Archive for the ‘Theater’ Category

Renaissance of the Masher and Swashbuckler

As life tamped down in 1921 under Prohibition, people sought to live vicariously through the uninhibited characters of stage and screen, characters this New York Times Magazine article called “the masher and swashbuckler.”

“The leaden lid of ‘Thou Shalt Not’ has been hammered down on us so tightly that the explosion of our suppressed healthy animality may become a classic example of Dr. Freud’s dictum: the way to revitalize an instinct is to suppress it.

Don Juan, d’Artagnan, and Bluebeard have invaded New York from beyond the artistic three-mile limit. [Those first two are references to the 1921 Broadway productions of Don Juan and The Three Musketeers, though I couldn’t ascertain the Bluebeard reference with certainty.] In film circles… there is talk of screening the life of that philanthropic highwayman, Robin Hood. [1922’s Robin Hood would star Douglas Fairbanks.]

The columnist Benjamin de Casseres then added this kicker:

If there is anybody missing, I haven’t heard of him. Satan?

One wonders if something of the opposite has happened these days. Part of the reason The Jerry Springer Show was cancelled in 2018 after 27 years was because audiences no longer felt the same need to turn towards the entertainment world to see deubachery like cheating on your spouse with an adult film star or vile language, when the president was doing the same. As Springer himself said, Donald Trump “took my show and brought it to the White House.”

And one of the most popular television shows to emerge in 2020 was the wholesome Ted Lasso.


Renaissance of the Masher and Swashbuckler (PDF)

Published: Sunday, October 9, 1921

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Written by Jesse

October 10th, 2021 at 8:01 am

Heavens a Hippodrome and All the Actors Airplanes

In 1919, some predicted that the future realm of acting would be not the stage nor the screen, but the sky with airplanes.

This is the key to the great Futurist drama. The Sardous, Gus Thomases, Ibsens, Sam Shipmans and Barries of the future will write for a stage whose wings will be Arcturus and Halley’s comet, whose footlights will be the electirc bulbs and lamp-posts of all the earth — even unto Philadelphia; whose roof will be heaven itself, whose actors will be airplanes cut and painted to resemble the characters of the play, driven and manipulated by hooded and goggled drivers. Instead of a prompter, a wig-wag aviator sitting on the edge of the moon. The stage manager will thunder his directions for rehearsals from a giant super-megaphone-telephone from the top of the Matterhorn or in a giant Caproni anchored to Mars.

What of the naysayers?

Do you believe it? No? Well, there were once those who believed the earth was flat, that the heavens were a series of blue-china saucers glued together, that Bryan was a radical and that booze was immortal.

Well, after Prohibition was repealed a few years later, it turns out booze was immortal. And similarly, the skeptics of “the theater of the sky” were right in their predictions, too.

That being said, it sounds super fun. Maybe it should take off. I’d watch it.


Heavens a Hippodrome and All the Actors Airplanes: Drama of the Futurists Where the Gestures Are Tail Spins, and the Waiting World Lies Flat on Its Back and Looks Up at the Busy Sky (PDF)

Published: Sunday, November 30, 1919

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Written by Jesse

November 29th, 2019 at 1:01 pm

Collective Bargaining for Actors’ Wages

Theater actors in July 1919 wanted higher pay for extra performances. When managers refused, the first strike in American theater history occurred.

The old contract had specified eleven national holidays in the year on which the actor was required to play a matinee without additional salary… The actors demanded that they be paid upon a basis of eight performances a week, and that all performances over that number, for whatever cause given, should be paid for proportionately.

The managers, in reply, said that it was a financial impossibility; that it was at variance with all the established customs of the theatre and would mean simply that the players must accept smaller salaries; that actors often had been paid for full week when only six or seven performances had been given in place of the scheduled eight — and refused.

The next month, this resulted in the first strike in American theater history. According to the Actors’ Equity Association, “The strike lasted 30 days, spread to eight cities, closed 37 plays, prevented the opening of 16 others and cost millions of dollars.”

In the end, the actors won.

Collective Bargaining for Actors’ Wages: Equity Association Demands, Not an Eight-Hour Day, but Pay for Overtime, and Managers Refuse to Recognize the Union — Possible Effect on Playgoers (PDF)

Published: Sunday, July 13, 1919

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Written by Jesse

July 12th, 2019 at 5:31 pm

Posted in Business,Theater

Puritan Attacks on the Stage and Its Clothes

Revealing clothing was becoming more popular at social events in 1919 — more revealing by the standards of the day, at least. Acceptable clothing in the staid theater, however, changed much more slowly.

