, remembered voices of a hundred other friends, each bringing its own echo of that birthday message from all the corners of the earth.....
And Katharine Hepburn saying, as only her voice could say it:
...."I think what astounds us people of the screen and theater about her is the number and intensity of her interests. Would it be disloyal to my profession for me to hint that great stars are apt to show a little more interest in themselves than in anything else? Not Miss Barrymore. It's the world she's interested in--or rather a lot of different worlds--sports, history, music, politics, books. It seems impossible that a human being with the austere allowance of only twenty-four hours every day can keep in such close touch with them.
                  "She has more friends than anyone I know, but she's not a dear, gentle soul. Barrymores don't come like that. She has a trenchant wit, she can rebuke stupidity, or intolerance with silence better than Joe Louis could do it with his fists.  She makes appallingly accurate observations. She doesn't know the meaning of fear or the meaning of caution..."

And Spencer Tracy: "The year 1924. The play, A Royal Fandango. You, Miss Barrymore, were the star. I had one line. On the opening night I stood waiting for my entrance, shakily wondering whom they'd get to replace me the second night. Suddenly you stopped beside me and said quietly, "Relax. That's all you have to do--just relax." This is Spencer Tracy. I've been capitalizing on that advice ever since."

Resources:  Wikipedia.  Notable Women in the American Theatre. 1989.
Memories.  An Autobiography by Ethel Barrymore. First Edition 1955


Saturday, August 22, 2015


LEST WE FORGET  EDNA FERBER
(August 15, 1885 - April 16, 1968)

She described herself as a 'blighted Bernhardt'.

Edna Ferber's childhood was nomadic. Her family moved from Kalamazoo, Michigan, to Chicago, to Ottumwa, Iowa, back to Chicago, to Appleton, Wisconsin and again to Chicago.  Chicago later served as home base for Ferber, but Ottumwa and Appleton had the greatest impact on the young Edna. She never forgot the anti-Semitic treatment she underwent in the Iowa coal-mining town, though as an adult she saw her seven years there as "stringent, strengthening years" that gave her "a solid foundation of stamina, determination and a profound love of justice". Although she did not practice the Jewish religion, she was proud of her Jewish heritage and lashed out against anti-Semitism throughout her career.

From the age of seven to seventeen she read at least one book a day by such authors as Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, O. Henry, George Eliot, and Guy de Maupassant.  The theatre was an important part of her life, as she noted in her autobiography A Peculiar Treasure. "Certainly I have been stage-struck all my life.  The theatre served as a refuge during the family's Iowa years.  "I suppose it was the color, an escape in that dour, unlovely world."   Her love affair with the theatre continued at the high school in Appleton, WI, where she played leading roles in school plays.   She wanted to attend the Northwestern University School of Elocution in Evanston, Illinois. Her father's income could not support a college education. She  didn't want to be a writer; she loved the stage.

Foremost among her twelve novels were So Big (1924), Show Boat (1926), Cimarron (1930),
Saratoga Trunk (1941), Giant (1952), and Ice Palace (1958).  Eight of her novels were made into films.

Her career as a playwright began in 1914. Upon returning from her first trip to Europe, she agreed to  collaborate with George V. Hobart on a play based on Emma McChesney, a character she had created and published stories about her in magazines.  Entitled Our Mrs. McChesney, it opened at the
Lyceum Theatre in 1915. While she was pleased that the play was produced by the Charles Frohman
organization, she was unhappy with the choice of Ethel Barrymore for the title role. She was also disappointed with the script itself, describing it as "clumsy, inept and spiritless."

Playwright George S. Kaufman entered her life as a collaborator and a friend in 1924 when he asked her in a letter if she would like to collaborate with him on writing a play based on her short story, Old Man Minick. Although she was skeptical that the story was stageworthy, she jumped at the chance to work with Kaufman.  "If George had approached me with the idea of dramatizing McGuffey's First ReaderI'd have been enchanted to talk about it." It was the beginning of a work relationship which would produce six plays over the next 24 years.  Minick (1924), The Royal Family (1927), Dinner at Eight (1932), Stage Door (1936), The Land is Bright (1941), and Bravo! (1948).

