Julian Mitchell: Wizard of the Great White Way

I am rarely if ever find myself able to get excited or even interested in stage directors (sorry, stage directors!) but in the case of Julian Mitchell (1855-1926) will make an unambiguously enthusiastic exception.

Mitchell was the nephew of Confederate-loving stage star Maggie Mitchell. He acted with Maggie’s company from 1879 to 1882, and then studied at the feet of Charles Hoyt for a time (read about Hoyt here; this was the most auspicious tutelage possible).

In 1887 Mitchell staged crowd scenes for Steele MacKaye’s Paul Kauvar. In 1898, he directed his first Broadway show, the Victor Herbert operetta The Fortune Teller. The following year, he began his celebrated association with Weber and Fields, directing their shows Helter Skelter (1899), Fiddle Dee Dee (1900), Hoity Toity (1901) and Twirly Whirly (1902). In 1903 he directed the legendary original production of The Wizard of Oz, followed very astutely by Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland. Though now forgotten It Happened in Nordland (1904) was another long running hit. In 1907 he directed the first edition of the Ziegfeld Follies; he would also take the reins of the 1908, 1911, 1912, 1913, 1915, 1924 and 1925 editions.

These are just the tip of the iceberg. Mitchell amassed over 80 Broadway credits over the decades, although in some cases the productions were remountings, or he was just the choreographer. Other legendary Broadway shows he helmed included A Winsome Widow (1912), Hitchy-Koo (1917), The Rainbow Girl (1918), Ed Wynn’s The Perfect Fool (1921) and The Grab Bag (1924), George M. Cohan’s Little Nellie Kelly (1922), and The Chocolate Dandies (1924) with Josephine Baker and Sissle and Blake. On his last shows, Marilyn Miller’s Sunny (1925), and Castles in the Air (1926), he was just the choreographer, which is especially remarkable given that he had been nearly deaf for years by that point! He was able to time things to the beat through floor vibrations. For a time, Mitchell was married to dancer Bessie Clayton.

For more on the career of Mitchell, see the terrific website VintageBroadway.com which has just launched a great series of posts on the original production of The Wizard of Oz. 

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