Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Vaudeville at Poli's Palace - Springfield, Mass.

Above is the bill of acts for the Poli’s Palace in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1917. At this time, the Poli Palace was a vaudeville theater, but entrepreneur Sylvester Z. Poli was among the first to introduce movies to his theaters. So, right after Evelyn Elkins “singing comedienne” performs live, we are treated to a silent Western “Their Compact” starring Francis X. Bushman.

The flickers and the “legitimate stage” share an audience, and presumably, worlds collide.

Not that vaudeville was ever really considered “legitimate” stage, but Poli, an Italian immigrant who made his fortune through a string of theaters he owned, most located in New England, intended that his vaudeville theaters provide, according to a publication of the day called “S.Z. Poli’s Theatrical Enterprises”, quoted in The Papers of Will Rogers - Wild West and Vaudeville, Volume II (ed. Arthur Frank Wertheim and Barbara Bair, University of Oklahoma Press, 2000, p. 404) “devoted to progressive and polite vaudeville.”

We can’t be certain how progressive singing comedienne Evelyn Elkins was, but she was probably polite.

Will Rogers toured the Poli chain of theaters in 1908, and came to Sylvester Poli’s Springfield theater in February of that year. The theater was located at 286 Worthington Street, and after having its name changed to the Park Theatre in 1913, was destroyed in a fire in 1914. Poli was already busy building a new theater, called Poli’s Palace, a little farther down the street at 192-194 Worthington. This theater would continue as a vaudeville house, and after some years of sharing its audience with silent films, would eventually be turned over completely to that new medium when the talkies arrived, and Poli merged his chain with the Loew’s Corporation in 1934.

Vaudeville had its own hierarchy of “top banana” comics, and lesser acts that “played to haircuts” (meaning people walked out on them, so all the performers saw was the backs of their heads). There were “small-time” vaudeville theaters and “big-time”. In Springfield, Poli’s would have been considered small-time, compared to the vaudeville acts that were booked for the more prestigious Court Square Theater in town, which would carry an odd week or two of vaudeville in between legitimate stage shows.

The Shuberts, Keith, Albee and William Morris, all top vaudeville bookers who, regulated by the Vaudeville Managers Association, collected acts to run on the country’s regional vaudeville circuits. Springfield’s Pat Shea, one manager on the New England circuit, helped start the United Booking Office, a clearing house for vaudeville acts.

In February 1922, Shubert’s “High Class Vaudeville” played the Court Square Theater, and fifth on the bill was “Whipple and Huston.” Walter Huston, who later went on to movie fame, at this time played in comedy sketches with his wife, Bayonne Whipple.

Over at Poli’s Palace, there were lesser known acts, like the Harvey-Devora Trio, which billed themselves as “Grotesque Singing and Dancing Novelty.” We cannot be certain if “grotesque” was added to attract attention, or was merely an honest assessment of their abilities.

Things were more hopefully put with Bixley & Lerner, who called themselves “The Melba and Caruso of Vaudeville.”

Spectacular acts were saved for last, “show-closers”, and on July 13, 1914, Gilmore & Castle, “Blackface Singing and Talking Comedians” (yes, they could also talk), were followed by show-closer Hassan Ben Ali’s Troupe.

In his American Vaudeville: It’s Life and Times (NY: Dower Pub., Inc. 1968), author Douglas Gilbert noted of the Troupe, “Their handsprings were never springy, and their tumbling was wild, reckless, effortless. American acrobats could never approach them. At the end of the act Ali held the entire troupe on his head, shoulders, and arms. Then, at curtain, they would take off like pigeons, throwing themselves, so it seemed, out into space. The illusion was perfect. This was the best of the alley oops and no act has beaten it since.”

Box seats were 50 cents at the Poli’s Palace (orchestra seats were double that at Court Square), but if half a buck was still too steep, you could sit in the balcony for 10 cents.

Sylvester Poli, incidentally, was among the first theater owners to construct a single cantilevered balcony in this building, built in 1913.

Vaudeville ran with a new bill every week at Poli’s from Labor Day through May 30th, when summer stock would take over. Poli had his own traveling theater group, called the Poli Players, that would tour his theaters. One future film actress to get her start with the Poli Players was Gladys George.

Sylvester Poli, known not only for adding to his chain of theaters, but remodeling old ones, built the Poli Memorial Theater in 1927. The Springfield Republican noted in December 1926, “Modeled, to some extent, after the elaborate Metropolitan picture theater in Boston, its stage and auditorium will be suitable to legitimate productions, vaudeville, and motion pictures.”

The might be what’s known as having it all, but we never have anything for very long. Vaudeville was dead by 1930, and the talkies carried what would be known as the Loew’s Poli theater for the remainder of the decade and beyond, until that distant day when downtown theaters would be replaced by suburban cinemas.

But for a good while, one could ride the trolley on Main Street, get off on Worthington and walk up to the Poli’s Palace to see Archie Onri “The Original Juggling Genius assisted by Miss Dolly”, and Rohem’s Athletic Girls, which featured feminine exhibitions in “Fencing, Wrestling, and Bag Punching,” or the ever popular Spencer & Williams “Singing and Dancing Duo.”

Later, Loew’s Poli showed first-run MGM films for another generation.

Note: The photos of the exterior and interior of Poli's Palace are from postcards posted on the Image Museum site. The programs and tickets are from my collection.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The File on Esther Zidel

As mentioned on my "Another Old Movie Blog" this week, I'd like to refer you to another blog called “The File on Esther Zidel.” This blog is comprised of scrapbook photos taken by a young woman named Esther Zidel in the late 1930s and 1940s. The photos are of actors and actresses (stage and screen) she seems to have accosted outside the stage doors of Boston, Massachusetts area theaters. Some dressed to the nines; some, like one of Bette Davis, devil-may-care casual. The more famous actors are easily recognizable, but many others are not.

