An Afternoon with the Society for the Preservation of Theatrical History

I feel like folks have been trying to bring author/educator/actress/scholar/collector Mari Lyn Henry and myself together for decades, while circumstances always seemingly conspired to prevent that from happening. I’ve long thought of her as “the melodrama lady”, i.e., the go-to expert on that discrete theatre history niche (as opposed to someone who goes around stirring up trouble!). Apparently we did cross paths for a minute at a launch event at the old Ziegfeld Club when my book No Applause came out, but I feel like I also knew about her prior to that, possibly had even communicated with her. It seems like I didn’t put a name with the face, or the face with the face, though, for she showed me where I signed her copy of the book back then and the inscription is terse to the point of hostility. I can’t have known who she was during that face-to-face. At any rate, it’s been rectified, for not only have we now met, and apparently become fast friends already, but I also wrote a better inscription in the front of that 17 year old book, one more worthy of the recipient.

Henry is best known of the co-author (with the late Lynne Rogers) of the seminal 1986 book How to Be a Working Actor, now in its fifth edition. This is one of those books you see on the shelves of every theatre person, just one of those standard practical “Bibles” of the industry. That book alone would make her an eminence, but her professional history above and beyond it is not just impressive, but exciting. For close to a decade she was the “right arm” and personal assistant of show biz agent Maxine Marx, the only child of Chico Marx. She went on to be a soap opera casting director for ABC, and to teach acting and related skills for decades. Early in her career she acted with Helen Hayes; at present she is developing a one woman show about her. She was also the motive force behind, and advisor for Romy Nordlinger’s Nazimova show, and this gets us closer to the raison d’être of our meeting. For she is also the founder/director of the Society for the Preservation of Theatrical History, an outgrowth of her many decades as a collector and researcher, the products of which include two ongoing book projects The Total Actor: A Guide to Survival, Success and Heritage and Change Your Act or Go Back to the Woods: The Drama in American Vaudeville 1893-1925. (Smart cookies will recognize that the title of the latter work-in-progress refers to the Moore and Littlefield sketch, just as the title of my first book references Eva Tanguay).

So you see why we HAD to meet, and so we finally made a date to do just that, and she generously admitted me into her inner sanctum where she shared her collections and told her stories. The souvenir t-shirt you see above, from the 2010 Houdini: Art and Magic exhibit at Jewish Museum speaks to Henry’s abiding passions, which naturally include vaudeville. The names she drops in conversation are calculated to make only a very few of us salivate, but as you can imagine I was rapt with attention. Many of the vaudeville authorities I cited in No Applause are people she had actually spoken or corresponded with FIRSTHAND, including George Burns, Joe Smith of Smith and Dale, producer Max Gordon, Abel Green (co-author of Show Biz: From Vaude to Video), Marian Spitzer (author of The Palace), Douglas Gilbert (author of American Vaudeville: Its Life and Times), and Albert F. McClean (who wrote American Vaudeville as Ritual). And some I hadn’t heard of , such as Sol Schwartz, who’d started out as a theatre manager and booker for the Keith circuit and RKO, before later becoming an executive at Columbia and Fox.

As it happens we got together on Bastille Day , and I soon learned why she said “We’ll honor Sarah Bernhardt“. Bernhardt is one of the better represented actors in her collection. I only got decent pix of a couple of those items (the one on the bottom is a terra cotta relief).

Show and tell! Here are just a small handful of the hundreds of things she showed me. The item pictured below contained a reference to the Avon Comedy Four:

Mari Lyn speaks fondly of her long friendship with actor Keenan Wynn, son of Ed Wynn

Wynn was especially gratified by Mari Lyn’s interest in his maternal grandfather Frank Keenan, a legit stage actor whom few recalled even a half century ago, but who had been a major stage, screen and vaudeville star in his time. Keenan toured vaud with a sure-fire one act by Willard Mack called “Vindication”.

I was particularly excited by this 1901 program of the Four Cohans, who were appearing in Providence in George’s sketch “The Governor’s Son”. Much like George Kelly, whom Mari Lyn also spoke about with enthusiasm, George M. Cohan had gotten his start as a writer penning special material for vaudeville, then graduated to full length plays for Broadway. Another name that popped up in our conversation was Marion Craig Wentworth, who wrote the one-act play “War Brides” that Nazimova starred in, and that we presented at Metropolitan Playhouse in 2017.

Mari Lyn’s association with Florence Walton was the precipitating cause for our getting together. Mari Lyn had actually met and interviewed the vaudeville star when the latter was 94 years old! I subsequently updated my post on Walton with some new tidbits from the scholar, found here. Below, Walton’s autograph on a piece of sheet music.

A first edition copy of George Fuller Golden‘s My Lady Vaudeville:

Other names that came up in conversation and/or I saw represented in the collection included the Barrymore siblings (and some Drews), Cressy and Dayne, Harry Ruby, Fred Stone, Chicot (Epes Sargent), George Middleton and Fola La Follette, Bert and Robert Coote and Ruth Warrick.

I’m so grateful to Mari Lyn, from whom I learned more in 2.5 hours than I might have otherwise done in as many months, for sharing this material with me. So dazzled was I by this raconteur that I hatched an immediate plan for all sorts of ways to help her share what she knows, from podcasts to live talks and panels, and, knock wood, some of that will come to pass. In the meantime, to reinforce our abiding theme that theatre history is inherently glamorous, we present to you two of its slickest practitioners: