Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Baseball Fan Ethel Barrymore at the Court Square Theater

April 28th fell on a Wednesday in 1943, as it does this year. For one day only, Ethel Barrymore and the New York cast of “The Corn is Green” played at the Court Square Theater in Springfield, Massachusetts.

The play had been the triumph of the 1940-41 Broadway season. John Mason Brown of the New York Post described opening night, when “The bravos which filled the theater at the final curtain were deafening and prolonged. There was every reason for them because Ethel Barrymore gives the finest, most thoughtful and concentrated performance she has given in many years.”

Miss Barrymore played 461 performances in the role on Broadway before starting her nationwide tour, and by this time travel was subject to wartime restrictions.

After the war Ethel Barrymore returned to Hollywood and a busy second career as a character actress. Since baseball is a recurring theme on my other blogs this week, Another Old Movie Blog, and New England Travels, we might mention here that Ethel Barrymore was an avid baseball fan. Author Hollis Alpert in “The Barrymores” (The Dial Press, New York, 1964) notes that while on movie sets, in between takes she would “hurry to her dressing room, where she would listen to ball games on her radio. She rooted less for single teams than for individual players, and when there was not a major league game to listen to would settle for the Coast League games.”

At this stage of her life, she preferred freelancing rather than signing on with a single studio. Her reasoning was, “The first thing I know they would be lending me out for a lot of money and a couple of outfielders.”

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Grace Kelly Tours in Boston

Grace Kelly appeared as an ingĂ©nue in the play “To Be Continued”, which opened in Boston April 8, 1952.

She began her auspicious acting career in summer stock and regional theatre, and eventually had a crack at the Great White Way. Her experience there was brief, and nothing compared to the meteoric rise in fame she would achieve in Hollywood.

Her first attempt at Broadway was in November of 1949, when she appeared at the Cort Theatre in a revival of “The Father”, which starred Raymond Massey. Her role was “The Captain’s Daughter”, but her nameless role earned her the praise of reviewer Brooks Atkinson, who noted,

“Grace Kelly gives a charming, pliable performance of the bewildered and broken-hearted daughter.”

The play did not run long, and her next big break at storming Broadway was “To Be Continued”, where she played the equally anonymous-sounding “A Young Woman”. After its tryout in Boston, the play moved a couple of weeks later to the Booth Theater in New York on April 23, 1952. (Have a look here for our recent post on Edwin Booth, for whom that theater was named.)

Here her performance again was noted as promising, but the play closed within weeks.

It was back to her hometown of Philadelphia that summer, where she played starring roles at the Playhouse in the Park. But, also that summer, "High Noon" was released, and in the autumn came her role in the film “Mogambo”, and the rest, as they say, is history. Her career as a stage actress never took off as she had hoped, but other achievements she could not have imagined were on the horizon.

Have a look here at Grace Kelly's performance in "The Country Girl" (1954) from Monday's post on my Another Old Movie Blog.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth

Ford's Theater, April 1865, Library of Congress, in the public domain.

On this day, April 14, 1865, Good Friday, Edwin Booth, who came to be one of the most famous and important American actors of the 19th century, was in his dressing room at the Boston Theatre putting on his makeup for that evening’s sold out performance.

Edwin Booth, Libarary of Congress, public domain.

He was 31 years old, rising in his profession, heir to his famous actor father, Junius Brutus Booth, in the family trade. Only the previous Sunday Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse and the horrific Civil War was close to an end. It seemed that week as if the nation, both bloody, torn halves, were taking a much needed deep breath, and relishing a moment of peace. The North was celebratory, and in Washington, D.C., like the fans of Edwin Booth in Boston, President Abraham Lincoln was going to take a diversion from his troubles at the theatre.

Playbill for "Our American Cousin", original in the collection of the Libarary of Congress, reprinted National Park Service.

Laura Keene’s troupe staged the popular comedy, “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre. She was a notable stage actress of her day, had toured in previous years with Edwin Booth, and managed her own theater, one of the first American women to do so.

A former member of her acting company, Edwin’s younger brother John Wilkes Booth, showed up at the theater that night as well, entered the President’s box, and shot him in the head.

Much has been written about the tragedy, but for the moment let’s turn our attention to Edwin Booth in his Boston dressing room, focusing himself on his upcoming performance, completely unaware that his life had changed forever because of his brother’s crime.

