Today is the birthday of David Belasco (1853-1931), a towering figure in the American theatre. He was playwright, director or producer (sometimes all three) of nearly a hundred plays in his 50 year career, most famously Madame Butterfly (1900) and The Girl of the Golden West (1905), both of which were turned into operas by Puccini. Other notable Belasco works include Rose of the Rancho (1906), The Return of Peter Grimm (1911) and Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1923), among the dozens of Belasco shows made into films. Buster Keaton’s comedy Seven Chances is another notable movie based on a play produced by Belasco.
The son of Sephardic Jewish immigrants, Belasco had started out doing entry level production jobs at San Francisco theatres. In 1879 he co-wrote Hearts of Oak, his first notable play with James A. Herne. He moved to New York in 1882, working as a stage manager initially until the success of his plays lofted him to producer and director. As such he is credited with bringing unprecedented realism to his productions, sometimes excessively, unnecessarily so. He would often reproduce entire real-life rooms onstage, accurate to the smallest detail. He pioneered, for example, the practical kitchen set, in which actors would cook actual meals onstage. In the long run, this sort of thing proved to be a flashy fad. Groundbreaking, yes, and useful on occasion, but ultimately only insofar as it serves the higher end of a production: plays and actors. As to the latter, among the many great ones with whom Belasco nurtured and collaborated with were the great David Warfield, and Mary Pickford, whose career he launched.
Belasco’s role in American theatre deserves to be much better known — his present obscurity would be unthinkable to people of his own time. The largest monument to him at present in New York is his own Belasco Theatre, on 44th Street. But I bet you very few people (including people in the theatre) could even tell you who he was. And this is perhaps why his mournful ghost continues to haunt the theatre, according to many who’ve worked there.
To find out more about the history of show business, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc