The Marvelous Moroscos

Oliver Morosco

Oliver Morosco (Oliver Mitchell, 1875-1945) for whom the Morosco Theatre was named, was born on June 20. Who Morosco was is an interesting story in and of itself but it leads backwards to some surprising places as well.

The story begins with a family of San Francisco-based performing acrobats called the Morosco Brothers. The brothers’ actual last name was Bishop; they hailed from Guilford, Connecticut. The act, consisting of Edwin, Henry, and Walter (1846-1901) was formed circa. 1879. They played circuses and variety halls throughout the country in the 1880s. In 1886 Walter took the unusual step of opening a playhouse in an existing San Francisco building called Union Hall. It was such a success that he built a brand new venue, the Grand Opera House, which his son Harry helped him to run.

Meanwhile in 1881, Walter Morosco had hired two kids from Utah, Leslie and Oliver Mitchell to be in his troupe the Royal Russian Circus which performed regularly at the amusement park Woodward’s Gardens. The boys were 9 and 6 years old respectively at this point. As was common at the time, Walter adopted the children as his own, and gave them the same stage surname. Oliver was only a teenager when Walter entrusted him with the management of two new theatres he had acquired, the Amphitheater in San Francisco, and the Auditorium in San Jose.

In 1899, Oliver moved to Los Angeles and set up as an independent impresario starting with the Burbank Theatre. This was joined by the Majestic Theatre (1908), the Los Angeles Theatre, former home of the Orpheum vaudeville house (1911) which he renamed the Lyceum, and the Morosco, built 1913.

Meanwhile, starting in 1906, he also began presenting theatre productions on Broadway. He produced over 40 Broadway shows, directing and writing some of them as well. Some of the better known ones include Peg O’ My Heart (1912-14) with Laurette Taylor, and So Long Letty (1916-17) starring Charlotte Greenwood, and its many sequels. In 1917 the Morosco Theatre opened on Broadway with backing by the Shuberts. Among the legendary productions at that venue: Eugene O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon (1920), Avery Hopwood and Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Bat (1920-22), Craig’s Wife (1925-26) by George Kelly, the Group Theatre’s Gold Eagle Guy (1934), Somerset Maugham’s The Letter (1927), Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1939), Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949), Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), Duerenmatt’s The Visit (1958), Gore Vidal’s The Best Man (1960-61), Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Any More (1963), Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ so Sad by Arthur Kopit (1963), Woody Allen’s Don’t Drink the Water (1966), Arthur Miller’s The Price (1968), and Edward Albee’s The Lady from Dubuque (1980). The Morosco was torn down in 1982 to make way for the Mariott Marquis Hotel and Theatre.

Oliver Morosco went bankrupt in 1926. Nearly two decades later he was struck by a passing streetcar in Hollywood and succumbed to his injuries.

Oliver’s son, Walter Morosco (1899-1948) became a Hollywood movie producer, who worked on such well known films as Mammy (1930) and Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum (1940).