Archive for the Melodrama and Master Thespians Category

Stars of Vaudeville #1031: Florence Roberts

Posted in Broadway, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , on February 14, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Florence Roberts (1871-1927). This is yet another Florence Roberts, quite a different one from the professional old lady we wrote about here. This Florence Roberts was a San Francisco based trouper in melodrama and vaudeville, known for her Shakespearean acting. Her one Broadway credit was a 1906 show called The Strength of the Weak. In 1912 she appeared in a film version of the stage sensation Sapho. The following year she appeared on a bill at the Palace Theatre, the very first week it was open. In the late teens she toured South Africa with a production of Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch. She was the step-grandmother of actresses Joan, Barbara and Constance Bennett. 

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Stars of Vaudeville #1029: Helen Dauvray

Posted in Broadway, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Sport & Recreation, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , on February 14, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of actress Helen Dauvray (1859-1923). A prominent stage actress of her day (and one of the few female actor-managers), today she is best remembered for her private life and a brief connection to baseball.

Dauvray began her career as a child actress under the stage name Little Nell, the California Diamond. A fortunate investment in the Comstock Mine made her financially independent. She went to Paris to study, and performed at the Folies Dramatique in 1884. In 1885 she came to New York and started producing her own stage vehicles, including Mona at the Star Theatre, and at the Lyceum, Dakolar, and then Bronson Howard’s One of Our Girls, which turned out to be a major hit, which she frequently revived and toured across the U.S. and England. She also composed a popular song called “The One of Our Girls Polka”. Other plays she produced and appeared in at the Lyceum included A Scrap of Paper, Met By Chance, Masks and Faces, and Walda Lamar. She also played on variety stages as was the custom of the time.

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In 1887, she married John Montgomery Ward, a member of the New York Giants who had recently graduated from law school, and was one of the founders of the first players union. She boasted that he was a “charming and cultured man” who could “speak five languages fluently”. On account of their celebrated relationship, professional baseball’s first championship trophy, instituted in 1888, was known as the Helen Dauvray Cup. (It was known by that time until after the couple divorced. In 1893 it was renamed the Temple Cup.) When the couple first married, Dauvray retired from the stage briefly, causing her to break a contract with Henry Miner, resulting in negative publicity. She and Ward caused a scandal by when they separated in 1890.

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In 1896 she married naval officer Albert Winterhalter, who would be the man who first raised the American flag in Hawaii following its official annexation (1898), and would eventually attain the rank of Admiral, commanding the U.S. Asiatic Fleet 1915-1917. Dauvray retired upon her marriage to Winterhalter as well, with the exception of one comeback vaudeville engagement at Proctor’s in New York in 1901. When the reception was not encouraging, the writing was on the wall.

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Stars of Vaudeville #1028: Helen McKellar

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , on February 13, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of actress Helen MacKeller (1895-1966).

Originally from Detroit, MacKellar began trouping in melodramas and vaudeville as a teenager. I see references to her in reviews and playbills as early as 1910 appearing in cities like Spokane, Scranton, San Francisco and Salinas, Kansas. In 1916 she made her Broadway debut in the original production of Seven Chances (later adapted into the famous Buster Keaton vehicle).  Throughout the teens, twenties and early thirties she was a big wheel on Broadway and in Big Time Vaudeville. In 1917, she toured the big time with a one-act called “The Jay Driver” by Edmund Burke. Her notable Broadway vehicles included Back Pay (1921) by Fanny Hurst and The Mud Turtle (1925). It is said that Eugene O’Neill was a particular fan and wanted her for All God’s Chillun Got Wings but she couldn’t wrap her head around the miscegenation. With the exception of a stint as a replacement in Dear Ruth (1944-46), her last Broadway show was Bloody Laughter (1931-32).

Her Hollywood career began auspiciously when she starred in The Past of Mary Holmes (1933), featuring Jean Arthur, Skeets Gallagher and Rosco Ates, and Crane Wilbur’s High School Girl (1934). But despite her illustrious stage past she was destined not to be top-billed in films, but instead a character actress and often even an uncredited bit player. She was often in westerns such as Dark Command (1940) and The Great Train Robbery (1941). MacKellar retired from films in 1944 to return to the stage for Dear Ruth, then spent her last 20 years in retirement.

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Tonight: Leah, the Forsaken

Posted in Indie Theatre, Melodrama and Master Thespians, PLUGS with tags , , , on February 10, 2017 by travsd

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At Travalanche we are of the opinion that all who were once household words…should always be so. My friends at the Metropolitan Playhouse share a similar mission, making the works of pivotal theatremakers from earlier times live and breathe today. One of these is Master of Melodrama Augustin Daly, and their present offering of his play Leah the Forsaken (opening tonight) couldn’t be more timely: it’s all about a persecuted refugee. The more things change, the more they stay the same! The Metropolitan’s work is always top-notch, educational, and thought-provoking. Get your tickets for Leah the Forsaken here.

A Kind of Theatre I Bet You Never Knew About

Posted in AMERICANA, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on February 9, 2017 by travsd

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Here’s an irony for you: I love to learn, but am not so interested in teaching. Because of what I do, this attitude on my part confounds people all the time, but it’s true: I look upon the writing of my two books, and this blog, and preparing talks as learning experiences, and I just share what I learn as I go. The pleasure for me is not in the sharing but in the greedy acquisition of the information as I write something. I’m happy to share…but I really hate being asked questions, for example, and a teacher should never hate that. At any rate, one of the happiest outcomes of my having written No Applause is that every so often I’ll hear from somebody who wants to share something with me, which then I naturally pass on to to other people. But the cool part for me is getting the surprise in the first place. For me, Christmas is kind of spread throughout the year, with presents from strangers that are highly targeted to my interests and things that give me pleasure. Now that I think on it, I don’t know what the hell I have to complain about.

Anyway, the other day I heard from a nice lady named Roberta Wilkes from Kansas City, Kansas, who is one of the last living practitioners of an extinct form of American entertainment known as tent repertoire theatre. I, like a few of my readers knew of a certain subset of this kind of theatre, known as the Toby Show. I saw a documentary about Toby Shows about 20 years ago; they were a series of plays and skits starring a sort of folk hero, a red-headed rube named Toby. I mentioned the form briefly in No Applause, and several years earlier had named the main character in my play House of Trash Toby in honor of the tradition. But Ms.Wilkes wrote to inform me that the tent shows were much more wide-ranging than just the Toby Shows. They presented the entire repertoire of stock melodramas and farces, the kinds of fare you would also get at brick and mortar theatres as well as show boats, stuff like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Up in Mabel’s Room, complemented by vaudeville style performances: songs and dances and whatever entertaining skills could be brought to bear. From the mid 19th century through about 1980 entire companies traveled with these shows, presenting them in large circus-like tents, mostly through the rural midwest although sometimes as far east as Tennessee and Kentucky.  This form may indeed be one of the last survivals of something organically connected to old time vaudeville. I’ll let Ms. Wilkes take it from here:

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“[it was a] form of travelling theatre that was – in my opinion – a very “American” form of theatre that was popular from the time of the Civil War until the late 1970s.    Of course, it had started its decline before that!

In any event, vaudeville was a part of this type of production.   Plays with vaudeville between the acts.  Typically shows played a town for a week or so – with a different play each night – then jumping to the next town.   In the winter – a form of circle stock was sometimes used.

I was born in 1942 to a family of troupers in tent rep.   My father had been in such troupes for a decade or so before that – my mother was younger and started in about 1940, I think.   My father played heavies in the plays, but was also the piano player – playing for the specialties.  My mother was an ingenue and a talented dancer/singer/comedienne.

I trouped with my parents until I was 8 – at that time my mother became ill and died.  I trouped with my father for two more summers, but then he took a job with the Black Hills Passion Play in South Dakota – and my sister and I went to live with my maternal grandparents.  When I was 18 years old I went out for another season – as leading lady on the then quite decrepit Sun Players Show.   By then there were just 3 or so of these shows left – that was 1960.

