Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Maude Adams' Boston Box-Office Bonanza

(This portait photo of Maude Adams, taken when she was about 20 in the early 1890s, is in the public domain.)

In 1901, it was reported of actress Maude Adams, “Miss Adams’ receipts last week in Boston were the largest in the history of Boston theaters or anywhere -- $23,000.” Not bad when you think most ticket prices were probably around fifty cents.

This quote chronicled in “Curtain Time - The story of the American Theater” by Lloyd Morris (Random House, NY, 1953), though a cold, if impressive fact, barely scratches the surface to describing the popularity of Maude Adams.

Born in the 1870s, she toured in stock since her early childhood, and by the turn of the century was at the top of her game. The works of J. M. Barrie were paramount in her repertoire (his “What Every Woman Knows” was written for her), and she is noted as the first American actress to play Barrie’s “Peter Pan” in 1905. It was the highpoint of her career, an enormous success in an era where theatre was the primary entertainment and had no competing media.

Author Lloyd Morris notes, “Miss Adams was…winsome rather than pretty, slight, frail and girlish. Her lilting speech and muted laughter, the delicacy of her treat, the graceful swiftness of her movement, gave her a quality that soon was described as ‘otherworldly’. Though intensely feminine, she made a curious impression of elusiveness, as if she had an elfin strain.”

Such qualities gave magic to anyone playing Peter Pan.

“Millions of Americans saw Miss Adams on stage, rejoiced in her performances, cherished a sense of genuinely personal relationship to her. Yet, paradoxically, only a handful of people really knew her. Frohman (producer Charles Frohman) believed that the illusions of the theater would be shattered if the public saw his stars off-stage, or knew too much about them.”

Intriguing, and somehow sad. So much devotion, so many box office receipts, to be really known by only a handful of people.

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