The photo of James Dunn seems especially poignant to me, strolling alone through the deserted back alley.

See if you can help identify some of these actors, and fill in the blanks.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Upcoming Plays

Upcoming plays for September and October:

At the Barrington Stage in western Massachusetts:
“Freud's Last Session” is being extended September 23rd through October 4th. The play by Mark St. Germain is suggested by "The Question of God" by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr., directed by Tyler Marchant. After escaping the Nazis in Vienna, psychiatrist Dr. Sigmund Freud invites a young, little known professor, C.S. Lewis, to his home in London. Lewis expects to be called on the carpet for satirizing Freud in a recent book but the dying Freud has a more significant agenda. On the day England entered WW II, Freud and Lewis clash on the existence of God, love, sex and the meaning of life – only two weeks before Freud chose to take his own.

At Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House: “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” runs from September 25th through November 29th.

In Ivoryton, Connecticut, the Ivoryton Playhouse presents William Gibson’s classic “The Miracle Worker” September 23rd through October 11th.

At “The Kate”, the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook, Connecticut we have Shakespeare’s “All's Well That Ends Well” on October 1st.

The Legacy Theater Company of Saco, Maine presents “Run for Your Lives” October 9th through October 18th, a series of funny and poignant short works by David Ives, author of "All In The Timing"

The Portland Stage Company of Portland, Maine presents “Third” by Wendy Wasserstein, September 29th through October 18th. From their website: "A liberal university professor finds her seemingly well-ordered life as mother, friend, and daughter thrown into disarray when she accuses a conservative student of plagiarism. Full of the smart dialogue and easy wit that made her famous, Wasserstein's last play is a thoughtful examination of politics, family and the unconscious misconceptions that still divide America."

Hartford, Connecticut’s Bushnell presents Tony winners Roger Bart and Shuler Hensley reprising their roles in the first national tour of the musical “Young Frankenstein” October 6th through 11th, book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan, music & lyrics by Mel Brooks. Direction and Choreography by Susan Stroman.

Boston’s The Huntington is currently running August Wilson’s “Fences”, directed by Kenny Leon through October 11th.

The Ridgefield Theater Barn of Ridgefield, Connecticut is currently running “Beyond Therapy” by Christopher Durang, directed by Lester Colodny through October 3rd.

"This comedy/farce involves the unstable lives of two New Yorkers searching for a stable romantic relationship and the 'advice' they receive from their equally unstable psychiatrists. The line between neurosis and insanity blurs as complications....and comedy....inevitably follows."

Connecticut’s Westport Playhouse presents Jane Alexander and Stockard Channing in “The Breath of Life” by David Hare, directed by Mark Lamos September 29th through October 17th. On a small island off the coast of England, two women with a shared history meet for the first time. For twenty-five years, though strangers to one another, Frances and Madeleine were intimately connected in ways they’re only now beginning to understand. Over the course of a single night, as they confront the past, they finally come to terms with the choices they’ve made and the lives they’ve lived.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Opening of "The Kate"

A couple of days ago, a new theater opened, or re-opened we should say, in New England. We welcome the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center.

Located in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, the theater was once the town hall that opened in 1911, and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

For many years the building was the home of the Musical and Dramatic Club, showed movies, and the Ivoryton Players moved here for a time during WWII. Ethel Barrymore trod the boards in 1935. By the 1950s, the town offices required more room and theatre was abandoned.

When the town offices moved to a new Town Hall, the historic building underwent, and is still undergoing, a most delightful transformation as the Town of Old Saybrook set upon creating a 250-seat theater, as well as a museum honoring Katharine Hepburn, their most famous resident.

Have a look at the link above and welcome the inaugural season of “The Kate.”

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Kitty Carlisle On Tour at the High School Auditorium

This program for “The Man Who Came to Dinner” is undated, but could have been about 1949, the year Kitty Carlisle toured in summer stock with this now theatre classic written by her husband, Moss Hart, and his partner George S. Kaufman.

Intriguing in this production is the cast of theatre veterans, and the theater: the auditorium of the Springfield (Massachusetts) Trade High School.

This small brick inner city trade school has long been defunct, but evidently had appropriate facilities for what was billed as the Springfield Drama Festival. The Albert Steiger Company, whose flagship department store was in Springfield, also now defunct, (see this article on Steiger’s in my New England Travels blog), took out a full-page ad. The fox furs worn by Miss Carlisle and Miss Libaire came from another local business, Scott Furriers, and the radio equipment for the broadcast scene was provided by the local downtown radio station, WMAS. In between acts we are encouraged to drink Coca Cola, “On sale ice cold in the lobby.”

The program might have the look of a senior class play, but the cast carried a few veterans who’d probably played in more humble venues, and certainly in theaters more grand.

Kitty Carlisle’s career on stage spanned decades, though beyond her few films is probably most remembered for her stint as a game show panelist. She played Maggie Cutler, who is the secretary of the impossible Sheridan Whiteside, played by Forrest Orr. No longer a household name, Mr. Orr made his Broadway debut back in 1907 in the old chestnut, “Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines.” His Broadway career continued through the middle 1940s, and he appeared in the original “Philadelphia Story.”

Kevin McCarthy, Joseph Pevney also had long stage careers, and Dorothy Libaire, who played the gold-digger Lorraine Sheldon had a number of films under her belt by the time this gig at the Springfield Trade School came along.

Harold J. Kennedy, who played the prankster Beverly Carleton, also directed the show and co-produced with Harald M. Bromley.

Summer stock requires one to wear a lot of hats sometimes, and demands a lot of versatility, in cast, and in venue, including a high school stage. Now that it’s September and school is back in session, we conclude our posts on summer stock.