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

Sunday, October 25, 2015

                         (October 12, 1840 - April 8, 1909)

Born in Krakow, Poland, the vivacious, intelligent, and willful girl was taught by a resident tutor who was avidly interested in the theatre. He saw her potential as an actress and taught her dramatic literature and the German language to prepare her for a stage career. She bore the tutor's son, Rudolf, the same year she made her debut in the provincial Polish theatre.
        After refining her acting in the regional theatres she became one of the stars of the Krakow stage in 1868.   There she met and married Karol Chlapowski who was brought up in a wealthy and aristocratic family in spite of his family's objections.
In Warsaw she became one of the most popular stars of the Imperial Theatre, renowned for her performances in Shakespeare and classics of the Polish stage.
She began to expand her horizons when Maurice Neville, an American actor with whom she played Ophelia, urged her to try the New York stage.
    The Chlapowskis left Poland in 1875 with a small group of their friends all of whom were frustrated by the political conditions in Poland; they settled on a farm in Anaheim, California.  She began an intensive study of English to prepare her for her new career. While she became fluent in the language, she never lost her accent.
     Her American debut as the lead in Adrienne Lecouvreur was in August, 1877 in San Francisco. After a tour of California, she debuted in New York in the same play at the Fifth Avenue Theatre.
As Camille 1878

For the next thirty years she toured America in a repertory that included Macbeth, Henry Vlll, Mary Stuart, As You Like It, and Camille. She remained one of the most popular actresses in America. To parts like Rosalind (her most famous role), Viola in Twelfth Night, and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, she brought lyricism and poetry through her beauty, grace, and refinement.  Critics praised the way she used her voice to give emphasis and clarity to her characters.

During the season of 1889-1890 she toured with Edwin Booth, who, at the end of his career and not in good health, was making his last tour of the country.

In Modjeska Her Life and Loves by Antoni Gronowicz, excerpts from her daily diary which she called "Our Life in a Private Railroad Car" during the tour are indicative of her feelings about Mr. Booth, the challenges of touring to small towns and her gift of observation.    Milwaukee, April 22: "We played Hamlet last night...the audience was cold and unsympathetic. After the performance we went to the car and had supper. Edwin Booth was delightful. He told us some of his early experiences: how in Honolulu he was compelled to paste his own bills on the corner of the streets, and was surprised at that work by a fellow from New York who happened to be there at the time.....I heard him talking to the ladies of the company for more than an hour. They all shrieked with laughter.                  
                                                        Cedar Rapids, Iowa
"I am still reading the letters of Wagner and Liszt. I keep remembering the phrase: "Do something new, new, always new." And I long to find new roles to play.....Edwin is just taking his afternoon nap and in my stateroom I can hear his steady sonorous breathing that is called "snoring."
   "Oh! oh! oh!" I exclaimed and put my handkerchief to my nose when we passed the threshold of the Cedar Rapids temple of art. I wonder if there is any part of Hades that smells as bad.  Later, we found out that a tannery stood just behind the theatre. We burned pastilles, Chinese sticks, paper and a lot of cotton trying to drown out that awful odor.  And I sprinkled the stage with eau de Cologne and kept my bottle to my nose for the entire performance.
       How I wish some of the stage-struck girls could have been here last night, that I could give them the pleasure of smelling the stage, which, in their imagination, is a heavenly ground strewn with roses. If any of them could see the dressing-room poor Portia occupied, they would slink away from this deceitful Paradise, and thank Heaven and their good parents for a comfortable home....

Peoria, Illinois
After dinner, Edwin entertained me again with his talk.  He said he has no ear for music. But if anyone makes a mistake when reciting blank verse he finds it immediately jars upon him like a false note.  Of course he is very particular about pronunciation, correct emphasis, and voice inflection. And he was kind enough to point out some of my own mistakes.  His remarks were all to do with Lady Macbeth.
    In the Merchant of Venice, he told me at first he did not like my putting my hand on Shylock's arm in the "mercy speech," but after more thought about it he had come to the conclusion that it was well worked out, and in fact "a beautiful piece of business."
     It seems that the reason he has not studied any new parts for a long time is that, whenever he put a new play on the bills, the audience kept away from it and asked for Hamlet, Richelieu etc.--plays which he has played for years. ...with Americans, the older the play the better "the draw."
        Decatur, April 26:  After the performance we were, as usual, chatting about various things when the talk again turned to "shop."  Edwin described Charlotte Cushman as being truly beautiful when she was old. Her features softened with age, and her constant suffering gave her face a look of exaltation that she never possessed in her youth. She used to imitate Macready's mannerisms, even to his way of speaking; having played with him for years, she got into the habit of echoing him without being conscious of it. Forrest dubbed her "Macready in petticoats." and she called him a brute...
       Sunday, April 27:  Edwin did not go out at all.  I fear his health is failing rapidly. We sat talking until two o'clock in the morning.  It would be impossible to put down all I heard that evening; but I remember that we talked of spiritualism, art, and travel, and also a little bit about actors.  I only listened and marveled at his narrative gift, his impressionability, and intelligence....He loathes doing things for show; it is only when he has confidence with people that he opens the valve of his eloquence.

Wheeling, West Virginia  May 7
Edwin's father was both a splendid reader and a great actor. He had never allowed his son to watch him while he played. Edwin used to go to the theatre with him to help him dress, but was kept in the dressing room and was expected to learn his leassons. He was all ears though, and did not lose one word of his father's reading nor of the other actors. His father did not want him to acquire any of his own peculiarities. He used to say: "I want your ear to be educated first."

   Our season closed in Buffalo with the Merchant of Venice. After the court scene and while we were taking curtain calls, I glanced at my dear Edwin Booth and was struck by the strange feeling that I would never see him again. Tears filled my eyes.  Perhaps he had the same thought, for after the final curtain when he turned to me and said, "Goodbye," I saw that his eyes were moist."

She frequently returned to Poland to visit and play occasional engagements and she also appeared successfully on the London stage.  She retired from the stage at the end of the 1906-1907 season, though she later gave occasional readings for the numerous charities she supported.
"When I was young I yearned for fame, but later on, all other considerations paled against the enthusiasm of the work itself. I fell in love with my art. To get out of myself, to forget all about Helena Modjeska, to throw my whole soul into the assumed character, to lead its life, to be moved by its emotions, thrilled by its passions, to suffer or rejoice--in one word, to identify myself with it and reincarnate another soul and body--this became my ideal, the goal of all my aspirations, and at the same time the enchantment and attraction of my work."

Resource:  Modjeska her Life and Loves.  Antoni Gronowicz. New York. 1956
Notable Women in the American Theatre. 1989  Rita M. Plotnicki

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

                            October 16, 1925

Her illustrious career has spanned seven decades.  Arriving in the United States in 1940 she studied acting in New York City.
Moving to Hollywood she signed a contract with MGM.
                 For her first two roles in Gaslight (1944) and
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) she earned two Oscar nominations and a Golden Globe Award.  When her contract with MGM ended in 1952 she supplemented her cinematic work with theatrical appearances.
                Her finest performance is still as the mother of
Laurence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate (1962).


For 15 weeks in 1957 she debuted at the Henry Miller Theatre in Hotel Paradiso, a French burlesque set in Paris. She earned good reviews for her role as Marcel Cat. She later stated that had she not appeared in the play her "whole career would have fizzled out."  Next came A Taste of Honey at the Lyceum Theatre in which she played Helen, the boorish, verbally abusive, otherwise absentee mother of Josephine (played by Joan Plowright).

Publicity photo in 1950
Her first appearance in a theatrical musical was the short-lived Anyone Can Whistle, (1964)  by Arthur Laurents  and
Stephen Sondheim.   She worked with Janet Hayes Walker who founded the York Theatre and in a recent interview with Jack Ford on Metro Focus (PBS) she talked about Janet and how that musical led the way for her chance to play Mame in
Jerry Herman's musical adaptation of Patrick Dennis's novel.

