Charles Dillingham: From Hartford to the Hippodrome

We have had many occasions to mention Broadway producer Charles Dillingham (1868-1934) so today we give him a proper tip of the topper.

The son of a Hartford clergyman, Dillingham started his working life as a newspaperman, based in Hartford, Washington, Chicago and finally New York, where he was made theatre critic for the New York Post. In 1896 he married former child star Jennie Yeaman, and saw his play Ten P.M. professionally produced. He became the protege of Charles Frohman at this stage, working first as his advertising agent. By 1903, Dillingham had worked his way up to producer status. Scores of productions (well over a hundred) feature his name in that capacity. After Frohman perished on the Lusitania in 1915, Dillingham often joined forces with Florence Ziegfeld and Abe Erlanger as producer. Well known shows that bear his name include The Little Princess (1903), Mlle. Modiste (1905-07) with Fritzi Scheff, The Red Mill (1906-07), Watch Your Step (1914-15, Irving Berlin’s first musical, which also introduced Vernon and Irene Castle), Hip! Hip! Hooray! (1915-16, with Nat Wills, Toto, Charles T. Aldrich et al), Stop! Look! Listen! (1915-16, with Blossom Seeley, Gaby DeslysMarion Davies, Harry Fox, Doyle & Dixon, Joseph Santley et al), The Century Girl (1916-17, with Hazel Dawn, Sam Bernard, Leon Errol, et al), Dance and Grow Thin (1917 with Van and Schenck, Gertrude Hoffman, Joe Jackson, Lilyan Tashman etc), Cheer Up (1917-18), Miss 1917, Elsie Janis and Her Gang (1919-20), Good Times (1920-21), A Bill of Divorcement (1921-22) with Katharine Cornell, Bulldog Drummond (1921-22), Peter Pan (1924-25) with Marilyn Miller, Sidewalks of New York (1927-28) with Ruby Keeler, Waterloo Bridge (1930), Ripples (1930) with Fred Stone and family, Maurice Chevalier (1930 and 1932), and about a hundred others.

Dillingham’s first wife died in 1906. In 1913 he married dancer Eileen Ann Kearney, who had been in several of his productions. Kearney became besties with Billie Burke, wife of frequent Dillingham collaborator Flo Ziegfeld. In 1915, Dillingham acquired ownership of Thompson and Dundy’s New York Hippodrome, the most spectacular of all Broadway venues, where he produced some of his best-known musical productions, and also presented major full stage acts like Anna Pavlova and her dance troupe, John Philip Sousa and his band, and Harry Houdini (Dillingham was later a pallbearer at Houdini’s funeral). In 1923 Dillingham sold the Hippodrome to the Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit. The following year Kearney left him for another man, wealthy war hero Julian Broome Livingston Allen. The divorce was a national scandal. Allen was a dozen years Kearney’s junor; he’d won his World War One medals when he was only 16 years old. Some biographers believe that Dillingham was gay, although this is refuted by the testimony of Kathryn Perry, who said Dillingham pursued her. 

Dillingham’s last show was New Faces of 1934. Among those new faces: Henry Fonda, Imogene Coca, and Leonard Sillman. Dillingham died later that year. In 1936, Frank Morgan portrayed a fictionalized version of him (named “Billings”) in The Great Ziegfeld. 

To learn more about tradional show biz please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, a