Archive for February 6, 2017

Hall of Hams #112: McKee Rankin: Hub of America’s Greatest Acting Dynasty

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , on February 6, 2017 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Arthur “McKee” Rankin (1844-1914). Rankin is they keystone of America’s greatest acting dynasty. I don’t call him the founder because he’s more at the center; it starts back in the late 18th century and goes all the way to Drew Barrymore. 

Rankin himself was a key figure in 19th century American theatre, unjustly swallowed up by time. Originally from Ontario, Canada, he was only 21 when the Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia, by some measures the leading theatre in the country at the time, made him their star. He was renowned in particular for his portrayals of the leads in MacBeth and Othello. In 1869, he married popular actress Kitty Blanchard and they became America’s most popular husband-wife acting team. Rankin also directed and produced his productions, taught acting, and wrote many plays, many with a western setting (a factor of his own extensive tours of western mining and logging camps). He would go on to start his own theatres in both New York and San Francisco.

Rankin’s plays included:

  • his own adaptation of Rip Van Winkle (1870), plainly an effort to compete with the successful Joseph Jefferson vehicle
  • Nannie, or the Dutch Orphan (1870)
  • The Danites, a tale of life among the Mormons co-written by P.A. Fitzgerald and based on The First Family of the Sierras by Joachin Miller (toured 1877-1881, made into a movie in 1912)
  • 49, a tale of San Francisco miners, also based on Joachin Miller material (1881)
  • The Metropolis, a tale of the underside of New York City (unproduced)
  • The Golden Giant, a tale of San Francisco co-written by Clay Greene (1885)
  • The Runaway Wife, co-written with Frederick Maeder, a melodrama in which a painter goes blind and his wife, told that he is dead by an evil sister, marries a nobleman (1888-89). This was made into a movie in 1915
  • Abraham Lincoln (1891)
  • The Baxters (1893), a comedy, written for actor Charles Cowles
  • a number of vaudeville one acts and the full-lengths Magda and The Fires of St. John, adapted from works by German writer Hermann Sudermann, in which Rankin co-starred with Nance O’Neil 1895-1908
  • Invasion (1909), an uncanny play in which the Japanese invade California. For some context, this was in the wake of Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese war, at a time when Japan was in the process of colonizing Korea

Rankin’s last Broadway directorial credit was Judith of Bethulia (1904), which was adapted into a movie by D.W. Griffith ten years later.

The definite source for information about Rankin is David Beasley’s McKee Rankin and the Heyday of American Theatre (2002). 


Oh, but we’re not done! I wanted to take the opportunity to, as best I can, lay out the whole glorious tangle of this extended theatrical family.


The Rankins had three daughters with notable theatrical associations:

Gladys Rankin (1870-1914) was the first Mrs. Sidney Drew in the stage and screen team of Mr and Mrs Sidney Drew. Their son was the actor Sidney Rankin Drew. More on the Drew family below. Since Drew was Lionel Barrymore’s uncle, and Gladys sister’s Doris (below) was married to Lionel, Gladys was both Lionel’s aunt and sister-in-law.

Phyllis Rankin (1874-1934), a notable Broadway star in her own right. She was married to actor Harry Davenport (best known as Dr. Meade in Gone with the Wind). Phyllis and Harry’s son Arthur Rankin was also a minor player in films (he took his mother’s more famous surname as his professional name. That’s gotta hurt!) Arthur’s son was producer-animator Arthur Rankin, Jr. is of Rankin-Bass fame.


Doris Rankin (1888-1947), also a succesful stage and screen actress. Doris’s mother was not Blanchard, but some other unknown actress. Doris was married to Lionel Barrymore from 1904 through 1923.


This estimable line begins with London actress Eliza Trentner (1796-1887), whose theatrical husband was a Mr. Lane, either Thomas Frederick Lane or William Haycraft Lane. Accounts differ, and as Eliza moved to America in 1826 with her six year old daughter and without Mr.Lane, the truth has been hard to uncover.