There are very few of us left who were born into this business and actually trouped.  Most of us are members of the National Society for Preservation of Tent, Repertoire and Folk Theatre.   I know – quite a mouthful!   This little group meets annually in April at The Theatre Museum located in Mount Pleasant, Iowa – which is a little gem of a museum dedicated to this type of theatre.  It contains a wonderful research library…

…As a child I played Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.   I also did specialties from the time I was 3.  Although my day job is as a lawyer I have continued my involvement in theatre in many ways.  I am also a pianist and have written rag time compositions.”

Watch her in action here:

Ms. Wilkes also wrote the book you see pictured at the top of this post, a charming little fictionalization based on her personal experiences on the road, and what it might be like to do it again sometime in the present day. Best of all it has some amazing family photos from the trouping days. Get your copy of One More Season: Trouping with the Laberta Stock Company One Last Time here.

Hall of Hams #112: McKee Rankin: Hub of America’s Greatest Acting Dynasty

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , on February 6, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Arthur “McKee” Rankin (1844-1914). Rankin is they keystone of America’s greatest acting dynasty. I don’t call him the founder because he’s more at the center; it starts back in the late 18th century and goes all the way to Drew Barrymore. 

Rankin himself was a key figure in 19th century American theatre, unjustly swallowed up by time. Originally from Ontario, Canada, he was only 21 when the Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia, by some measures the leading theatre in the country at the time, made him their star. He was renowned in particular for his portrayals of the leads in MacBeth and Othello. In 1869, he married popular actress Kitty Blanchard and they became America’s most popular husband-wife acting team. Rankin also directed and produced his productions, taught acting, and wrote many plays, many with a western setting (a factor of his own extensive tours of western mining and logging camps). He would go on to start his own theatres in both New York and San Francisco.

Rankin’s plays included:

  • his own adaptation of Rip Van Winkle (1870), plainly an effort to compete with the successful Joseph Jefferson vehicle
  • Nannie, or the Dutch Orphan (1870)
  • The Danites, a tale of life among the Mormons co-written by P.A. Fitzgerald and based on The First Family of the Sierras by Joachin Miller (toured 1877-1881, made into a movie in 1912)
  • 49, a tale of San Francisco miners, also based on Joachin Miller material (1881)
  • The Metropolis, a tale of the underside of New York City (unproduced)
  • The Golden Giant, a tale of San Francisco co-written by Clay Greene (1885)
  • The Runaway Wife, co-written with Frederick Maeder, a melodrama in which a painter goes blind and his wife, told that he is dead by an evil sister, marries a nobleman (1888-89). This was made into a movie in 1915
  • Abraham Lincoln (1891)
  • The Baxters (1893), a comedy, written for actor Charles Cowles
  • a number of vaudeville one acts and the full-lengths Magda and The Fires of St. John, adapted from works by German writer Hermann Sudermann, in which Rankin co-starred with Nance O’Neil 1895-1908
  • Invasion (1909), an uncanny play in which the Japanese invade California. For some context, this was in the wake of Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese war, at a time when Japan was in the process of colonizing Korea

Rankin’s last Broadway directorial credit was Judith of Bethulia (1904), which was adapted into a movie by D.W. Griffith ten years later.

The definite source for information about Rankin is David Beasley’s McKee Rankin and the Heyday of American Theatre (2002). 

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Oh, but we’re not done! I wanted to take the opportunity to, as best I can, lay out the whole glorious tangle of this extended theatrical family.

THE RANKINS

The Rankins had three daughters with notable theatrical associations:

Gladys Rankin (1870-1914) was the first Mrs. Sidney Drew in the stage and screen team of Mr and Mrs Sidney Drew. Their son was the actor Sidney Rankin Drew. More on the Drew family below. Since Drew was Lionel Barrymore’s uncle, and Gladys sister’s Doris (below) was married to Lionel, Gladys was both Lionel’s aunt and sister-in-law.

