October 11 is the birthday of early stage and screen star Anna Laughlin (1885-1937).
Originally from Sacramento, Laughlin started out as a child performer in vaudeville and variety, minstrelsy, stock companies, and musical comedy. By the turn of the century she was appearing on Broadway in The Belle of Bohemia (1900). One more show, The New Yorkers (1901) followed before she landed the role that would make her famous — for a time. In 1902, she became the first actress to play the role of Dorothy, in a musical stage version of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. The show opened in Chicago that year, was a smash hit on Broadway in 1903 and 1904, and then toured. As we detail here, this musical was VERY different both from the original book and the much better known 1939 movie. But Laughlin had a special place in the hearts of audiences of her day, and of many Oz buffs today.
Laughlin was to remain a Broadway star for another decade, appearing in the shows His Majesty (1906), The Top of the World (1907-1908), Mama’s Baby Boy (1912), and When Claudia Smiles (1914).
From 1913 through 1915 she was also a screen star, appearing in 18 films for Vitagraph, the Reliance Film Company and others. Noticeably absent from her list of film credits is the role of Dorothy Gale. Baum had worked with the Selig Polyscope Company on the first screen versions of The Wizard of Oz and some sequels 1910-1914, but Laughlin was not among the cast. But of course, during these years she was in her mid to late 20s, a bit too old to play a child.
After this she teamed with William Gaxton and returned to vaudeville for a time.
In 1906 she married diamond importer Dwight Monroe, a direct descendant of the fifth President. Their daughter Lucy Monroe became a famous radio singer in the 1930s, sang the national anthem every day for months in an exhibit called “The American Jubilee” at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, and also sang “The Star Spangled Banner” at every Yankees opening day and World Series between 1945 and 1960. In 1954, she sang it for a crowd of 300,000 people at a special event at the Washington Monument.
But Anna Laughlin did not live to see all that, nor the most most famous version of The Wizard of Oz, nor, one imagines, would she have wanted to. According to IMDB, in 1937, she left a three page note saying that her famous daughter had “forsaken” her, and took her own life by gas poisoning.
To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous