Dorothy Donnelly: Mother of Poppy

Our principal reason for celebrating Dorothy Donnelly (1875-1928) may differ from many other folks’, for she was the woman who wrote to book and lyrics to Poppy (1923), the hit Broadway show that made a legit star of W.C. Fields and became the basis of two of his films.

But Donnelly had numerous claims to fame. She was the daughter of manager Thomas Lester Donnelly (1832-1880), best known for helping to make a success of the failing Grand Opera House, which was located at 23rd and 8th in Manhattan, in the area now known as Chelsea. The elder Donnelly had presented Buffalo Bill Cody and a production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin at popular prices, helping the ambitious venue stay afloat. Dorothy was educated in a convent school but made her way onto the stage via roles in the Henry Donnelly Stock Company, owned and operated by her brother. Her Broadway debut came at age 21 in the starring role in Nell Gwynn. A couple of dozen subsequent Broadway parts followed, the most significant of which was surely the title role in the American premiere of Shaw’s Candida (1903). Around the same time she appeared in an all-Irish bill of one-acts by W.B. Yeats. Another famous role was the lead part in Madame X (1910), which she played on stage and again in 1916 in the third and last of her silent films.

By the end of the decade, Donnelly had made the transition to playwright, lyricist and librettist (often in adaptations of European operettas). Besides Poppy, her best remembered show was The Student Prince (1924) with Sigmund Romberg, which was adapted into Lubitsch’s film The Student Prince of Old Heidelberg, was revived on Broadway as recently as 1943, and made into a film again in 1954 starring Ann Blyth, Edmund Purdom, Louis Calhern, Edmund Gwenn, and S.Z. Sakall. Her other well known show was Blossom Time (1921), about Franz Schubert, her first hit which played for nearly two years on its first run, and was revived 5 times. Alexander Gray starred in the last Broadway production of Blossom Time in 1943; Robert Emmet had been in the 1931 production. Arthur Tracy had starred in productions of both shows. Donnelly collaborated with Romberg again on My Maryland (1927), a musical adaptation of Barbara Frietchie by Clyde Fitch. Her last was My Princess (1927) with Luis Alberni, Hope Hampton, Robert Woolsey, Donald Meek, and the Albertina Rasch Dancers.

Donnelly perished in early 1928 of a combination of nephritis (a kidney ailment) and pneumonia. She was 51 at the time. She (and most everyone else, I suspect) would be surprised to learn that Poppy would enjoy a longer life than either The Student Prince or Blossom Time.

For more on show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic screen comedy like the screen adaptations of “Poppy” read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.