Critics and biographers credit her with plot and character development in her collaborations with Kaufman and give Kaufman credit for dialogue and playwriting expertise.  George Oppenheimer, in reviewing the 1966 revival of Dinner at Eight, probably best evaluates the contribution of the Ferber and Kaufman team to the American theatre.
"George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber wrote an entertainment rather than an earth-shattering contribution to the art of drama, but it is intricately and wonderfully constructed, filled with bright dialogue and its characters are varied and as absorbing today as well as yesterday."

According to Julie Gilbert, Edna's grand niece, in the preface of her brilliant biography
FERBER  Edna Ferber and Her Circle:  Applause Books 1998.
       "I am fierce about my belief and defense of her prodigious gifts of observation, compassion, accuracy and storytelling.  As a novelist, she was unique--a thermometer of America, she took its pulse with every fiction. As a playwright, she held her own with one of theatre's savviest. She and George S. Kaufman were disciplined collaborators who knew that good work was meat and success was Creme Brulee.
          In her heyday---which lasted from 1924 when she won the Pulitzer Prize for the novel So Big until 1958 with the publication of Ice Palace---Ferber's bread always seemed so plentifully buttered. This was because she knew how to bake and how to churn. She was a hard and honest worker. She had no doubt that with 12 novels, 2 autobiographies, 8 plays, 4 collections of short stories, and a series about a traveling saleswoman which caused Theodore Roosevelt to call her the "dandiest writer in America," she had earned a place in perpetuity."



Friday, August 21, 2015


LEST WE FORGET JUDITH MARTIN
(August 13, 1918 - July 30, 2012)

She developed a contemporary theater for children.

 Judith Iris Martin, the daughter of immigrants from Russia, grew up in Newark, New Jersey and commuted to Manhattan for dance and drama lessons. She later studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater under the famed actress Maria Ouspenskaya.

She also helped run the dance project of the National Youth Administration, a New Deal agency, studied dance with Martha Graham, and performed with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

She co-founded The Paper Bag Players in 1958. She wrote, designed, choreographed, directed, and performed in 35 Paper Bag Players shows. As artistic director from 1963-2009, she developed a contemporary theater for children. The shows intimately reflected a child's world. Each story was taken from a child's experience and unfolded in a theatrical environment made of the simplest of everyday objects: cardboard boxes, paper bags, and found household objects children recognize and in fact play with. Even the littlest of theatergoers felt a part of the action, thrilled to see their imaginations and fantasies so vividly reflected.  In her work with children she began to experiment with improvisations and to develop her own understanding of what captures the imagination of children and holds their interest.


The Paper Bag Players' popularity grew by leaps and bounds. From performances on the Lower East Side at the Living Theater and the
Henry Street Settlement, the company had soon toured in 37 states, Canada, England, Scotland, Wales, Israel, Iran, Egypt, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan.

Theater critics, from Clive Barnes who called Ms. Martin "a national treasure," to Charles Marowitz who praised The Paper Bag Players' ability to "reach children at their level of consciousness" hailed the company's work. Awards include an OBIE for, "raising the level of children's theater through intelligence and imagination."

The troupe's approach was to do quick, witty skits--12 to 15 in a one-hour show--on aspects of children's lives, from sleepovers to homework to taking baths. Bouncy music from a harpsichord or piano propelled the antic, vaudeville-like capers.
It was one of the first children's theater groups to appear on educational television, and it attracted support from the National Endowment for the Arts, which enabled it to keep ticket prices low. The troupe's many awards included three from the American Theater Wing.


Judith Martin said about performing for children, "Ours is a lovely field to work in. It compels you to do something more basic, more fun-loving, more joyous. It is a great support to your imagination."

The Paper Bag Players used people of all sizes, ages, and physical characteristics in the performances. They felt that children could more easily identify with people who look and act normal. It was not unusual to have performers to go into the audience to involve the children.







