Wednesday, February 25, 2015


Anne Jane Hartley Gilbert (October 21, 1821-December 2, 1904)
Known in theatre circles as Mrs. Gilbert, she was noted for playing character parts. At the age of 12 she entered ballet school at Her Majesty's Theatre, receiving free training in return for appearing in crowd scenes there and at the Drury Lane Theatre. In 1846 she married George Henry Gilbert, a dancer and stage manager. After three years of touring in the provinces she emigrated to America.
     For the last thirty years of the nineteenth century, she was regarded as the foremost representative of older character women on the American stage.  Two qualities of her acting were most notable. Her training as a dancer gave her a gracefulness of movement and gesture that made her characterizations seem spontaneous and unaffected. Above all, she was concerned with "thinking myself into a part" and strictly observing the author's original conception of a character.
Source: Barrett, Daniel. "Notable Women in the American Theatre"

From her autobiography, she reminisces about what it was like to work with Edwin Forrest.

Edwin Forrest was born March 6, 1806 in a small house in the Southwark section of Philadelphia. He was a born actor.Though his first stage appearance was a dismal failure, he refused to be beaten. And so he tried again. At the age of thirteen he acted Young Norval at the Tivoli Garden with indifferent success. A year later at the old Walnut Street Theatre he played the same part in a splendid stock company . The date was November 27, 1820 and it marks the real start of Edwin Forrest as an actor to be reckoned with.
One New York critic later on described him thus: "Edwin Forrest has handsome, regular features. He is the greatest actor America ever produced. He is about five feet ten inches tall, splendid of figure, though perhaps a trifle too heavy and powerful.  This makes him seem out of place in parts such as Hamlet but he is very graceful nonetheless."

Source: Frohman, Daniel. Encore

EDWIN FORREST  from the pages of Mrs. Gilbert's autobiography.

            I always used to say that I played with Forrest in his last engagement in New York.

That was at this same Broadway Theatre.  But they tell me that he played a short

engagement at Niblo's Garden afterward; a few nights only, but just enough to spoil

the point of my story!   However, he played for six weeks at the Broadway in '67,

doing all his great parts, though not with his old vigor, for he had been ill, and

seemed broken and old.  But his very weakness added a pathos to his work that

it had lacked before, and they say that his King Lear was most touching at this time.

I did not act with him in that play, and, indeed, they spared me as much as they could,

for my husband had just died, and my boy was very ill.  But I was the Queen in Mr.

Forrest's one performance of “Hamlet” during this engagement and I admired his

rendering.  In the earlier days  his Hamlet was too robust, and it had never been

among his great successes.  But at the time of which I speak it was quite perfect.

            He opened his engagement with Virginius, and I was cast for Servia. As

I entered and began my lines at rehearsal, he said, quietly:  “That's right.”  From

him that meant a great deal, for although he did not storm about as much as people

say he did, he seldom praised.  He wanted intelligence and care from those who

supported him, and it was probably stupidity and indifference that caused the rages

we have heard so much about.  Obstinacy annoyed him beyond everything else.

            They tell a story of a woman who was to have been the Emelia to his Othello,

and who would kneel to the audience, and protest her innocence with her arms in

the air in the old-fashioned way, and he could not get her to look up at him. Now

he was a naturalist in his work, one of the first of his profession to step outside the

traditions and in this particular case he lost all patience---he could use an oath or two

when he was too much tried----and it all ended in his giving the part to someone else.

I did Emelia at the Broadway, and strained my voice in the role......I forget the order

in which Forrest gave his plays, but I think I did nothing after the Emelia, but before

that I had done the Lady Anne to his Richard 111.  I had played that role before with

Forrest, in my earlier days. He was then at his best physically, and had the name of

having a tremendous temper, but I never saw him angry without cause.   He was very

muscular, and could pick a man up and throw him off the stage if he liked. In “Damon

and Pythias” he really had to do this, and if the man had been stupid, or had done

anything Forrest did not like, he was apt to get a bad tumble.  I know it got so that

the men did not like to take that part, for it might happen that they would be

genuinely pitched off the stage, and they never knew how they would land.”

