Tuesday, April 28, 2015

(April 29, 1917 - July 15, 2012)

Born and raised in Manhattan, Ms. Holm was an only child. Because of her parents' occupations--Jean Parke, her mother was an American portrait artist and her father, Theodor Holm, a Norwegian businessman--she traveled often and attended schools in the Netherlands and France.

She graduated from University High School for Girls in Chicago, where she performed in many stage productions. She then studied drama at the University of Chicago before her stage debut in the late 1930s.
Her first professional role was in a production of Hamlet starring Leslie Howard. But her first major part was in William Saroyan's revival of The Time of Your Life (1940) as Mary L with fellow newcomer Gene Kelly.  Her interpretation of Ado Annie in the premiere of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! in 1943 received critical and popular recognition. After she starred in the Broadway production of Bloomer Girl, 20th Century Fox signed her to a movie contract in 1946. Her film debut was in Three Little Girls in Blue, making a stunning entrance in a Technicolor red dress singing "Always A Lady."
                                            In 1947 she won an Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress in Gentleman's Agreement.  After playing Karen Richards in the quintessential play about Broadway, All About Eve,  she preferred live theatre to movie work and only accepted a few film roles over the next decade. The most successful were in the comedy The Tender Trap and the musical High Society (1956) which co-starred Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.
                                           A life member of the Actors Studio, she received numerous honors during her lifetime, including the 1968 Sarah Siddons Award for distinguished achievement in Chicago theatre; she was appointed to the National Arts Council by then-President Ronald Reagan, appointed Knight, First Class of the Order of St. Olav by King Olav of Norway in 1979, and inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1992.  She remained active for social causes as a spokesperson for UNICEF, and from 1995 she was Chairman of the Board of Arts Horizons, a not-for-profit arts-in-education organization.

(April 26, 1888 - Aug. 18, 1981)

The screenwriter, playwright, and novelist was born in Sissons (now Mount Shasta), California. She was largely self-taught and read a large array of library books. When she was a teenager, she married the son of a band leader in order to escape parental authority and left him approximately 24 hours later!  In 1919 she married director John Emerson who suffered a long mental illness for 18 years until his death in 1956.

After appearances in a number of stock company productions, she became
disenchanted with acting as a profession and found writing infinitely more interesting. Enchanted by short films she determined to write plots.  In her autobiography,  A Girl Like I, she wrote: "My sole preparation for a career was to buy a fountain pen and a large yellow pad."  Between 1912 and 1015 she wrote more than a hundred scripts, only four of which were rejected by Biograph.

When she met D. W. Griffith and his scenario editor in Hollywood they stared unbelievingly at this young woman who was four feet, eleven inches, weighed about ninety pounds and looked like a child.  While at the studio she wrote longer scripts for Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Mae Marsh, Constance Talmadge and Mary Pickford. She also pioneered the art of subtitling for Macbeth, for which she shared credit with Shakespeare. And her captions for Intolerance (1916) are considered classics of the genre.  When she moved to New York, she wrote two Broadway comedies, The Whole Town's Talking (1923) and The Fall of Eve (1925).  Her friends included intellectuals such as H. L. Mencken and the drama critic George Jean Nathan.  She achieved international fame with her novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, published in  85 editions and translated into fourteen languages including Chinese.  She rewrote the book as a popular play in 1926. It became the basis for two films, one silent and the other starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell (1953); and two musical comedies, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1949 and Lorelei in 1974, both starring Carol Channing.  After achieving some prosperity writing scripts at MGM for Irving Thalberg including Red-Headed Woman for Jean Harlow and the film adaptation of Clare Boothe Luce's The Women, she produced memorable stage plays such as Happy Birthday starring Helen Hayes and  her adaptation of Colette's Gigi which brought Audrey Hepburn to stardom in 1951.

        As a playwright, screenwriter, and international celebrity, Anita Loos proved that a woman could thrive in the manic world of Hollywood and New York show business. Her refusal to take anything very seriously kept her from being overawed and her self-described "fascination over all things great or small" (Cast of Thousands) kept her work from becoming stale or predictable. Her crisp, witty dialogue made a genuine contribution to both sound films and stage plays.

Resource: Notable Women in American Theatre, 1989 ed. by Laurilyn J. Harris

Friday, April 24, 2015

(April 23, 1902 - August 4, 1966)
American choreographer, modern dancer and teacher

Helen Tamiris was a pioneer of American modern dance. She brought a social consciousness to the concert hall and went on to become the director of the Dance Project for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and later an acclaimed Broadway choreographer.

Her works were uniquely American, dramatically depicting important social issues of the time such as racism, poverty, and war. In 1928, she wrote the  
 following manifesto in her concert program: "Art is international but the artist is a product of a nationality.,,,There are no general rules. Each original work of art creates its own code."

In 1927, she made her premiere as a solo modern dancer and two years later formed her own school and company.  She wanted to bring dance to a wider audience. Married to modern dancer and choreographer Daniel Nagrin (who wrote the book How to Dance Forever: Surviving Against the Odds), she and Nagrin directed the Tamiris-Nagrin Dance Company.

She is best known for her suite of dances called Negro Spirituals which were created between 1928 and 1942.  These dances protested against prejudice and discrimination against African Americans in America.  How Long Brethren? (1937) was a production of the Federal Dance Project.  Other dancers and choreographers who participated were Katherine Dunham, Doris Humphrey, Ruth Page and Charles Weidman.  

During the depression she assisted many dancers with finding work and career opportunities.  She also choreographed some pieces with themes that reflected her Jewish heritage such as Memoir (1959) and Womans Song (1960).  As a musical theatre choreographer she won a Tony award for best choreography in Touch and Go (1949). Other musicals included Annie Get Your Gun (1946), Up in Central Park (1947), Flahooley (1951), Fanny (1954) and Plain and Fancy (1955).

Resources: Jewish Women's Archive, Pauline Tish
Notable Women in American Theatre 1989

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

(April 22, 1839 - April 27, 1909)

"A chronicler of life behind the scenes, a theatre historian,
but not a very good actress."

Olive was the fifth of eight children of Irish-American actor and playwright Cornelius Ambrosius Logan.  Her younger sisters Alice, Grace and Kate appeared on the stage; notably in the American debut of Lydia Thompson, considered the first burlesque performance in America, at Wood's Museum in New York in September, 1868.  The theatre just happened to be owned by George Wood, Olive's brother-in-law.

Olive's first experience on the stage, at the age of five, was as Cora's child in Pizarro and later as Damon's child in Damon and Pythias.  She had a minor acting career as a young adult, and went abroad for a number of years.  She was compelled to return to America after some financial and personal hardships.  But in 1865 she appeared at Wallack's Theatre in New York in Eveleen, which she wrote and later became a lecturer earning as much as $15,000 a year. Some of her lectures were on woman suffrage. She spoke at the 1869 convention of the American Equal Rights Association and was a contributor to The Revolution. She contributed to numerous periodicals of the day using her own as well as her pen name, "Chroniqueuse". Of her later years Publishers Weekly reported: "She was married three times, the last to her secretary James O'Neill (who was 20 years her junior and not to be confused with Eugene O'Neill's actor-father.) For years little was heard of Olive Logan...Then one morning an old woman, dressed in rusty black, who carried an ear trumpet, went into the Tombs court to apply for a summons for her husband, whom she charged with drunkenness and non-support. She said her name was Olive Logan and that her husband was a watchman on Ellis Island.  When the news of her destitution reached England, Lady Cook...sent her funds and later, provided for her care in London.   Without Lady Cook's knowledge, Olive Logan, who had become demented was committed to the asylum at Banstead, England where she died.

       She wrote several books on theatrical matters including Before the Footlights and Behind the Scenes (1870)  which was cited often by future theatrical history writers and critics as a primary source for authentic details about the theatre of her day.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

(April 22, 1857 - Jan. 8, 1916)

A leading actress with Augustin Daly's company, she was born in Limerick, Ireland but spent most of her childhood in Brooklyn where her family settled when she was five.    She became an actress by accident when her sisters were on tour in 1873.  An actress in the company became ill and Ada made her debut as  Clara in Across the Continent.  For two seasons she was a member of Louisa Lane Drew's stock company at the Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia where she appeared with leading men of the day like Edwin Booth and John McCullough.  In 1879, while she was appearing in New York with Fanny Davenport's company in Pique, she attracted the attention of Augustin Daly who signed her for his company.  She remained with Daly's company for the next twenty years.

