Sunday, May 29, 2016

May Robson roles as of 1905

April 19, 1858 - October 20, 1942

"I was born in the Australian bush.  I remember when I was a young girl fishing from the St. Kilda Pier in Melbourne.  At 13 my family moved from Melbourne to England across the Pacific. We sailed in a vessel modeled after my grandmother's rocking chair in movement and it was dubbed the "Rolling Moses."
       She attended La Sainte Union Catholic School on Highgate Road. "From the Sacred Heart Convent, Highgate, I was sent to school at Brussels, and there I studied the languages. I went to Paris for my examinations in French and returned home for a vacation.  I ran away from home to marry a boy of eighteen and we went to Fort Worth, Texas and tried to live up to our dignified name as inscribed on our cards, 'Mr. and Mrs. Charles Livingston Gore'."
                                                                                                                                                                                     From an article that appeared in Theatre (1907)                                                                                                                    
She arrived in New York in 1880 with her young husband and three children and had to begin life anew after severe financial losses.  Her husband preferred to return to London to recoup some of his finances; May decided to stay in New York.  To survive she produced crocheted hoods and embroidery, designed dinner cards and taught painting to support her three children. Her youngest son and daughter died in 1882.

     She debuted as an actress on September 17, 1883 as Tilly in Hoop of Gold at the
Brooklyn Grand Opera House.  Heretofore her maiden name was Robison, now an
incorrect spelling on the playbill as Robson became her chosen last name for "good luck".

      Her success was partly due to her affiliation with Charles Frohman and the Theatrical Syndicate. By 1911 she established her own touring theatrical company.

According to the bio in Who's Who in the Theatre by John Parker, between 1884 and 1921 she appeared on Broadway or on tour in over sixty productions.  To name a few,  Mrs. Chapstone in
Jim the Penman, Mrs.Van Buren in The Charity Ball, Audrey in As You Like It.
                        Between 1893-1896 she was engaged at the
Empire Theatre under the management of Charles Frohman in the following productions: Liberty Hall, The Councillor's Wife,
Sowing the Wind,  Gudgeons,  The Luck of Roaring Camp, 
The Importance of Being Earnest, Bohemia, among others.
Theatres who engaged her included Palmer's, Miner's Fifth Avenue,  Hoyt's, the Lyceum, Daly's and Wallack's and the
New York.  She also appeared in a vaudeville sketch entitled "Cinders" at Lew Fields' Theatre in 1904.

      She originated the role of Aunt Mary Watkins in
The Rejuvenation of Mary appearing in New York after a tryout at the Garden Theatre in 1907. She debuted in London with the same role at Terry's Theatre in 1910.    There would be at least ten more character roles by the end of 1922.      For a woman with no apparent training, except for life experience, she had phenomenal luck as a working actress and so many roles that were just right for her comedic timing and instinctive characterizations.

She performed a cameo in the 1915 silent film, How Molly Made Good and in 1916 starred in the film  A Night Out, an adaptation of a play she co-wrote The Three Lights. Other silents included roles in the King of Kings (1927), The Rejuvenation of Aunt Mary (1927) and Chicago (1927).

       With her distinctive speaking voice and extensive stage experience, it is no wonder that Hollywood moguls and directors would request her for her brilliance as a solid character woman and comedienne.  In The She Wolf (1931) she was a miserly millionaire businesswoman; in the final segment of If I Had A Million (1932)  she was a rest home resident who gets a new lease on life when she is given a million dollar check by a dying business tycoon. She played the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland (1933), Countess Vronsky in Anna Karenina (1936), Aunt Elizabeth in
Bringing Up Baby (1938), Aunt Polly in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938) and a sharp-tongued Granny in A Star is Born. (1937)
In 1933, she was nominated for an Academy Award at age 75 in the Best Actress category for Lady for a Day but lost to Katharine Hepburn.  She was the first Australian-born actress to be nominated for an acting Oscar, and for many years she held the record as the oldest performer nominated for an Oscar.

She wrote an article entitled "Make-Up--A Paradox"
for Making Up A Practical and Effective Treatise on this Art for Professional and Amateur by Actor James Young (1905)

"Let me say that I do not think that I have ever met two faces that should be made up exactly alike. I am talking about "straight make-up." You often see a girl who looks remarkably pretty on the street and who is comparatively a fright when she gets on the stage; and a girl really plain who seems pretty behind the footlights.  Make-up can be very cruel or very kind........
                                                  "As to costumes, my advice is to get the real thing when you can. The old coat I wore some years ago in  Lady Bountiful  (1892)I remember I bought from a woman in Newark, who was very glad to exchange it for a new one. When I cannot get the real thing I reproduce it as closely as I possibly can."

After her death at age 84 the New York Times obituary called her "the dowager queen of the American screen and stage."