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Happy Birthday to Dame Ellen Terry

Born on February 27, 1847, Dame Ellen Terry was part of a famous theatrical family whose career lasted nearly seven decades.  In 1878 she joined Sir Henry Irving's company as his leading lady, and for more than the next two decades she was considered the leading Shakespearean and comic actress in Britain.  Two of her most famous roles were Portia in The Merchant of Venice and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing.  She and Irving also toured with great success in America and Britain.

The three qualities she believed every actor should possess were industry, intelligence and imagination.

Monday, February 23, 2015


Born on Feb. 16, 1893, Katharine Cornell was one of the greatest STARS of the American stage in the first half of the 20th century.  She, like Helen Hayes, was also considered the first lady of the American Theatre. Two of her greatest performances were as Shaw's Candida and she was triumphant as Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Rudolph Besier's The Barretts of Wimpole Street.  She channeled Mrs. Patrick Campbell in Dear Liar, Jerome Kilty's play about the correspondence between Mrs. Pat and George Bernard Shaw. She was married to producer and director Guthrie McClintic. As a team they were responsible for casting some of the talented actors who would later become film stars including Tyrone Power, Brian Aherne and Marlon Brando.

Sunday, February 22, 2015


           Recently I found a most intriguing feature in Playbill Magazine (1983) from the book Great Theatrical Disasters by Gyles Brandreth (St. Martin's Press, 1982).  In it he focused on the great actors who have completely blanked on stage during a performance or rehearsal and how they recovered or didn't. It is not uncommon to have been paralyzed with fear or nerves before going on stage and often the stuff that actors' nightmares are made of.  In all events the show went on in spite of the gaffes. So I thank Mr. Brandreth for his research.

        "Like actors, prompters---many of whom are either actors-in-the-making or actors manque (unsuccessful)--have a temperamental side to their natures.  Some actors try the patience of their prompters more than the others."

"Toward the end of his career, John Barrymore's eccentricity and foul temper got the better of him.
Fumbling through one of his last stage appearances in My Dear Children (1939-1940), he dried completely and after gagging for a moment or two managed to sidle to the wings and whisper:
"What's the next line?"  "What's the line?"
"What's the play?"  came the answer from the wings."

(Playbill from the Henry-Varnay Archive)

  "The captivating Ada Rehan, darling of the late-nineteenth century American stage, was playing a demure heroine in Boston one night with a very nervous young actor cast as her suitor.  At one point in the play, the young hero pressed Miss Rehan for an answer to an all-important question.  Miss Rehan hesitated and was supposed to do so. This dramatic moment should have been followed by the young man's line.  'You don't reply.' But on the night in question, his nerve failed him and no words came forth.
   'You don't reply...You don't reply,' came the prompt from the wings in a hoarse whisper.  'How the hell can I, when I don't know what to say?' snapped back the hero.'"

"Julia Marlowe, as Olivia, forgot the rest of her lines in the scene with the priest in Twelfth Night. Without a hint of anxiety, she turned to the actor and said:

     'Then lead the way good father--
      And heavens so shine,
      I can't remember another blessed line.'

Note: The line was "That they may fairly note this act of mine!"  (End Act IV, Scene 3)

"Towards the end of her career, Ellen Terry became very forgetful but managed to rise above her lapses in memory with ease.  In 1919, aged 72, she played the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet and could hardly remember a word.  Romeo (Basil Sydney) and Mercutio (Leon Quartermaine) came to her aid and whispered every line into her ear.  She then repeated each line out loud and apparently did so with such freshness and vitality that the audience was convinced it had only just come from her."

"During rehearsals for his production of Hay Fever at the National Theatre, Noel Coward gradually lost his temper with his Judith Bliss portrayed by Dame Edith Evans when she persistently got the lines wrong.  'Edith, this isn't good enough. You don't know your lines,' said Coward when his patience could stand no more.

'It's ridiculous,' she replied.  'Because this morning I said them over and over to myself and I knew them backwards.'

