Denman Thompson: The Old Homestead

Denman Thompson (Henry Denman Thompson, 1833-1911) was a 19th century theatrical figure whose career took him nearly to the edge of the modern era (cinema), making him a tantalizing connection to a long ago past.

The son of a carpenter, Thompson spent formative years in rural New Hampshire, moved to Lowell, Massachusetts and became an actor there and at the Howard Athenaeum in Boston during his late teens. For over two decades he plied his trade through Canada, England and the United States, gradually finding a niche for himself in comedy.

The crucial turning point for Thompson didn’t arrive until he was 42 years old. He developed a stock Yankee stereotype character named Joshua Whitcomb or Uncle Josh. He wrote a sketch in which the character went to the big city (Boston), and performed it with success in vaudeville for ten years. Then in 1885 he turned it into the full length play The Old Homestead, which was such a smash that it made Thompson a wealthy man. It premiered in Boston, toured the United States, and played Broadway in 1887, 1898-99, 1904, 1907, 1908, and 1913. In 1915 it was turned into a film by Famous Players, starring Frank Losee and Creighton Hale. The movie was shot at Thompson’s New Hampshire farm, which he’d named after his most famous play. He also published a novelized version in 1889.

Thompson had other stage successes, mostly co-written with playwright George W. Ryer. The Two Sisters premiered at Niblo’s Garden in 1888. The Sunshine of Paradise Alley premiered in 1896 and was made into a 1926 film. Their last collaboration Our New Minister premiered in 1903, and was made into a 1913 film by the Kalem Company starring Alice Joyce.

In 1914, Kalem made a very successful adventure serial The Hazards of Helen, starring Helen Holmes, based on Thompson’s theatrical adaptation of a novel by James Russell Corvell.

Thompson had died in 1911, so all of these various films were released posthumously. So his career was still going great guns several years after he went to the Old Homestead in the sky. His son Frank Thompson also went into the theatre. I found this postcard for a 1922 production of Denman’s most famous play,produced by Frank:

The irony of all this is that though Thompson’s family had lived in West Swanzey for the three generations, his father had moved the family to Girard, Pennsylvania (near Lake Erie and Chautauqua, New York) before Denman was born. Denman didn’t move back to New Hampshire until he was 14, and only lived there for there years before running off to start his wandering life in the theatre. But he returned once fame and fortune came his way. The town of West Swanzey continues to honor its most famous son with this marker:

For more on vaudeville, please consult my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous