Saturday, December 26, 2015

(December 25, 1833 - November 6, 1916)

"Her sweetness, her susceptibility, her submission under suffering, her uncomplaining courage and repining resignation beneath undeserved persecution" made her ideal for such roles as Dot, Eily O'Connor, Jeanie Deans, and the wretched, beaten Smike." (Actors and Actresses, Vol. VI pp. 83-86).

Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, her father was Thomas Robertson, an art publisher. She began her stage career at the age of ten as a singer at the Theatre Royal, Aberdeen, and acted in the play,
The Spoiled Child.   The family moved to Dublin and she later wrote she considered herself more Irish than Scottish.

She appeared in provincial companies with Fanny Kemble,
William Macready and the Terry family.  In Liverpool she acted with Mr. and Mrs. Charles Kean and joined Kean's company when he took over the Princess's Theatre in London.  Since she was only seventeen, she lived with the Keans and became their temporary ward.

Her debut in London occurred October 16, 1850 playing a page in A Wife's Secret. She met Dion Boucicault, the house dramatist.  For the Keans' benefit in 1852 he wrote an afterpiece called The Vampire which featured both Dion and Agnes. After an argument between Dion and Kean, he resigned and Agnes moved out of the Keans home, withdrew from the company, then joined Madame Vestris at the Lyceum and soon found herself unemployed.

Boucicault, attracted by her charm and beauty, wrote several more plays for her including performing five roles in The Young Actress, his adaptation of Edward Lancaster's play The Manager's Daughter.  Sold out houses at the Theatre Royal in Montreal and news of her success brought offers from every major city in the United States.  She opened the play at Burton's Theatre in NYC in late October, 1853.   She also married Dion Boucicault who became her manager. They acted in several of his plays on tour and in 1854 she played five characters in his comic sketch at the Broadway Theatre in New York.  Audiences nicknamed her "The Fairy Star," for the title of the piece.

Signed up for a summer season at Wallack's Theatre in New York (1857) they added Old Heads and Young Hearts and London Assurance in their repertoire in which Boucicault played Dazzle and Agnes played Grace. In September 1859 she played the title role in Dot, his successful dramatization of Charles Dickens' novel, The Cricket on the Hearth with Joseph Jefferson as Caleb Plummer. The play opened the season at the remodeled Union Square Theatre, (now known as the Winter Garden). In the same season she played the pitiful, abused Smike in her husband's adaptation of Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby.  One of the sensations of the season was his play The Octoroon, in which she played Zoe, the girl with one-eighth Negro blood who is put up for auction as a slave. Dealing with the current attitudes of both Northerners and Southerners toward slavery, the play opened on December 6, four days after John Brown had been hanged.

Zoe in The Octoroon
In 1860 the Boucicaults joined Laura Keene's theatre with a string of hits: Jeanie Deans, Boucicault's adaptation of Sir Walter Scott's novel
The Heart of Midlothian, The Colleen Bawn, his play based on a true incident that had recently taken place in Ireland. She played Eily O'Connor, the Colleen bawn (fair-haired girl), a simple girl married to a wealthy husband who tries to have her murdered.
      In a triumphant return to London in 1860 they opened in The Colleen Bawn at the Adelphi Theatre which was the biggest success seen in London for decades.  
     They also presented The Octoroon in London but English audiences could not accept her death at the end of the play and so Boucicault wrote another ending  that spared her life.

Other successes by Robertson and her husband included Arrah-na-Pogue which ran for 164 performances in London; The Long Strike, one of the earliest examples of a play based on a labor dispute.   They continued to act in England and Ireland until 1868 when they announced their retirement from the stage while she was busy rearing their five children. In 1869 their sixth and last child was born.

Leaving their children in school in London, they sailed for the United States in 1872, began an engagement at Booth's Theatre and toured to Boston and other cities. Inspired by their enthusiastic reception in America, they applied for citizenship.  Unfortunately  their marriage was imperiled when one of Dion's mistresses followed him to the U.S. and Agnes sailed back to England in 1873.

Boucicault came to London in 1875 to persuade Agnes to play Moya in his play The Shaughraun with him starring as the vagabond. But their magic on stage was short-lived when their 20 year old son Willie was killed in a train accident.

In spite of attempts at reconciliation Boucicault went with a company to Australia where he married a young actress in the company. Agnes contended that they were still married and the court ruled in her favor.

After his death in 1890, she returned to America and a benefit was arranged for her at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York.
      E. H. Sothern,  Maurice Barrymore, Lillian Russell and their daughter actress Nina Boucicault appeared.

Nina Boucicault                      
She was described as small and delicate. Early pictures of her and descriptions by friends attest to her striking beauty. Her voice was described as sweet, and a critic for the New York Times wrote:
    "She had the prettiest of ballad voices and was always unaffected in the use of it."  (July 4, 1875)

In the juvenile comedy of her early career and in the breeches' parts she was bright and bewitching, but it was in serious and sad roles that she won the hears of her audience. To the popular melodramas of the day she brought charm, naturalness, and simplicity.

She wrote about her early life in "In the Days of My Youth", in Mainly About People, July 1, 1899.

REFERENCE:  Notable Women in the American Theatre. 1989  Alice McDonnell Robinson

Friday, December 18, 2015

(December 19, 1865 - Feb. 15, 1932)

For her, Henrik Ibsen was an inspiration, because she found in his plays that life-sized work that "other players tell us they have found in Shakespeare."

Her father, Thomas W. Davey and her mother Elizabeth (Lizzy) Maddern Davey were entertainers.  Although she was christened Marie Augusta Davey, she appeared on stage as Minnie Maddern. At the age of three, she was singing and dancing during act intervals for the touring company her father managed and her mother performed in. 
Her formal acting debut occurred in Little Rock, Arkansas when another visiting touring company cast her as the Duke of York in Shakespeare's Richard lll.

In a speech she gave at a dinner in her honor in 1920,  she reminisced about her days as a child actor.
"I came upon the scene in what might be called the Twilight of the Palmy Days and my recollection of that period of apprenticeship is still vivid.  The stage child, then, as in my case, was often reared in a strictly religious atmosphere.  On Sunday night our mothers might be dancing in tarlatan skirts at the theatre, but on Sunday morning we were obliged to speak in hushed tones, wear starched skirts, listen to the reading of the Bible and if we sang, confine our repertory to hymns.
               "When I was twelve I had a huge repertory of widely contrasting parts that I might be called upon to play with little notice. 
          Sometime I would be cast for the Widow Melnotte in The Lady of Lyons and the next night Little Eva in Uncle Tom's Cabin or I might be expected to play Little Mary Morgan in Ten Nights in a Barroom and sing "Father, Dear father, Come Home With Me Now"...
            "During that time it was my privilege to play children's parts with many of the illustrious
 actors of the period---the robust Barry Sullivan, the dynamic Lucille Western, the beautiful
Mary Anderson...Edwin Booth with his burning eyes and irresistible genius, Helena Modjeska, the essence of grace and charm..."
                                               As an adult actor, she debuted on May 15, 1882 at the age of sixteen in Fogg's Ferry, a comedy-melodrama by Charles E. Callahan.  The New York papers heralded her
Mrs. Fiske as Becky Sharp
performance, the Sun making a prophecy that she would more than fulfill:
"She has a native gift and disposition to her calling that will not be denied expression and which, if afforded any occasion of growth and development, cannot fail to make her a thoroughly popular artist in her line of small comedy.  She made a better impression than has been  made by any debutante in years."
    During the run of Fogg's Ferry, she married Legrand White, an accomplished musician who had joined the play's orchestra in order to woo her.  They commissioned Howard Taylor to write her next play
Caprice. It was the first of a number of plays to be written for her, and it gave early evidence of the support she would give new playwrights. In Caprice she sang "In the Gloaming," a song that became a popular ballad for decades.  However the play's run hardly outlasted their marriage which ended in divorce on June 25, 1888.  Within two years, on March 18, 1890, she married Harrison Grey Fiske, editor of the New York Dramatic Mirror. He eventually became her manager.
                                               Immediately after the wedding, Mrs. Fiske left the stage for almost four
Harrison Grey Fiske
years and began writing one-act plays including The Rose
The Eyes of the Heart and A Light from Saint Agnes. Upon her return to the stage her playwriting skills proved useful in doctoring scripts written for her.
        It was in 1894 that she appeared as Nora Helmer in Ibsen's 
A Doll's House in a single benefit performance at the Empire Theatre in New York. She championed the playwright's work in New York and on the road throughout the rest of her career both as actress and co-producer with hr husband.  Other roles were Hedda in Hedda Gabler, Rebecca West in Rosmersholm, Lona in Pillars of Society and Mrs. Alving in Ghosts.
      After A Doll's House, her next major triumph was as Tess in
Lorimer Stoddard's adaptation of Hardy's novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles,
a critical and popular success.
     Between 1897 and 1909 Harrison and Mrs. Fiske opposed the monopolistic Theatre Syndicate so that on her tours she performed in many inferior theatres and on improvised stages.  To combat the syndicate they leased the Manhattan Theatre in 1901, mounting productions known for their ensemble playing and their rejection of the star system.
    Mrs. Fiske felt that the star system encouraged the successful actor to be surrounded by inferior actors and that it had to be  "calmly and firmly wiped out."  The company continued until 1914.  As a director she strove for ensemble playing, noting that a production should possess a "perfect on a par with the performance of a well-balanced orchestra."
     She prodded actors to search out honest projections of their emotions and cautioned them not to rush their execution.  Her attention to detail in rehearsal impressed an eyewitness to write,"Nothing is too small for the eye and attention of Mrs. Fiske--whether it be the gesture of an actor, a detail in the stage setting or lighting, a tone of voice, or a strain of music---and it is her watchful care and artistic sense that have made her company a model one to see."

Salvation Nell
By 1906 the Fiskes had given up their lease of the Manhattan Theatre, since David Belasco and the Shubert Brothers, both now in opposition to the syndicate, provided the Fiskes with good New York theatres for their company and productions. 
     In 1909 the syndicate offered the Fiskes the use of any syndicate theatre on independent terms. At that time Mrs. Fiske was on tour in Edward Sheldon's Salvation Nell, which she had directed and in which she played the title role.  The highly successful production, written by Sheldon while he was a member of George Pierce Baker's Workshop at Harvard, illustrates her continuing support of new American playwrights.
     She made theatrical successes in Mrs. Bumpstead--Leigh by Harry James Smith in 1911; The High Road by Sheldon in 1912; Mis' Nelly of N'Orleans by Laurence Eyre in 1919. 

She did some silent films from her roles in successful plays in order to bring some financial solvency due to the financial drain from their struggle with the syndicate.  In 1911 Fiske was forced to sell the Dramatic Mirror, and in 1914 he declared bankruptcy.  By this time their marriage had become a "business partnership with mutual affection."

Her last years on the stage were spent touring revivals of her previous hits in renowned classics such as Sheridan's The Rivals, Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor and Much Ado About Nothing
    During her last decade, she received several honors: the League of Women Voters 1923 Award as one of the twelve greatest living American women, an honorary degree from Smith College in 1926 for being "the foremost living actress," an honorary degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1927 for her services to the American stage, and the Good Housekeeping Award in 1931 as one of the twelve greatest living women.