In a recent play a young actress engaged in a game of “strip poker” in which she “lost” large quantities of her hosiery and lingerie. Certain case-hardened first nighters were shocked; but, as it happened, she went from the theatre to a costume ball in the identical disarray, and there created not a ripple of protest.

Even today, one is usually expected to dress up to attend a theatrical show. Theatergoers, then as arguably now, generally tended to be a little more prim and proper than the average person on the street. That might explain why, despite the proverb “sex sells,” such tactics generally didn’t attract theater audiences in 1919.

That the exploitation of nudity has at times been a serious evil is obvious to every right-minded playgoer. But the remedy is not so obvious. … Certain managers have gone so far in catering to the roving eye as to shock the man in the street, not to mention his wife and his daughter. The result has been financially disastrous.

Nowadays, we see more nudity in theater than ever, asNew York Times theater critic Ben Brantley would write nearly a century later in 2013:

Full nudity has been a customary part of the mainstream Western theater since the 1960s and ’70s, while avant-gardists were regularly disrobing for public consumption a good decade earlier. But I have never been confronted with as many chests, buttocks and genitalia as I have in visits to Broadway and West End theaters during the last six months.

The times, they are a-changin’.

Puritan Attacks on the Stage and Its Clothes: Plays Which Offended Fundamental Morality Are Not Successful Nowadays, Despite What Reformers Say of Lingerie Displays and Scanty Skirts (PDF)

Published: Sunday, June 1, 1919

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Written by Jesse

June 2nd, 2019 at 10:26 am

Posted in Theater

Troublous Times for the Theatre Business


“In fact, the last week has been about the worst week in the history of the American theater.” That was the worry gripping Broadway in December 1917. What was causing this?

“Pro Bono Publico writes to his favorite paper that it is because the plays presented nowadays are so inferior that intelligent people won’t tolerate them.” This is similar to the main explanation for why movie box office in summer 2017 had its lowest-selling summer since 1997: that almost every summer release besides Wonder Woman and Dunkirk was terrible. (It wasn’t competition from Netflix and the like; Netflix was almost as massive in 2016 and 2015, which were comparatively stronger box office years.)

Other explanations offered included a wartime tax on theater tickets, and the fact that war started to become more “real” for Americans outside of combat round October due to several factors such as a sugar shortage, even though America had entered the conflict in April.

Troublous Times for the Theatre Business: All Sorts of Suggestions for Remedying War Slump Are Being Considered by the Managers — The Question of Prices and Ticket Speculators (PDF)

From Sunday, December 16, 1917

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Written by Jesse

December 16th, 2017 at 12:20 pm

Real Theatres in Every National Army Camp

Decades before the USO tours started in 1941, a prototype version called the Liberty Theaters was started in 1917.

Marc Klaw, a member of the Commission on Training Camp Activities, was tasked with building 16 such theaters for up to 600,000 soldiers to view. “We will have eight companies on the road all the time, four dramatic and four vaudeville,” Klaw said. “Plays will be up to date, and only first-class performers will be engaged.” Irving Berlin was one of the first performers to sign up.

The modern version, the USO, has 160 locations around the world and has entertained an estimated 75 million Americans throughout its history.

Real Theatres in Every National Army Camp: Soldiers in the Cantonments Will See Best Plays and Leading American Actors Each Week — Highest Ticket PRice Twenty-five Cents (PDF)

From Sunday, November 4, 1917

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Written by Jesse

November 3rd, 2017 at 12:01 pm

Shifting Tastes of the Theatergoers

Theater critic John Corbin lamented the rise of the anti-hero on the stage in 1917:

“Clever trickery wins delighted applause, while the ancient law, moral as well as statutory, is scorned and derided. The phenomenon is interesting and rather disquieting… Like government, the drama is best when it is of the people, by the people, and for the people. As the literary critics say, it should portray the life and express the mood of its time. Yet the American drama of today has largely reversed Lowell’s apothegm. It pays to call old notions fudge and bend our conscience to our dealing. The Ten Commandments love to budge, and fortune ever follows stealing.”

Corbin surely would not approve of many modern-day critics’ ranking of The Godfather as the greatest film of all time.

Shifting Tastes of the Theatergoers: Decline of European Influence Has Been Followed By “the Sub-American Drama,” with East Side Flavor Dominant and Crooks as Leading Characters (PDF)

From Sunday, September 30, 1917

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Written by Jesse

October 1st, 2017 at 12:01 pm

Posted in Theater

The Funniest Things in the Current Plays

What were the most uproarious lines in theatrical productions from a century ago? Reading most of them mostly confirms my belief that people weren’t funny until the late 1970s or early 1980s.

But this line from Have a Heart by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse was at least somewhat funny, reminiscent of something Woody Allen might have written in his 1970s slapstick comedy days:

“You’re Michael Robinovitch.”

“Robin – Robin – the ‘ovitch’ is silent. In New York we never pronounce our ‘ovitches.'”

The Funniest Things in the Current Plays: Lines to be Heard Just Now in New York’s Theaters Which Have Succeeded in Getting Heartiest Laughs from Audiences (PDF)

Published Sunday, April 1, 1917

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Written by Jesse

April 5th, 2017 at 2:29 pm

Posted in Humor,Theater

Rich Men Who Have Organs Built In Their Homes

From September 17, 1911


RICH MEN WHO HAVE ORGANS BUILT IN THEIR HOMES: And Who Employ Organists by the Year to Give Them Music at Their Own Firesides — More Than $50,000 Has Been Paid for Some of These Organs. (PDF)

As mentioned in the article, the “largest and costliest organ in the United States” belonged to Frederick G. Bourne’s and was installed in his Oakdale, Long Island home.

According to the Organ Historical Society’s Pipe Organ Database (who knew?) the residence became a military academy after Bourne died, and in 1948 the organ was sold. Part of it went to Detroit, and part went to San Diego.

Today, the largest organ in the United States may be (and I say “may” because I found conflicting details) the Wanamaker Organ currently displayed in a Macy’s Department store in Philadelphia.

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Written by David

September 16th, 2011 at 10:00 am

Is The Moving Picture To Be The Play Of The Future?

From August 20, 1911


IS THE MOVING PICTURE TO BE THE PLAY OF THE FUTURE? Inventions Which Will Vastly Increase Its Capabilities — How These Dramas Are Obtained and Why Actors Give Up the Stage to Enter This New Profession. (PDF)

In 1911, the motion picture industry was just beginning to boom. Movies were still silent, and black-and-white, but this article predicts how the industry will change once color and sound are added.

Is it too much to say that the moving picture is the theatrical show of the future? Yes, if we have got always to see simple black-and-white pictures, soundless and colorless; no, if the invention is to take the course which it seems destined to take, and to develop hugely into the spoken word, the musical accompaniment, and the hiring of the greatest singers to take part in the humblest of plays.

At the time, movies were churned out like ephemeral novelties. They were shown for one night, and the actors were unknown. But over time, people began to recognize some of their favorite actors who appeared in many films. They would cheer for them when they appeared on screen. But they had no idea who the actors were. Stage acting is where the fame and glory was. But it, too, had its drawbacks.

The moving-picture business is making greater and greater appeals to stage people every day. In most cases the pay is better than that on the stage. Then the employment is steady. The bane of the theatrical business has always been the long season of unemployment. A moving-picture actor works fifty-two weeks in the year, and for him there is no long drought in which he parades the Rialto hungrily and pulls his belt closer to keep his appetite in control and wistfully haunts the booking offices. Besides, he has a chance at family life; he can live with the folks.

There is one heavy drawback, and that is the absence of a chance for fame. Every actor wants to make a reputation, and until now the moving-picture man has merely got the cash and let the credit go. His name appears in no programme, his acting gets only a cash reward. But that is coming to an end. The names of the casts are posted int he Motion Picture Magazine, the organ of the trade; their pictures are painted there, and, as has been said, the Edison Company has started the innovation of printing regular programmes with the full case, just as is done on every stage. When the other companies fall into line the last step in securing the full dignity of the stage to the moving-picture actor will have been taken.