When Daly's theatrical activities extended to London in June 1884, she made her London debut.  To showcase his leading comedienne, Daly began a series of revivals of classic comedies in 1886 with The Merry Wives of Windsor in the role of Mistress Ford and later as Katharine in Taming of the Shrew. Of her Katharine it was said "that she raised the character of Shakespeare's Shrew from the level of turbulent farce, and made it a credible, consistent, continuously interesting and an ultimately sympathetic image of human nature.  She was also considered the best Rosalind seen in her time and within her special field of archness, raillery, sentiment, coquetry, and noble, woman-like feelings, she has seldom been equaled and never excelled." (From the obituary in the New York Times, Jan. 9, 1916)

(April 19, 1897 - December 29, 1992)

Born in Philadelphia, where she studied voice, Ms. Segal made her operatic debut in 1915, singing the title role in Carmen at the Academy of Music there.  One year later she was starring in The Blue Paradise at the Casino Theater in New York City. After a two year tour, she appeared in many reviews, musicals and operettas including The Yankee Princess and also appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies (1924).

The roles capitalized on her fresh-faced beauty and sweet voice. "Just because I was little and could sing and wasn't too bad to look at, I was called a prima donna and was cast repeatedly in musical comedies as the fair young girl who was good and noble and got what she deserved." However audiences in the 1920s and 1930s doted on her performances in The Desert Song, The Chocolate Soldier, The Three Musketeers and No, No Nanette.

She eventually went on strike to protest the saccharine roles she was given. In 1938, the lyricist Lorenz Hart came to the rescue, offering her the role of a cynical countess in I Married An Angel on Broadway. "He was the only one who really got me out of a rut of playing sweet-faced ingenues and taught me how to play comedy."

Her breakthrough role occurred  two years later as the hard-boiled Vera Simpson in Pal Joey. Brooks Atkinson, The New York Times critic wrote, "In a singularly sweet voice she sings some scabrous lyrics by Lorenz Hart to one of Richard Rodgers' most haunting tunes." She introduced the showstopping number, Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, a song that described her love for the younger man. When she reprised her role in Pal Joey in 1952, she was named best actress in a musical by the New York Drama Critics.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

(April 18, 1907 - February 25, 1989)

A dancer, mime, painter, writer, novelist and playwright, Anita "Angna" Enters came to New York to study at the Art Students League in 1919. She also studied dance with Michio Ito eventually performing as his partner in 1923.

In 1924 she changed her name to Angna and borrowed $25 with which to present her solo program at the Greenwich Village Theater.  For over 15 years she toured the United States and Europe with her solo program, "The Theatre of Angna Enters".  Many of her sketches and paintings were exhibited in the U.S. and abroad. Some of her sketches were often costume designs for characters in her mime performances or set designs for plays.  In addition to writing three volumes of autobiography she wrote a novel and a book on her work, On Mime (1966). Her plays Love Possessed Juana: A Play of the Inquisition in Spain, co-written with her husband Louis Kalonyme and The Unknown Lover were presented by the Houston Little Theater in 1946 and 1947.    She is also credited with having co-written two Hollywood films-Lost Angel in 1943 and Tenth Avenue Angel, starring Margaret O'Brien in 1948.

(April 17, 1883 - Jan. 6, 1972)

This rather theatrical pose of Ms. Lewisohn was taken in her early years as an actress.  In 1905 she and her sister Irene Lewisohn began classes and club work at the Henry Street Settlement House in NYC. They produced dance and theatre productions.

In 1915, they opened the Neighborhood Playhouse on the corner of Grand and Pitt Streets.  The photo to the left is what the building looked like in 1916.
They offered training in both dance and drama to children and teenagers--Irene in charge of dance training; Alice in charge of the dramatic arts.  This was one of the city's early experimental theaters which staged innovative works and gave rise to the Off Broadway movement.  The three-story red brick neo-Georgian-style playhouse was built by Alice and her sister and was completely controlled by women.