Resources:  International New York Times obituary, July 31, 1012 by Douglas Martin
Jewish Women's Archive:  Judith Martin, Children's Theater Artist 1918-2012

Sunday, August 16, 2015


LEST WE FORGET PAULINE LORD
(August 13, 1890 - October 11, 1950)

She was notable for roles in Eugene O'Neill's plays.  When she opened in London as Anna Christie (April 10, 1923), the reception was overwhelming. The ovation at the Strand Theatre lasted a half hour; the audience sang "For She's a Jolly Good Fellow" and mobbed her dressing room.  Critics mentioned her breathless voice, her realistic acting that was not acting at all and Brooks Atkinson wrote about the "elusive, tremulous, infinitely gifted Pauline Lord."

Her lifelong interest in theatre began with a school play and by trips to Saturday matinees in San Francisco. She studied acting at the Alcazar Theatre School and made her professional debut at the age of thirteen with the Belasco Stock Company. The popular comedian
Nat Goodwin saw her in a play and invited her to look him up if she ever came to New York.  After the San Francisco earthquake and fire, she relocated there and he debut was in The Talker by
Marion Fairfax (1912) which was successful.  Producer Arthur Hopkins was impressed with her acting ability and she starred in several of his productions including Samson and Delilah.

EUGENE O'NEILL

Her first outstanding success was in Eugene O'Neill's play Anna Christie  which opened at the Vanderbilt Theatre, November 2, 1921.  In preparation for the role she observed the prostitutes on 10th Avenue, but eventually modeled the character on a department store clerk who waited on her and projected a "beaten soul. . . tired to death."  Her other truly great role of the decade was that of Nina Leeds in O'Neill's Strange Interlude, a role she took over from Lynn Fontanne.  She toured in the play during 1928 and 1929.

OTHER SUCCESSES
She appeared as Amy in Sidney Howard's They Knew What They Wanted (1924), Trelawney of the Wells (1927), Salvation (1928). In 1932 she scored considerable success in The Late Christopher Bean. But perhaps the most complex character of her career was as Zenobia in the dramatization of
Edith Wharton's novel Ethan Frome.  Stark Young titled his critique of the play, "Miss Lord's Day" and pointed out that she "tops everything, the story, the play, the scene, the acting. ...her performance has a miraculous humility, a subtle variety and radiation and shy power that are indescribable...She must have a role that suits her, one in which she feels right. When she does so, there is no other player who can bring into it such tragic elements, such bite, or so sharp a stain of life." (Immortal Shadows)


There are few interviews with her on record though her picture appeared frequently in magazines. She was described as being petite, five feet two inches, and possessing a mop of tawny hair, a straight little nose, wistful, velvety eyes, and a soft, sweet voice. Her manner was hesitant, at times timid and vague with an elusive quality that fascinated her audiences.

When the Moscow Art Theatre was leading the way in realistic acting and when many American actresses were bringing their personalities to the stage, Pauline Lord was developing her unique kind of realistic portrayal of emotion.   Producer Arthur Hopkins encouraged her to do whatever she felt like doing on the stage.  "If there is such a thing as Absolute Truth that is what she achieves." he said later in her career.  She herself confessed to her interviewer that she could never act unless she was unhappy or nervous. "On stage I know exactly what I am about...I have to study, struggle, get to rock bottom. . .But finally I see every word, every action; every intonation, every movement is clear to me."

Resource:  Notable Women in the American Theatre. 1989.   Nelda K. Balch
Young, Stark. Immortal Shadows. 1948 reprinted in 1973
Stevens. Ashton. Actorviews. 1923

Saturday, August 15, 2015

LEST WE FORGET EDITH OLIVER
(August 9, 1913 - Feb. 23, 1998)

The drama critic at The New Yorker for 31 years said in a 1992 interview, "Off Broadway was the love of my life. I was young enough to be all over town, four or five nights a week. The thrill was Harlem in the 60's, for the music and the theater."