      Her acting career lasted more than six decades.  She was heralded by her friend and critic Alexander Woollcott as "the loftiest artist on the American stage."  The theatre historian Garff B. Wilson noted that "before the theories of the Moscow Art Theatre gained currency in America, Minnie Maddern Fiske was teaching similar principles and applying them to productions."
     In her views  on "The Science of Acting",  she defined great acting as "a thing of the spirit, in its best estate a conveyance of certain abstract spiritual qualities, with the person of the actor as a medium.  The eternal and immeasurable accident of the theatre which you call genius, that is a matter of the soul. But with every genius I have seen---Janauschek, Duse, Irving, Terry---there was always the last word in technical proficiency.  The inborn, mysterious something in these players can only inspire. 
No school can make a Duse.  But with such genius as hers has always gone a supreme mastery of the science of acting, a precision of performance so satisfying that it continually renews our hope and belief that acting can be taught.
     "I have always been successful in teaching others to act. The young actors are pitched into the sea, poor children, and told to sink or swim.  But how many potential Edwin Booths go to the bottom, unchronicled and unsung? Though I suppose that a real Booth would somehow make his way. Of course he would."

She spent most of her life fighting the inhuman killing of the egrets for feathers and animals for furs.  Once Alexander Woollcott asked her what she would do with five million dollars if it were given to her.        She replied: "I should give a million to certain humanitarian causes. I should turn over a million to Evangeline Booth to spend among the poor she understands so well. I should turn over a million to Lenore Cawker of Milwaukee, who has taken the city's pound on her own shoulders, paying for almost all of it out of her own pocket and working from six in the morning until midnight. Of course I could easily spend the other two million in one afternoon helping to make women see that one of the most dreadful, shocking, disheartening sights in the world is just the sight of a woman wearing furs."

REFERENCE: Notable Women in the American Theatre. 1989 ed.   Morris U. Burns
Binns, Archie (in collaboration with Olive Kooken) Mrs. Fiske and the American Theatre. 1955
Arliss, George, Up the Years from Bloomsbury. 1927
Woollcott, Alexander.   Mrs. Fiske, Her Views on the Stage. 1917

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

(December 1, 1830 - March 7, 1877)

Praised for her definitive performance in La Dame aux Camelias, she was born in Londonderry, Ireland, the youngest of five children. In 1842 her father moved the family to Philadelphia and her favorite brother developed into a successful businessman becoming president of the Heron line of coastal steamers.  Matilda attended a private academy situated very close to the prestigious Walnut Street Theatre. Stage struck, she studied elocution with Peter Richings, who groomed her for her theatrical debut at age 21 playing Bianca in Hart Milman's tragedy Fazio.  

Encouraged by her reviews, she was cast in romantic roles in stock companies, including Juliet at the National Theatre (Washington, D.C.) opposite the great Charlotte Cushman as Romeo.

In the winter season of 1854-1855, she reprised Bianca at the Drury Lane Theatre in London. While abroad she attended a performance of La Dame aux Camelias in Paris. Her brother suggested she translate the play, entitled Camille, as a starring vehicle for her.  Before bringing the play to New York, she presented it in St. Louis and other cities with increasing success.

When she appeared at Wallack's Theatre in New York (Jan. 22, 1857) the New York Herald critic wrote that she produced striking effects with electric rapidity.

  She was not the first American actress to play Marguerite Gautier, the courtesan who sacrificed her own happiness for the benefit of Armand, her lover.  Prominent theater critic  William Winter would write: "Other parts she acted; that one she lived."
    Jean Davenport had appeared in a censored version of Camille, which was then a very daring play.  Ms. Heron's version was candid, her style, naturalistic, less refined than that of the actresses who preceded her.

Although she was attractive with dark hair, flashing dark eyes, and a pure complexion, she was not conventionally beautiful. She achieved her effects on stage by the force of her intelligence and by a magnetism admired by critics who found her coarse and her accent too Irish.  Instead of idealizing Camille, she portrayed her as a suffering, passionate woman, which William Winter wrote in her obituary was a reflection of her own tempestuous life.
     At the height of her career she also played Medea in her own translation of Ernest Legouve's Medee. Whether she was dying for love or killing for love, she successfully conveyed the emotional storms of her stage characters.
      Her example influenced such actresses as the emotional
Clara Morris and helped inaugurate the realistic theatrical style of the early twentieth century.
      A benefit show was held at Niblo's Garden Theatre to raise funds for her in 1872.  Participants included Edwin Booth, John Brougham,
Jules Levy and Laura Keene.

     She acted until 1875 after which she lived quietly in New York City as a teacher of elocution.  Having had health issues throughout her career, she died at the age of 46, with 'Camille' engraved on her casket along with her real name.   She reportedly "suffered in her last days mental as well as physical pain which many strong men would have sunk under."

Her second marriage to the composer Robert Stoepel produced a daughter, Helen Wallace Stoepel, better known as actress  Bijou Heron (1862-1937). Bijou married the actor Henry Miller and their son was the famed theatrical producer Gilbert Heron Miller.

REFERENCES:  Notable Women in the American Theatre. 1989   Mary R. Davidson
Heron, Matilda (1830-1877)

Friday, December 4, 2015

(December 4, 1861 - June 6, 1922)

When Alexander Graham Bell introduced long distance telephone service on May 8, 1890, her voice was the first carried over the line. From New York City, she sang "Sabre Song" to audiences in Boston and Washington, D.C.

"I can still recall the rush of pure awe that marked her entrance on the stage. And then the thunderous applause that swept from orchestra to gallery, to the very roof."
                                Marie Dressler, actress

Her birth name was Helen Louise Leonard; birthplace, Clinton, Iowa.  Her father was a moderately successful publisher of the Clinton Herald but her mother Cynthia Howland Leonard was an ardent feminist.  When Clinton, Iowa proved too provincial for her influence to be felt in the suffrage and equal rights movement. the family relocated to Chicago where her influence could be properly exercised.   She attempted to organize the women of the city but soon her feminist societies became a thorn in the sides of the city fathers. But her daughter Helen, nicknamed "Nellie" would be influenced by her mother's beliefs that a person's sex should not determine her place in society.