An interesting account of this event, and the rivalry of both brothers, is discussed in the book “Good Brother, Bad Brother - The Story of Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth” by James Cross Giblin (Clarion Books, NY, 2005).

The morning after the show, Edwin was woken by his valet with the heart-stopping newspaper headline.

The manager closed the theater, partly out of respect for the deceased President, and partly for the safety of Edwin Booth and the cast. Actors, always considered on the fringes of respectable society, were now suddenly suspect as anarchists. Edwin was chief suspect of them all, for being the brother of an assassin.

The New York Herald front page, April 15, 1865.

Edwin had intended to return to his home in New York, but federal marshals detained him in Boston for questioning about his brother’s activities. They continued to forbid him to leave the city until several prominent people, including the Governor of Massachusetts, vouched for him. On Easter Sunday afternoon, he was allowed to leave, and took the five and a half hour train trip to New York City.

Edwin, who as a boy accompanied his father on tour and spent a fair amount of time dragging him out of saloons as his nursemaid, made his own debut just before turning 16 years old in 1849, in Boston, when his father was playing at the Boston Museum. Have a look at this earlier post about the Boston Museum.

Junius Brutus Booth, Library of Congress, public domain.

His father Junius encouraged Edwin to take small roles, and in a couple of weeks that September Edwin graduated to a larger role in “Othello” opposite his father in Providence, Rhode Island. A couple of years later, he took over his ailing father’s role in “Richard III”.

It was a long, arduous apprenticeship in small theaters, saloons, and open air performances in mining camps out west. When Edwin returned to Boston, the city of his debut, in April of 1857 playing the villain Sir Giles Overreach in the melodrama “A New Way to Pay Old Debts”, he was again, just as in his Shakespearean roles, treading on a path his father had already made famous. Junius Brutus Booth cast a long shadow.

But Edwin, through diligence, and a new way of performing that was more natural and less dramatic and showy than men of his father’s generation, won over dubious audiences and critics.

The Boston Transcript noted that the play was “Quite a triumph for young Booth…It brought back the most vivid recollections of the fire, the vigor…which characterized the acting of his late, lamented father.”

Louisa May Alcott, future famous author of “Little Women” went one better when she wrote in her journal, “Saw young Booth in Brutus…and liked him better than his father.”

Boston audiences were enthusiastic. They were less so when Edwin’s younger brother John Wilkes Booth arrived in town in 1862. Author Mr. Giblin quotes a Boston drama critic:

We have been greatly pleased, and greatly displeased…In what does he fail? Principally, in knowledge of himself -- of his resources, how to husband and how to use them…He ignores the fundamental principle of all vocal study and exercise: that the chest, and not the throat or mouth, should supply the sound necessary for singing or speaking.

John Wilkes Booth played the Boston Museum as Romeo on May 3, 1864, with Kate Reignolds as Juliet. Orchestra seats went for 50 cents. John Wilkes Booth was apparently not the accomplished actor that his brother Edwin was, but he cut a dashing figure. Both brothers were likely uncomfortable with comparisons, but comparisons were always made, against their father and against each other.

In November 1862, Edwin played a month-long engagement in Boston, and the Boston Post offered this comparison of the acting style of the brothers:

Edwin has more poetry; John Wilkes more passion; Edwin has more melody of movement and utterance, John Wilkes more energy and animation; Edwin is more correct, John Wilkes more spontaneous; Edwin is more Shakespearean, John Wilkes more melodramatic; and in a word, Edwin is a better Hamlet, John Wilkes a better Richard III.

From the end of September 1863 to the end of November, John Wilkes Booth toured in Boston for two weeks, then to Providence, Rhode Island, then to Hartford, Connecticut, briefly to New York, and then back to New Haven, Connecticut. At this point he was plotting against the Union and smuggling drugs like quinine to the South.

In April of 1864 he returned for a four-week run in Boston in 34 performances in 18 different plays, the lead in them all. He began to have vocal strain, which would contribute to a downslide in his acting career, but was more interested in revenge at this point in his life.

