Archive for Holbrook Blinn

Beatrice Blinn: A Comedienne Close to Greatness

Posted in Broadway, Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 7, 2017 by travsd

Comic actress Beatrice Blinn (1901-1979) was born on this day. While I’d seen her in many, many other films previously, I didn’t take note of her until I saw her in the 1934 Vitaphone short Art Trouble, with Harry Gribbon, Shemp Howard, Marjorie Main, Mary Wickes, and — most notably — a very young, early career Jimmy Stewart. Piecing her life and career together has been an interesting puzzle. I’m not all the way there yet but I’m close.

Born in Forest County, Wisconsin, she was the niece of stage and screen actor/director Holbrook Blinn, who directed plays at the Princess Theatre, and appeared in the films McTeague (1916), Janice Meredith (1924), and The Telephone Girl (1927). The elder Blinn undoubtedly could have, would have, and did provide useful introductions for her in the theatre. Yet most of her early publicity describes her as a “Seattle artist” who joined the chorus of the show Gay Paree in 1925 so that she could paint and sketch chorus girls. That may sound like a stretch to you, and it might have to me — but for the fact that I am very close to someone who is fairly obsessed with drawing chorus girls — my wife! At any rate, it is quite possible that both paths are accurate: her uncle was useful and his beautiful niece joined the chorus on a lark. It’s not without precedent. One of the greatest actors of the 20th century, John Barrymore was a visual artist until one day he decided to give the family business a whirl, and it turned out to be the thing for him.

In early 1926 Blinn appeared in the melodrama Nightstick at Werbla’s Theatre, Brooklyn. This show moved to Broadway a year later, but Blinn wasn’t in it. She had already made the move to the Great White Way several months earlier to appear in the 1926 play The Adorable Liar. After a couple more Broadway roles, she married playwright/actor/director Crane Wilbur in 1928, another connection likely made through her famous uncle.

What is especially interesting to me about Beatrice Blinn’s ensuing career is that it is a hodgepodge of roles in prestige Broadway plays, classic Hollywood films (usually in small parts), and low-down slapstick comedy shorts — pretty much all at the same time!

She first went with Wilbur to Hollywood in 1929, and appeared in three talkie comedy shorts. Grass Skirts (1929) was an Educational short, directed by Alf Goulding, and starring Lloyd Hamilton and Ruth Hiatt. She co-starred with Johnny Arthur in the 1929 Vitaphone Stimulation. The Cheerleader (1930) was a drama starring one Tom Douglas. 

In 1933 Blinn and Crane divorced. She returned to Broadway, next appearing in the original productions of three George S. Kaufman shows: The Dark Tower (1933-1934), Merrily We Roll Along (1934-1935), and Stage Door (1936-1937). Note that the aformentioned 1934 Vitaphone short Art Trouble was shot at their Astoria, Queens studio while she was living in New York.

After this she went back to Hollywood for that unusual career, juggling bit parts in classic features and better parts in low down comedy shorts and B movies. The features included Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Lost Horizon (1937), Holiday (1938), You Can’t Take it With You (1939), Golden Boy (1939), and Mae West’s The Heat’s On (1943). At the same time you can see her in Columbia comedy shorts with Three Stooges, Buster Keaton, Andy Clyde, and Charley Chase. These comedy “classics” include the Stooges’ Whoops, I’m an Indian (1936), and Violence is the Word for Curly (1938). In Keaton’s Nothing But Pleasure (1940) she gets to play the drunk woman in his umpteenth re-creation of his famous Spite Marriage bit. Her last film was Pick a Peck of Plumbers (1944) with El Brendel and Shemp Howard.

After this, she pretty effectively vanishes, with no mention I have found until she dies in San Diego in 1979. Why she retired at that stage, a relatively young age, can only be conjecture, as would be what it was she moved on to afterwards. Did she return to her art? Did she luck into another line of work that paid more and was more satisfying than the bit roles which seemed to be her permanent lot in the movies business? Did she go back to the theatre in some regional city? We’d be delighted to know the answer and we’ll be sure to share the answer here once we uncover it. One conclusion I feel comfortable drawing from afar: she must had a lousy agent. Beatrice Blinn had many advantages and for a time a promising resume. But these assets were clearly not maximized.