When she was fourteen, Lillian Russell possessed a lilting soprano voice and her mother was convinced she could become an opera star. She selected Leopold Damrosch to coach her daughter, who at seventeen, was capable of attaining a high "C."  Her mother and teacher began to prepare her for a career in grand opera, BUT at 18 Helen demonstrated her independence and secretly auditioned for and got cast in a chorus part in Edward E. Rice's production of
H.M.S. Pinafore (1879).
    She was so beautiful that she was soon fighting off stage-door Johnnies. In spite of the disappointment of both her mother and Damrosch, orchestra conductor Harry Braham fell in love with her and they got married in 1880. In 1883 following the tragic loss of their infant son, the couple divorced.

     Tony Pastor, producer at the Casino Theatre, heard her sing at the home of a friend and hired her on the spot. Fearing her mother's objections to her singing at music halls, he gave her a stage name and billed her as being from overseas.  On November 22, 1880, he introduced "Miss Lillian Russell, the English ballad singer, a vision of loveliness and a voice of gold." With her perfect complexion as well as hourglass figure, plus her soprano voice, she was on her way to becoming the greatest comic opera star of her era.

During the 1880s she performed in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas on both sides of the Atlantic.  She also married again to Edward Solomon, a pit musician and would-be composer of comic opera.    In 1883 she made her london debut in her husband's Virginia and PaulReturning to America in 1885 she learned that he had been sued by an Englishwoman for bigamy and the second marriage was annulled.
     After a disastrous third marriage to a 'foppish narcissist' she walked out into the welcoming arms of Diamond Jim Brady and, while never lovers, they became lifelong companions and enduring friends. For forty years he showered her with extravagant gifts of diamonds and gemstones and supported her expensive lifestyle.
     In 1899 she joined the Weber and Fields's Music Hall, where she was happily engaged as the star of their vaudeville/burlesques.  She debuted in Fiddle-dee-dee which also featured De Wolf Hopper, 
Fay Templeton and David Warfield.  Other favorites were Whoop-de-doo and The Big Little Princess. Before the 1902 production of Twirly-Whirly, John Stromberg, who had composed several hit songs for her, delayed giving Lillian her solo for several days, saying it was not ready. When he committed suicide a few days before the first rehearsal, sheet music of "Come Down Ma Evenin' Star" was discovered in his coat pocket. It became her signature song and is the only one she is known to have recorded, although the recording was made after Russell's voice had deteriorated significantly.

Lady Teazle
Leaving Weber and Fields in 1904 she next played the title role of Lady Teazle, a musical version of The School for Scandal at the Casino Theatre and then began to perform in vaudeville.  After 1904 she began to have vocal difficulties, but did not retire from the stage. She switched to non-musical comedies and toured from 1906 to 1908 managed by James Brooks. Because her non-singing roles were not very successful, she returned to vaudeville and in 1912 experienced the first and most successful of several comebacks.  Weber and Fields took her on their triumphal national tour of Hokey-Pokey, which would be her last performance in a musical.
        Later the same year she was married for a fourth time, successfully, to Alexander Pollock Moore, publisher of the Pittsburgh Leader, and after her death, United States ambassador to Spain.

In 1915 she appeared with Lionel Barrymore in the motion picture Wildfire, which as based on the 1908 play in which she had appeared.  She continued to appear in vaudeville until 1919 when ill health forced her to retire from the stage permanently.

    Beginning around 1912 she wrote a newspaper column, became active in the women's suffrage movement (as her mother had been) and was a popular lecturer on personal relationships, health and beauty, advocating an optimistic philosophy of self-help and drawing large crowds.
      In 1913 she declared that she would refuse to pay her income taxes to protest "the denial of the ballot to women."  She did recruit for the U.S. Marine Corps during World War 1 and raised money for the war effort.  She was a woman of independent means and during the Actors Equity strike of 1919, she made a major donation to sponsor the formation of the Chorus Equity Association by the chorus girls of the Ziegfeld Follies.   In 1922 she traveled aboard the R.M.S. Aquitania from Southampton to the Port of New York and according to the NY Times, she "established a precedent by acting as Chairman of the ship's concert, the first woman to preside at an entertainment on shipboard."

A 1940 film about her presents a sanitized version of her life. It was directed by Irving Cummings who, as a teenager starting his career, had acted with Russell in the play Wildfire in 1908. It stars Alice Faye, Henry Fonda, Don Ameche, Edward Arnold as Diamond Jim Brady and Warren William.

She was known popularly as "The American Beauty." Her likeness appeared on cigar bands and matchbox covers. She was  the first pinup and love goddess and was instrumental in establishing the dignity and the art of the American musical theatre.  Effortlessly attaining eight high "C's" an evening, she brought to the music hall, the operetta, and burlesques the concept that refined talent, exquisite beauty and charm were not exclusive to the opera house.

RESOURCE:  Notable Women in the American Theatre. 1989
Contributor:  Donal Ray Schwartz

WIKIPEDIA     Lillian Russell which contains a link to
the only recording of "Come Down Ma Evenin' Star" (1912)


Tuesday, November 24, 2015

(Feb. 12, 1872 - May 2, 1958)

In her autobiography, she gives an eyewitness account of the struggle for national women's suffrage including marching down Pennsylvania Avenue with 5,000 women.  As we approach the 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote, she deserves to be remembered for her activism.
The following excerpt from A Woman of Parts: Memories of a Life on the Stage demonstrates her role in the chain of events.

      "Gertrude Foster Brown, in a quiet way, had become more and more involved in political matters. Woman suffrage was beginning to be a fiery issue, and she was editing The Woman Citizen.
       Gertrude, with others who were in the forefront of the struggle for national women's suffrage, had decided to put on in the Metropolitan Opera House an elaborate pageant, which had to do with the states pleading for recognition, the states being impersonated by women in costume.  There was to be the Spirit of Womanhood and the Spirit of Justice. The meeting was to be addressed by speakers of prominence, who advocated votes for women.
Pauline Frederick
Olive Fremstad
 Pauline Frederick had been asked to represent the Spirit of Womanhood and Madame Lillian Nordica, Columbia.  Gertrude asked me to represent Justice. I was delighted, the more so when I found my costume was one that Olive Fremstad, one of the great sopranos of the Metropolitan, had worn in one of her Wagnerian successes.