The audiences themselves are compelling it. Where plays by certain stock companies are shown the spectators get to known the faces of the actors and to find their favorites. It is a common thing for an audience in many parts of the country to burst out in applause when the face of some favorite actor appears on the screen or to hiss some well-known villain. Naturally such audiences are consumed with curiosity to know the names of the heroes they are cheering, and the companies must yield to the demand. The publication of the photographs and names of the leading stock actors and actresses is a sign of it.

It’s a fascinating read from a time when people were still experimenting with the business and technology of a new industry. The article ends by noting: “We are just at the dawn of the moving picture as a feature of modern life… It is impossible to conjecture how great a part it may play in our civilization by, say, the dawn of the twenty-first century.”

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Written by David

August 15th, 2011 at 11:00 am

In The Good Old Days Of Harrigan And Hart

From June 11, 1911


IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF HARRIGAN AND HART: The Death of Edward Harrigan Brings Back to the Older Theatregoers Recollections of the Most Famous Comedians of Their Time in New York. (PDF)

Around the same time that Gilbert and Sullivan were working together in Britain, Edward Harrigan and Tony Hart formed America’s first musical theater team. Harrigan died on June 6, 1911, prompting the Magazine to take a wistful look at Harrigan and Hart’s era in theater.

The passing of Edward Harrigan is more than the death of a good man and a capable actor. It marks the end of an epoch. With his death the fact is emphasized again that the New York which saw the birth of those who are to-day hardly more than beginning to turn gray is forever past. With it has gone a set of social conditions, a cycle of old jokes, and an era of good fellowship. Compared with the 70’s and 80’s when Harrigan and Hart were in their prime, New York to-day is almost as foreign as Hongkong. New times, new people, new ideas — even a new conception of humor.

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Written by David

June 7th, 2011 at 10:30 am

Circus Acrobat Woos Death Daily, But Rarely Weds Her

From March 19, 1911


CIRCUS ACROBAT WOOS DEATH DAILY, BUT RARELY WEDS HER: Surprisingly Small Percentage of Fatal Accidents Occur in a Year, Though the Performers Take Big Risks. (PDF)

“There is so much dash, so much apparent abandon, in the kaleidoscopic whirl which makes up the present-day three-ringed circus that the dazed spectator goes away with the feeling that the whole thing has been tumbled together at haphazard, that the big gates at the end of the arena simply bubble out their endless profusion of elephants, tumblers, camels, bareback riders, trained monkeys, and clowns; that each does his own peculiar stunt and then in his own good time disappears in a cloud of glory, tanbark, and sawdust.

“But if you could ask that obscure but very important circus personage, the programme maker, he would tell you a very different story. What seems a wild riot of stunts is in reality a carefully timed, carefully constructed mosaic.”

You know what? This article is interesting and all, but if the topic interests you even a little bit, I highly recommend you watch the PBS documentary series Circus. It’s an incredibly engaging look behind the scenes of the Big Apple Circus, and it can be watched in its entirety streaming for free on If it’s more convenient, you can also catch it streaming on Netflix, and Amazon Instant Video.

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Written by David

March 17th, 2011 at 9:15 am

Magicians Tell The Secret Of Famous Tricks

From October 23, 1910


MAGICIANS TELL THE SECRET OF FAMOUS TRICKS: Henry Hatton and Adrian Plate Give Some of Their Methods and Experiences in the Art of Mystifying the Public. (PDF)

In the 1980s and ’90s, magic duo Penn & Teller earned a reputation for giving away the secrets of magic tricks, becoming known as the Bad Boys of Magic. They would even perform some tricks using clear props that revealed how they were done. But the truth is that Penn & Teller’s reveals were fairly tame, and to this day they still impress with tricks that they keep secret, like their famous take on the magic bullet catch.

But nearly 100 years before Penn & Teller were revealing the secrets of magic, Henry Hatton and Adrian Plate revealed magic secrets in the pages of the New York Times Sunday Magazine. And wouldn’t you know that one trick they revealed is the secret of the bullet catch! Penn & Teller may not do it this way, but here’s what Hatton had to say about his version of the trick, and one night when things didn’t go exactly as planned:

