Known professionally as Don Giovanni Perugini, or more commonly, Signor Perugini, John Perugini was born John Haley Augustin Chatterton. His New York Times obituary gives his date of birth as 23 January 1855 and states he was born in New York, as does his Philadelphia death record. However, a short online biography states he was born in Michigan and Marie Dressler, who was no fan of Signor Perugini’s (as we’ll see below) referred to him as a “Michigan hick.” I have been unable to locate him in any census records, so cannot ascertain which place of birth may be correct.
John Chatterton began his career at an early age, appearing as a boy soprano under the name Johnny Holman in the Holman English Opera Company from 1864-1866. Soon after, he appeared as Francois in Richelieu with Edwin Booth. At some point he traveled to Europe to study, and launched a career there as an operatic tenor. He sang in America with the McCaull Opera Company and appeared as Faust to Adelina Patti’s Marguerite at the Academy of Music, as well as at the Metropolitan Opera Company, singing Alfedo in La Traviata, again with Adelina Patti.
By 1893 Signor Perugini was appearing in Lillian Russell’s company as her leading man. Russell, already twice married and divorced, was wooed ardently by Perugini, both onstage and off, and the two wed in January of 1894. The wedding ceremony was held in Hoboken, New Jersey, as Russell’s lawyer foresaw some legal difficulty in New York due to the circumstances surrounding the dissolution of her previous marriage.
Willa Cather, writing for the Nebraska State Journal, made this wry observation in February of 1894, shortly after the marriage:
Lillian Russell’s new annual husband, Signor Perugini, is of course her leading man. Lillian’s managers are beginning to object to her marrying her leading men, as it makes it almost impossible for them to keep a good tenor for more than one season.
The newlyweds were playing in Princess Nicotine at the time of their marriage, and Marie Dressler was a member of the company and a good friend of Miss Russell’s. When marital difficulties arose almost immediately after the marriage, Perugini began to make disparaging, insulting remarks to his wife on stage, heard by other cast members but inaudible to the audience. At one point he made a remark that incensed Marie Dressler: “The nearest I ever came to murder…on the stage [was when] one night he said something to her that made me see red, and I was going to throw him into the bass drum.” Though she stopped short of that, she did chase him out of the theatre, threatening him with a stage brace made of wood and iron. Perugini subsequently refused to go on until the management provided him with a bodyguard!
Somehow, the couple continued their relationship, both personal and professional, and in March 1894 they began to rehearse for a revival of one of Russell’s earlier shows, Girofle-Girofla, again with Dressler in the cast. Relations reached a low point when a physical altercation occurred in a Philadelphia hotel, during which Russell claimed her husband threatened to throw her out of the seventh-floor window of their rooms. Back in New York from the tour, Perugini sued for divorce and it was rumored that Russell had an abortion. The couple was not legally divorced until 1898.
Though the marriage ended, Perugini was long remembered as one of Lillian Russell’s former husbands, as we see in this amusing anecdote from Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine from 1912:
Raymond Hitchcock tells the following amusing story. One morning, not long ago, he had a friend from the West spending a few days with him, and they climbed on a “rubberneck wagon” for seeing Broadway.
A young man and a young woman were seated directly in front of the two men. They were very evidently direct from the tall timbers, and she apparently considered her knowledge of affairs much greater than that of her male companion. Whenever the lecturer on the wagon pointed out any person or building of note, she entertained the man with some side remarks, which were very amusing, although not always correct.
As the wagon crossed Long Acre Square, a man was just passing whom the lecturer pointed out as Signor Perugini.
After both the man and the woman had gazed at Signor Perugini with tense interest, the man asked:
“Say, Hattie, who is he, anyway? I ain’t never hearn tell of him before.”
“Oh, yes, you have,” replied the woman. “He’s Lillian Russell’s oldest living ex-husband. Everybody knows who he is.”
As mentioned earlier, John Perugini’s real name was John Haley Augustin Chatterton. He had a younger brother named Charles Franklyn Henry De Witt Chatterton, Charley to the many who knew him in the New York theatrical world. Charles Chatterton had been for many years the private secretary of Henry E. Abbey, one of the best known theatrical managers and producers. In that capacity, Charles Chatterton was often responsible for diplomatically dealing with many important actors and singers, including Sarah Bernhardt and Adalina Patti. He suffered for several years with consumption, and though in frail health, in 1894 he left Abbey’s employ to travel to London, where he became business manager of the St. James Theatre. A few short months later, his health declined and he died in London in October of 1894 and was buried there.
Well-loved by all who knew him, funeral masses were held simultaneously in London and New York. The New York Times recounted the touching tale of Signor Perugini arriving at St. Leo’s Church on Twenty-Eighth Street and Fifth Avenue, and finding a woman standing on the front steps, hesitant about going inside. He recognized her as Mrs. Maguire, who for years had done the laundry work for Charley Chatterton, and for whom he had often done little acts of kindness. Perugini took Mrs. Maguire by the arm, marched her down the center aisle and placed her in the front pew, near the altar, where he himself sat, and there was no more sincere mourner in St. Leo’s that day than Charley Chatterton’s old wash-woman.
After Perugini and Russell parted ways in the 1890s, he continued to perform steadily in opera. Then, a change of career occurred in 1906, as we see from this announcement in The New York Dramatic Mirror:
John Perugini, long identified with grand and light opera, has abandoned the stage to become associated with Ball and Whicher, brokers and members of the New York Stock Exchange. Mr. Perugini’s many friends will wish him all success in his more prosaic and more substantial field.
The reason for the change of career, not mentioned in the press notice, was that Perugini’s hearing was deteriorating, making it impossible for him to hear his cues or his orchestral accompaniment. However, at some point the stage beckoned to him once again, and in November of 1912 he appeared in a non-musical play, The Yellow Jacket. The play closed in January of 1913, but John Perugini, with a fifty year stage career behind him, was active and interested enough to attend that first meeting of Actors’ Equity in May.
However, in December of 1913 The New York Times announced that John Perugini was leaving his rooms at the Lambs Club and would be entering the Edwin Forrest Home for Actors in Philadelphia. When he announced his decision to do so, plans were made for a benefit for him, for which he refused to give permission. He lived there for nearly a year, where he died in early December of 1914, not quite 60 years of age.
Born: 23 January 1855, New York or Michigan
Married: 21 January 1894, Hoboken, New Jersey—Lillian Russell (Helen Louise Leonard)
Divorced: 21 October 1898, Jersey City, New Jersey
Died: 4 December 1914, Edwin Forrest Home for Actors, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Buried: 5 December 1914, Cremated—remains returned to Edwin Forrest Home for Actors
Member of The Players, The Lambs