NOTE:  The York Theatre is presenting Dame Angela Lansbury with its annual Oscar Hammerstein Lifetime Achievement Award at a gala on November 16, 2015.

Mame opened at the Winter Garden in May, 1966.
Stanley Kauffman in the New York Times wrote: "Miss Lansbury is a singing-dancing actress, not a singer or dancer who also acts..In this marathon role she has wit, poise, warmth.." She received her first Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical and the Tony Award. According to her biographer Margaret Bonanno Mame made her a "superstar". To quote Angela: "Everyone loves you, everyone loves the success, and enjoys it as much as you do. And it lasts as long as you are on that stage and as long as you keep coming out of that stage door."

Stardom achieved through Mame allowed her to make further appearances on television.  She was invited to star in a musical performance for the 1968 Academy Awards ceremony and co-hosted that year's Tony Awards with former brother-in-law
Peter Ustinov.   Harvard University's Hasty Pudding Club elected her "Woman of the Year".  She later starred in a musical adaptation of Jean Giraudoux's The Madwoman of Chaillot, Dear World (1969) and won a second Tony Award.

"A small number of people have seen me on the stage. Television is a chance for me to play to a vast U.S. public, and I think that's a chance you don't pass up. I'm interested in reaching everybody. I don't want to reach just the people who can pay forty-five or fifty dollars for a theatre seat."

MURDER SHE WROTE (1984 - 1996)

As mystery writer and amateur detective, her characterization of Jessica Fletcher won over 23 million viewers and Murder She Wrote is still one of the most successful and longest-running television shows in history.   In syndication it is still successful throughout the world.
She holds the record for the most Golden Globe nominations for Best Actress in a TV drama series and the most Emmy nominations.  

"Ange is classy and elegant, warm and generous, but she's also tough and expects everyone around her to give their all.  As far as she is concerned, there is no challenge that can't be at least partially met with a 'cuppa' very strong Yorkshire Gold.  Working on the stage keeps her vibrant. A healthy regimen keeps her beautiful.  What keeps her ageless is her immense curiosity, her exuberance for life and her tremendous gift for holding on to joy."
                   Len Cariou, friend, co-star, Sweeney Todd

Resource:  Wikipedia

Friday, October 16, 2015

(October 12, 1916 - August 14, 1994)

Playwright, novelist, actor, screenwriter who fought for union off-Broadway contracts that would assure advanced pay for actors.

Born in Charleston, South Carolina, she grew up in New York City's Harlem under the care of Eliza Campbell White, her grandmother,  a storyteller who first created Alice's interest in writing and theatre.  Self-educated, she completed two years of high school in Harlem and in 1939 helped to found the American Negro Theatre (ANT) in which she
performed, directed, and designed costumes for 11 years.

Aware of the shortage of good theatrical roles for black women, she wrote the one-act play Florence in 1949.  First performed in a tiny Harlem loft, it excited such critical acclaim that she was launched as a playwright.  The character of Mama in Florence is the first of Alice's many "genteel poor" stage characters.  Instead of the falsely romantic characters in popular literature, she created intelligent, sensitive, and complex characters who may be impoverished and lacking formal education but whose love of art and learning--along with a fierce personal pride and independence--make them admirable.  Her self-educated poor exhibit strength and self-assurance but unlike most other American heroes, they are usually black, female, and aging.
      Florence reflects the many themes that characterized her later writings, including black female empowerment, interracial politics, working-class life, and attacks on black stereotypes.

Anna Lucasta by Philip Yordan, premiered on Broadway in 1944 at the Mansfield Theatre. Inspired by Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie, the play was originally written about a Polish American family. The American Negro Theatre director Abram Hill and director Harry Wagstaff Gribble adapted the script for an all African American cast which included Hilda Simms as Anna, Earl Hyman as Rudolf, Canada Lee in a small supporting role  and Alice Childress as Blanche. She was nominated for a Tony Award for featured actress.  The play ran for 957 performances and also toured the United States and Europe, appearing in London in 1947 at His Majesty's Theatre.
A film adaptation in 1959 starred Eartha Kitt and Sammy Davis, Jr.