“One night I had announced on my programme, ‘A Modern William Tell,’ the fanciful name for a startling pistol trick. In this the performer allows one of the audience to load a duelling pistol with powder and ball and then to fire at the performer, who is supposed to catch the marked ball in his teeth. In doing the trick the performer slips into the muzzle of the pistol a sort of thimble, and it is into it that the unsuspecting voluntary assistant drops the bullet. By a deft movement this thimble is afterward removed, thereby giving the performer possession of the ball. Not many attempt the trick, for more than once it has led to fatal results when the man who loads the pistol either through ignorance or malice manages to get the bullet into the pistol barrel. The result is that he who exhibits the trick must watch every move made. On the night in question my attention was called away for a second, and when I attempted to remove the thimble I discovered that it was not in the pistol. Whether or not the bullet was in the barrel I did not know. What was I to do? I had only one life, and as for that I had an undying love I was averse to risking it. There was no time for hesitation, so walking to the footlights with the effrontery that is a factor in ‘the profession,’ I addressed the audience: ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ I said. ‘I cannot go on with this part of my programme. Something wrong has happened, and should I continue you undoubtedly would see in to-morrow’s papers: “Bullet-in Hatton Killed While Attempting a Trick.” Would you believe it the generous audience received this statement with as much applause as if I had performed the trick successfully?”

When I read that, I thought it was a lame and anticlimactic way to end the trick. Isn’t there an old saying that the show must go on? Shouldn’t he have figured something out? I’ll bet Penn and Teller would have figured out a way to do the trick. But then I remembered an episode of Penn Jillette’s short-lived 2006 radio show where he says:

The show must go on. Stupidest rule ever made, the show must go on. If there’s one thing that doesn’t need to go on, it’s a show. Last night, 800 people, a thousand people, had come to see the Penn and Teller show. If there had been an announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen, Penn Jilette is sick. Why don’t you all go home?” the worst thing that happens, the horrible nightmare that happens is that these people go out and probably have dinner together, maybe go back to the hotel a little earlier and screw. I mean, that is the nightmare. The nightmare is they don’t get to see Penn and Teller catch a bullet in their teeth and do the show. It’s a really good show. I’m proud of it. I love it. But compared to spending time with someone you love, no big deal, ya know?

Yeah, I guess aborting the trick was better than getting shot in the face. Okay, Hatton. You’re off the hook.


Written by David

October 22nd, 2010 at 10:00 am

Rathbone Ends Long List Of Lincoln Party Tragedies

From September 4, 1910


RATHBONE ENDS LONG LIST OF LINCOLN PARTY TRAGEDIES: All Who Were With the President When He Was Assassinated Met Death in Some Unusual or Tragic Manner (PDF)

This was new to me: the night Abraham Lincoln was shot, there was actually another couple in the private box with the Lincolns at Ford’s Theatre, and it turns out that their story is even more gruesome than the Lincons’ story. In fact, it seems that anyone who was in that box that night met bizarre or early death. On the occasion of the death of Major Henry Rathbone, the last survivor from the box, the Sunday Magazine reviewed the events of that day, and the fates of all who were there.

On April 14, 1865, there were four people seated in the box at the theatre. “The President sat in the corner nearest the audience, Mrs. Lincoln next to him; Miss Clara Harris sat near Mrs. Lincoln, and behind her young Major Rathbone.” The latter two were step-siblings who had fallen in love. “The President and Mrs. Lincoln had a warm liking for the pair, and had invited them to share the box.”

After the play began, John Wilkes Booth entered from the ante-room adjoining the box and fired his shot into the President’s head. Rathbone lunged at him, but Booth slipped away, shouted “The South is avenged!” (according to this article, but “Sic semper tyrannus!” according to most sources) and jumped over the box. An actress on stage named Laura Keene urged everyone to remain calm. Clara Harris, “from the box, called to her to bring water. She ran and got some and flew up the stairs to the box.” And now there were five people in the box: the President, his wife, the young couple in love, and Laura Keene.

Here were five people shut up together with the crime. The curse was upon them all. Not one of them — and they all had fame, wealth, happiness, and love apparently within their grasp — failed to come to a tragic or untimely end.

All the world knows that Lincoln died early the next morning, without having regained consciousness. His wife was for a long time prostrated. For several weeks she was confined to her bed. Then she bestirred herself so far as to go over the personal effects of her husband, giving mementos to his closest friends. When this duty was done she returned to Illinois to spend the rest of her days in melancholy.

