Teddy Roosevelt and The Show Business

Not only could one fill an entire blog with entries strictly about President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt (1858-1919) a.k.a. T.R. but *I* could, having read several books about him, not to mention several works penned by the man himself.

And how about that? A President who wrote books. Since the late 20th century it’s been almost mandatory for Presidents to write “book” (as in just one, and ghostwritten, or co-authored, at that). But T.R. penned numerous substantive scholarly books long before he was President, most of them with one hand tied behind his back while he was doing other things. His literary friends included Owen Wister, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and journalist Richard Harding Davis. Of course I’m going to gush about a guy like that, warts and all (militarism, colonialism, jingoism, imperialism, all of them endemic to the age. I’d include racism, which is true, but he was also the first President to invite a black man to dinner at the White House, so that particular criticism needs to be qualified a little). Still…

Roosevelt has gotten many a mention on Travalanche with good reason: his years as a public figure coincided with the formative years of American show business and the media. I’ve always loved a quote by his daughter Alice Roosevelt Longworth, for whom my great aunt was named, that he “wanted to be the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral, the baby at every christening.” He was a ham, a personality. What a contrast with Silent Cal, Calvin Coolidge, whose death inspired Dorothy Parker’s quip: “How can they tell?”

Roosevelt’s extraordinary punim was tailor-made for caricatures and cartoonists in the employ of the brand new newspaper syndicates, run by Pulitzer, Hearst and others. It was the 1902 cartoon above that inspired a Brooklyn toy maker to create the first “Teddy Bear” (originally styled “Teddy’s Bear”). That started a national craze of course, with books about Teddy Bears, songs about Teddy Bears, and an evergreen fondness for the toy that extends to the present day, over a century later.

Joseph Kesselring’s 1939 play Arsenic and Old Lace (the first grown up play I ever acted in) offered a theatrical caricature of Roosevelt, with the crazy nephew Teddy running up and down the stairs as though it were San Juan Hill. It is this conception of Roosevelt that Robin Williams adapted for the Night at the Museum movies. (How I wish we could have seen Williams play Teddy in Arsenic and Old Lace — it’s one of the few roles I might have enjoyed that manically energetic actor in). Roosevelt himself has been a role for scenery chewing in films and television. Sidney Blackmer played him no fewer than seven times. He has also been played by Brian Keith, Robert Vaughn, and Frank Albertson.

Roosevelt was the first President of whom we have a good bit of documentary record of in modern media forms, not just photographs but early motion picture films, and recordings of his voice. (Roosevelt had a surprisingly high and squeaky voice, by the way, as well as an aristocratic manner and accent. A friend of mine portrayed him onstage once and did him like Yosemite Sam. Roosevelt LOOKS like he would sound like that, but he sounded the opposite of how he looked).

TR was one of the first Presidents whose personality was so large that stage performers overcame the previous reticence they had for lampooning living leaders. Wilson was the first sitting President whom Will Rogers had the nerve to kid from the stage, for example. Roosevelt didn’t make it into comedian’s monologues. But Roosevelt was the star of Nat M. Wills’ song parody of “Down in Jungle Town” in 1909, and was the inspiration for a jungle number in the 1909 Ziegfeld Follies, as well. In both cases, the tunes were about Roosevelt’s post-Presidency safari trips, pretty safe political territory. Later he was impersonated in the Follies by W.C. Fields, and on the vaudeville stage by Lew Dockstader.

Also highly relevant, Roosevelt’s romanticization of cowboys and the American West, both in his highly visible trips there, and his writings about them. These contributed to the public’s image of the region, feeding the popularity of the western genre. His cowboy pals included Charlie Irwin and Lucille Mulhall. Further, Roosevelt’s advocacy of “Strenuous Life” culture inspired countless stage and screen performers: Harry Houdini, Douglas Fairbanks, and Buster Keaton to name some obvious examples.

Some other show biz ripples that may not have occurred to you:

Roosevelt founded the Food and Drug Administration, which killed patent medicines, which killed the medicine show, previously a huge area of American entertainment, particularly in rural areas. Roosevelt was both a Republican and a millionaire but he cared about the little guy and he detested swindlers. He would have taken fellow millionaire Republican Donald Trump out to the woodshed, broken him across his knee, and tossed the pieces into his campfire.

Lastly, TR was the trustbuster! He set the precedent for a U.S. President breaking up big combinations that competed unfairly, harming both business and consumers. I can think of some huge show biz repercussions from that precedent. One is the breaking up the vertically integrated Hollywood studio system (where the studios made the pictures, distributed them, and played them only in their own cinemas) in the 1940s. And for a long time there were strict laws in the U.S. about ownership of broadcasting stations, who could own what and where, to prevent a tiny number of individuals from accruing too much power over information. However, since the ’80s and ’90s that has unraveled, with the doleful result that nowadays a mere handful of people are in a position to control the messages Americans receive, with political results that are downright terrifying.

I find myself saying it or thinking it every day with regard to big tech: WE NEED TR. RIGHT NOW.

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