For more on comedy film history, don’t miss my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, available from amazon.com etc etc etc

 

 

The High Aspirations of The Princess Theatre

Posted in Broadway, Indie Theatre, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 14, 2017 by travsd

I’ve had the damnedest time locating an image, but this seems to be it, from the vantage of the Sixth Avenue elevated

On March 14, 1913, New York’s Princess Theatre opened for business. Aside from a couple of exceptions (e.g., the Palace, Niblo’s Garden) we don’t typically write about specific theatrical venues here except in passing. The lapse isn’t inadvertent. It simply isn’t my line. As a general rule, I have very little to say about buildings. But today we make an exception, both because this one had an interesting history, and because it was partially owned by my wife’s family!

The Princess Theatre was an outlier, both in terms of geography and in mission. It was located at 104-106 West 39th Street, off Sixth Ave, which is farther west than most (but not all) Broadway theatres, as well as a bit on the southerly side as the years passed (there also used to be plenty of theatres in the 30s, but gradually, as you know, 42nd Street became the approximate southern boundary.)

But beyond its relative remoteness, it was unusual in other ways. It was an early harbinger, both in size and in mission, of what came to be known as the Little Theatre Movement. At 299 seats it was far smaller than most other Broadway houses. The intimate scale was intentional. The venue was designed to present one-act dramas by a repertory company, a very early reaction to the commercialization of mainstream theatre certain people were already identifying, coming from an almost identical conceptual place as the later Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway, and Indie-Theatre Movements (the only difference being that the response was coming from the commercial theatre industry itself). The main players in the venture were producer F. Ray Comstock and the Shuberts, with actor-manager Holbrook Blinn and theatrical agent Bessie Marbury (to whom I happen to be distantly related;  Katherine Marbury is my 12th great grandmother; her sister was Rhode Island founder Anne Hutchinson).

princesspbl

The first few years of the Princess were bumpy; the serious plays were not filling the seats. But the venture found success in the middle teens with a series of “thinking man’s musicals”, which have since become known as the Princess Theatre Musicals, with integrated songs, and books less crude than the standard fare of the day. Most of them were authored by the team of Jerome Kern, Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse. The most successful of these was Oh, Boy! (1917) which ran for 463 performances.

In the 1920s, the theatre returned to its original mission of dramas. The best known plays from this period were Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones (1921, transferred from the Provincetown Playhouse) and the American premiere of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (1922-1923). But it was a tough slog. In 1928, after only 15 years, it ceased to be the Princess Theatre.

Next came a quarter century of name changes, transfers of ownership, and new missions: it became the Lucille Laverne in ’28, the Assemble Theatre in ’29, was shuttered from ’29 to ’33, then became the Reo Theatre, a cinema, in ’33.

In 1934, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union acquired the space to use as a recreation hall. Normally, I bemoan such repurposing of precious theatre space, but this new ownership ironically resulted in the greatest theatrical success ever mounted in that location, the Depression Era labor revue Pins and Needles, which ran for 1,108 performances starting in 1937. The Princess was now the Labor Stage, and remained under that name for a decade. In 1947, the legendary Actors Studio was hatched in one of the theatre’s rehearsal spaces.

In 1947, it became Cinema Dante, which showed foreign movies; in 1948, the Little Met; and in 1952, Cinema Verdi. In 1955 it was torn down to make way for an office building. For more on the cinema years, and this theatre in general, see its entry at Cinema Treasures, a wonderful resource.

For all of its history, the Princess Theatre and its later incarnations seem to have been governed by moonbeams, a series of Noble Experiments. It is not atypical that the venture was short lived. But as I sometimes like to joke, the art of theatre would do okay if it weren’t for these damn audiences.

To find out more on theatre historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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