Not much has been told of Mrs Lincoln’s after life — there was not much, for that matter, to tell. No wife could ever have really recovered from the shock of such a tragedy, and Mrs. Lincoln rallied even more slowly than was hoped. She never came out altogether from the cloud, and as her years increased her melancholy grew. She had a horror of meeting people, yet in her disordered brain the idea remained that there were imperative social duties that must be attented to. She would order gowns and concern herself wearily with preparations for some phantom function. Then the gowns would be sent away, unworn, and she would brood until again she felt that she must attend to her duties, and the same dreary business would begin again. Thus she ended her days, blighted from the moment that Booth stood a few feet behind her chair and took his aim.

Mrs. Lincoln lived until she was 63, but towards the end of her life she was suicidal and delusional. After one suicide attempt, her son Robert had her institutionalized. See Wikipedia for more details. But first read on for the fates of the others in the box. It gets worse.

Miss Keene was a woman of stern stuff, “as fitted,” said one who knew her “to act a part in tragedy off the stage as on.” Self control was natural to her. Alone of all the people in the theatre she had known what to do and had done it. But strong natures do not fail to suffer from such repression.

Her daughter was at school near Washington, and the next day hastened to her mother. “As I spoke to her,” says the girl, “she trembled from head to foot. She could not speak. To hearten her I said, ‘Mother, where is your old-time courage?’ But it was no use.” Laura Keene had received her death blow, too. She lived, it is true, for several years and worked hard and successfully, as she always did, but the nerve had gone. She could no longer stand the strain that she had once borne bravely and, worn out, she died at the age of forty-four, at the height of her career, another victim of Wilkes Booth. [She died of tuberculosis.]

The two lovers, Miss Harris and Major Rathbone, left the theatre and made their way through the frenzied crowd on the streets broken with grief and shock. But they had each other, they had wealth and position and all the good things of life. They never thought as they turned from the place of crime and death that over them hung a fate more awful than they had seen befall him they held the best of men…

Major Rathbone was appointed Consul in Germany and the pair lived as happily as had been prophesied. But the husband added to his devotion to his wife a great and perfectly unreasonable jealousy. As time went on he developed fits of temper, enough to make their friends class him as “peculiar.” Perhaps they added: “And it seems to grow on him,” but none were prepared for the tragedy that followed. One day the news came from Germany that Mr. Rathbone had killed his wife and committed suicide. Nobody believed it. It was some other person or name; everybody knew the devotion of the Rathbones. Then official documents came, and there was no longer any doubt. Henry Rathbone had indeed murdered his wife, but thought he was thought to be dying from his own wound he was not yet dead. The letter added that Mrs. Rathbone’s sister and the children had “escaped.”

Escaped what, asked everybody, horrified and puzzled. It was only after many delays that the full truth came to this country. Specialists had examined Rathbone, and declared that he had long been insane. It was not mere temper, but a disordered mind that his friends had noted for so many years. How long had he been insane? The experts could not say. But probably the murderer who stole into Lincoln’s box that night had brought madness to the young man, and a death unspeakably awful to the girl he loved…

Thus four persons who were bespattered by the blood Booth shed that night have found a tragic end, four persons who were not only innocent of all wrong-doing, but who had every gift a fortunate fate could bring. There remains the murderer, man gifted as few have been with beauty and charm and genius. Everybody loved Wilkes Booth. His friends could never believe that he acted on his own initiative in the matter of the conspiracy…

Booth fled the theater and made his way to a farm in Virginia, where he was eventually hunted down by the Union Army and shot on site. The soldier who killed him was named Boston Corbett. His story, too, took a tragic twist:

Not quite yet is the story of horror ended. The man who shot Booth, Boston Corbett, was popular with his fellow soldiers, deeply religious, but not, they said, without plenty of humor. He had kept up their spirits on many a hard march. He went to Kansas, was [afflicted] with homicidal mania, and died raving mad in an asylum, the last victim of the curse.

But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?


Written by David

September 3rd, 2010 at 9:15 am

The Unconscious Comedian In The Third Row

From August 14, 1910



The story begins:

How would you like to go to the theatre expecting to sit next to a friend, find the seat occupied by a stranger whose face was oddly familiar, have your friends visit you between the acts, and gaze curiously at your companion, and then find out the next day that —

Well, the experience of no less a celebrated first nighter than [playwright] Paul M. Potter is the best answer to this hypothetical question. Furthermore, Mr. Potter, who admits the joke is on him, declares that the incident actually took place as described.