'And that's just how you're saying them now, retorted Coward."

Saturday, February 21, 2015

                                                THE ORIGIN OF WINGING IT



MR. MURDOCH (PICTURED BELOW) WROTE ABOUT THE ENCOUNTER IN HIS BOOK   The Stage or Recollections of Actors and Acting, From an Experience of Fifty Years: A Series of Dramatic Sketches by James E. Murdoch (Philadelphia, J. M. Stoddart & Co. 1880)


"I have before referred to an instance in which Mr. Macready was placed in a distracting dilemma through the blundering of an incompetent actor at the culminating point of one of his finest situations in Macbeth. One can well imagine the feelings of a performer who, yielding himself up to the successive development of the plot and incidents of one of the grandest productions of our greatest dramatist, and being wound up to a high pitch of interest and effect, suddenly finds himself utterly overthrown by the inefficiency or neglect of other performers engaged in the same scene.  And yet from the “hand-to-mouth” mode of management prevalent all over the country the tragedian and his audience are constantly subjected to such results. Of many cases in point which have come under my own observation, I am reminded of the following, in which it will be observed inordinate vanity and misdirected impulses led a young lady to attempt without preparatory study the impersonation of one of Shakespeare’s most powerful creations.
I was fulfilling a short engagement in Nashville, Tenn., and the manager had made an arrangement with Miss Adah Isaacs Menken (so famous for her Mazeppa performances) to act the leading female characters in my plays.  I found her, however, to be a mere novice, and not at all qualified for the important situation to which she had aspired.  But she was anxious to improve and willing to be taught. A woman of personal attractions, she made herself a great favorite in Nashville.  She dashed at everything in tragedy and comedy with a reckless disregard of consequences, until at length, with some degree of trepidation, she paused before the character of Lady Macbeth! I found in the first rehearsal that she had no knowledge of the part save what she had gained from seeing it performed by popular actresses of the day.
Miss Menken was a woman of literary taste, and had gained some reputation as a writer for newspapers and magazines.  She had withal a good understanding and a quick perception of what may be termed the more palpable signification of what was written, but could not rise to a perfect appreciation of its highest sense.  So she came to me and frankly said, “I know nothing of this part, and have a profound dread of it, but I must act it, for I have told the manager that I was up to the performance of the leading character.”  “Why,” I replied, “you don’t even know the words, and have no time to study them.”  “Oh, that’s of no consequence,” she replied.  “I can commit the lines in a few hours if you will run over them and mark the emphasis for me.”  “But,” I said, “that will not do unless you have a preconceived idea of the character and an appreciation of its purposes in relation to Macbeth.  You can give no proper expression to the emphatic words when they are pointed out to you, for you have no time to acquire the power to bring them into proper subjection to your will as expressive agents. All I can do under the circumstances is to read the part to you, and leave you to your own resources for the rest.”
I accordingly gave the lady a few general ideas of the part, and finished by begging her at least to learn the words, and for the acting, trust to chance. Night came, and with it came Miss Menken arrayed to personate the would-be queen. She grasped the letter and read it in the approved style, holding it at arms’ length and gaspingly devouring the words with all the intensity of ferocious desire; then, throwing her arms wildly over her head, she poured out such an apostrophe to guilt, demons, and her own dark purposes that it would have puzzled any one acquainted with the text to guess from what unlimited “variorum” she could have studied the part.  However, as Casca said of Cicero,”He speaks Greek!” and Miss Menken spoke what the people thought was “Shakespeare,” and, for aught they knew to the contrary, it might have been Greek too.
Flushed with her reception and the lavish applause which followed the reading of the letter, she entered on the next scene, where Lady Macbeth chastises the flagging will of her consort “with the valor of her tongue,” and at her sneering reference to “the poor cat i’ the adage” she swept by her liege lord as if he were a fit object for derision and contempt; and then came another round of applause.  After Macbeth’s announcement that he was capable of doing “all that dare become a man,” the lady returned to the charge with most determined scorn and denunciation, and in tones which might have become a Xantippe* exclaimed,
What beast was it, then,
That made you break this enterprise to me?
When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And, to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. Nor time nor place 
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both:
They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
Does unmake you.

