William J. Florence: Bowery Actor Who Founded the Shriners

I was made aware of 19th century actor William J. Florence (William J. Conlin, 1831-1891) by…Sis Newman! Wha-? Yes, though she’s just a tot, she spied his marker at Green-wood Cemetery and liked it, and her mom, burlesque eminence Angie Pontani shared the moment online and so we looked into it. And he’s just the kind of gent we love to write about. The oldest of eight children, Florence started out doing odd jobs for the Bowery Theatre and eventually became an actor there. He was prized for his dialects. Starting around 1850 he became popular at the theatre, often playing Irish characters. After 1853 he formed a husband-wife acting team with his wife Malvina Pray, who often played New England Yankee characters. In 1870, he became co-founder of the Shriners! This would make him significant even if he had never been an actor. From the mid 1870s through the 1880s, the Florences appeared over 2,500 times in a comedy called The Mighty Dollar, which poked fun at rich people, much to the delight of Bowery audiences.  Today is William J. Florence’s birthday.