We plunged into rehearsal. Maud Durbin Skinner was to direct the action. Most of the women in the act were socially prominent, but without stage experience. There was a lot of marching and countermarching, and eventually, out of these evolutions, the  Spirit of Woman emerged, impersonated by the beautiful Pauline Frederick; she climbed slowly up to the middle of a stairway
upstage, where she approached me as Justice. Then, opening my arms, I leaned toward her and folded
her in an embrace.  Maud was also to recite a prologue written by Charles Hanson Towne.

Maud Durbin Skinner
A day before the pageant Otis (Skinner), Maud's husband, had taken ill. Maud had to go to him and Gertrude called me in to take Maud's place. The prologue was all right but I couldn't do anything with those women. The marching and countermarching became a ragged and wavering surge of undisciplined women.   At last, I gave up. The head of one of the departments of the Metropolitan took over, devised certain evolutions, marked them in chalk, and put the girls through their paces.

In the meantime I had memorized the poem. The great night came. There I was, on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House, and the hall was packed. I stood in front of the velvet drapes where so many famous artists had taken their bows.  I spoke my prologue and retired behind the scenes to receive congratulations.  When the pageant was over, Mr. Towne came to me with outstretched hands and was good enough to say he had not realized all there      
                                       was in the poem.

Charles Hanson Towne
The opening lines were these:

'This is the tale of Woman's shining hour,
Her rise from bondage to the hills of power.
The handmaidens of freedom, all in white,
Stand in a grove upon a moonlit night.
They gather blossoming boughs, and never falter,
For Hope to lay upon the sacred altar...'


When this poem had been read, I had retired behind the curtain, a number of us started talking softly when I heard a squeaky, high-pitched male voice. There had been loud and prolonged applause when he came before the audience, but I had not seen him go out there. I asked who it was and could scarcely believe it when I was told it was Theodore Roosevelt.  That voice from a man who almost coined the phrase, "the strenuous life!"  I came to the conclusion the quality of his voice must have resulted from youthful illnesses and lack of vocal development.


Not long after, Gertrude Brown asked me to go down to Washington to be Justice again in a huge demonstration to take place just before Woodrow Wilson's inauguration. I was glad to help out, and willy-nilly I was swept into the great campaign, one of the most interesting experiences of my life. It broadened my outlook immeasurably, and was the beginning of a real and vital interest in political matters, which increased and made my life far more interesting as the years went by.

Up to this time I had not concerned myself with larger issues than the strictly personal. Besides, there were reasons why I did not feel so strongly about woman suffrage as did Gertrude and many others. I had never felt discriminated against as a woman, in the first place.  I do not think discrimination operates in the theater as it does in most professions. I had worked with men for years in terms of equality and had managed to keep in step with them.  The idea of discrimination because of my sex simply never entered my head, and there were millions of women like me, not necessarily in the theater, but in the home or following other pursuits where they had their function and were at no particular disadvantage.  We had moved to Spokane, and the state of Washington had votes for women. 

    The day of the parade was gorgeous, clear, and chilly. We were photographed in tableau on the steps of the Department of Justice and it was a distinct sensation to march through historic Washington between rows of staring---sometimes applauding---people. I have a newspaper account of it which is interesting, when votes for women are no longer either an issue or a novelty.


     "Five thousand women, marching in the suffrage pageant today, virtually fought their way foot by foot up Pennsylvania Avenue through to a surging mob that completely defied the Washington police, swamped the marchers and broke their procession into little companies.
The women, trudging stoutly along under great difficulties, were able to complete their march only when troops of cavalry from Fort Myer were rushed into Washington to take charge of Pennsylvania Avenue. No inauguration has ever produced such scenes, which in many instances amounted to nothing less than riots.

Miss Helen Keller (picture left), the noted deaf and blind girl, was so exhausted and unnerved by the experience in attempting to reach a grandstand, where she was to have been a guest of honor, that she was unable to speak in Continental Hall.
     The scenes which attended the entry of 'General' Rosalie Jones and her hikers on Thursday, when the bedraggled women had to fight their way up  Pennsylvania Avenue, swamped by a mob with which a few policemen struggled in vain, were repeated today, but on a vastly larger scale.
     Miss Inez Milholland, herald of the procession, distinguished herself by aiding in riding down a mob that blocked the way and threatened to disrupt the parade.  Another woman member of the 'petticoat' cavalry struck a hoodlum a stinging blow across the face with her riding crop in reply to a scurrilous remark as she was passing. The mounted police seemed powerless to stem the tide of humanity.

The parade itself, in spite of the delays, was a great success.  Passing through two walls of antagonistic humanity, the marchers for the most part kept their tempers. They closed their ears to jibes and jeers.
Few faltered, although several of the older women were forced to drop out from time to time.

              The greatest ovation was given to 'General' Rosalie Jones, who led her
little band of 'hikers' from New York, over rough roads and through snow and rain to march for the cause.  'General' Jones was radiant. She carried a great bunch of American Beauty roses,
which made a splash of red against the dull brown of her hooded tramping gown."  End of article

"General' Rosalie Jones

Resource: A Woman of Parts: Memories of a Life on Stage
by Sarah Truax. 1949

Gertrude Foster Brown

Miss Inez Milholland  
Sarah Truax added that the tumult and shouting had ended when the section of the parade in which she marched came along.


Monday, November 16, 2015

   (Ocrober 31, 1896 - September 1, 1976)

She was the first black actress to star on Broadway in a dramatic play as Hagar in Mamba's Daughters by
Dorothy and DuBose Heyward (January 3, 1939)

In her autobiography His Eye Is on the Sparrow (1951) she wrote the following:
           "I never was a child.
            I never was coddled, or liked, or understood by my family.
            I never felt I belonged.
            I was always an outsider...."
She was born in Chester, Pennsylvania to a mother who was thirteen when she was raped by her father John Waters.  Ethel was raised by her grandmother, Sally Anderson, a housemaid.  Ethel worked at various jobs including chores at local brothels, cleaning hotel rooms, and washing dishes. And even after her professional career had begun, her dream was to become a lady's maid and companion to some wealthy woman who would take her on her travels around the world.

EARLY CAREER--"Sweet Mama Stringbean"
     Her show business career began in a Philadelphia nightclub in 1911.  On a tour with the Hill Sisters, she became the first woman to sing the W. C. Handy classic "St. Louis Blues" at the Lincoln Theatre in Baltimore in 1913.  After working on the carnival circuit she headed south to Atlanta where she worked in the same club with Bessie Smith.  Smith demanded that Waters not compete in singing blues opposite her.  She conceded and sang ballads and popular songs.  In 1919 she moved to Harlem and became a celebrity performer in the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s.  In 1921 she became the fifth black woman to make a record, on tiny Cardinal Records label, later joined Black Swan Records which became Paramount and later recorded for Columbia records in 1925, achieving a hit with "Dinah".  She joined what she called the "white time" Keith Vaudeville Circuit, earning as much as $1250 a week.

 After many years of performing as a singer (during which she became well known for "shimmying" as well as for her vocal abilities) she appeared on Broadway in Dancer and Africana, an all-black revue for which she received an excellent notice in Variety.
       As a result, she appeared in Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1930 and Rhapsody in Black (1931).

As Thousands Cheer (Bruehl)

Upon hearing her sing "Stormy Weather" at Harlem's Cotton Club,
Irving Berlin invited her to play in his Broadway show As Thousands Cheer (1933) with Clifton Webb, Marilyn Miller, and Helen Broderick, making her the first black performer in an otherwise all-white cast to appear on Broadway.  The show featured her singing "Suppertime," the dirge of a black woman who is preparing dinner for her family on the day that her husband has been lynched, the first such song to reach such a wide audience. She remained in the hit show for two years (1933-1935) and it was the vehicle that carried her to stardom. When the show appeared in the South, she became the first black to co-star with whites on the Southern stage.  Between 1935 and 1936 she co-starred with Beatrice Lillie in At Home Abroad directed by Vincente Minnelli.   In spite of her success she received no further offers to perform as an actress until she created the role of Hagar in Mamba's Daughters, who bore similarities to her mother.

With Lena Horne in
Cabin in the Sky

MGM hired Lena Horne as the ingenue in the all-Black musical
Cabin in the Sky (1942) with Ethel reprising her stage role as Petunia. Directed by Vincente Minnelli, the film was a success. Other motion pictures included Tales of Manhattan (1942) with Paul Robeson and Stage Door Canteen (1943).  Though still in demand as a singer, she received little attention as an actress.

However in 1949 she was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for the film Pinky, directed by Elia Kazan after John Ford quit, due to his disagreements with Ms. Waters.  In 1950, she won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for her performance in The Member of the Wedding opposite Julie Harris. Both actresses repeated their roles  in the 1952 film version. She was nominated for an Oscar for the same role.  ( Ethel Waters and Julie Harris, photo: Bob Colby)
During preproduction consultations Waters had insisted as a condition for accepting the role that Carson McCullers alter the character of the maid. Carson agreed that Waters could bring "God" and "hopefulness" to the character, qualities that were missing from both the novel and the play. Langston Hughes said of her performance: "She gave an additional human dimension to the conventional 'Mammy' of old--one of both dignity and gentleness--endeared her to theatregoers without the use on stage of the handkerchief-head dialect and broad humor of former days. In her portrayals of illiterate Negro mothers of the South, Ethel Waters was a mistress of the 'laughter through tears' technique which she brought to perfection in her highly hailed performance of Berenice....."(Black Magic).

Despite brilliant successes, her career was fading. She lost tens of thousands in jewelry and cash in a robbery, and had difficulties with the IRS.  Her health suffered, and she worked only sporadically in following years.   In her autobiography, His Eye is on The Sparrow, with Charles Samuels, she wrote candidly about her life. It was adapted for a stage production in which she was portrayed by Ernestine Jackson.

In the twilight of her career she played a few guest spots on television and was the star of the first "Beulah" series.

She was inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame,
The Christian Music Hall of Fame and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and she is on the 29 cents Commemorative stamp (Photo: Scott #2851)

Women-in-jazz historian and archivist Rosetta Reitz called Ethel Waters "a natural....(Her) songs are enriching, nourishing. You will want to play them over and over again, idling in their warmth and swing. Though many of them are more than 50 years old, the music and the feeling are still there."

Resources and References:  Wikipedia.
Notable Women in the American Theatre. 1989 Elizabeth Hadley Freydberg
Waters, Ethel. His Eye Is on the Sparrow (1951)
Bogle, Donald.  Chapter "Ethel Watsrs: Sweet Mama Goes Legit" in
Brown Sugar: Eighty Years of America's Black Female Superstars (1980)
Hughes, Langston and Milton Meltzer. Black Magic: A Pictorial History of Black Entertainers
in America. 1967

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

(October 30, 1896 - August 27, 1985)

She described herself as a "visceral legend" in her third and final autobiography Ruth Gordon: An Open Book.

An actress known for her eccentric comedy, a playwright whose works were staged on Broadway and adapted for the screen, and best remembered on stage for her portrayal of Dolly Levi in Thornton Wilder's
The Matchmaker, she knew she wanted to act from an early age, especially, when she travelled to Boston to see Hazel Dawn, a leading actress, in The Pink Lady.   As she has written in her second autobiography,
My Side,
       "If the Colonial Theatre hadn't opened in 1900 with Ben Hur, would I be an actress?  If C.M.S. McClellan and Ivan Caryll hadn't written The Pink Lady...if Mr. Tout hadn't gone to bed with Mrs. Tout and had Hazel Dawn, would I be an actress?  I believe so. Why? I'm a believer. If The Pink Lady hadn't rung a bell, something else would have."

     After graduating from Quincy High School, she studied acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York for a term, when she was told she had no potential.  She then began the labor intensive task of finding an acting job on her own.

She acted in various touring companies and married her leading man in
Seventeen, Gregory Kelly.  She returned to New York (1923) to act in Tweedles, which the NY Times noted was 'admirably acted'. In
Mrs. Partridge Presents (1925) she received praise for her comic pauses and timing, and in the same year she delighted audiences by her comic mannerisms in The Fall of Eve----her rapid walk, her jerky arm movements, and comically blank face. Brooks Atkinson (NY Times) wrote about her performance in Saturday's Children (1927) noting the same comic vain but with a "curiously subtle penetration.'  Later she earned praise in her sensitive rendering of Serena in Serena Blandish.  Atkinson would write: "One of the most thoroughly individual of our comediennes who has progressed from trickery into conscious method."
   It was a mark of her growing dramatic versatility that she was successful in the role of one of the assaulted women in They Shall Not Die, based on the Scottsboro case.  Other successful roles were Mistress Pinchwife in The Country Wife (1935) and
Mattie in Ethan Frome (1936). Her attention to detail, emotional investment in the character as witnessed when she anguished over a 'broken dish' was hailed as a tremendous accomplishment of the American stage.
          After appearing in The Country Wife as the first American to appear in an Old Vic production, she returned to New York and married Garson Kanin who was her second husband.( Gregory Kelly had died in 1927). She was considered a superb Natasha in The Three Sisters (1942).

Ruth and Garson
She wrote three plays and acted in two of them.
Over Twenty-One (1944), a flip comedy, ran for 221 performances; Years Ago, an autobiographical play, was considered amusing but Leading Lady which she co-authored with Garson, was judged uneven and closed after 8 performances.

In 1948 she and Garson began writing screenplays and were nominated for an Oscar for A Double Life and won the Box Office Ribbon Award and another Oscar nomination for Adam's Rib (MGM, 1949).

Her preparation for Dolly Levi was intensive and Brooks Atkinson was in awe of her character who was "sweeping wide, growling, leering, cutting through her scenes with sharp gestures, filling in every corner with a detail or a sardonic observation....The performance is epochally funny." A triumphant success, The Matchmaker ran for 1,078 performances. Garson Kanin wrote:  "Once engaged, the performance of the job came first. She was in the habit of going over her part every day. She played The Matchmaker 1,078 times (without missing a single performance) and on the afternoon of the 1,078th, I was astonished to come upon her "going over her part."  (My Side, preface)

Ruth as Dolly Levi

After a string of less than triumphant performances in rather mediocre and unmemorable plays, in 1966 she received an Oscar for her role as Minnie Castevet in the film Rosemary's Baby. Accepting it she proclaimed, "I can't tell ya how encouragin' a thing like this is!"

Ironically,  she received the American Academy's Award of Achievement in 1968,  an award that was especially gratifying since she had been told years earlier by the Academy's president that she had no talent.

However in 1971 she won world-wide praise as Maude in Harold and Maude, a film which achieved cult status especially among college students.

During the remainder of her career she would appear in twenty-two more films and at least that many television appearances through her seventies and eighties including such successful sitcoms as Rhoda, Newhart, Taxi, and guest starred on Columbo in the episode "Try and Catch Me."

I found a litany of her longings in My Side (pp. 329-330) and fell in love with her writing ability and inspired by her truth and passion.
   "When you have to go without things, splurge on dreams. Dream you're a somebody and write your own definition. In my room at 14 Elmwood Avenue with the yellow roses on the wallpaper, I'd dream up how to astonish people, how to be pretty, extravagant, look like an actress, look fast, have great clothes, have a maid, a cook, a butler, a Scotch terrier, a lapis lazuli anything, a white celluloid toilet seat set with my monogram, silk stockings with no darns, be rich, be an actress, see all the plays, go as often as I wanted to on the train to Boston, get an ice cream soda at Huyler's, have 'bought' clothes, have wider hair ribbons than anybody, have actresses answer my letters and send their pictures, have whipped cream, old-fashioned strawberry shortcake, opera caramels, a striped blazer, have an upright piano, get sheet music of the shows I go to New York to live, to know society people, to have plenty of partners at a dance, to buy Theatre magazine, to buy Elite, to sit in the first balcony and have a thick program and not go in the gallery be tall and have dark hair, have a beautiful bathing suit and a frilled rubber cap...."

Guest star on Colombo
According to Glenn Close, "she had a great gift for living the moment and it kept her ageless."

According to Garson, in his preface to My Side, written after her death:
"She was on the verge of beginning Act Two of a new play when she died. She was eighty-eight years old and I had the indescribably great fortune of sharing precisely half of that wondrous life.
Three days before her death, she said, "I'm in love with the past, but I'm having a love affair with the future."

Resource:  Notable Women in the American Theatre. 1989    Linda Tolman
Wikipedia   Ruth Gordon
My Side, The Autobiography of Ruth Gordon with an introduction by Garson Kanin

Saturday, October 31, 2015

(October 14, 1893 - February 27, 1993)

The First Lady of American Cinema who pioneered fundamental film
performing techniques.

Descended from the early settlers in the American colonies, her mother's ancestors included President Zachary Taylor.  At the age of one, her family moved to Dayton, Ohio where her beloved sister Dorothy was born.  Although her father allegedly moved to New York hoping to find a better job, he deserted the family leaving them to fend for themselves.  She had little formal education but was tutored by her mother and by the illustrious actors she worked with as a child.    Billed as "Baby Lillian," she made her professional debut in the melodrama In Convict's Stripes in 1902.  For seven years she toured in plays with limited literary merit like The Child Wife and Little Red School House.  She often traveled alone with a Masonic emblem pinned to her lapel by her mother so that fellow Masons would take care of her.
                An early friendship with the Smith family in Nw York yielded unexpected benefits when their eldest child Gladys (who had changed her name to Mary Pickford and become a star of silent cinema) introduced Lillian and Dorothy to the director D. W. Griffith.   Her screen debut was in
An Unseen Enemy (1912).