Here, “taking the stage,” she rushed back to Macbeth, and laying her head on his shoulder whispered in his ear, “I don’t know the rest.” From that point Macbeth ceased to be the guilty thane, and became a mere prompter in a Scotch kilt and tartans. For the rest of the scene I gave the lady the words. Clinging to my side in a manner very different from her former scornful bearing, she took them line by line before she uttered them, still, however, receiving vociferous applause, and particularly when she spoke of dashing out the brains of her child; until at length poor Macbeth, who was but playing a ‘second fiddle” to his imperious consort, was glad to make his exit from a scene where “the honors” were certainly not “even.”

Having recovered from her stage-fright, Miss Menken, by what is termed  “winging it”---that is, by throwing down the book between the wings of the scene when going on the stage, and taking it up again for another reading when going off--contrived to get through the part.

*Xantippe: (zan tip ee)   Wife of Socrates, proverbial as a scolding and quarrelsome
woman or any nagging, peevish, or irritable woman.


Friday, February 20, 2015


                                                 HAPPY BIRTHDAY STELLA ADLER

                            Born on Feb. 10, 1901, Stella Adler was an actress, director, master teacher
                            and prominent member of the Group Theatre.  She made her stage debut at
                            age 4 in Broken Hearts with her father Jacob P. Adler, sometimes called the
                           "Henry Irving of the Yiddish Theatre".  She had great personal beauty and
                            a strong sense of self.  Her Conservatory continues to teach young actors in
                            training about script interpretation and scene analysis.

Thursday, February 19, 2015



Born in England on Feb. 9, 1865, Mrs. Patrick Campbell was baptized Stella which also means star, and she was born to be one.  She became George Bernard Shaw's muse, (the letters are famous) and he wrote the role of Eliza Doolittle for her when she was 49 years of age!  The lighting in the theatre was not as bright then and there was a great deal of distance between the proscenium and the first row, which might have diminished the age problem.  One of her closest friends was the "divine" Sarah Bernhardt.  No surprise since both of them were known for their vibrant theatricality on stage.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Born February 6, 1868, Maxine Elliott was not only a great star but also a theatre manager for whom a theatre was named. She had the exotic look with her luminous black hair, dark eyes and ivory skin. She was independent and courageous. She was decorated by the King of Belgium for transporting food and supplies by barge to an unoccupied section of the Belgian Territory between Feb. 1915-May 1916.
Those supplies and food served 350,000 people!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


“Get the hook!” was a cry from the audience to get a bad performer off the stage. Someone in the wings would get a hooked pole and hook the performer away. “The hook” was reportedly introduced in 1903 at Harry Miner’s Bowery Theatre on ‘amateur nights’ when novice performers took to the stage. Ambitious wannabes who had been stung by the ‘stage struck’ bee were permitted to try out their ability in any line of entertainment before a ‘regular audience.’ Approval of the audience, indicated by applause or money thrown upon the stage, frequently led to permanent engagements. Disapproval in the form of laughter, cat calls or loud criticisms meant Get Off the Stage and squelched any further histrionic ambition. This tradition harkens back to the ‘thumbs down’ in the Roman arena which meant death.

On a Friday night in October, 1903 at Miner’s Bowery Theater, a very bad amateur was torturing a patient audience with an impossible ‘near tenor’ voice. Despite the howls, groans and hisses, the ‘artist’ persisted when Tom Miner chanced to see a large old-fashioned crook handled cane in the corner previously used by a Negro impersonator.

Quickly picking it up, he called the prop man, had him lash it securely to the wings and out of sight of the audience, swiftly slipped the hook around the neck of the would-be singer and yanked him off the stage before he realized what had happened.

The next amateur was giving imitations of well-known actors. After giving the worst one of Edwin Booth, he announced his next impression would be of matinee idol Richard Mansfield. A small boy in the gallery yelled “Get the hook!” The audience roared in approval and the amateur fled.  