                                                  With the Off-Broadway union performances of Just a Little Simple (1950) and Gold Through the Trees (1952), she became the first professionally produced black female playwright.  At the end of the 1955-1956 Off-Broadway season, Trouble in Mind won an Obie Award for Best Original Play, making Alice Childress the first black woman to be awarded the honor.  She wrote over a dozen plays.
Earle Hyman and Hilda Simms

Trouble in Mind, her first full-length play, was based on her own struggles against what she perceived as a racist and sexist theatre system. She created the character Wiletta Mayer, a talented middle-aged black actress cast as the mother of a civil rights activist son, Job, in a play entitled "Chaos in Belleville."  Wiletta and the white director, Al Manners, clash in their interpretation of the play within the play.  First produced at the Greenwich Mews Theatre in New York on November 3, 1955, it ran for ninety-one performances.

Ruby Dee in Wedding Band

She wrote Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White in 1962-1963.  A full-length tragedy set in Charleston, South Carolina in 1918, it was given a rehearsed reading in 1963 and then produced professionally at the University of Michigan in 1966. It was optioned for Broadway several times but never produced because it was considered too controversial. Joseph Papp produced it at the Public Theatre (NYC) in 1972 and ABC gave the production a prime-time airing, even though a few stations refused to broadcast it.
Starring Ruby Dee and Eileen Heckart, Wedding Band is a story of miscegenation in World War 1 South Carolina. Ruby Dee's portrayal of the lonely, stalwart, and melancholy Julia was the finest work she had done since Jean Genet's The Balcony. According to Hilton Als, a staff writer for the New Yorker, "part of the brilliance of the script is Childress's refusal to take sides; no one in this story is right in their love, or wrong. but what makes it particularly interesting from a cinematic point of view is how Papp tries to work within the conventions of the theater--the piece is very actor-centered--as he explores how the camera's eye can change the spectator's focus."

Two plays for children were published in 1975 and 1977. When the Rattlesnake Sounds dramatizes a scene from the life of Harriet Tubman shortly before the end of slavery.  Tubman's strength and bravery renew the flagging spirits of two young women working in a laundry to raise money for the abolitionist cause.    Let's Hear It for the Queen dramatizes from a feminist perspective the nursery rhyme about the Queen of Hearts who made some tarts.  In her children's plays as well as her adult plays she shows girls and women how to be brave and creative in solving problems.

One of her most famous works, A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich (1973) helped launch her career as a young adult novelist.  Difficult social issues such as racism, drug use, teen pregnancy, and homosexuality are confronted. It won the Jane Addams Honor Award in 1974 and the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award from the University of Wisconsin in 1975.

Before her death, she received various awards and grants, including a Rockefeller grant, a graduate medal from the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, the Radcliff Alumnae Graduate Society Medal for Distinguished Achievement, and a Lifetime Career Achievement Award from the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE).

"Like snowflakes, the human pattern is never cast twice. We are uncommonly and marvelously intricate in thought and action, our problems are most complex and, too often, silently borne."
                                                                                                     Alice Childress

References:  Notable Women in American Theatre. 1989  Rosemary Curb

Saturday, October 10, 2015

(October 10, 1900 - March 17, 1993)


She saw her first play, The Merry Widow, from the balcony of the National Theatre in Washington D.C. and has written that following the performance she clung to the seat and refused to leave, hoping that it would start over again.   For 80 years audiences clung to theirs after witnessing her brilliance on stage.

She made her first stage appearance impersonating "The Gibson Girl" at Washington's Belasco Theatre in a matinee of Jack the Giant Killer. She then joined the Columbian Players, a stock company at the Columbia Theatre where she portrayed Prince Charles in A Royal Family and later starred as  Little Lord Fauntleroy.