Edith Oliver (nee Goldsmith) was born in New York City to a "stage struck" family. She studied at Smith College but did not graduate.
However she studied acting privately with
Mrs. Patrick Campbell, Frances Robinson Duff and worked as an apprentice at the Berkshire Playhouse in Stockbridge, MA, becoming an assistant director between 1932 and 1933.  She was a fan of the novelist, poet and playwright Oliver Goldsmith, and began using the name Edith Oliver as a stage name in her early 20s. An aspiring stage actress, she landed small parts in radio plays which included Gangbusters, Crime Doctor and the Philip Morris Playhouse (frequently using her low-pitched voice to portray gun molls).  After casting for the Biow Advertising agency, she wrote and produced several radio quiz shows.

She began working part-time for The New Yorker magazine in 1947. During the 1950s she wrote short pieces and book reviews which ran without a by-line. In 1961 she officially joined the staff, reviewing movies for five years and then theater for 32 years. ---always off-Broadway, but occasionally Broadway.  Known for her toughness and her love of theater, she became "among the most influential voices covering off-Broadway theater. She was the first reviewer to recognize and champion such playwrights as David Mamet, Christopher Durang, and Wendy Wasserstein and Sam Shepard.

Thornton Wilder wrote to her, "Your immense usefulness did not proceed from your 'championing' the new theater, beating the drum, 'torch-bearing', but simply from your writing so well,--quietly, firmly, faithfully reporting what you saw. There is no persuasion equal to that fidelity."

Edward Albee said of her: "She was tough, she was honest, and she didn't write her reviews before she saw the play. She had an agenda, but hers was really quite simple. If you were any good at all as a playwright, if you were honest, if you were tough, and you realized that a play had to be more than decorative, and have something to say, no matter how badly you said it, she was on your side...Woe unto you if you consciously did less than she knew you were capable of."

According to Lloyd Richards, the veteran stage director and longtime artistic director of the National Playwrights Conference, "She was a person of great wit, great sardonic and satiric wit and yet very generous at the same time. You didn't puff yourself up in front of Edith. She could prick the balloon."

She was a dramaturge for 20 seasons (1975-1995)  at the National Playwrights Conference in Waterford, Connecticut.  George C. White, chairman and founder of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center remarked: "She was packaged like the quintessential elderly lady that a Boy Scout would help across the street, except that she drank martinis, smoked cigarettes and could, on occasion, have a mouth like a sailor. She could be tough and would brook no banality, but she truly loved playwrights and loved the theater."

In 1996 she was presented with the Lucille Lortel award for "Lifetime Dedication to Off-Broadway" by the Off-Broadway League.  The Eugene O'Neill Playwrights' Conference renamed their outdoor theater after her; it became known as "The Edith."  Currently, the O'Neill Theater Center's National Critics Institute, directed by Dan Sullivan, awards a full scholarship to "a young critic, preferably female, whose copy reflects some of the shrewdness and kindness that marked every Edith Oliver review."

At a critics' roundtable in Manhattan, she described her approach to her work. "I think of myself as a member of the audience and I try to maintain that attitude until the curtain comes down. I don't want to deprive myself of any surprises."

Resources:  Wikipedia, Notable Women in the American Theatre. ed. 1989
Gayle Austin
NY Times Obituary, Feb. 25, 1998 by Rick Lyman

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

LEST WE FORGET ROSETTA LE NOIRE
(August 8, 1911 - March 17, 2002)

Her passionate commitment to a theatre that is color-blind earned her
New York Mayor Edward Koch's Award of Honor for Arts and Culture.

I knew Ms. Le Noire in the 1980s when I would see her at Actors' Fund meetings, social occasions, or at her beloved theatre AMAS Repertory Company and what I remember vividly is her electricity, magnetism, passion, dedication, and smile.  She was rarely without a smile on her face. She loved life, she loved the theatre and the arts, she loved young people who aspired to careers on stage.  And the words she would always say when she held your hand were God is Love.  AMAS means You love.  She believed in the healing power of touching others. Whether spiritually or just merely physically holding a hand and using a gentle massaging motion to ease the stress of the day.  Her mother had taught her that.  We cannot forget this great lady who united rather than divided people of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds.


Born in New York City, her father served as a Republican leader in New York's 21st Assembly District for more than 50 years.  She told a Sunday News reporter in 1976: "We lived on Strivers Row, those blocks in the 130's between Lenox and Seventh Avenue. If you had a government post, or were a doctor or a lawyer, you bought a tree-shaded brownstone, the symbol of success. No mistress of such a house went to get so much as a box of salt without wearing gloves and a hat. I do miss the niceties."

Her parents wanted her to be a nurse, but her godfather, dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, encouraged her to pursue a career in the theatre. At fifteen she became a chorus girl performing with her godfather. She wanted to perform African songs and dances and she appeared with the WPA's Federal Theatre Project as the First Witch in Macbeth (1936) and later in Bassa Moona. Her Broadway debut was as Peep Bo in Mike Todd's production of The Hot Mikado at the Broadhurst Theatre in 1939. Her Broadway credits included:  Anna Lucasta (1944), Mister Johnson (1956), Tambourines to Glory (1963), I Had A Ball (1964), A Streetcar Named Desire (1973),
The Sunshine Boys (1974), and The Royal Family (1976).  Off Broadway audiences saw her in
Take A Giant Step (1956), A Cry of Players (1968), and Lady Day (1972).

In 1968 an event occurred that had a profound effect on her. She wrote about it. "I was standing in a hallway near a classroom in a Harlem church. There was a shout. Who do we love? We love Black. Who do we hate? We hate Whitey." (NY Amsterdam News, 1972).  She was prompted to establish a theatrical company that would focus on uniting rather than dividing people of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds.  She founded AMAS Repertory Company in 1969.  The company has focused on musical theatre including Bubbling Brown Sugar (1975), Bojangles (1976) and Blackberries (1985)

She championed the cause of racial equity for more than 70 years. Her efforts profoundly influenced the New York theater community. She created an artistic community where members' individual skills were recognized without regard to race, creed, color, religion, or national origin.  The Actors Equity Association awarded her the first Rosetta Le Noire Award for helping contribute to the diversification of theatre casting in 1988.
       
The Rosie Award "is given to individuals who demonstrate extraordinary accomplishment and dedication in the theatrical arts and to corporations that work to promote opportunity and diversity."
Past honorees have included Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Geoffrey Holder, Carmen de Lavallade, Maurice Hines, Phylicia Rashad, Woodie King, Jr., and George C. Wolfe.

Awards she received include the Audelco Award for superior and sustained contribution to the performing arts in 1977 and again in 1982 as an outstanding pioneer.   In 1999 she was awarded the National Medal of Arts.
Posthumously she was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by
the League of Professional Theatre Women.
Despite her many theatrical achievements, the personal price she paid to pursue her craft was often great.  "I remember touring and the nights I sat alone in a hotel, or looking up a preacher to see if he knew a colored family who'd take me in. And stars like Dorothy McGuire and Eileen Heckart walking streets to find a restaurant where we could eat together."

She wrote several critically acclaimed plays: Come Laugh and Cry with Langston Hughes, Reminiscing with Sissle & Blake, House Party, and Soul: Yesterday and Today. She received the Frank Silvera Writer's Award for Playwriting.

Resource: Notable Women in American Theatre.  Maria Rodriguez
Wikipedia



Saturday, August 8, 2015

LEST WE FORGET ALICE GERSTENBERG
(August 2, 1885 - July 28, 1972)

Founder of  the Playwrights Theatre in Chicago

Born in Chicago, Illinois, she was the only child of Julia and Erich Gerstenberg.  Her grandfather was a founder and member of the Chicago Board of Trade in 1848, a position her father inherited. Her family enjoyed a higher standard of living than most middle-class families in Chicago.  Alice enjoyed travel and social indulgences including the commercial theater. After attending a private school in Chicago she later graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1907 (the alma mater of Theresa Helburn and Katharine Hepburn).
While at college she had developed an interest in writing fiction. Early novels include Little World (1908), Unquenched Fire (1912), and The Conscience of Sarah Platt (1915).

In 1915 she also wrote her first full-length play, a dramatization of Alice in Wonderland, which played at the Booth Theatre and at the Fine Arts Theatre in New York.

 
Her next play, Overtones, first produced in 1915,  was directed by
Edward Goodman (one of the founders of the Theatre Guild) and performed by the Washington Square Players at the Bandbox Theatre in New York. The play crystallizes her use of the experimental form with a familiar dramatic conflict. It enjoyed many productions due to its innovative use of the split subject, a technique Eugene O'Neill would later use in his play
Strange Interlude. 

  Lily Langtry starred in the subsequent London production. Alice  later expanded the play to three acts and directed the longer version at the Powers Theater in Chicago.

Overtones was published in Ten-One Act Plays (1921), her second collection, along with Pot Boiler (The Dress Rehearsal), which she entered in the Little Theatre Tournament in New York in 1923.  The New York Times reviewer reported that the production was interestingly staged and played and it met with the approval of the audience.

She continued to write many one-act plays early on in her career, many of which were performed by regional or little theaters in and around Chicago. The majority of these plays demonstrate her feminist tendencies--critiquing the social roles and decisions which constrained women of the time.

Eugene O'Neill claimed he was influenced by the psychological dimensions of her characterizations.  She always tried experimental techniques in her writing and the staging of her plays.

She was a charter member of the Chicago Little Theatre and used her pen and influence to promote the openings of other amateur theatres around the country.  In her tenacious efforts to make drama accessible to the public, to make theatres available to fledgling playwrights she was most notable in founding the Playwrights Theatre of Chicago  (1922 - 1945).    

In 1921 she founded the Junior League Children's Theater in Chicago to give them an early experience with the theater, the opportunities to act, write, and become involved.  She hoped her work would bring Chicagoans to support non-commercial theater.  She was one of a handful of women invited to speak at the National Drama Council and National Theatre Conference in 1936 and won the Chicago Foundation for Literature Award in 1938.  She was criticized for not moving to New York like many of her female Midwestern colleagues including  Zoe Akins and Susan Glaspell.  But her decision to remain in Chicago demonstrated her commitment to the Little Theater movement, women's issues in the Midwest, as well as a developed sense for the regional community which she wrote for and about.

Resource:  Wikipedia, Notable Women in American Theatre.  Debra Young
References:  Shafer, Yvonne. American Women Playwrights (1900-1950).  1995
Hecht, Stuart. The Plays of Alice Gerstenberg: Cultural Hegemony in the American Little Theater. 1992
Atlas, Marilyn. Alice Gerstenberg's Psychological Drama.  1982.





Wednesday, August 5, 2015



LEST WE FORGET LAURA KEENE
(July 20, 1826 - November 4, 1873)

The first powerful female manager in New York

Born Mary Frances Moss in London, she had very little formal education but was a voracious reader.  Some say she was trained for the stage by her aunt, the British actress  Elizabeth Yates.    In her late teens she married a London tavern keeper and bore him two daughters. Her husband, convicted of a felony, was sent to a penal colony in Australia.  She was forced to seek a livelihood on the stage.   Like Fanny Kemble, her first appearance was Juliet,  not at the Covent Garden Theatre, but with a company in Surrey on August 26, 1851.  She changed her last name to Keene.

She debuted at the Olympic Theatre in London in Bulwer-Lytton's Lady of Lyons.  She was, by all accounts, a beautiful woman, with a slight but graceful body, rich auburn hair and large, expressive eyes.  She appeared in The Chain of Events (1852) at the Lyceum, which was then under the managership of the famous Madame Vestris and her husband.    Madame Vestris would have a considerable influence on her subsequent career.

It is presumed that James W. Wallack, on one of his 34 Trans-Atlantic trips, saw Laura performing at the Lyceum and engaged her for the company with which he opened Wallack's Theatre in New York City in the fall of 1852.   She became the leading lady of the company performing roles in Much Ado About Nothing, The Rivals, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It and She Stoops to Conquer.
The Albion declared "She will spoil the critics' trade, if she continues thus adding laurels upon laurels to her brow." (Odell, Annals of the New York Stage).

