The Celebrated Spooner Women and Their Relatives

This started out to be a post about Cecil Spooner (1875-1953) an important actress and theatre manager of her day, but it makes no sense to tell her story without telling that of her entire family.

Her parents were Benjamin Spurgeon “Spurge” Spooner (1852-1900) and Mary Gibbs Manson “Mollie G.” Spooner (1853-1940). Mollie’s stepfather’s name was Payton. The Spooners were married in 1872 and made their beginnings in Centreville, Iowa. Their oldest daughter Edna May was born in 1873, Cecil followed two years later. Spurge initially started out in the printer’s trade and briefly owned a newspaper. But the theatre called and in the early 1880s the couple formed the Spooner Stock Company, which barnstormed the midwest annually, bringing highly anticipated drama to the hinterlands. A brother of Spurge’s, Franklin “F.E.” Spooner (1860-1943) was also part of this company; as were Mary’s half-brothers Senter Payton (1860-1908) and Corse Payton (1860-1934). The latter especially will figure back into the story. And the Spooner children acted with the company too as soon as they were old enough. In 1900 Spurge died of pneumonia (earlier lead poisoning from his printing days may have been a factor).

The rest of the family soldiered on. In 1900, Mary ensconced the Spooner Stock Company at the Park Theatre in Brooklyn, where they rapidly became an institution thanks to low ticket prices and the savvy policy of presenting plays that appealed to women. You will often find the words “suffragette” and “feminist” applied to all the Spooner women, and the kinds of plays and films they made reflected that.

That same year, Corse Payton and Franklin Spooner, who’d broken off on their own years earlier, formed Corse Payton’s Lee Avenue Theatre, in Williamsburg. Corse specialized in comedy, and billed himself as “The Best Bad Actor in America“. His wife Etta Reed was also a star of the company. Future stars who performed there in their early years including Mae West, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Mary Miles Minter, Richard Bennett and Ernest Truex. In 1903 Etta opened Mrs. Reed’s Playhouse, a company that was entirely devoted to plays by and for women, and even employed female ushers. The experiment only lasted two years. But she continued to have a home at Corse’s company, which lasted 15 years.

Meanwhile, by 1907 the Spooner company was doing so well that they moved to the Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. In the early days, Mollie was the only female member of the New York Theatrical Manager’s Association. For a time the Spooners also ran the Bijou Theatre in Brooklyn, and had a theatre in New Orleans.

Now on to the two Spooner daughters, who quickly outgrew their mother’s shadow.

In 1901 the already established but younger New York actress Edna May Pettie (1878-1948), who billed herself simply as “Edna May”, took Edna May (Spooner) to court over the right to use the name. The action seems to have been inclusive; they both continued to use the moniker. Some of Edna May’s favorite roles with the company included Juliet, Camille, Nell Gwynne, and Zaza. She also directed with the company, and wrote one play, Madame Du Barry (1908) and translated a German one act farce called The Obstinate Family. From 1912-1921 she was married to actor Arthur Behrens a.k.a Arthur Whaley. She appeared in one silent film Man and Wife (1923), and one Broadway show Babbling Brookes (1927). She also toured with her own Edna May Spooner Stock Company.

As successful as Edna May was, Cecil made the bigger mark. In 1903 she produced and starred in the Broadway show My Lady Peggy Goes to Town (1903). Next came several shows written and produced by her husband Charles E. Blaney (ca.1866-1944), who’d earlier been in business with Mollie: The Girl Raffles (1906), The Dancer and the King (1907, in which she played Lola Montez), The Girl and the Detective (1908) and The Girl from Texas (1908). In 1909 came two silent movies for Edison, in both of which she was noted for playing young boys: The Prince and the Pauper and Hansel and Gretel. In 1910, Spooner and Blaney built the 1800 seat Spooner Theatre in the Bronx, their main base of operation for two years, after which they sold it to the Loew’s chain, and it became the Loew’s Spooner. The structure still exists, although now a retail store inhabits it. In 1913 they moved to the larger Boulevard Theatre, also in the Bronx.

1914 was yet another notable year; Cecil made big news twice over. First, she was arrested on charges of indecency for producing and starring in the Broadway play The House of Bondage, about white slavery. Then she directed and starred in the film Nell of the Circus. This was followed by a screen version of The Dancer and the King (1914) and a serial called Graft (1915).

1915 proved to be a bad year for Corse Payton, however. That year his beloved Etta Reed died and he shuttered his Lee Avenue Theatre. But he later bounced back, producing at the Academy of Music on 14th Street in Manhattan, as well as building Keeney’s Theatre in Newark and the Carlton Theatre in Queens. You can read more about him in this delightful article on Brownstoner. 

In the early ’20s Cecil a half dozen more films: Family Affairs, Money or My Life, He’s Bugs on Bugs, and Peaceful Neighbors (all 1922), then The Love Bandit and One Law for the Woman (both 1924). She then returned to Broadway for The House of Fear (1929), Paid Companions (1931), and The Lady Refuses (1933). She essentially retired after this, although she came back for one last performance in a 1950 episode of The Lone Ranger. 

Blaney passed away in 1944. His son by a previous marriage Harry C. Blaney (1904-1990) debuted as a Broadway producer that very year. His last production was Portrait of a Queen (1968).

To find out more about the history of show business please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film, read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,