With her mother as chaperone she went to New York for producer Lew Fields. She made an immediate success appearing with him as "Little Mime" in Old Dutch, a musical which opened in 1909 at the Herald Square Theatre. A highlight was when she appeared with John Drew in The Prodigal Husband (Empire Theatre, 1914). She completed her schooling at the Sacred Heart Academy in D.C. and later toured for two years as Pollyanna. 

Between 1918 and 1928 she would act on Broadway.  Penrod and
J. M. Barrie's Dear Brutus were successful. Acting with Alfred Lunt in Clarence had to be a thrill but most of the roles were the sweet if impish darling in light romantic comedies, some tailored to her ability. She embodied the carefree "twenties" vivacious spirit and impressed reviewers and the public for the gallery of "cute" sweethearts and charming flappers she created.

Some friends and critics began to question whether she could play characters with more substance. Urged by popular actresses Ina Claire and Ruth Chatterton, she studied voice and technique with Frances Robinson Duff and later
Constance Collier. She added grace to her movement with interpretive dance, fencing and boxing lessons. She was then far more prepared to tackle Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer (1924) and Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra (1925). She starred as Maggie Wylie in J. M. Barrie's What Every Woman Knows (later she was also in the film version).  She began a three year run in 1927 as Norma Besant, the doomed flapper in Coquette on Broadway and on tour.

"Charlie" MacArthur was established as a well-known newspaperman, playwright and screenwriter, popular in Manhattan literary and artistic circles. He was the great love, challenge and inspiration of her life. Surviving the stresses of their careers (hers, continually successful; his erratic and sometimes unstable) their marriage lasted until his death in 1956.  An apocryphal tale about his courtship was that at a party he offered her some peanuts and said 'I wish they were emeralds."

Victoria Regina cover
This picture (left) is Helen and Charles eating a 'birthday' breakfast  in Hollywood.
It was chosen as the invitation cover for her Birthday Gala, celebrating her 92nd birthday in 1992 at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington  D.C.

They had two children, Mary, an aspiring actress, who died suddenly of polio in 1949, a loss from which Helen never fully recovered. They adopted James Gordon MacArthur in 1937 who had a successful career in TV and film.
After a season of portraying Mary Stuart in
Mary of Scotland in New York and on tour,
she starred as Queen Victoria in Victoria Regina at the Broadhurst Theatre in 1935, which proved to be the greatest triumph of her stage career.  The Drama League of New York awarded her the medal for the most distinguished performance of the season. She dazzled Broadway for two seasons and toured for two more.  Producer Gilbert Miller estimated that two million people saw her in the play.

In 1946 she starred as Addie in Anita Loos's comedy, Happy Birthday, directed by Joshua Logan at the Broadhurst Theatre. For her role, she won her first Tony Award.  She then appeared in Joshua Logan's adaptation of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, set in the American south and called
The Wisteria Trees.   

In 1955 she was on the cover of the playbill for the National Theatre's production of Inherit the Wind starring Paul Muni with a special Hirschfeld cover celebrating her Golden Anniversary.

After her roles in Mrs. McThing, The Skin of Our Teeth, The Glass Menagerie, Time Remembered (her second Tony award) and
A Touch of the Poet with Kim Stanley, she was invited to appear at the White House where in 1964 she gave a program of First Ladies. She also established a Helen Hayes Repertory Company with which she toured for several season and under Department of State auspices.
     She announced her stage farewell in 1969 but was persuaded to continue acting which she did in Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht's  play The Front Page as Mrs.Grant.  She starred as Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into Night at the Hartke Theatre on the Catholic University campus in Washington, D.C. Her allergic reaction to stage dust caused her to leave the stage forever.
       However, she had appeared in many films since 1910 and won an Oscar as best actress for her performance in the screenplay The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1934) written by MacArthur. Her second Oscar for supporting actress in Airport (1970) and other films and TV programs kept her away from the dust.
     So many honors were bestowed on her including honorary doctorates, the Medal of the City of New York, the Medal of Arts of Finland, the Sarah Siddons Award. The Helen Hayes Theatre, named in her honor in 1955, was demolished in 1982 to build a hotel complex, but another New York theatre now on W. 44th St. next door to Sardi's was quickly rechristened with her name.
  In 1988 she presented the Helen Hayes Awards honoring outstanding achievement in the professional theatre in Washington D.C.    She also was one of twelve recipients of the annual National Medal of Arts award presented by President Ronald Reagan for artistic excellence.

