Edward E. Rice: It All Started with “Evangeline”

Born on this day, the great Broadway composer/director/producer Edward E. Rice (1847-1924). When most people think “classic, old Broadway” they think of shows that opened two decades after Rice died. However that’s roughly the point where I would cease to be interested.

There are so many Rices in early show biz history that one could be forgiven for assuming some sort of dynasty, mintrelsy founder T.D. Rice, 19th circus star Dan Rice, Herbert Rice, who played Buster Brown, and John C. Rice, participant in the cinema’s first screen kiss. In the cases of burlesque producer Sam Rice and playwright Elmer Rice they were pseudonyms. In most other cases, it’s simply a common Welsh name, just as prevalent in the world at large, as in show business. Edward Rice’s Massachusetts roots on his father’s side stretched all the way back to Edmund Rice (1694-1663) who reached these shores in 1636. Two centuries later Edward was born in Brighton, now a section of Boston. His father was a wholesale meat dealer.

In his youth, Rice worked in printing and publishing, and as a personal assistant to a steamship agent. Gifted musically since childhood, he was inspired by the vogue for burlesques and extravaganzas in the post Civil War Era. He and collaborators cooked up the 1874 show Evangeline, or the Belle of Acadia, a parody of the Longfellow poem. Rice bankrolled the original production at Niblo’s Garden himself. Later the show toured nationally and moved to Broadway, proving to be the second most successful musical show of its day after The Black Crook. Notable stars who appeared in productions of it included Lillian Russell, Fay Templeton, Pauline Hall, Peter F. Dailey, and Henry E. Dixey. Dixey also played the role in Rice’s burlesque Adonis (1884, with revivals). Dixey and Rice co-produced The Pearl of Pekin (1889) which featured a young Trixie Friganza in the chorus. In honor of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage to America he produced the hit revue 1492 (1893). From the modern perspective, the most significant show he produced was surely, Clorindy, or the Origin of the Cakewalk (1898) by Paul Laurence Dunbar and Will Marion Cook, starring Bert Williams and George Walker. Thus did he go from the whitest of imaginable shows, an adaptation of Longfellow, to one of the most important black ones! Other notable production was the American transplantation of Mr. Wix of Wickham (1904) with Julian Eltinge. His last show When We Were Forty-One (1905) marked the Broadway debut of Elsie Janis, and featured Emma Carus and George Kelly.

For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.