Anne Nichols (1891-1966) is one of those figures whose own fame has been eclipsed by her greatest creation. We’ll get to her most famous play presently, but first some background.
Nichols hailed from Wayne County, Georgia, leaving to become an actress when still a teenager. She performed with stock companies and in vaudeville. Sketch writing for vaudeville is what led her to try her hand at full length plays. In 1915 she married Broadway producer Henry Duffy, whose Irish family provided partial inspiration for her best known play.
In 1919 Nichols wrote the book for Linger Longer Letty, the So Long Letty sequel starring Charlotte Greenwood. This was Nichols first Broadway credit. Next came Just Married (cowritten with Adelaide Matthews) with Lynne Overman, and Love Dreams, with Maude Eburne, both 1921. In 1922 the latter was adapted into a silent movie called Her Gilded Cage, starring Gloria Swanson and Harrison Ford.
In 1922 came the play that would be the making of her. To say that Abie’s Irish Rose was a surprise hit would be an understatement. Since no one would bankroll the project, Nichols put up the money herself. It made her a millionaire. It was the perfect vehicle for the times — a comedy about intermarriage between a Jewish groom and his Irish bride, and the resulting cultural conflict between the families. It was vaudeville and the 20th century American story wrapped all into one. Though critically panned, the play ran for FIVE YEARS, breaking all records for its day. Robert Williams, Andrew Mack, and Bernard Gorcey (Louie from The Bowery Boys) were among the cast members. Anne also cast her sister Evelyn Nichols in the show; Evelyn went on to a Broadway career that lasted nearly a decade. Midway through the run Duffy divorced Nichols and married minor actress Dale Winter. But that was okay. Abie’s Irish Rose turned into an INDUSTRY. First there was a silent movie version directed by Victor Fleming in 1928, with Gorcey, Buddy Rogers, Nancy Carroll, Jean Hersholt, J. Farrell MacDonald, and Thelma Todd. There was a 1937 Broadway revival directed by Nichols. From 1942 to 1944 there was a radio version. Then a 1946 movie produced by Bing Crosby and directed by Eddie Sutherland, with Michael Chekhov, Joanne Dru, George E. Stone, Vera Gordon, and Eric Blore. Then Nichols directed another short-lived Broadway revival in 1954.
This bonanza might have been still greater if Nichols’ thunder hadn’t been stolen by a copycat series. In 1926, the silent film The Cohens and the Kellys premiered, starring Charlie Murray, George Sidney, Vera Gordon, Nat Carr, and Jason Robards Sr. It was virtually the same scenario as Abie’s Irish Rose. Nichols took the producers (Universal) to court and lost the suit. (Nichols didn’t actually own, nor even originate the idea of Irish and Jewish families intermarrying — she just had a hit with the idea). Another half dozen Cohens and Kellys movies followed through 1933.
In the wake of Abie’s initial success, Nichols became a Broadway producer, mounting the plays L’Aiglon (1924), Puppy Love (1926), Howdy King (1926) and Sam Abramovitch (1927). In 1928 her play Just Married was made into a film starring James Hall, Ruth Taylor and Harrison Ford. In 1936 she co-wrote a play called Pre-Honeymoon with Alford Von Ronkle, which she produced and directed herself on Broadway. This experience led to her two later revivals of Abie’s Irish Rose. In 1937 she produced a play called Hey Diddle Diddle starring Conway Tearle and Lucille Ball. It opened out of town in New Jersey but closed before New York (chiefly because Tearle was gravely ill at the time. He died in 1938). In 1938 Nichols’ play Give Me a Sailor was adapted for the screen by Paramount. It starred Bob Hope, Martha Raye, and Betty Grable.
Even by the time of its last couple of revivals in the 1940s and ’50s, Abie’s Irish Rose, with its stereotyping of two major ethic groups (written by a WASP, no less) was getting long in the tooth. Today, it is a historical curiosity, but one that speaks volumes.
For more on vaudeville and show business history, including ethnic stereotypes in comedy, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous and Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.