From that time on the “hook”, a long pole topped with a strong wire loop, was kept in a convenient corner off stage and few novices escaped its merciless pressure, used especially when thrown vegetables failed to clear the stage. Often management knew that some of the acts were terrible, and booked them for no other purpose than to bring the “hook” into play and get a laugh from the audience.

Resource:  Internet  
9-24-1908  Milford Iowa Mail
Booklet, “Get The Hook”” by H. Clay Miner to prove claim by Tom Miner of Bowery Theater to Instrument Feared by Amateurs


Have you ever wondered why actors have been referred to as “Hams”? 

I knew that the epithet had been hurled at those in the profession who overacted or were accused of ‘hogging’ the show.  Then I discovered the amazing book “The Language of Show Biz, A Dictionary”, edited by Sherman Louis Sergel for the Dramatic Publishing Company (1973).
“Perhaps a clue of the origin of this unflattering term can be found in an old poster for Tony Pastor’s Opera House in New York. It announces ‘60 hams distributed on Monday evening’. Possibly the offer of free hams to the public began to reflect poorly on the actors who were supposed to be the main draw, causing them to be known as ham actors’.”

Or it may refer to self-indulgent actors who like to take center stage.

Hamlet advised the players how offensive it was to tear a passion to tatters and would not allow them  to ‘out Herod Herod’.

Other accounts about the origin refer to an act in Mr. Pastor’s downtown cafe called “The Hamtown Students”, a blackface quartet. He noted the exaggerated movements and scenery-chewing antics of the act. Thus whenever he saw an actor who was overplaying he described him as a ‘ham’. Oldtime actors and minstrel men used to remove makeup with lard (derived from pork and ham)  which was as effective as cold cream and cheaper. The term could have been coined  by Hamish McCullough (1834-1885) who toured the “pig-sticking” towns of Illinois with a portable company. He was nicknamed Ham; the troupe became Ham’s actors. 

But the most applicable definition is still a disparaging label for impetuous performers who exaggerate emotion to the point where they become unbelievable. 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

(Free Press Printing Company, Detroit MI)

In the introduction George P. Goodale, a
prominent theatrical critic in Detroit, writes:
"The author of these reminiscences speaks
from the chair. He knows his subject because
for many years he was a part of the life he
reproduces with such intimate sympathy."
From Mari Lyn Henry's archive of theatrical books.  Some of the slang we still use today became defined for the first time. Enjoy the reprint--From the TOP!

Circus people talk a jargon that would be unintelligible to the uninitiated. To those in circus life the manager of the head of any enterprise is always "the main guy," while those in subordinate positions are simply "guys." The tents are called "tops" by circus men, and they are subdivided into the "big top," "animal top," the "kid top," the "candy top," and so on. The side show where the Circassian girls (referring to Russian folk dancers), fat women, and other curiosities known as "freaks" are shown, is termed the "kid show," and the man with the persuasive voice who seeks to entice people to enter is known as a"barker," or a "spieler."

The men who sell peanuts, red lemonade, palm leaf fans and concert tickets, are known as "butchers," while that class of circus followers whose methods are outside of the pale of the law are "guns" or "grafters."  To get a person's money without giving an equivalent is to "turn them." A country man is either a "Rube" or a "yap."  The musicians with a circus are known as "wind jammers," the train men, canvas men and other laborers are "razorbacks." The distance from one town to another is always known as a "jump".  The show ground is called the "lot," and the dining tent where the circus people get their meals is the "camp."

An acrobat is known as a "kinker," and all things that are used in the ring, such as banners, hoops and the like are called "objects."  Those who lie on their backs and juggle children on their feet are "Risleys," and if other objects are balanced on the feet, they are "barrel kickers."  Money is referred to as "coin" or "dough" and the one who pays the salaries is either the "ghost" or the "man in white." A trunk is called a "keester," and a valise is a "turkey."  To get away quick is to do a "vamp," and those who are forced to leave  say "got the hurry."