One of its landmark productions was The Dybbuk in 1925.

When the Neighborhood Playhouse theatre company closed in 1927, the Henry Street Settlement took over the building and renamed it the Henry Street Playhouse. It later housed a modern dance school and was, in 1967, renamed for Harry de Jur, a former Henry Street Settlement director.

Monday, April 13, 2015

(April 12, 1923 - January 22, 2004)

Who can forget Ann's brilliant dance numbers with Fred Astaire in Easter Parade and  her solo performances in On The Town and   Kiss Me Kate?  

Born Johnnie Lucille Collier in Houston, Texas, she began to take dance classes at the age of 5, after suffering from a case of rickets. Her mother believed learning to dance would help strengthen her daughter's legs.  She and her mother moved to Hollywood when she was nine, but because she looked older than she was, she began to work as a dancer in nightclubs to help support both of them. She adopted the stage name Ann Miller and was considered a child dance prodigy.  Inspired by the brilliant Eleanor Powell, she was determined to succeed. Hard work paid off when she was discovered by Lucille Ball and a talent scout which led to an RKO contract. For Columbia pictures she starred in Time Out For Rhythm and 11  movie musicals. The game changer was her contract with MGM.

She helped popularize pantyhose in the 1940s as a solution to the continual problem of tearing stockings during the filming of dance production numbers.  The common practice was sewing hosiery to briefs. If torn, the entire garment had to be removed and resewn with a new pair. So Ann requested a single pantyhose and a new more comfortable undergarment was born.

She was famous for her tap dancing speed. Studio publicists claimed she could tape 500 times per minute but the sound of ultra-fast 500 taps was looped in later. Because the stage floors were waxed and too slick for regular tap shoes, she had to dance in shoes with rubber treads on the sole.  Later she would loop the sound of the taps while watching the film and dance on a "tap board" to match her steps.

She replaced Angela Lansbury in the Broadway production of Mame (May 1969-Jan. 1970) and New York Post theatre critic Clive Barnes discovered "a vivacity...that made her stand out from the somewhat languid stars of the late Forties and early Fifties.'   In 1979 she joined Mickey Rooney on Broadway in Sugar Babies and critics were mixed about this tribute to burlesque but were delighted to see her in "stunning shape at whatever age she must be."

Her last stage  appearance was in the 1998 production of Stephen Sondheim's Follies in which she played hardboiled Carlotta Campion and received rave reviews for her rendition of the song "I'm Still Here".

To honor her contribution to dance, the Smithsonian Institution displays her favorite pair of tap shoes, which she playfully nicknamed "Moe and Joe".

Sunday, April 12, 2015

(April 10, 1903 - October 9, 1987)

A playwright, author, and prominent public figure, she was born in an apartment on Riverside Drive.  She was raised by her mother after being abandoned by her father as a child. Her mother's gifts to her and her brother were always books, because she felt that knowledge, culture, and hard work were the keys to success.

Determined to become a writer, she convinced editors at Vogue to hire her and she became an editorial assistant.  She moved on to Vanity Fair. Her second marriage to Henry R. Luce, editor-in-chief of Time-Life-Fortune,
  lasted for 32 years until his death in 1967.

She made several attempts at acting. When she was a child, her mother had taken her to meet David Belasco who hired her as an understudy to Mary Pickford and she played a bit part in the film.  As an actress she was unsuccessful but writing plays for actresses became her passion.  She had written several plays but her first to be produced on Broadway was Abide With Me (1935) a story of mental cruelty and murder. However her third play The Women, a satire on society women, was a major theatrical success (December, 1936) running for 657 performances. Made into a movie directed by George Cukor, it starred Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard and others. It was also adapted as a musical, Opposite Sex, filmed in 1956.    Although many critics disliked the play for its shocking portrayal of women, it has been produced in eighteen foreign countries and translated into eleven languages. Over 250,000 women have performed in it. Her intention she said was "to satirize a very small, special group of rich, idle, social female parasites. My aim was to write a clinical, sober-sided, if impolite genre study of Manhattan manners."  But the critics viewed it as an attack on her sex and insisted that she had written an hilarious but wicked lampoon on all women.

