Elsie Ferguson: 40 Years Famous, Then Forgotten

From what I have been able to ascertain, stage and screen actress Elsie Ferguson (1883-1961) didn’t play vaudeville, although she was certainly referenced there, as one Martha Russell toured the circuits in sketches, and became known as “The Elsie Ferguson of the Varieties”. Ferguson was a creature of the legit, although as we have seen, many of the most reputable actresses of the stage like Sarah Bernhardt and Ethel Barrymore were not above touring the vaudeville circuits in pursuit of big payouts.

The daughter of a successful Manhattan attorney, Ferguson was all of 17 when she made her Broadway debut in a show called The Liberty Belles (1901) with Lotta Faust and Harry Davenport. It was the first of 30 Broadway shows she appeared in through 1943. Most of the original plays Ferguson starred in are forgotten, but to give you an idea of the status she attained, she played Portia to Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree‘s Shylock in a 1916 production of The Merchant of Venice, and starred in a 1924 production of She Stoops to Conquer that featured Helen Hayes, Basil Sidney, Pauline Lord, Henry E. Dixey, Selena Royle, and Francis Wilson.

Ferguson also starred in just over two dozen films, most of them between 1917 and 1925. Maurice Tourneur’s Barbary Sheep (1917) was her first time before the cameras. She also played Nora in a 1918 screen version of A Doll’s House. The Witness for the Defense (1919) is her only surviving silent film. Her only other extant movie is Scarlet Pages (1930), her only talkie.

In 1934 Ferguson married her fourth husband Victor Egan and retired from the stage to an estate in Connecticut. Her previous husbands had included professional baseball manager Frederick C. Hoey and actor Frederick Worlock, best remembered today as the voice of Horace in 101 Dalmatians. (She had a thing for guys named Fred, I guess). In 1943 she emerged from retirement to star in one last Broadway play Outrageous Fortune, with Maria Ouspenskaya and Margaret Hamilton. Today her most lasting monument is her tombstone in Old Lyme, Connecticut.

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