Phyllis Rankin (1874-1934), a notable Broadway star in her own right. She was married to actor Harry Davenport (best known as Dr. Meade in Gone with the Wind). Phyllis and Harry’s son Arthur Rankin was also a minor player in films (he took his mother’s more famous surname as his professional name. That’s gotta hurt!) Arthur’s son was producer-animator Arthur Rankin, Jr. is of Rankin-Bass fame.

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Doris Rankin (1888-1947), also a succesful stage and screen actress. Doris’s mother was not Blanchard, but some other unknown actress. Doris was married to Lionel Barrymore from 1904 through 1923.

THE DREWS

This estimable line begins with London actress Eliza Trentner (1796-1887), whose theatrical husband was a Mr. Lane, either Thomas Frederick Lane or William Haycraft Lane. Accounts differ, and as Eliza moved to America in 1826 with her six year old daughter and without Mr.Lane, the truth has been hard to uncover.

Louisiana Lane Drew, grandmother and mentor of the three Barrymores. By all reports she cut a formidable, if not  terrifying figure

Louisiana Lane Drew, grandmother and mentor of the three Barrymores. By all reports she cut a formidable, if not terrifying figure

The six year old girl was the formidable actress Louisa Lane (1820-1897) whose third husband was Irish-American actor John Drew, Sr (John Henry Drewland, 1827-1862). Drew’s brother Frank Drew (1831-1903) was also an actor.

Their oldest child Louisa Drew (1852-1888) married a theatrical manager but seems not to have gone on the stage, though the others did, including John Drew Jr. (1853-1827), Georgina (1856-1953), and the above mentioned Sidney who was adopted by Louisa Lane Drew after John, Sr. passed away

Georgina married Maurice Barrymore; their children were of course Ethel Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore and John Barrymore. 

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THE BARRYMORES

Ethel’s children were: Samuel Colt (1809-1986, a Hollywood agent), and Ethel Barrymore Colt (1912-1977) and John Drew Colt (1913-1975), both actors.

Lionel had two daughters with Doris Rankin; both died in infancy. After his divorce from Doris, he married actress Irene Fenwick (1887-1936), a former lover of his brother John.

John had four wives: socialite Katherine Corri Harris (who appeared in three silent films); the fascinating playwright and actress Blanche Oelrichs a.k.a “Michael Strange”;  actress Dolores Costello, daughter of Maurice Costello; and Elaine Barrie.

His performing children included Diana Barrymore (1921-196o), whose husbands included actors Bramwell Fletcher and Robert Wilcox; and John Barrymore Jr. (1932-2004) , who, like his father married four times, twice to actresses (Cara Williams and Nina Wayne). Two of John Jr’s children became actors: John Blyth Barrymore III (b. 1954) and Drew Barrymore (b. 1975). Whew!

Chip off the old block

Chip off the old block

 

 

 

Stars of Vaudeville #1023: Geoffrey Kerr

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians with tags , , , , , on January 26, 2017 by travsd
Kerr with Ruth Chatterton in his last film "Once a Lady" (1931)

Kerr with Ruth Chatterton in his last film “Once a Lady” (1931)

Today is the birthday of Geoffrey Kerr (1895-1971). Kerr was the son of character actor Frederick Kerr, best known perhaps today for playing Frankenstein’s father in the 1931 film. Kerr was a stage name; their actual surname was Keen. 

The younger Kerr began acting in his father’s London stage and (silent) screen productions following his service in World War One. In 1920, the Kerrs (both father and son) came to New York to appear in the Broadway production of Just Suppose with Patricia Collinge and Leslie Howard. The younger Kerr was to remain a constant Broadway presence through 1934. It was during this period that he also played big time vaudeville, including the Palace, circa 1926.

He appeared in three American talkies in 1931: Once a Lady, The Runaround and Women Live Once. By this time he was also transitioning into being a writer. That same year he also wrote and appeared in the Broadway play London Calling. From the mid 1930s through late 1940s, he was a Hollywood screenwriter. In the 1950s, he wrote scripts for British television. His son (with actress June Walker) was the actor John Kerr (Tea and Sympathy, South Pacific).

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold

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