Louisiana Lane Drew, grandmother and mentor of the three Barrymores. By all reports she cut a formidable, if not  terrifying figure

Louisiana Lane Drew, grandmother and mentor of the three Barrymores. By all reports she cut a formidable, if not terrifying figure

The six year old girl was the formidable actress Louisa Lane (1820-1897) whose third husband was Irish-American actor John Drew, Sr (John Henry Drewland, 1827-1862). Drew’s brother Frank Drew (1831-1903) was also an actor.

Their oldest child Louisa Drew (1852-1888) married a theatrical manager but seems not to have gone on the stage, though the others did, including John Drew Jr. (1853-1827), Georgina (1856-1953), and the above mentioned Sidney who was adopted by Louisa Lane Drew after John, Sr. passed away

Georgina married Maurice Barrymore; their children were of course Ethel Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore and John Barrymore. 



Ethel’s children were: Samuel Colt (1809-1986, a Hollywood agent), and Ethel Barrymore Colt (1912-1977) and John Drew Colt (1913-1975), both actors.

Lionel had two daughters with Doris Rankin; both died in infancy. After his divorce from Doris, he married actress Irene Fenwick (1887-1936), a former lover of his brother John.

John had four wives: socialite Katherine Corri Harris (who appeared in three silent films); the fascinating playwright and actress Blanche Oelrichs a.k.a “Michael Strange”;  actress Dolores Costello, daughter of Maurice Costello; and Elaine Barrie.

His performing children included Diana Barrymore (1921-196o), whose husbands included actors Bramwell Fletcher and Robert Wilcox; and John Barrymore Jr. (1932-2004) , who, like his father married four times, twice to actresses (Cara Williams and Nina Wayne). Two of John Jr’s children became actors: John Blyth Barrymore III (b. 1954) and Drew Barrymore (b. 1975). Whew!

Chip off the old block

Chip off the old block




Why Ronald Reagan Is Turning In His Grave

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS, ME, My Family History with tags , , , on February 6, 2017 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Ronald Wilson Reagan (1911-2004). Reagan has to be one of the most polarizing figures in American history. People tend to either love him or hate him. Personally, as is typically the case when I weigh historical figures, I am a “neither/both”. I’ve written some about this polarizing leader in my all-the-Presidents post, and in this one about the movies of the 1980s. There are some particular reasons to talk about him at this political moment.

I used to say, diplomatically, to my children, “Overall, history will look kindly on Reagan.” This was phrased carefully so as not to imply that I approved of everything he did, but that on balance, the virtues would outweigh the negatives. Today, for reasons I’ll get to, I’m not so sure. That I would ever have ANYTHING positive to say about Reagan I imagine will hurt and outrage plenty of my friends. There are so many black marks against him. His refusal to lift a finger to combat AIDS amounts to a passive gay holocaust; the War on Drugs and racist demonization of the mythical “Welfare Queen”; his Faustian bargain with religious Fundamentalists who, though a minority, have monopolized American domestic policy for close to four decades; and his enormous increases in military spending combined with an unconscionable lowering of taxes that resulted in the metastasizing of the national debt. I believe in small, prudent government. But I also believe in paying what you owe. Reagan changed America into a nation where it was now okay to pursue profit at any cost and in doing so to shirk your duty to the government, your employees, and your fellow man. And he also brought a new bellicosity to the culture; somehow violence became patriotic and sanctioned at the highest levels. In many ways, Reagan gave birth to millions of monsters, the most monstrous of which is our current president. Trump was the absolute embodiment of the soul-sickness of the ’80s. He was (and is) the poster boy for all the Deadly Sins.

"Some day I will turn American into a banana republic!"

“Some day I will turn America into a banana republic!”

