Charles Frohman: Broadway Visionary, Perished on the Lusitania

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Today is the birthday of the visionary theatrical producer Charles Frohman (1856-1915). Frohman was the brother of producers Daniel and Gus. 

Charles Frohman came up through the ranks, ripping tickets at Hooley’s Theatre, Brooklyn, then managing in succession Haverly’s United Mastodon Minstrels**, the Chicago Comedy Company and then (with his brothers) Madison Square Garden. His first Broadway show was Bronson Howard’s Shenandoah (1889). In 1896 he became one of the members of Klaw and Erlanger’s Theatrical Syndicate, later to be such a thorn in the sides of the vaudeville magnates. The following year he became a force in the London theatre as well.

Frohman’s notable successes are too numerous to list them all here, but we’ll mention a few that have some special relevance to folks we’ve written about. He produced the original production of Sherlock Holmes with William Gillette (1899) which was to enjoy several revivals and transplantations (one of them featuring a precocious young lad named Charlie Chaplin).

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There was The Cowboy and the Lady (1899) starring Nat C. Goodwin (later made into a film with Gary Cooper) and  Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines (1901) with Ethel Barrymore.

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As you may have seen in the film Finding Neverland, he was a major supporter of J.M. Barrie, producing the original productions of The Admirable Crichton (1903), Peter Pan (1904, with Maude Adams in the American production the following year), and The Twelve Pound Look (1911, which became Ethel Barrymore’s perennial staple on the vaudeville stage).

Frohman also gave Jerome Kern his first leg up in the theatre in several London musicals, a fact you will see dramatized in the film ‘Til the Clouds Roll By.

It was Frohman’s transatlantic career that eventually killed him. During one of his frequent crossings, Frohman became one of the most notable victims of the German sinking of RMS Lusitania in 1915. His production company continued to produce plays under his name for nearly another two decades. In his astoundingly prolific professional career, Charles Frohman put his name on 700 productions.

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For more on theatre historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

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