Frank Bacon: Lightnin’

Vaudeville was all about the Big Finish; the best shows and the best acts all ended on a spectacular, climactic note because audience reaction was everything. Frank Bacon’s (1864-1922) was one of those rare lives that built to a Big Finish.

Bacon’s folks were from Kentucky; he was raised in the rural area around San Jose. At 17 he became a photographer’s apprentice. The enterprising and ambitious young man then went on to raise his status in the community in a number of leaps with his own photography studio, then as an ad man for the San Jose Mercury, and as a publisher of his own newspapers The Napa Reporter and The Mountain View Register. A failed bid for public office ended the more conventional phase of his career. Bacon was not yet 30 years old when he decided to shift gears and try a life on the stage. From the early 1890s and for the next two decades Bacon performed with California stock companies and in vaudeville (as a boy Roscoe Arbuckle made his stage debut with one of his companies).

In 1912 Bacon made his Broadway debut in Stop Thief with Richard Bennett. This led to roles in George M. Cohan’s The Miracle Man (1914), followed by the Morosco-produced hit Cinderella Man (1916), and the short-lived Barbara (1917). During these same years, he also appeared in four silent films: The Silent Voice (1915) with Francis X. Bushman and Marguerite Snow; Rosemary (1915) with Snow; Her Debt of Honor (1916) with German stage beauty Valli Valli; and A Corner in Cotton (1916), again with Snow.

And then: the Big Finish: Lightnin’. This was a play Bacon had developed since around 1906, and initially presented as one act sketches in vaudeville and with stock companies, sometimes with the title A House Divided. Lightnin’ was the ironic nickname of the character he played, a slow-moving rural feller. The premise made hay of an important sub-strain of the rural stage comedy of the day, where the rustic old coot seems a likely mark for fast talking city con men, but turns the table on them every time with his shrewd common sense. Playwright Winchell Smith (Brewster’s Millions) helped him turn it into a full length play for Broadway. Opening in 1918, it ran for three years, becoming the longest running Broadway production up until that time. The production also featured his daughter Bessie Bacon (1886-1962) and such stars as Harry Davenport, Ralph Morgan, Minnie Palmer, and Gladys Rankin. After the Broadway show closed in August 1921, the show toured nationally for several months. One week after the tour closed, Bacon died of a heart attack. What a wonderful note to go out on!

But there’s more! For the success of Lightnin’ outlived Bacon. In 1925 John Ford made it into a movie starring Jay Hunt and featuring Madge Bellamy, Ethel Clayton, and J. Farrell MacDonald. This was followed by a 1931 talkie, starring Will Rogers, Louise Dresser, and Joel McCrea. Then it was revived on Broadway in 1938 starring the great Fred Stone!

But there is still another Bacon legacy that lasted even longer. His other child was Lloyd Bacon (1889-1955) who had started out in films as a supporting player with Broncho Billy, Charlie Chaplin, and others, and ended up becoming a major Hollywood director himself (42nd Street, e.g.) about whom find more here.

For more on vaudeville history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film please read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube. Frank Bacon did ’em all!