Resources: Watch as many of the 34 motion pictures which starred or featured this iconic and brilliant woman.  My favorites are  Lady For A Day, Bringing Up Baby, Four Daughters, Irene, 
Wife vs. Secretary and Reckless.

Reference:  May Robson  Wikipedia

Monday, May 23, 2016


The year was 1852, a young rising star, the son of the great Junius Brutus Booth, was in financial straits.  Most of the money earned from touring had been squandered by his father's self-indulgence and addictions.

However, there was an inner strength and instinct for survival in the rugged mining towns of Northern California that only fueled the young man's passion for succeeding on the stage--the only occupation he knew anything about, the one true love in his lonely life.

Eleanor Ruggles wrote a well-researched narrative about him entitled The Prince of Players and this excerpt defines how that phrase applied to him and to the miners for whom he performed.

Excerpt from  Prince of Players Edwin Booth by Eleanor Ruggles
Norton,  New York. 1953  pp. 57-60

Miners and travel obstacles in the 19th century

         California had an expression: “Seeing the elephant.” It had been the  title of a skit satirizing the gold rush that had run in San Francisco for months. “To see the elephant” meant to trek hopefully to the gold country and be (what most people were) viciously disappointed.  The West took up the ironic idiom.   All rugged travel, hunger and heartbreaking bad luck were “seeing the elephant.”  Miners had elephants stamped on their letter paper and daubed them in red and black on their cabin walls.
         The Booths had caught a glimpse of the elephant in Sacramento. Now Edwin got a good look from trunk to tail.  At first his his father (Junius Brutus Booth) had left, he lingered on with Junius (his older brother) and Harriet in their house on Telegraph Hill, an exasperating guest.  Having no work, he spent his time drinking in saloons where the bars were still warm from his father’s instep. His nineteenth birthday (November 13, 1852) came and went. Junius was mightily relieved when Willmarth Waller, an actor-manager organizing a company to play the mining towns engaged Ted for the tour. “The name will help me anyway,” said Waller.
         Junius had learned a thing or two about how to survive in California. It was the survival of the cautious. His brother was a brash kid, and Junius advised him before starting out to “put a slug” which was a piece of gold worth fifty dollars, “in the bottom of your trunk, forget you have it, and when things are at their worst bring out your slug.”
                  At Sacramento they all changed steamers and churned up the Feather River to Marysville.  Then, piling into a coach, they jolted for miles across plains whose horizons were ringed at night by the red pillars of campfires. They inched in silence, muffling all harness noise, through bandit country where mustachioed highwaymen like Joaquin Murietta could be expected to take shape silently out of the brush.  Now and then a grizzly lumbered across the trail.  Through the night the coyotes howled. The sturdy horses braced their hoofs as they picked their way down pebbly forest paths. From the hillttops the swaying, singing coachload glimpsed an occasional white tent roof or a thread of smoke showing the whereabouts of some lonely fortune hunter.
         Some of the mining towns had real playhouses with a sign over the door announcing THEATER or DRAMATIC HALL in five-foot letters, and inside kerosene footlights and drop curtains with pictures of elephants or of a miner recumbent, his pick by his side, dreaming of home. But often traveling actors played in a calico-draped saloon on a stage of boards help up by sawhorses, or in somebody’s barn or warehouse where the all-male audience planted stools on the dirt floor and belligerently staked off places like claims.
         Waller’s troupe stopped first in Nevada City, a clump of shacks in a clearing among the tall pines, and Edwin acted his first Iago.  They played next in Grass Valley, then in Rough and Ready, then in distant Downieville on the North Yuba at the deep bottom of a valley high in the mountains. The more remote the camp, the more electric the tension in the audience of tough-looking miners who sat with their guns handy in their laps. If you could capture them they showered you with gold pieces; if you disappointed them they tossed you in a blanket. Many of them knew the classical texts by heart and yowled with irritation when the smallest cut was made.
         The actors were in Downieville when a tremendous blizzard struck. Waller herded them back along the trail as far as Grass Valley. Here the snow lay twelve feet deep in places, and food was so short and fantastically expensive that Edwin’s precious slug, fetched out of his trunk to meet the emergency, bought the company no more than one dinner. They forced themsleves out and on again to Nevada City, hoping to earn enough there to pay for the steamer trip home. But when they reached town on an icy December night they found the dramatic hall dark.
         For many days neither food not letters had got through to the camps. The stranded miners had no money for theaters.  The stranded actors huddled around the stove in the dismal hotel and began to swap stories out of their accumulated experience of their catastrophes.
         Edwin flung away and wandered off alone down the main street, which led out of the camp into a no man’s land pitted like a moon landscape with gulches left by the gold diggers.  The snow made the night look almost bright and the raw holes sculptured. He was on his way back when he saw a lantern bobbing, heard shouts and running footsteps.
         “Holla!” rang George Spear’s (a member of the company) voice, sounding half-frozen, “Ted, is that you?”
         “Yes, what’s up?”
         “There’s mail just in and a message for you.”
         “What news?”
         “Not good news for you, my boy.”