She left New York for Baltimore during the run of The Rivals without alerting Mr. Wallack. There she opened the Charles Street Theatre on December 24, 1853 as manager and star.   As to what led to her abrupt departure from Wallack's employment, there is a theory that her acquaintance with John Lutz from a well-to-do mercantile family in Washington D.C. with whom she fell in love was the inspiration.
After a brief stint as manager of the Union Theatre in San Francisco, she was on her way to Australia, in a company that included Edwin Booth, to play in Sydney and Melbourne.  By early 1855 she was back in San Francisco as manager of the American Theatre.  Meeting with much success she decided to return to New York City and assume a serious, long-term career.  She rented, refurbished and rechristened the Metropolitan Theatre Laura Keene's Varieties.  

The first season lasted until the summer, 1856, including four premieres of new works. She closed the season performing Lady Teazle in The School For Scandal.   She had achieved both artistic and financial success. But the competition was not to be outdone. Because of a legal loophole in her lease, Manager William E. Burton was able to buy the Metropolitan and Keene was homeless.

Undaunted, she engaged John Trimple to build her a new theatre seating 1,800 at 624 Broadway (near Broome St.), for $74,000 plus interest, to be paid off at the rate of $12,000 per year for seven years.
The Laura Keene Theatre housed the only true stock company in New York.  Her stars performed in a varied repertory. She refused to adhere to the prevalent custom of casting to a line of parts which contributed to the development of several notable acting careers including Joseph Jefferson, E. A. Sothern, Rose Eytinge, Agnes Robertson and Dion Boucicault. She fostered native American playwriting talent, presenting premieres of many plays by Boucicault, Oliver Bell Bunce, and  J. G. Burnett.

She was concerned with scenery, costume, and stage direction. The New York Times in 1862 credited her with a"wealth of fancy and artistic finish that has never been equalled or even approached at any other New York theatre."  Joseph Jefferson reported that even in the plays primarily set indoors, she spared no expense. Such was her managerial ability that she successfully weathered the panic of 1857 (which thrust Burton permanently out of managing and damaged Wallack) by displaying great taste and judgment in making cheap articles look like expensive ones.  She also spent more money on advertising than her fellow managers and introduced Wednesday and Saturday matinees so successfully they became standard in theatre practice.

Her executive ability was evident not only in financial management, publicity, settings, costumes, and in training of actors but in directing her company. She was universally known as "the Duchess"--a term of admiration mixed with awe and sometimes with resentment of her autocratic behavior. Although she was not above sewing costumes and painting scenery when necessity demanded, she was inflexible in rehearsal discipline and spared neither herself nor her cast in the preparations for performance.

In 1858,  Tom Taylor's Our American Cousin debuted in Laura Keene's Theatre.   After seven seasons were over she began a series of farewell performances ultimately ending her career as an actor-manager.  She began to tour under her own management and played not only in Washington, D.C., Boston, Philadelphia and New Haven but nearly every other major city east of the Mississippi.

Keene's company were performing Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre in  Washington, D. C. on April 14, 1865. While Abraham Lincoln and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln were watching the play in the presidential box, actor John Wilkes Booth fatally shot President Lincoln and fled the theatre. Amid the confusion, Laura Keene made her way to the presidential box where Lincoln lay dying and cradled the wounded President's head in her lap. His fatal head wound bled on her dress, staining her cuff. (The cuff was later donated to the National Museum of American History.) She was arrested after the assassination but her husband's political connections in Washington secured her release.

After the death of her beloved husband  John Lutz, she tried to establish herself as manager of a standing theatre company and an extensive tour.  Her last appearance occurred at Wood's Museum in 1872. In spite of a terminal illness she was engaged in co-editng and published a Fine Arts magazine, toured widely as a lecturer on the fine arts, accompanied by her daughter Clara who contributed soprano solos and shortly before her death appeared in two short comedies.

Words spoken at her funeral:  "No braver, steadier, abler soldier ever battled in the ranks of art than Laura Keene. No captain ever planned better or laboured more perseveringly or with more success. Her inflexible energy and perseverance had few equals in any walk of life." (New York Herald, Obituary, December 16, 1873).

Resource:  Notable Women in the American Theatre. 1989.  Vera Mowry Roberts
Creahan, John. The Life of Laura Keene. 1887
Johnson, Claudia D. American Actresses: Perspective on the Nineteenth Century. 1984