In March, 1865, John Wilkes Booth played Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. for the last time in the melodrama “The Apostate.” He played the villain, Pescara, and received an enthusiastic reception from the audience. According to author Giblin, “Apparently the warm welcome did not make much of an impression on John. At the end of the play, he ignored the crowd’s applause and declined to make a curtain call.”

That same night, Edwin performed Hamlet in New York City, then headed for Boston. The brothers were on the outs with each other at this time, not over their acting rivalry, but over politics. Edwin supported the North, and John Wilkes, supporting the Confederacy, avoided his brother.

Laura Keene, Library of Congress, public domain.

There is a famous quote by film actor Spencer Tracy to the effect that actors should stay out of politics and pointing to John Wilkes Booth and the assassination of Lincoln as an example. Remembered less is the fact that it was an actress who provided the first comfort to the dying President, when Laura Keene, star of “Our American Cousin”, still in her costume and stage makeup, brought a pitcher of water up to the box where Lincoln was being attended, and held Lincoln’s head so the doctor could give him a sip of brandy.

Her act of compassion did nothing to rehabilitate the almost poisonous hatred for the acting profession in the wake of the Lincoln assassination. After the funeral, Edwin was back in New York City, kept under house arrest in his home by the police.

John Wilkes Booth was killed when captured resisting arrest on April 26th. Edwin continued to receive death threats and hate mail, with the same unreasonable hatred that spurred his brother to murder the President.

Then as now, political convictions seem to be the only excuse some people need to reveal their inner thug.

Edwin took ads out in newspapers in Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia denouncing the assassination and proclaiming his own innocence, “bearing a heavy heart, an oppressed memory, and a wounded name.”

Front page Harper's Weekly, April 29, 1865.

Edwin was subpoenaed as a potential witness in the government investigation of the crime after an initial interview, but was later dismissed. His older brother, actor Junius Booth was held for questioning at the Old Capitol prison, and the entire Booth family came under suspicion, but nobody really knew much about John Wilkes Booth’s political activities, and nothing about the conspiracy to murder.

Edwin finally returned to the stage the following year, in January 1866 at New York’s Winter Garden as Hamlet. Police were stationed outside in case of an expected riot.

Edwin got a standing ovation on his entrance, but as gratifying as this must have been, he took no curtain calls, to avoid the possibility of becoming a target for someone with a gun. He took this play to Boston, and all performances were sold out. He refused ever again to play in Washington, D.C.

In the early 1880s, long after this sad period ended for the country, if not for him personally, Edwin Booth maintained homes in Boston and in Rhode Island. He died in 1893, and is buried in the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts beside his first wife, actress Mary Devlin.

In a coincidental twist of fate, Edwin had rescued Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert, from injury or possible death when he pulled him from harm’s way on a train platform in Jersey City at least a year before the assassination. Edwin Booth in later years felt a little consoled that if his brother had murdered the father, at least he himself had saved the son.

For more on Edwin Booth, have a look at Monday’s “Another Old Movie Blog” for a discussion of Richard Burton’s portrayal of him in “Prince of Players” (1955).

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

"The Red Mill" at the Court Square Theatre, Springfield, Mass.

Back on this day in 1948 you could have caught the matinee of “The Red Mill”, which ran from April 5th through the 7th at the Court Square Theatre in Springfield, Mass. Victor Herbert’s operetta first wowed ‘em on Broadway back in 1906 at the Knickerbocker Theatre, and was revived in 1945 at the Ziegfeld Theater.

Buster West adorns the program as you see, a comic dancer who got his start in vaudeville while still a child, and appeared in several Hollywood B-movies showcasing his novelty dancing in the 1930s.

Pat Rooney, Jr., who was actually Pat Rooney, III, son of the famous Pat Rooney, Jr. (who became Sr. after the death of his own father, Pat), joined Buster as a couple of American vaudevillians on the spree in Holland.

Frank Jaquet played the Buromaster. Mr. Jaquet was a veteran of Broadway and Hollywood, where he played a slew of bit character roles, most of them uncredited, including one of the senators in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939), and a police desk sergeant in “Meet John Doe” (1941).

“The Red Mill” had “whiskers on it” as they used to say, even in the late ‘40s, so I would imagine a revival today, unless it were a parody of a parody, is unlikely. Typical, though, of the rather wistful post-War nostalgia for a gentler world that brought us the smash “Oklahoma!”