Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Lizzie May Ulmer on Tour

This ad from Byrnes’ Dramatic Times announces the beginning of a new season with Lizzie May Ulmer in the lead of “Dad’s Girl”, a part she would play in traveling stock for several weeks, if not years, to come. Her tour had its ups and downs.

The play, as the ad tells us, was written for her by Mr. E. J. Swartz, who was a well known journalist as well as playwright of the day. The play opened in Boston in August of 1884. We might assume that the North Scituate, Massachusetts address for G. T. Ulmer, the company’s actor/manager, could be the Ulmer summer digs, in this era before summer stock in small towns.

The play is set in New England, and a famous scene takes place on Nantasket Beach, that finger of sand that stretches out into Massachusetts Bay, just north of North Scituate.

Miss Ulmer plays Malvina Hoskins, a New England girl adopted by a grizzled adventurer from the wild West. “Dad” has made his pile and is settling down in the refined East with his tomboy charge. The ad calls it a “New England Ideal Play” and we can also assume that stereotypes abounded.

Following the play on a few stops around the country through newspaper reviews, we glimpse the astonishingly hard life the stock players had. Not only did they have to brave audiences and critics, but endured a rigorous schedule of arduous traveling.

After two weeks in Boston, the company headed for the Fourteenth Street Theatre in New York City. The New York Times of September 5, 1884 referred to Miss Ulmer as “a young actress seeking a ‘metropolitan reputation’ in a “felicitously entitled ‘Dad’s Girl’.” The slightly condescending “your playing with the big boys now” attitude fails to note that Lizzie May Ulmer had already trod the boards in traveling stock for many years, and had already had her portrait painted by Nelson A. Primus in Boston. Painted in 1876, her portrait is now part of the collection of the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford. Primus was one of the eminent African-American artists of his time.

The painting shows a dark-haired young woman, quite girlish, with an almost impish expression on her face that may have served her well in the number of child waifs and ingénue roles for which she was famous.

In “Dad’s Girl” her robust curiosity and courage helps to solve several thefts and murders. Oh, and she falls in love with a Good and Honest Man.

The review in the New York Times on September 9th hammers both the play and the actress.

The central figure in a not-over ambitious drama entitled “Dad’s Girl” cannot be said to have achieved brilliant success. To what extent this is owing to the deficiencies of Mr. E. J. Swarz’s remarkable picture of New England life, and in how great a degree to the actress’s own shortcomings cannot yet be decided. Miss Ulmer’s character is that of a slangy young woman whose heart is in the right place. If we are not mistaken, the same character has been seen before in various guises. The play is utterly improbable and is devoid of literary value. Two murders and any number of thefts are connected with the plot of “Dad’s Girl”, and its most striking scene is a view of Nantasket Beach at night, with not a soul in sight to enjoy the dazzling effect of the light of a monster moon falling upon a placid sea. Mr. Leslie Allen played a conventional old man in a conventional manner, and Mr. George C. Boniface imparted some interest to the character of an unaccountable idiot.

Still, he hands a valentine at the end:

“Last night’s audience found a great deal to admire in Miss Ulmer’s acting.”

Either the play improved, or the critics’ mood did, by the time the company reached Charlotte, North Carolina two weeks later. The Daily Mirror of October 4, 1884 noted of the September 22nd performance, that “Dad’s Girl” played to “crowded houses. Miss Ulmer has made herself a favorite, and she will always be assured of a good house here.”

On the way to Charlotte, they stopped for five days to perform at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C.

However, when they played in Pittsburg the following February, The Sporting Life newspaper of Philadelphia reported:

A great misfortune occurred to Miss Lizzie May Ulmer at Pittsburg, PA on Wednesday night when she was playing in “Dad’s Girl.” At the close of the performance she fainted, and on regaining consciousness she was found to be totally blind.” This was said to be a relapse from a long illness she had in St. Paul.

When “Dad’s Girl” came back to New York, this time playing at the Third Avenue Theatre. The New York Times noted:

This was her first appearance in several weeks, as her season was interrupted at Pittsburgh some time ago by sickness. She performed her part with considerable dash and spirit, and evidently pleased the audience, which was large enough to fill half the house.

Dash and spirit, but only a half-full house. So goes another year of bringing Nantasket Beach in all its moonlit glory to every great city and whistlestop.

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