What follows is an anecdote that comments on class differences in 1910 as Potter tries to figure out who the fellow sitting next to him is, and how he knows him. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but it did make me think about how differently this event would play out today.

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Written by David

August 13th, 2010 at 9:00 am

“Little Mothers” Write Playlets With Helpful Plots

From July 10, 1910


“LITTLE MOTHERS” WRITE PLAYLETS WITH HELPFUL PLOTS: The Authors Are Only Twelve Years Old but They Have Grown Up Ideas About Keeping Babies Well (PDF)

The Little Mothers’ League was a club for girls in public school that taught them how to properly care for babies. Started in 1910 by Sara Josephine Baker, the idea wasn’t as much to prepare them to be parents themselves, but to give them the means to help their parents by taking care of their siblings. By teaching these kids, the Board of Health could get information about good habits and hygiene to parents who were too busy to seek out information themselves.

The article reprints several short plays that were written by members of the Little Mothers’ League to illustrate what they’ve learned. Here is one of them:

The first play was written by “E. K.” of Public School 22 and deals with the dangers following the common belief that a breath of fresh air will kill the baby.

Acted by two girls and a baby in a dark, uncomfortable room, with the windows shut up as tightly as possible.

Miss Smith — (Coming into Mrs. Jones’s, as usual.) — Good morning, Mrs. Jones. Why does your baby cry so heartily?

Mrs. Jones, (somewhat terrified,) — She seems to have some fever, and I do not know what to do to her.

Miss Smith — Well, why do you not go to see a doctor about it? (Looking at the windows and at the baby’s wrappings.) I know what it is. She feels too warm. You need to open the windows and take some of her wrappings off her. Then you will see how more comfortable she will feel, and she will also begin to play around on the floor.

Mrs. Jones, (takes some of the wrappings off the baby and opens the windows. Then, seeing how the baby stops crying and beings to play around on the floor, she says) — Miss Smith, I thank you very much for your kind advice, and I would like to know where you have learned all of these useful things.

Miss Smith — (Showing her badge to Mrs. Jones,) — Why, Mrs. Jones, I am a member of the Little Mothers’ League, and this is where I learn all of these very useful things.

The other plays printed in the article teach “the horrors of grocery milk”, that you should listen to your doctor instead of your neighbors, and that pineapple is not good food for babies:

Mother — Baby wants something to eat.

Child — (Mother) What?

Mother — I guess a piece of pineapple.

Child — Mother, what, pineapple for a baby?

Mother — What’s the matter?

Child — You do not mean pineapple for a baby, do you?

Mother — Yes, I think baby will like a piece very much.

Child — No matter if the baby will like it or not it is not healthy for babies.

Mother — Who told you that?

Child — I belong to Little Mothers’ League. They teach us how babies ought to be kept.

Mother — You did not tell me that. I would have stopped giving it to the baby a long time ago.

This should really be an Off Broadway production.


Written by David

July 9th, 2010 at 9:30 am

Posted in Education,Life,Theater

Famous Prima Donna Champions Woman Suffrage Cause

From June 26, 1910


FAMOUS PRIMA DONNA CHAMPIONS WOMAN SUFFRAGE CAUSE: Madame Lillian Nordica Talks Interestingly of the Movement, Which She Is Giving Her Enthusiastic Support (PDF)

Here we have the story of a famous opera singer, Lillian Nordica, who supports a woman’s right to vote. I found it interesting that this article tries so hard to let the reader know that men have no need to worry about too much change if women are allowed to vote. There is the explicit reassurance that the right to vote won’t make women any less feminine. This is underscored by an intermittent narrative* throughout the article describing Nordica sewing during the interview, as though to say, “See? The suffragette still does womanly things.”

Here is a representative passage:

The end of the long hem of the curtain had been reached. It was examined, laid aside, and a new piece taken up.

“We don’t want to fight husbands and brothers.” A new needle was threaded with the skill born of long experience. “Women will always continue to depend upon their husbands and brothers. There is not the slightest danger that they will become masculine and independent in any unpleasant sense.

“No, the world misunderstands us, purposely, perhaps. We want to help, not to hinder our husbands or brothers — not to fight them. We want to work with them as their equals in arms in the great battles of life.

“Certainly we can be of greater assistance to them by entering intelligently into their lives than by being excluded from them.

