DeWolf Hopper

hopper de wolf01

William DeWolf Hopper was born March 30th, 1858, just off the Bowery on Third Street in New York, son of John T. Hopper and Rosalie DeWolff. His father, a successful lawyer who came from Philadelphia Quaker stock, died when DeWolf was six years old and left, in his son’s own words, “an estate sufficient for my mother’s comfort and to provide me at twenty-one with a legacy, which the stage took away from me.” Shortly after his birth, the family moved uptown to Forty-Third Street, between Sixth Avenue and Broadway, which he described as, at the time, being equivalent to moving to Yonkers.

His early life and the origin of his stage name come, in his own words, from “Reminiscences of DeWolf Hopper: Once a Clown Always a Clown”:

The only child of an idolizing mother and widow, I grew up a spoiled brat. I repaid my mother’s idolatry with idolatry; but as her love demanded no sacrifice whatever, I became a selfish young pup intent exclusively on making the world my oyster. I was Willie in my childhood, and in later years I have been Will or Wolfie to my friends. DeWolf, my stage name, was born of the vanity of youth. I despised the Quaker plainness of Hopper, and William had a plebeian sound to my fastidious ears, but I thought D’Wolf, my middle name, distingué. In later years I have regretted that affectation, but it no doubt was, unconsciously, a shrewd move. The actor, like soap and hair nets, finds a distinctive trade name useful. The public remembers an unusual name more easily, so long as it is pronounceable. The D’Wolf became DeWolf through a proneness on the part of the public to pronounce it “Dwolf.”

Though it was expected that he would follow his father’s profession of the law, he showed no interest, preferring the life of an actor from an early age. After some success as an amateur actor, he persuaded his mother to advance funds from his inheritance, as he was not yet of age, needed to finance the Criterion Comedy Company. This venture, and the succeeding Gosche-Hopper Company, lasted four years, long enough for him to tour the country playing a variety of roles, and was the reason for the above quote about the stage taking away his father’s legacy to him, as the end of this adventure found his inheritance completely gone.

Regarding the end of his four year adventure, and the beginning of the next phase of his professional career, Hopper had this to say, from his autobiography:

I was back on Broadway at twenty-three, my patrimony gone. There still was ample time for a glorious career at law, which should have by this time, let us hope, made me Mr. Justice Hopper. My friends and relatives pointed out the follies of my ways, even mapped them with the care of a topographical engineer. Had I been in a mood to listen, which I was not, of course, my empty pockets would have spoken forcefully enough without any supporting arguments. A young man may have some doubts of his fitness for running a restaurant, for example, after four losing years and bankruptcy, but no succession of disasters in the theater has yet given one actor or actress pause for thought. And if one is to lose a fortune, there is no better age than twenty-three.

The next season found Hopper appearing in Harrigan and Hart’s “The Blackbird” which may have been his first musical role. An untrained singer at the time, his mother urged him to sing for her friend, the contralto Annie Louise Cary, who encouraged his vocal studies. For a time, he considered a career in opera, but his joy at amusing audiences won out and a career, largely in musicals and operetta, dominated his stage career.

DeWolf Hopper was a striking figure, standing six feet, five inches tall, with a rumbling, deep voice, and not a hair on his body. He had typhoid fever as a young boy, and as a result suffered from alopecia. He wore wigs or hairpieces for the rest of his life, both onstage and off. This lack of hair was no impediment when it came to wooing the ladies, however, and he was married six times, prompting references to “The Six Wives of DeWolf Hopper.”

Like several other founding members of Actors’ Equity, he was a huge fan of the game of baseball, and was described thus by his friend and fellow AEA founder, Digby Bell: Bell called Hopper “the biggest baseball crank that ever lived. Physically, of course, he is a corker, but when I say big I mean big morally and intellectually. Why, he goes up to the baseball [Polo] grounds at One Hundred and Fifty-fifth [sic] street after the matinees on Saturday, and he travels this six miles simply to see, perhaps, the two final innings, and any one [sic] can imagine the rapidity with which he must scrape off the makeup and get into his street clothes in order to secure even this much. But he says the Garrison finishes are worth it, and he is perfectly right. Hopper always was a baseball crank, long before the public knew anything about it.”

Hopper was the founding president of the Actors’ Amateur Athletic Association in 1889, and organized several benefit baseball games to aid others in his profession. However, his most noted contribution was as the man single-handedly responsible for making the poem “Casey at the Bat” a part of the American popular culture. The poem, written by Ernest Thayer, was first published anonymously in the San Francisco Examiner on June 3rd, 1888. Hopper first recited the poem in public on August 14th, 1888 and the circumstances behind it are worth recounting. Here is how the story was told in Hopper’s New York Times obituary from September 24th, 1935:

At the time, Pop Anson’s Chicago White Sox were playing the New York Giants, then managed by Jim Mutrie, at the old Polo Grounds, Fifth Avenue and 100th Street. Hopper had been a baseball fan for years, had spent every free afternoon at the game and had with Digby Bell put on an annual Sunday night benefit for the local team.

Bell and Hopper suggested to Colonel McCaull of the opera company bearing his name that a gala baseball night, with the Giants and the White Sox figuratively glaring at one another from opposite rows of boxes, would be especially apt. The idea was accepted. Then Archibald Clavering Gunter, author of several successes of the Eighties, saw an announcement and called up the colonel.

“I’ve got just the thing for your baseball night,” Gunter said. “It’s a baseball poem I cut out of a Frisco paper when I was on the coast last Winter. I’ve been carrying it around ever since. It’s a lulu, and young Hopper could do it to a turn.”

 Learned Under Pressure

Gunter produced the clipping, McCaull slapped his knee when he saw it, and on a Wednesday night the colonel turned it over to Hopper. The actor knew he was a “quick study,” so he put the crumpled poem in his pocket and forgot about it. The next day he went to the ball game and that night learned that his 20-month-old son had diphtheritic sore throat and was nearing a crisis.

He told McCaull he could not go on.

Surely, surely,” sympathized his employer. “Forget all about it, my boy.”

When the news from the sickroom came it was good, and Hopper burst into McCaull’s office.

“I’ll study it now,” he said. “Just give me the office to myself a while.” McCaull left and in less than an hour the excited young father had engraved the tragedy of Casey on his mind.

Wallack’s Theatre, Thirtieth Street and Broadway, was the scene of the benefit. Hopper roared through the suspense of the first stanzas, built up to a stunning climax where Casey swings the bat—and then plunged the wide-eyed throng into salvos of applause with the swish of the third strike.

The demand for his recitation of the verses, which were written by Ernest L. Thayer, never waned. Years later, Hopper said he had probably repeated the piece 10,000 times and that he expected to be “repeating the lines on resurrection morn.”

At the risk of dwelling too long on the “Casey at the Bat” portion of DeWolf Hopper’s fame, this priceless description of his, from the same New York Times article, begs inclusion as a good example of Hopper’s wonderful wit:

And he always told of the time Thayer, the writer, was persuaded into trying to declaim his work himself. As he wrote in his reminiscences:

“I have heard many another give ‘Casey.’ Fond mammas have brought their young sons to me to hear their childish voices lisp the poem, but Thayer’s was the worst of all. In a sweet, dulcet Harvard whisper he implored Casey to murder the umpire, and gave this cry of mass animal rage all the emphasis of a caterpillar wearing rubbers crawling on a velvet carpet.”

To hear DeWolf Hopper perform “Casey at the Bat” go to this page: http://www.baseball-almanac.com/poetry/po_case.shtml

From the 1880s through the first decade of the 20th Century, Hopper performed steadily in a succession of comic musical roles. It was not until 1911 that he performed in his first Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, playing Dick Deadeye in a revival of “HMS Pinafore.” He would go on to perform in all save three of the Savoy operas, and more will be written about his participation in a separate article on this blog about the connection between the works of Gilbert & Sullivan and several of the founding AEA members.

Like many of his fellow actors at the time, Hopper tried his hand in motion pictures when the industry was still in its infancy. Some actors found success, some had mixed experiences, and some never took to it at all. In his autobiography, Hopper summed up his film career in the opening paragraph of Chapter V, entitled “Came Dawn at Hollywood”:

Before any one else can say it first, let me admit that I was no earth-shaking success in the movies. If the truth must be known, I died on the silver screen; I sank majestically beneath the oily waves of the cinema sea and never was heard of again. Not so much as a life belt or a spar was picked up. The fact that a gallant company of stage celebrities perished with me made my demise less poignant personally, but not the less indisputable.