So what’s good about Reagan? Even this will be qualified with criticism, but at bottom it’s this: when it comes to leadership, clarity is a virtue. For Reagan, the over-riding American idea was Freedom, and while he applied it too selectively, he made that idea the drumbeat of both his domestic and foreign policies in a manner that everyone understood. Do you know what Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton stood for? Frankly I don’t. While I feel like I do know what JFK and LBJ stood for, Carter and Clinton not so much. I offer them up as contrasts. In foreign policy, Carter and Clinton seemed to be more in the Nixon mode, a slippery ethic of realpolitik. But here’s what we unambiguously know about Reagan: he was anti-socialist and anti-Communist. That may be said about many, but normally with far less clarity. It defined Reagan so much he became a lightning rod for both the left and right. Domestically, while I am in favor of lean government, I am less a fan of his many of his policies. But in terms of foreign policy: his hard line ended the Cold War. And while, like any war it was not unmarred by atrocities, I have come to see the Cold War overall as a moral undertaking in the mold of the War to Free the Slaves and the two World Wars (none of which was perfect either).

In doing my family history posts, I found myself a bit stymied when it came to the 20th century. I had ancestors and relatives who’d fought in the French and Indian war, the Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War, but none really in the World Wars. But then it occurred to me that so many people close to me served in the Cold War: my brother, my father, every single one of my uncles, some cousins, and even both of my in-laws (my late mother-in-law was one of the first female marines). I am proud of what they did to help check expansionist, totalitarian aggression. (I almost enlisted myself, but caved at the last second, a story for another day)

Read it. Know it. Try not to live it.

Read it. Know it. Try not to live it.

There are things about the Cold War to be decried, yes, and because of that the issue has become murky for some people. Reagan was far too forgiving of right-wing dictators. And as for the early Cold War, I am not a fan of HUAC any more than you are; I can’t think of anything less American. But some people seem awfully confused, creating a false equivalency between America, where some screenwriters were forced to use pseudonyms, and the Soviet Union were tens of millions were killed at the whim of the state. Castro, who jailed and killed political prisoners, homosexuals, and others, dies and “boo hoo hoo!” While I bet — I just know — that trying to get certain people to admit that Ronald Reagan was better for humanity than, say, Gorbachev, would be like pulling teeth. My question for them: “Are ya cuckoo?” You need to look at history from an imaginary height to get any perspective. At this moment, Gorbachev happens to be a huge fan of his current president, Vladimir Putin. What does that tell you?

Which brings us closer to the title of this essay. Reagan is of course turning in his grave because President Trump has sold America to the Russians. He’s pals with Putin, who called the fall of the USSR “the greatest tragedy of the 20th century”. At this very moment, Trump’s taking heat for making a claim for moral equivalency with Russia the wrong way, outright saying that America is no better as a nation than Russia has been! And Trump’s in the pocket of Russian oligarchs, and this is ultimately the largest reason why I say history will no longer smile on Ronald Reagan. The greed of the ’80s ultimately gave us a president who’s a Russian puppet, thus potentially making the Cold War a Pyrrhic Victory, one in which the ultimate winner may turn out to be our former rival. So much for 40 years of staring down Russia. The irony is astounding.

Worst karaoke singer

Worst karaoke singer ever!

Those of you on the left: I think most of you realize that the anti-Trump movement has some allies among the admirers of Ronald Reagan, people like George Will and Bill Kristol and Evan McMullen. If you can’t wrap your head around it, I’ve recently latched onto a useful concept. It’s the idea of having people who are allies in some things. Not rejecting people with whom you partially disagree with in toto. I’m sure this is the only way many members of Congress keep sane. Practically everyone has at least one issue they degree with their own party on. The people in the other party are their ally in that one thing. And really — look at almost any historical figure. Most great figures in history, given the less enlightened attitudes of the past, are our allies in some things. Jefferson wrote “All Men Are Created Equal” but he kept slaves. We deplore the slavery but we admire those words. And right now there are many conservatives who believe in the United States Constitution and hate autocracy, and hate Vladimir Putin plenty. These guys — these Ronald Reagan fans — are my allies in these things.

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