For someone who was nicknamed “the Duse of the English Speaking Theatre”, Annie Russell (1864-1936) has become sadly obscure today, but come to think of it, so has Duse! It is a quotidian name, a bit too close to that of Annie Sullivan, mentor to Helen Keller, and also reminds of the comedy team the Russell Brothers. Like them, she was ethnically Irish. I love the scope allowed by “English Speaking Theatre” in her sobriquet though, for she could lay equal claim to being Irish, English, Canadian, and American. (Born in Liverpool, she moved with her folks to Montreal at a young age, and then went on to star on the London and New York stages, and to tour pretty much all of North America).
Russell became a professional actress at age eight, and is particularly known for a couple of particular roles. At age 17 she starred as the title character in the play Esmerelda (1881) by Frances Hodgson Burnett (five years before Little Lord Fauntleroy) and William Gillette (nearly two decades before his Sherlock Holmes). The show played for a year at the Madison Square Theatre and toured as well, and she became famous by it. Her other famous part is that of Shaw’s Major Barbara (1905). The fact that the playwright wrote the part for her, and that she played it in the London premiere, helps us to envision what her personality was like. Sweet? Peppy? Feisty? A fighter? All those things, I think, at least that’s what Major Barbara’s like! The title character in Bret Harte’s Sue (1896) was another part she was associated with. Early in her career she toured with Steele MacKaye’s Hazel Kirke, and starred in Sheridan Knowles’ The Hunchback.
Russell appeared in many productions under the rubric of Charles Frohman. In 1904 she married English actor Oswald Yorke, with whom she appeared in many productions. Her close friend (and sometime benefactor) was Mary Louise Curtis Bok Zimbalist, daughter of the founders of the Ladies Home Journal, who was married to that publications second editor Edward Bok and the great musician Efrem Zimbalist (father of the actor Efrem Zimbalist Jr). For a time starting in 1912, Russell headed up something called the Old English Comedy Company, which produced sure-fire favorites like She Stoops to Conquer, The Rivals, and Much Ado About Nothing.
In 1918 Russell retired from acting, moved to Winter Park, Florida (near Orlando) and began teaching at Rollins College. In 1931 the Annie Russell Theatre was built at the school. Today, the theatre is best know for…being HAUNTED by Annie! So don’t fret that she never stepped in front of a movie camera. You can still her ethereal performances in the balcony at midnight! Read all about it here.
For more on theatre history please consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,