“It does not follow that I will exercise every right I am allowed under the law. I have selected a certain work in the world and the granting of the suffrage to women would not cause me to forsake my art, and it is the same with all women. But I don’t want to feel that under the law I am nonentity in the community.”

Meanwhile there had been a number of interruptions, for Mme. Nordica is a housekeeper in fact as well as name, and a dozen questions of detail were brought to her.

“Housekeeping is very well in its way,” said the great singer, after one of these interruptions. “I enjoy it for one. A woman’s home, we are told, is her life. I believe that it is. But the suffrage will not interfere with that, will not cause her to neglect this obvious duty. We will agree that housekeeping is very important, but why should it keep women from going beyond that? The drudgery of housekeeping does not round out the fullest possible life for her.

*I guess you could say her sewing is a running thread.

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Written by David

June 25th, 2010 at 9:00 am

Posted in Politics,Theater

The College Chorus “Girl”

From March 20, 1910

The College Chorus Girl

The College Chorus “Girl”: How a Young Athlete Is Able to Carry Off a Clever Female Impersonation (PDF)

On the surface, this seems to just be a silly article about a student who is dressing up as a woman for a play:

The first picture shows a husky young college student entering his dressing room before a Cornell Masque. This broad-shouldered, athletic young man proposes to make himself into a captivating sample of the fair sex. A glance at the last picture, in which the college student is completely transformed into a ravishing “chorine,” will show how cleverly and thoroughly the transformation has been effected.

The last paragraph identifies this person as “J. Sloat Fassett, Jr., of Cornell ’12, who plays the leading part in a musical comedy which is to begin at the Waldorf-Astoria on April 1, and in which all the character, mostly ‘ladies,’ are played by made-up students.”

But what I find most interesting of all is a bit of information that is nowhere to be found in this article. This guy’s father — at the time this article was written — was serving his third term as a Congressman in the United States House of Representatives. He did not win reelection to a fourth term.

As for J. Sloat Fassett, Jr., he went on to a career as an actor under the name Jay Fassett. He has a handful of IMDb credits and several Broadway credits. In 1947, he appeared in a play called Command Decision, which was covered by Life Magazine, including a more recent photo of Jay Fassett.

Various buildings and even a town were named after members of the Fassett family. Jay Fassett died in 1973.

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Written by David

March 19th, 2010 at 9:02 am

Posted in Politics,Theater

Moving Pictures Sound Melodrama’s Knell

From March 20, 1910


MOVING PICTURES SOUND MELODRAMA’S KNELL: Tricks of Films Explained and Method of Making Told by Those On the Inside (PDF)

Movies were still relatively new technology in 1910, but filmmakers were already figuring out how to do special effects. This article exposes some of the secrets of “film tricks,” but also talks about how the profession of acting was changing as a result of this new technology. For centuries, acting meant being on stage before a live audience. But not anymore. It reminds me of what publishers are going through now, as eReaders and digital newspapers threaten to make printed paper obsolete. New technology requires new skills, and new ways of thinking. Some actors saw film as an opportunity, while others saw it as the end of their careers.

From the article:

In every town in the United States there are moving picture shows that give excellent entertainment every night of the week, with two matinée days thrown in. The performances projected on the screen are the same as those which please audiences in the New York houses where third-rate melodrama artistes feared to tread. There are thrillers galore, with pistol shots, piano accompaniment, and all the effects to make the dumb show more real — and all for a nickel, or “one dime, ladies and gentlemen and little children! Two nickels! The tench part of a dollar! Amusing, instructing, and entertaining alike to man, woman, and child! Why pay more and see worse?”

Why, indeed? The old melodramatic companies put on a more or less crude performance with the aid of more or less crude scenic effects — such as the “op’ry house” or town hall happens to boast. The dramatic show comes to town twice or four times a year and charges up to 30 cents. The picture shows, running all the time, allow selection and leisure in attendance. The village moving picture theatregoer can choose from a trip through Switzerland or the streets of Cairo… Why pay 30 cents to see a rehash of an ancient theme by an obsolete troupe of archaic players when for 10 cents [you can see] a play by Shakespeare with all the appearances and vanishings of Banquo’s ghost, or Puck effectively wrought by the film art?

The times they were a-changing.

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Written by David

March 19th, 2010 at 9:01 am