For the next seventeen years she worked in film, mainly with Griffith. With his teaching and encouragement she developed her skills of dancing, voice and movement. He demanded thorough research into all aspects of setting and character and she was an avid student.  She also attended the Denishawn School of Dancing so that, as she claims in her autobiography, Lillian Gish, The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me (1969) "within a few years my body was to show the effects of all this discipline; it was as trained and responsive as that of a dancer or athlete."
       The first role that established her as a screen actress was Elsie Stoneman in
The Birth of a Nation (1915), the Civil War epic that became a landmark in the history of the art of the film. She was well known for playing pure, self-sacrificing heroines pitted against enormous odds of brutality and hardship.
                                    Of her acting in Way Down East, John Barrymore wrote to Griffith, "I merely wish to tell you that her performance seems to me to be the most superlatively exquisite and poignantly enchanting thing that I have ever seen in my life...It is great fun and a great stimulant to see an American artist equal, if not surpass, the finest traditions of the theatre."

Broken Blossoms 1921

Her willingness to work long hours under atrocious conditions and her refusal to compromise any detail for the quality of the work testify to her enormous courage. After watching her film in a snowstorm with 90 mile-an-hour gale winds for a whole day, Henry Carr wrote: "That blizzard scene was real. It was taken in the most God-awful blizzard I ever saw. Lillian stuck out there in front of the cameras. D.W. would ask her if she could stand it, and she would nod.  The icicles hung from her eyelashes and her face was blue. When the last shot was made they had to carry her to the studio."
Way Down East

In 1924 she joined MGM where she made five films in two years for a salary of $800,000. La Boheme (1926), The Scarlet Letter (1926),
Annie Laurie (1927), The Enemy (1928) and The Wind (1928).  Her work in these films attracted the attention of theatre directors worldwide.
     Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko of the Moscow Art Theatre wrote to her: "I want once more to tell you of my admiration for your genius....a combination of the greatest sincerity, brilliance and unvarying charm, places you in the small circle of the first tragediennes of the world."

Lillian and Dorothy 1921
When the "talkies" arrived in Hollywood in 1929 she starred in
One Romantic Night in 1930 and then returned to New York to her first love, the legitimate stage.  When she performed as Helena in
Jed Harris's production of Uncle Vanya (Cort Theatre, New York, 1930), she was universally applauded, drawing from critics the same enthusiasm which had greeted her finest film roles.  Charles Darnton, The New York Times: "When the presence of her filled the stage like light flooding through a window into a room, she was so luminous that the others faded into the background."
  She was cast as Ophelia in Guthrie McClintic's landmark 1936 production of Hamlet starring John Gielgud and Judith Anderson.

In the 1940s and 1950s  she returned to films including Duel in the Sun,  (which earned her an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress) Portrait of Jennie, The Night of the Hunter, and The Cobweb.  In 1978 she appeared in A Wedding directed by Robert Altman which was her hundredth motion picture.  She found that "acting in films was largely a matter of doing what you were told and collecting your salary."  So she continued to act on stage when not in a film and portrayed Katerina Ivanova in Crime and Punishment with John Gielgud, the half-crazy Ethel in John Patrick's The Curious Savage (1950) and the world-weary Carrie Watts longing for home in Horton Foote's The Trip to Bountiful (1953.  Harold Clurman wrote: "Lillian Gish seems to me to be better in The Trip to Bountiful than in any other play in which I have seen her."
     She played a summer season with her sister Dorothy in The Chalk Garden (1956) and in 1958 created the role of Agatha in the American premiere of T. S. Eliot's The Family Reunion.  Other significant roles were Catherine in Tad Mosel's All the Way Home, Mrs. Mopply in Shaw's
Too True To Be Good, the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet at the American Shakespeare Festival
and Margaret Garrison in I Never Sang For My Father.  

On television which introduced her to a wider audience she appeared in Arsenic and Old Lace which co-starred her dear friend
Helen Hayes and hosted a collection of early movies entitled
The Silent Years for PBS in 1975 (Note: It is on Youtube).  Her last film appearance at age 93 was in The Whales of August which co-starred Bette DavisAnn Sothern and Vincent Price. (1987). She won the National Board of Review Award for Best Actress.

Despite many offers she never married. "A good wife has a 24 hours a day job, while acting has required me to work up to twelve or fourteen hours a day. I didn't ruin any dear man's life, and I'm grateful for that."

All who met her were impressed with her modesty, her graciousness, her unflagging enthusiasm and her radiant beauty.


            "Lillian Gish is considered the movie industry's first true  actress. A pioneer of fundamental film performing techniques, she was the first star to recognize the many crucial differences between acting for the stage and acting for the screen, and while her contemporaries painted their performances in broad, dramatic strokes, Gish delivered finely etched, nuanced turns carrying a stunning emotional impact.  While by no means the biggest or most popular actress of the silent era, she was the most gifted, her seeming waif like frailty masking unparalleled reserves of physical and spiritual strength.
     More than any other early star, she fought to earn film recognition as a true art form, and her achievements remain the standard against which those of all other actors are measured."
                          The All Movie Guide, Wikipedia

RESOURCES:  Notable Women in the American Theatre. 1989.  Sam McCready
The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me (with Ann Pinchot) Prentice-Hall 1969
Dorothy and Lillian Gish. Charles Scribner's Sons 1973
An Actor's Life For Me (With Selma G. Lanes) Viking Penguin 1987
Lillian Gish A Life on Stage and Screen. Stuart Oderman  McFarland & Co. 2000
Lillian Gish Her Legend, Her Life. Charles Affron . Scribner 2001