She believed that women of her generation had the most and the best. Her philosophy was summarized in an interview. "My early disadvantages spurred me on to accept the challenges of life, to look for avenues of expression, to be the best I could be in whatever I tried. Coming as far as I have, I see each day's dawning as a triumph, with the curtain rising on a tremendously exciting show. I love every minute of it."

Resource: Lucille M. Pederson,  Notable Women in American Theatre. ed. 1989
(April 10, 1850 - Sept. 26, 1898)

She was an actress and a theatre manager, the eldest of nine children of actor E. L. Davenport, an American actor who had gone to London in 1847 with Anna Cora Mowatt. His success in London kept him there and he married actress Fanny Vining.  Returning to America in 1854, the family settled in Boston.

Her interest in the theatre was apparent when she described her first appearance on stage at the age of eight waving a flag while her father's acting company sang "The Star Spangled Banner" at the Howard Athenaeum on July 4, 1858.  Until the age of fourteen she performed with her parents in Boston and New York, notably as the young King Charles II of Spain in Faint Heart Never Won Fair Lady in 1862.
                                                   After a brief period working at the Louisville Theatre playing soubrette roles, she was employed by Mrs. John Drew in Philadelphia at the Arch Street Theatre. While performing there she was seen and hired by Augustin Daly, manager of the Fifth Avenue Theatre. Her big break came when she starred as Lady Gay Spanker in Boucicault's London Assurance in 1868. The critic for the New York Sun, regarding its revival in 1877 wrote: "As for Miss Davenport, she is apparently one of the few actresses intended by nature, no less than by art, to play the role of Lady Gay. She is always at her best when she is effusive and rompish. As a hoydenish, impetuous, illogical beauty of  this or any other period, she has no equal in the adjacent ranks of her profession."

     Other notable roles in her career included: Lady Teazle in The School For Scandal, Nancy Sykes in Oliver Twist, Rosalind in As You Like It.  Her versatility and dramatic power inspired Daly to write Pique for her in which she created the role of Mabel Renfrew.

    Her success enabled her to take her own company on tour for a few years in a varied repertoire.
She was, according to critics and biographers, a successful actress and manager, who presented new plays to America as well as elaborate productions of old plays. A shrewd businesswoman, she was not afraid to try unusual and demanding roles.  In 1879 the New York Dramatic Mirror in reviewing a revival of Pique described her success. "Of all the actresses now before the public there is scarcely one presenting such manifold claims to popular attention. A woman of radiant presence, inheriting her father's great histrionic gifts, and fulfilling the promise given by all of the Davenport family, with restless industry, ambition, and the most boundless versatility, she unites all the qualifications of a great star."

Resource: Susan S. Cole, Notable Women in the American Theatre. ed. 1989

She also understood the value of self promotion (probably Sarah Bernhardt was the queen of product endorsement) but here we see Fanny's image promoting cigars.

Fanny D. proves that while you are the daughter of a famous and beloved actor, you need not be in his shadow, but achieve your own success, simply because you have what it takes.

At a time when actresses were rarely "stars" she began her own company and toured throughout the country reaching an audience that would not have seen her on the New York stage.  Without a smart phone, a hashtag or an instagram account, she found followers.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

(April 4, 1923 - May 28, 2014)

Maya Angelou's name belongs with those of Godfrey Cambridge, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Lorraine Hansberry, LeRoi Jones (Imamu Amiri Baraka), and Ntozake Shange as outstanding black contributors to the American theatre.  They have conveyed the pain and the power of the American black experience through the medium of drama.  "All my work, my life, everything is about survival. All my work is meant to say, 'You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated...I try to tell the truth and preserve it in all artistic forms."  (Black Women Writers At Work.)

She was a poet, a playwright, a composer, a singer, a director, a stage and screen performer and an autobiographer.  I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, her first autobiography, won instant critical success and was nominated for the National Book Award in 1970. In this inspiring and extremely moving book she tells about her early years during which she suffered such physical abuse that she didn't speak for ten years. And then she started to sing, was liberated from the "cage" and found her voice through the poetry that attests to the complexity of the black woman's experience and her intense and intimate assertion of self.

Her Broadway debut was a Tony nominated role in Look Away. Off Broadway credits include Calypso Heatwave (1957), Jean Genet's The Blacks, and Cabaret For Freedom at the Village Gate. She adapted her book of poetry, And Still I Rise, into a one act musical, produced in Oakland, California in 1974.  Reviewer Janet Boyarin Blundell noted that Ms. Angelou, "seemingly unafraid to approach anything. . .includes comments on aging, the disappointments of love, anger at the abuse of black people, and the everyday aspects of womanhood."  The title poem's opening lines demonstrate her passion and determination to survive no matter what.

                                 "You may write me down in history
                                  With your bitter, twisted lies,
                                  You may trod me in the very dirt
                                  But still, like dust, I'll rise."

She received many honorary degrees and awards, among them a Yale University Fellowship, a Rockefeller Foundation Scholarship, a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her first collection of poetry, Just Give Me A Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Diiie. She was a member of Actors' Equity, AFTRA, on the Board of Trustees for the American Film Institute and one of the few women members of the Directors Guild of America.

The millions who heard her speak at Obama's first inauguration, listened to her deep, dark tones, and the carefully articulated prose, with its own rhythm, music, and amazing grace notes.

I had the distinct pleasure of meeting her one Sunday afternoon in her home in Winston Salem, North Carolina.  The chair of the theatre department at North Carolina School of the Arts and his wife took me there for a visit.  Here was this tall, imposing, colorful, magnetic woman and I was in awe. She had the ability to hold your attention with her stories which she told with a humor and laughter that was magical.  But then she disappeared into her kitchen where she was making a stove top pineapple upside down cake (her recipe).  Delicious!   She gave me a tour of her home and at one point it was just us two girls sitting for a few moments engaged in a one on one conversation. What I remember is the way she connected through her eyes and her truth.

Monday, April 6, 2015

(April 3, 1906 - August 19, 1993)

 Tony Award winning Costume Designer

Born Lucinda Davis Goldsborough in New Orleans, she studied at the Art Students League in New York (1923-1925), in France at the Sorbonne (1927-1929), the Beaux Arts Academy (1928-1930).

Her first professional credit was as the scenic and costume designer for a 1937 production of As You Like It.  The notices following the opening commended              her on her excellent use of color and period detail.
          She won the Donaldson Award for the costumes she designed in I Remember Mama. Two years later she was the first person to win the Tony Award for Best Costume Design, an acknowledgement of her contributions to Another Part of the Forest, Street Scene, and The Chocolate Soldier, The Glass Menagerie, among others.  Her second Tony was for the 1961 musical The Gay Life. Other theatre credits include The Fourposter, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Orpheus Descending and The Sound of Music.

She designed only two films, Portrait of Jennie and the 1951 screen adaptation of A Streetcar Named 
  Desire for which she was nominated for an Oscar.

Her design for a revival of Show Boat

(April 2, 1907 - Oct. 10, 1990)

The daughter of Louis B. and Margaret (Shenberg) Mayer, her career as a producer in the New York theater began in 1947.  She wrote in her memoir, A Private View (1983) that the first part of her life was spent in the shadow of her father who built MGM into the most respected studio in Hollywood.
Her marriage to David O. Selznick united two of Hollywood's dynasties. "Movies were like a great cause to us. We had one romance with each other and another with the movies." (A Private View).

Visits to New York in the 1930s forged the beginning of her connections in the theater and laid the groundwork for her career as a producer. She is perhaps best known as producer of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). She also produced John Van Druten's Bell, Book and Candle (1950, Enid Bagnold's The Chalk Garden (1955) and Graham Greene's The Complaisant Lover which was a smash hit in London, but ran for only three months in New York (1961).

Perhaps her most significant accomplishment as a producer was to insist always on the priority of the show. To ensure the success of her productions, she was willing to endure the difficult temperaments of performers such as the unpredicatable, moody Marlon Brando in Streetcar Named Desire and the icy imperious Gladys Cooper in The Chalk Garden. When noted Irish star Siobhan McKenna accepted a major role in The Chalk Garden and then vanished to a remote island off the Irish coast, Selznick sent a man in a rowboat to contact her instead of firing her.

Mel Gussow, New York Times drama critic, in writing about Selznick's Broadway career, said, "When she produced Streetcar and other plays, she worked hand in glove with the playwright in insuring that the work was seen absolutely to its best advantage."

From 1985 to her death in New York on October 10, 1990, she was president of the Louis B. Mayer Foundation. Breaking the foundation's tradition of gifts to film schools and institutes, she gifted five million dollars to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute of Boston. In her will, she left a hundred thousand dollars to the Young Playwrights Foundation to provide income for travel and housing for talented new writers, ensuring her continued involvement in the new young voices of theatre and screen.

Resources: Irene Mayer Selznick by Angela Wigan Marvin. Jewish Women's Archive
Notable Women in the American Theatre (1989)

Friday, April 3, 2015

Margaret Anglin as Electra
(April 3, 1876 - January 7, 1958)
"A pioneer of modern directing"

Born in Ottawa, Ontario, the youngest of nine children of newspaper editor and politician Timothy Warren Anglin, Margaret became a Broadway star, director and producer and was hailed as one of the most brilliant actresses of her day.

She graduated from the Empire School of Dramatic Acting in 1894. It was that same year that the impresario Charles Frohman was so impressed with her acting talent that he cast her as the lead in Bronson Howard's successful play Shenandoah. By 1896 she was James O'Neill's leading lady on tour both in the U.S. and in Canada. She played Ophelia to his Hamlet and in 1898 she was hired to play Roxanne in Cyrano de Bergerac opposite Richard Mansfield, the matinee idol of his day. She became Frohman's leading lady with his Empire Theatre Company in 1899.

The New York Times reported in December, 1905 that after she had performed at a benefit to assist the persecuted Jews in Russia, the "divine" Sarah Bernhardt asked her to perform with her in Pelleas and Melisande by Maeterlinck. (Note: Sarah had also played Pelleas opposite Mrs. Patrick Campbell's Melisande on July 1, 1905, Vaudeville Theatre, London).  Sarah's invitation to Ms. Anglin sealed her reputation as a great star in America.

In 1910, as an independent actress-manager, she starred in her first production of a Greek tragedy, Sophocles' Antigone at USC, Berkeley. For the next eighteen years she included the Greek classics in her repertory, presenting the plays in outdoor theatres or in opera houses. When she appeared as Clytemnestra in Iphigenia in Aulis in New York at the Manhattan Opera House in 1921, Alexander Woollcott praised her performance. "The unforgettable part of this evening of Euripides was the splendor of Miss Anglin, the lovely music of her voice and the prodigious, the amazing energy that is hers alone among the actresses of the American stage."

In her nearly fifty years on the stage, she played more than eighty roles, many of which were from Shakespeare's plays.  Her revival of Greek drama not only added to her reputation as an actress but to her adeptness as a stage director.  Thoda Cocroft, her publicity manager, wrote: "On her own shoulders, she loaded the multiple responsibility of directing, staging, selecting actors for the Greek chorus, arranging and rearranging business, choosing costumes, supervising electricians, actors, musicians and stage hands, up to the last detail relating to the performance."

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

(April 1, 1884 - December 7, 1946)
"The theatre was her life."

Born Loretta Cooney, her first public appearances involved declamations of soul-stirring poetic masterpieces such as "The Wreck of the Hesperus," "The Charge of the Light Brigade," and "Curfew Shall Not Ring To-night."  Despite her family's objections to a life on the stage as a dreadful thing worthy of eternal damnation or denying that it even existed, it was her mother who approved of a theatrical career and encouraged Loretta to participate in the performing arts program at Public School No. 68 in Harlem.

She appeared in vaudeville where she gave imitations of such personalities as Eddie Foy and Anna Held.  After she married Charles Alonzo Taylor,  a successful writer and producer of melodrama and twenty years older than his teenaged bride, she spent six years learning every aspect of the stage from making costumes to managing the box office.