JANUARY, 1964.  

I had the privilege as a first year graduate student at C.U.A. to be cast as the younger Miss Dove and perform with Ms. Hayes.  She was the kindest, most generous, professional, honest and spiritual person. As a devout Catholic she had met Father Gilbert V. Hartke and she had a huge "crush" on him as we all did. He was charismatic and unforgettable.  She stayed at a girls dorm on campus and all the bouquets of flowers sent to her were soon forwarded to the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to adorn the altars.  All of us were in awe of her but her personality and humility and humor engaged us.

This production still from the play shows her warmth and beauty and helped the novice behind her.

Father Hartke in his Dominican robes with the playwright and Ms. Hayes

She wrote me a few letters after we appeared in the play and in one of them she wrote what I consider the essence of her beliefs: "I am a firm believer in people who have reached a position of leadership being trusted!"  Talent she defined as "an instinct for understanding the human heart. We have either been given this gift or developed the gift of much more understanding than is good for us.  Acting in the theatre is the most direct and effective approach to emotions that has ever been devised."

Reference:  Notable Women in American Theatre 1989    Donn B. Murphy
Playbill covers, Henry Collection


Thursday, October 8, 2015

(October 3, 1880 - March 19, 1928)

"She was the personification of the ideal vaudeville artist...Her comedy was universal."
       E. F. Albee, president of the Keith-Albee-Opheum
Circuit  (New York Times, March 20, 1928)

Born Dora Goldberg in Joliet, Illinois, little is known of her early life until 1899-1900 when she was married to an undertaker (marriage ended in 1908). Her early show biz career is difficult to trace because she used a variety of first and last names.
       In 1902 she was a regular on the vaudeville circuit and performing at Percy Williams's Orpheum Theatre in
Brooklyn where her rendition of Harry von Tilzer's ballad, Down Where the Wurzberger Flows, became a popular hit.  She starred in the first Follies of 1907 and was a regular in the Ziegfeld Follies for several years.
She tried out stage names including Nora and Dora and it was a Jewish stage manager who informed her that Dora Goldberg was not a name with marquis value. He suggested going through the Hebrew alphabet. "Aleph, Bays..." when she stopped him right there and said "That's it!" (Bill Edwards)
Nora Bayes was born!

Nora's involvement with the Ziegfeld Follies made her one of the highest paid women in the world. She met her second husband,
Jack Norworth and they co-composed some of the songs for the Follies with the most popular being Shine on, Harvest Moon.
                              Before the husband and wife dancing team of
Irene and Vernon Castle became the darlings of New York Society, the Norworths were admired for their lifestyle, wardrobe, and even hairstyles. Women wanted to dress, wear hats and copy her coiffure.  (Bill Edwards)
Her trademark was an ostrich fan and she delighted in extravagant and outlandish costumes in her stage and public appearances.
   In 1910 she and Jack appeared under the management of Lew Fields in  The Jolly Bachelors (picture at left) in which she sang
Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?  It ran for 165 performances. The copy for Chase's Theater in Washington D.C. for a late summer performance stated: "Miss Bayes and Mr. Norworth are still flushed with the success they won as the stars of Lew Fields's Jolly Bachelors and they are regarded as the most popular comedy alliance in latter day vaudeville.."
                                                  (Bill Edwards)
     In 1911 she and Jack appeared in Little Miss Fix-it.  They opened in 1912 at Weber and Fields's new Music Hall in a double bill,  Roly-Poly and Without the Law in which they introduced the song When It's Apple Blossom Time in Normandy.
   She was billed as "The Greatest Single Woman Singing Comedienne in the World" when she appeared at the Palace theatre (NYC) in 1914.
   George M. Cohan chose her to sing the first American rendition of "Over There," which she introduced in her own production called Two Hours of Song.  
   When she opened at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York in 1918 in Ladies First, George Gershwin accompanied her on the piano while she introduced the first song he wrote in collaboration with his brother Ira--The Real American Folk Song.