         Edwin, like his father, occasionally had premonitions, true guesses at dark events. “Spear,” he asked instantly, “is my father dead?” Spear nodded slowly.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

"A Lady of the Theatre"
(June 21, 1896 - June 2, 1998)

Widow of playwright Howard Lindsay after 41 years of marriage, they co-starred as Clarence and Vinnie Day during the long run of Life With Father, the longest-running non-musical Broadway play in history (1939 - 1947).

The play was turned down by the Lunts and many other stars. It was tried out in summer stock at the Lakewood Theater in Skowhegan, Maine with Mr. Lindsay and Miss Stickney thrust into the leading roles.  She said: "We weren't at all sure we were good enough for the parts. We had never originally intended to play them ourselves." Success in summer stock eventually led to Broadway, and opening night was filled with minor disasters. In the first scene the actress playing the maid accidentally dropped a tray of dishes, and, later, several actors forgot their lines.  The Lindsays went home and cried.      "Little did we realize that the play would last through World War II."

   Her portrayal of the mother was at the heart of the play. She was understanding without being overly sentimental.  Brooks Atkinson said her portrait was "brilliant acting, both sweet and witty, with a supple response to the storminess of her domestic economy."

Howard Lindsay and Dorothy Stickney in Life With Father


In her 1979 memoir Openings and Closings, she wrote about her lifelong battle with stage fright. She said she had learned one lesson: "When panic overtook me and I felt absolutely unable to go on, I would tell myself, 'You don't have to do the whole play--you don't even have to play the next scene--all you have to do is say the next line."  Although she never fully conquered that fear, she was always able to say the next line and the next line, and in so doing found a lifetime of accomplishment in the theater.


After a one-line performance as a Folies Bergere girl in Toto which starred the great European star Leo Dictrichstein, she returned to New York.    She lived in a "rickety West Side rooming house" with another aspiring actress who was so tiny she could play child parts.
     "We wore out our shoes making the rounds of the offices every day. On summer nights when our bedroom was too stiflingly hot for sleeping, we would get seats in the open air on the top of a beautiful double-decker Fifth Avenue bus, and for ten cents each, we would ride all night and get a small breeze.
     About three in the morning, when it got a little cooler, we would go back to our room and stretch out in the lumpy bed until it was time to get up and start looking for jobs again. We were hopelessly stagestruck.  We pounded the pavements, and haunted managers' and agents' offices only to be turned away with a shake of the head, when we had barely gotten inside the door, or with 'Nothing today,' or worst of all, with a "You're not the type." Life was a combination of hope and despair.
     For three years I tried to see the producer Edgar Selwyn and never got further than his office boy. One day while waiting endlessly, hoping for a few words from the great man, I whiled away the time and vented my anger by writing some verses."

YOU'RE NOT THE TYPE by Dorothy Stickney  (reprinted in her Memoir)
                   I looked for work in early fall
                  And could not find a part at all.
                  I looked and looked and looked and then
                  I looked and looked and looked again,
                  And looked and looked and now it's spring,
                  And still I haven't anything.
                  Too fat, too thin, too short, too tall,
                  Too blond, too dark, too large, too small.

                  An office boy my dream would thwart,
                 "You're not the type," I'd hear him snort,
                  So then I asked a big producer
                  "Oh, let me play a part for you, sir!"
                  And as my eye he saw me wipe,
                  He yawned and said, "You're not the type."
                  A playwright next I interviewed,
                  My heart with brightest hopes imbued.

                 He turned away and lit his pipe,
                 And shortly said, "You're not the type."
                 To see an agent then I went,
                  My shoes worn out, my money spent.
                 The agent smiled and said, "My dear,
                 You're not the type. Come in next year,
                 For doubtless then we'll be engaging."
                 And I departed madly raging.

                So here within my furnished room,
                At least I face my awful doom.
               I'll starve and go (I hope) above,
               And this is what I'm thinking of--
               Perhaps if I am very good
               And play my harp as angels should,
               Saint Peter will be kind to me
               And lend me once his Golden Key.

              I hope to see upon the stair
              Imploring for admittance there,
              Producers, playwrights, agents, too,
              And all the deadly office crew.
              When my familiar face they see
              They'll say, "Don't you remember me?"
              Then from the Pearly Gates I'll pipe,
              "Oh, go to Hell! You're not the type!"

Openings and Closings. Dorothy Stickney. Doubleday and Company NY 1979
NY Times Obituary
Bismarck Tribune Obiturary