The (Non-Sam) Harrises of Broadway and R.M.S. Titanic

This is liable to remain one of my obscure Travalanche posts and yet it’s the kind I love the most, for it mixes together two of my great loves, American theatrical history and the lore surrounding the sinking of the Titanic!

The story begins with William Harris (1844-1916), an immigrant from Prussia who came to the U.S. as a small child. He lived in Bridgeport, Cleveland and St. Louis and worked as a cigar-maker before chucking that drudgery for the life of a blackface comedian** in minstrel shows and vaudeville, working with various partners throughout the 1860s and 1870s. Circa 1880 he managed Boston’s legendary Howard Athenaeum, renowned for presenting vaudeville, burlesque, minstrelsy, and stock companies over the decades. The step led to Harris becoming a producer and theatre owner, collaborating with men like Charles Frohman and the partnership of Klaw and Erlanger, with whom he became one of the founders of the Theatrical Syndicate. He has been credited with making stars of the likes of Andrew Mack, and the husband-wife stage team of Louis Mann and Clara Lipman. At the time of his death he was the owner or part-owner of over four dozen theatres including well known Broadway venues like the Lyceum Theatre, the Liberty Theatre, and the Hudson Theatre. For a time there was also a Harris Theatre named in his honor, quite apart from the Sam Harris Theatre, named after the (unrelated) partner of George M. Cohan. When William Harris died in 1916 he was living in the theatrical colony of Bayside, Long Island (now a part of Queens), a short distance from where your correspondent now proudly resides.

Mr and Mrs Henry B. Harris

William Harris’s son, Henry B. Harris (1866-1912) was the figure who drew us here. Henry had started out hawking out songsters at his father’s theatres as a kid. Starting in the 1880s, he teamed up with Isaac Baker Rich (1827-1908) to form the powerful firm of Rich and Harris. The pair produced shows and owned theatres in Boston, but by the late 1890s they had expanded to Broadway. With and without Rich, the younger Harris was to produce 63 Broadway shows. His right hand in all his work was his wife, Irene “Renee” Wallach Harris (1876-1969) a law student and legal secretary who’d grown up in Washington D.C. and had worked for a Congressman for three years. Married in 1899, the two were a formidable professional pair. While few of Harris’s productions are well remembered today, he worked with such legendary artists as May Irwin, Lillie Langtry, Amelia Bingham, and Peter F. Dailey. Productions included a 1903 revival of Boucicault’s Arrah-Na-Pogue, the American premiere of Shaw’s Man and Superman (1905) and a 1906 adaptation of Cashel Byron (a work for which my son is named), and The Chorus Lady (1906-07) with Rose Stahl. In 1910 with Jesse Lasky he opened the vaudeville and revue venue the Folies Bergère where Mae West and others performed, but the venture went belly-up the following year. In 1911 he opened the long-running hit The Quaker Girl starring Ina Claire; in early 1912 The Talker, starring Pauline Lord.

In April 1912, Mr. and Mrs. Henry B. Harris were returning from the London opening of their play Maggie Pepper starring Rose Stahl. The ship they traveled on was R.M.S Titanic. Their odyssey was a harrowing one. On April 14, the day before the sinking, Mrs. Harris had broken her arm when she slipped and fell on the grand staircase. Naturally, with her arm in a sling, she was one of the first women placed into a lifeboat after the iceberg was struck. Unfortunately, though the lifeboat was far from full, the officer in charge would not seat Mr. Harris (a rare case when you might be inclined to waive the “women and children first” rule, given that his wife would need plenty of extra help and comfort.) As a consequence, Mrs. Harris clambered out of this boat, broken arm and all, to wait with her husband. As the situation grew worse and the final plunge seemed imminent, she finally consented to get into the collapsible lifeboat which proved to be the last one loaded prior to sinking. (According to lore, she was convinced to do so by Captain Smith himself). As a consequence, Mrs. Harris survived the foundering. Henry B. Harris did not.

The story is already a touching one, but it becomes more so, because next Renee opted to continue her husband’s life’s work, becoming a pioneering female Broadway producer. Operating initially as “The Estate of Henry B. Harris” and later as “Mrs. Henry B. Harris”, she produced nearly 20 Broadway shows, including a 1916 revival of Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance starring Margaret Anglin, and Willard Mack’s The Noose (1926), which put Barbara Stanwyck and Mae Clarke on the map. She was finally ruined by the stock market crash of 1929, though she lived another 40 years after that.

We should also mention that Mrs. Harris was assisted in her endeavors by her father-in-law William, who passed in 1916, and then by her brother-in-law:

William B. Harris Jr (1884-1946) was also a major Broadway figure, producing close to 3 dozen shows between 1910 and 1939. Shows that bore his imprimatur included The Thirteenth Chair (1916) with Margaret Wycherly, John Drinkwater’s Abraham Lincoln (1918) with Frank McGlynn, Drinkwater’s Mary Stuart (1921), Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1921, later made into a movie by Lubitsch), and many others, some of which he directed, such as The Greeks Had a Word for It (1930), which was mde into a movie by Lowell Sherman.

For more on show business history, including vaudeville, in which the Harris family had a hand, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous. 

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.