               Bayes's sense of humor was an asset to her stage performances and also came out in personal interviews. She claimed that World War 1 started because England and Germany couldn't agree about her singing. She was outspoken, independent in her opinions and a women's rights advocate.

             She was known to be temperamental and demanding, but she was drawing crowds, so as her own agent and often producer, her tantrums were usually tolerated.  She could charm with her singular wit.
Here is a sample from an article she wrote in 1917. (B. Edwards)
   "Nora Bayes is having the time of her life as a manager for herself. A few days ago, Florenz Ziegfeld sent her an invitation to appear on his Sunday night concert bill at the Century Theater in New York.  He told her he needed one more big act and that she might name her own terms. here is her reply:  .............I am sure she would not try to hold you up for a stiff price for singing, as she expects to have $1,500 in her own house and heaven knows that's enough money for any decent woman to earn in one night."    Your loving son, Nora Bayes, manager.
She frequently signed such letters "Your loving son", which became an industry joke and a trademark.

Her strong-willed personality caused managers and other show business personnel to claim she was difficult to work with. Bayes's marital and romantic life was much publicized and commented upon by the public.  Scandal sold newspapers. She married five times. Her fifth husband was Benjamin Friedland, a wealthy businessman. She adopted three children and was a great supporter of children's charities.   According to one account, she performed two charity benefits the day of the abdominal surgery that eventually led to her death. In her last years she became a
Christian Scientist.  She died at age 47 and was financially insolvent.

For her contributions to American Theater and the American songbook, Nora Bayes was added to the National Recording Registry on April 11, 2006.

The official citation reads:  Over There, Nora Bayes (1917) Inextricably associated in popular imagination with World War 1, Nora Bayes's recording introduced George M. Cohan's song and became an international hit.  Cohan had requested that Bayes be the first singer to release his composition. A former member of the Ziegfeld Follies, an extremely popular vaudevillian and a Broadway star, she recorded a number of other songs to boost morale during the war and performed extensively for the soldiers."
(Bill Edwards)

YouTube has Jack and Nora singing their rendition of
Shine on, Harvest Moon in  1908.

References.  Notable Women in American Theatre, 1989.  Pamela Hewitt
Bill Edwards.


Sunday, October 4, 2015

(October 3, 1885 - Feb. 20, 1970)

"La Amiga de Mexico"

She first was exposed to the theatre when she spent summers with her father in San Francisco.  She was thrilled with Helena Modjeska's performance in The Merchant of Venice and Sarah Bernhardt's Phedre. The breakup of her parents' marriage affected her deeply.  Her paternal grandmother and great-grandmother were Mexican women of Spanish descent.  Her maternal grandmother, Anna Gray Fairchild, a Scottish immigrant, was a strong role model.

Her earliest plays were written for campus productions at the University of California (1902-1906) including A Man's Own, a one-act stressing equality for women. She graduated in the spring at the time of the San Francisco earthquake with a Bachelor of Letters degree.  She had also trained herself in journalism and wrote feature articles for the San Francisco Chronicle.  She gained acting experience in vaudeville and stock.  By sheer coincidence she was introduced to her idol, Madame Modjeska and lived for some time at Modjeska's ranch studying acting and assisting her with her memoirs.   She covered crime news and reviewed plays for the San Francisco Bulletin and between 1910 and 1920 she reported on boxing matches, murders and wars.  A strong feminist and member of the Lucy Stone League of suffragettes, she participated in a 150-mile march with the League, which delivered a petition on women's suffrage to the legislature of New York. She was an advocate for sexual independence, birth control rights, and increased sexual freedom for women.  She also lectured and advocated authors' rights and was the first American playwright to win royalty payments for a play production from the Soviet Union.