In 1901 she acted the soubrette roles in the road company productions of her husband's melodramas for several years until she joined an acting troupe at the Seattle Theatre and debuted in her first long dress part as Marguerite in Faust.  After performing in almost fifty plays and musical comedies, she collapsed from overwork and anxiety.  Between 1903 and 1910 she starred in several successful plays and as Rose Lane in Alias Jimmy Valentine she achieved instant success followed by the role of the Hawaiian princess Luana in The Bird of Paradise.  But in 1912 she won the unqualified admiration of Sarah Bernhardt for her leading role in J. Hartley Manners's play Peg o' My Heart, which he wrote for her. The play ran for over six hundred performances in New York, and another five hundred in London.  In May of 1913 she gave a special 11AM performance for Sarah Bernhardt, who formed an audience of one. Madame Bernhardt predicted "Within five years Laurette Taylor will be the greatest actress on the American stage." (NY Dramatic Mirror, 12/16/1916)

Alexander Woollcott celebrated her as a first-rate actress, claiming that  "any role she plays. . . at once becomes so colored by her qualities as a person, so defined by her method, and so complicated by her distinct limitations and her all-conquering charm, that it seems like an invention of her own and begets the ever-recurrent legend that she really does much of the writing herself." (Everybody's Magazine, May 1920)

When her beloved mentor and husband J. Hartley Manners died in 1927, she left the stage for ten years.  It is reported that she went on a ten year bender she later called "the longest wake in history." It was her desire to write that pulled her out of her depression. Two of her plays were produced regionally and some short stories and personal sketches appeared in Vogue and Town and Country. Then in 1938 she found a role that challenged her imagination--Mrs. Midget in Sutton Vane's Outward Bound.  Her sensitive portrayal of the charwoman-mother of a wayward son revealed to a new generation of theatregoers the magical powers of this great actress. She received critical praise and won the Barter Award in 1939.

When she premiered as Amanda Wingfield in Williams's The Glass Menagerie on March 31, 1945 her triumph was complete. She had come to terms with herself as well as her character. "You see, the woman I play is really two parts", she told an interviewer. "First she is a shrew. Then she remembers--and you see her as she remembers herself--as a young girl." When asked why she gave Amanda Wingfield bangs she replied "Because, alas, I have too good a brow for a brainless woman--and the woman in the play has no brains."
      Lewis Nicholas, theatre critic for the New York Times, wrote: "She plays softly and part of the time seems to be mumbling--a mumble that can be heard at the top of the gallery. Her accents, like the author's phrases, are unexpected, her gestures are vague and fluttery. There is no doubt she was a southern belle; there is no doubt she is a great actress.' (April 2, 1945).
     People, especially actors like Uta Hagen and Julie Harris, who saw Laurette's Amanda say it was the best performance ever offered on the American stage. Williams compared her radiance in the role (which he had based on his mother) to the "greatest lines of poetry"and mourned that her reputation would be limited to the "testimony and inspiration" of those who saw her.

In Harold Clurman's book Tomorrow (March, 1947) he captured some of the qualities responsible for her magnetism.

    "What distinguished Miss Taylor was the quality of her talent. She expressed a constantly tremulous sensibility that seemed vulnerable to the least breath of vulgarity, coarseness, or cruelty without ever wholly succumbing to the overwhelming persistence of all three.
     She was staunch even when she appeared broken.  Laurette Taylor seemed to be the victim of a thousand unkind cuts so minute that no word could describe them, no poet make them pathetic. She seemed always to be weeping silent tears, and her slightly bent head or averted eye were unspeakably moving because they were gestures so brief as to appear wholly imperceptible.   Her voice was like buried gold whose value we could not guess; her speech, flowing and ebbing in strange unequal rhythms, was like a graph in her soul in its bursts of tender feelings and recessions of frustration and confusion. A luminous confusion composed her aura. It warmed us deeply because it was generated by the unrhetorical sources of an ordinary woman's being rather than any studied glamour. There was always something surprising about it, and no one appeared more surprised by what she sensed and experienced than Laurette Taylor herself. Her face was always suffused with a look of startled wonder, at one happy, humorous, frightened and innocent."