Those who have been long in the business are "old landmarks," and a new addition to the profession is either a "butt in" or a "Johnny Newcomer."  Food is called "chuck" and they say an intoxicated person is "soused."  A fight is a "scrap," but any trouble that cannot be handled by the regular officers is a "mix up," and a whistle is blown, at the sound of which each employee grabs a stake or other handy weapon and yells "Hey, Rube," which is the call to arms.

A proposed victim is known as a "sucker" to the confidence men who follow the circus, and "fanning a guy" is to make sure he has no weapons on him before they proceed to get his money. To "frisk" a train is to arm a lot of husky employees with stakes and search the cars for "crooks" and "sure thing" men. There is no chance for argument at this time. If you see one of these worthies leaving in a hurry and ask him where he is bound, he will generally say: "To the tall and uncut."

Note: My best guess for why a valise is called a turkey. (Note picture of carpetbag at beginning of this column.) Valises were also known as carpetbags at the end of the 19th century. There were carryon bags of their day and a lot of them were made from oriental rugs which were imported from countries like Turkey.
Question: What did "tall and uncut" refer to as a destination?  I thought the prairies where tall grasses grow or cornfields where someone could become invisible.  Would love to hear any other ideas.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Welcome to my blog!


             Breaking a leg is the official phrase when we want to wish actors good luck before they go on stage. If you wish an actor “good luck” it has an opposite connotation. The origin of this superstition is obscure but it can also be used apart from theatrical professions. For dancers you don’t shout “break a leg!” but the French expression “merde”.

The earliest known reference in literature is from Edna Ferber’s A Peculiar Treasure (1939) about her fascination with the theater. “....and all the understudies sitting in the back row politely wishing the various principals would break a leg.”

Other anecdotal evidence is from theatrical memoirs and personal letters as early as the 1920s.
OTHER THEORIES In previous centuries To “break the leg” or “break a leg” was slang for bowing
or curtsying; to place one foot behind the other and bend at the knee “breaks” the line of the leg.

In ancient Greece, audiences did not clap. They stomped their feet to express their appreciation and it is said if they stomped long enough, they would break a leg. But another theory from Elizabethan times tells us that instead of applause the audience would bang their chairs on the ground, and if they liked it enough, the leg of the chair would break.

During gladiatorial combats in ancient Rome, the mandate was to fight to the death. Spectators might yell “quasso cruris” or the Latin equivalent of breaking a leg. This could be interpreted as a survival ploy so that instead of death they would only cripple the opponent--thus breaking his leg.

THE LINCOLN THEORY A popular but apocryphal explanation arose from the assassination of
Lincoln.             John Wilkes Booth claimed in his diary that he broke his leg leaping to the
stage of Ford’s Theatre after the murder. Perhaps he meant that by breaking his leg, his deed was worthy of remembrance. Some historians contend that he broke his leg when he fell from his horse trying to escape and that he often exaggerated and falsified his diary entries to make them more dramatic. The fact remains that actors did not begin to use the phrase until the 1920s.

NON-LITERAL REFERENCES One popular theory concerned the “legs” or side curtain of the theatre. A
company of actors should rush onstage through the curtains to take a lot of bows, thus “breaking a leg (side curtain) in the process.
The phrase to “get a leg up” might also mean catching your big/lucky break.
And then some attribute the phrase to a performance of David Garrick as Richard III in the 18th century. He became so entranced in the performance that he was unaware of a fracture.

Perhaps one of the more interesting ways to express “good luck” is that used by opera singers (but could also apply to any performer). “Toi Toi Toi” is an idiom used to ward off a spell or hex, often accompanied by knocking on wood and the sound associated with spitting. Saliva had demon-banishing power. (NOTE: Years ago I was fortunate enough to be on a State Department tour of Ah Wilderness and a leading impresario in Tel Aviv told us about “Toi Toi Toi” but explained that we must make the sound of spitting immediately after saying it. Or make the sound as we were saying it.) So in future “BREAK A LEG”

Resource: Wikipedia