      She retained her maiden name after her marriage to sports writer William O'Connell McGeehan.   She regularly reported events of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) for American newspapers.  She was the first American woman war correspondent and wrote about the rule, overthrow, flight, and murder of Carranza. She was the only reporter to get an interview with Pancho Villa in Mexico--an international scoop.

In 1915 Sympathy, her first play to be produced, opened at the Pantages Theatre in San Francisco. During World War 1 she was in France covering the battles. Returning home in 1918 she and her husband settled in New York City where she wrote Madame Bluff from her war experiences. Gringo, produced in 1922, opened at the Comedy Theatre in New York, directed by Guthrie McClintic. She also began writing a biographical play about Edgar Allan Poe (Plumes in the Dust). Due to litigation from John Barrymore's wife, Michael Strange who wrote Dark Crown about Poe for her husband, a suit and countersuit, ultimately it was produced in 1936 starring Henry Hull.

This expressionist tragedy in nine episodes was "one of the most unusual plays of the twenties" according to John Gassner.  In describing the dramatic goals of Machinal she said, "It is all in the title-Machine-al-machine-like. A young woman--ready---eager--for life---for love...but deadened---squeezed---crushed by the machine-like quality of the life surrounding. She is a woman who must love and be loved.And she goes through life trying to justify this. She reaches out to her mother---to a man to marry---to having a child---a lover---searching for that living 'somebody'. She cannot reach to God, and she dies with this call---'somebody.'  She finds her answer once---in the lover. And in this scene comes her blossoming---she is a flower."  (Treadwell Papers)
                  Produced September 7, 1928, directed by Arthur Hopkins with Robert Edmond Jones as
scene designer, the play was a critical and commercial success.   Zita Johann starred as the Young Woman, George Still as the Husband and the role of the lover was performed so well by Clark Gable
that it impressed the Hollywood producers.  
                                          In 1931 foreign productions took Treadwell to London, Paris and Moscow.
She was the first United States playwright known to have earned royalties in rubles that she was obliged to spend in the U.S.S.R.
In future plays (not all equally successful, nor all produced) she would tackle the themes of adultery in a seriocomic, psychoanalytical manner (Ladies Leave);  a prostitute who seeks a new life but fails to find it (Lone Valley); a slice-of-life drama depicting post-Revolutionary lives in Russia, including that of a Communist party official (Promised Land); corruption in boxing (Million-Dollar Gate).  Hope for a Harvest was produced by the Theatre Guild and starred Florence Eldridge and Frederic March. They performed it on a road tour and while it didn't get the "money" reviews in New York it was selected for inclusion in The Best Plays of 1941-42. The interesting aspects of the play are the social comments she is making about a society which is overly materialistic. She used the metaphor of a decaying ranch as a symbol for an America in decline; an immigrant country which wanted to shut its doors to immigrants, a society abusing the resources inherited from immigrant ancestors.  One of the characters says: "There's something awful wrong, Lot---about what people like us have let happen to our land. Two hundred million of it just plain used up since we took it over from the Indians. You see, the Indians respected the land--they knew there are gods in it. We ain't got gods anymore. Just a lot of machines."
         It was successfully produced on television by the United States Steel Hour in 1951.

Sophie's childhood picture shows that she was serious and her eyes reveal a maturity beyond her age.  She became the first American woman playwright to write the international political play, the experimental (surrealistic) play, the play with a sexually liberated woman, and the play with a non-heroic male protagonist. Unquestionably she was an agent for change in the content and the structure of American drama in the first half of the 20th century!

Resources: Notable Women in the American Theatre. 1989  Louise Heck-Rabi
Shafer, Yvonne. American Women Playwrights 1900-1950.
Twenty-Five Best Plays of the Modern American Theatre: Early Series, ed. John Gassner (1949)