Richard Golden: Old Jed Prouty

The genuine New England Yankee, and the once universally known stereotype that went with it (once as recognized as the Southerner and the Westerner) is an endangered species, virtually extinct, for reasons that aren’t mysterious. Immigration and manufacturing transformed New England throughout the 20th century. Neither is to be regretted; it’s just…change. But when I was a kid in the ’70s, there were still old-timers who embodied that culture, many among my mother’s family, and so I still have a fondness for it, and it informs my personality to this day a great deal.

Some day I’ll inevitably write a great deal more about stage and screen representations of the stereotyped Yankee, which stretches back at least to the early 19th century. But today, we provide a brief sketch of one of its standard-bearers, Richard Golden (1854-1909). Ironically, Golden himself was not of old line WASP stock, but, like George Fuller Golden, the child of Irish immigrants. Born and raised in Bangor, Maine, Golden joined a traveling Mexican circus at age 13, though he later returned to Maine as his home base while he gained his early experience with stock companies and minstrel shows.

By the mid 1880s Golden was both a member of the Dora Wiley Stock Company and the husband of its star and manager, a singer, actress and (for a time) bell ringer. In 1889 he wrote Old Jed Prouty with William Gill, playing the titular Yankee tavern keeper in productions at the Union Square Theatre and in Harlem. He would go on to play the role over 3,000 times in legit theatre and vaudeville for the rest of his life.

Golden and Wiley parted ways in 1892. For a time Golden found himself down and out, nearly indigent. A problem drinker, he would find himself in and out of institutions in between benders and stage engagements in vaudeville and on the Broadway stage. In addition to Prouty, he appeared in The Fortune Teller (1898), In Paradise (1899), The Princess Chic (1900), Common Sense Bracket (1904-05), The Bad Samaritan (1905), The Tourists (1906), and The Other House (1907).

Golden died on a houseboat anchored off of Gravesend, Brooklyn in 1909. When he died, it was widely assumed in print that his fame, and that of his character, would endure without end. Of course, that didn’t happen. By the time of his passing, screen comedians like Max Linder and John Bunny were already convulsing audiences from movie screens. In the future, only movie stars — and not all of those — would come to be remembered by the public, aided immeasurably by the fact that audiences could still watch their performances. But the name “Jed Prouty” would outlast its creator. Actor Clarence Prouty took it as his professional name after Golden died. And a colonial hotel called the Robinson House in Bucksport, Maine where Golden had worked in his youth was renamed The Jed Prouty Tavern and Inn. Many speculated that Golden had based the Prouty character on the innkeeper. At this writing, the building still exists as The Jed Prouty Assisted Living Center, a pretty good joke if you ask me, as Golden’s stage character was a spirited old codger, the sort of fellow who’d have fought tooth and nail to prevent himself from being checked into “one of them homes”.

Golden and Wiley had a daughter, Bernice Golden, who appeared on Broadway five times between 1903 (Dorothy Verdon of Haddon Hall) and 1915 (Alice in Wonderland). She is not to be confused by another actress of the same name (1882-1913) from Ohio, who later married copper magnate Fritz Augustus Heinze.

For more on vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.