In terms of his family life, reference was made earlier to the “Six Wives of DeWolf Hopper.” His first wife was Ella Gardiner, who was his second cousin. They were divorced and he then married Ida Mosher, a member of the company in which he played the lead. They had one son, John A. Hopper, who became a successful bank executive. His third wife was Edna Wallace, another actress, who appeared with him in many shows. His fourth wife was Nella Reardon Bergen, a choir singer. A month after they were divorced in 1913, he married actress Elda Curry.

Because of the similarity of his first five wives’ names—Ella, Ida, Nella, Elda—Hopper would on occasion call Elda by the wrong name, a source of great irritation to her. The story is that she consulted a numerologist, who suggested she change her name—to Hedda. Despite appearing in over 120 films over a twenty-five year period, Hedda Hopper was never a great success as an actress, but gained fame and notoriety as a Hollywood gossip columnist, famous for her extravagant hats and a biting, sometimes mean-spirited treatment of Hollywood’s denizens. She and DeWolf Hopper had one son, William DeWolf Hopper, Jr., who also became an actor, with a film and television résumé most noted for his portrayal of detective Paul Drake on the Perry Mason television series.

His last wife was a singer, Lillian Glaser, who he married in 1925, and to whom he remained married at the time of his death.

As noted above, DeWolf Hopper published his autobiography, “Reminiscences of DeWolf Hopper: Once a Clown Always a Clown” in 1925, and was still performing at the age of 65. Indeed, on the occasion of his 75th birthday in 1933, the New York Times interviewed him at the Lambs Club and found him sprightly as ever:

“But I don’t feel old. That’s the funny thing about it,” he said in his familiar, resonant voice. “I have the temperament of a kid. My bones have not grown brittle. As Ko-Ko in ‘The Mikado’ I can take the stage falls as easily as I ever did and it is really extraordinary how my voice has lasted.”

He went on to add:

“It’s the loss of your pals that leaves a hole in your life and makes you realize that you are getting old.”

Among his old stage friends who have passed on, he mentioned Digby Bell, Joseph Jefferson, Nat Goodwin, Jefferson De Angelis, William H. Crane and John Drew, also Georgie Drew Barrymore and Maurice Barrymore, parents of Lionel, John and Ethel Barrymore.

Back in 1915 Mr. Hopper was playing in pictures, but he dislikes films for playing purposes. He was enthusiastic, however, about his recent experiences in broadcasting.

“With the radio one must remember that nothing is seen and everything is vocal,” he said. “It was a novelty to me at first. I like radio work and it is fascinating to realize one has such a vast audience, in the millions. Still, nothing ever will take the place of a sympathetic audience at a stage performance.”

Two years later, in Kansas City, Missouri, DeWolf Hopper was narrating a series of concerts by the Kansas City Rhythm Symphony on the radio, when it became obvious to those around him he was not well. Still, he insisted on going through with the broadcast, and in the words of the show’s announcer, Newton Cross:

“He took the microphone with not a blur or quaver,” Mr. Cross related. “He went through the program like a red-ball freight. He was at his best.”

A few hours after the broadcast, a doctor was summoned to his hotel, and immediately ordered him to the hospital. At 11 o’clock that night, though doctors insisted he needed to rest and get some sleep, he sat up in bed, smoking his pipe and looking over the sports pages of a newspaper. Ironically, his last words were about baseball:

“See you tomorrow, Doc,” he said. “I never sleep until 3 A.M. anyway. Run along while I see what the Cards (the St. Louis National League team) did.”

Shortly after dawn a nurse noticed he was having trouble drawing his breath. An intern was summoned, but when he arrived, DeWolf Hopper was dead.

A funeral service was held in New York’s Church of the Transfiguration, known to actors and to the outside world as the Little Church Around the Corner. A list of honorary pallbearers, representing every branch of the theatrical profession, was announced, and reads as a veritable “Who’s Who” of the New York theatrical world of the time. His body was cremated, and his ashes are interred near his parents at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Fast Facts:
Born: 30 March, 1858 New York, New York
Married: 1st:       Ella Gardiner
Married  2nd:      Ida Mosher
Married  3rd:       Edna Wallace
Married  4th:       Nella Bergen née Reardon
Married  5th:       Elda Curry, aka Hedda Hopper
Married  6th:       Lillian Glaser
Children:            John Alan Hopper (1886-1951) (mother: Ida Mosher); William DeWolf Hopper, Jr. (1915-1970) (mother: Elda Curry, aka Hedda Hopper)
Died:  23 September, 1935, Kansas City, Missouri
Burial:  Cremated, ashes interred at Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, Kings County, New York, USA, Plot: Section 31, Lot 5805
Member of The Players, The Lambs

 

S. K. Walker, aka Starr King Walker

Starr King Walker was born in New York City in 1874, son of Hamilton B. Walker and Phoebe Starr. His father, a physician, died in 1876. One biography suggests he was likely named after the famous San Francisco scholar and minister, Thomas Starr King, who was a relative on his mother’s side of the family. Starr King Walker attended Columbia University, where he studied medicine, but decided he was not suited to that profession and chose the stage instead. After leaving the study of medicine, he studied abroad, continuing his voice studies begun back home, and also learned to play the violin, piano, and cello.

In 1893 he married Emily M. Sheldon, and the couple had a daughter, Evelyn, born in 1895. A profile in the “The Stars of Tomorrow” section of Theatre Magazine in January of 1909 refers to “his seven years upon the stage,” suggesting he began his professional acting career about 1902.

It appears his family was well-off financially, so his career choices in acting were never driven by monetary considerations. Indeed, in the 1900 census he is not listed as an actor, but in the “Occupation” category we find “Private,” suggesting an independent income. Another glimpse into his life in the period between his marriage and the start of his theatrical career is found in this amusing anecdote from The World about his bull terrier in the 1894 Westminster Kennel Show:

DOGDOM’S ARISTOCRATS
The Westminster Kennel Club Show the Largest and Best Ever Held
Canine Beauties of Many Sorts
Madison Square Garden Filled with Thoroughbred Dogs of Every Breed.

Two Bull Terriers Settle an Old Grudge in the Orthodox Way and Scare Pretty Visitors
PRETTY GIRLS AND UGLY DOGS

In watching people yesterday at the Garden, it was interesting to note that the prettiest girls always lingered longer over the bulldogs. There seemed to be some subtle fascination in the ugly faces of these brutes for the fair sex. The St. Bernards, mastiffs and grayhounds they passed with just a casual glance. These are really the dudes of the canine world. Their quarters are up near the entrance, and during most of the time yesterday it was difficult to get near them.

A brindle and a white bull terrier had an old-fashioned fight early in the afternoon at the dog show. The brindle was Starr King Walker’s Prince Rover, the other was the Wentworth Kennel’s Marion.

The dogs were benched in adjoining stalls, and were taken out at the same time by their keepers for exercise. As soon as they touched the floor they sprang together. Prince Rover caught a face-hold, Marion a foreleg grip. The dogs held together in the gamiest way. The keepers pulled on the collars desperately, but this had no effect.

There was a great scattering of the on-lookers. Mrs. Burke-Roche, Mr. and Mrs. Perry Tiffany and Mrs. C. Albert Stevens ran for the balcony stairs. Miss Mamie Field, F. T. Underhill, Mrs. John R. Hone and Elliott Smith dodged behind convenient show-pens. In a trice the dogs had the aisle to themselves. Will Faversham, of the “Sowing the Wind” company, who has the bull terrier Admiral Mello at the show, and knows how to handle them, and W. J. Higginson, the amateur fancier, of Rochester, jumped to the rescue.

By their united efforts the dogs were clubbed and choked apart. Marion had the worst of the bout. They were taken to the cellars, where their wounds were dressed, and they were left to calm down.

It is unclear at what point Starr King and Emily Walker separated. They were listed as a family in the 1900 census, but in the 1910 census Emily and daughter Evelyn are living in a boarding house, with Emily’s occupation given as a probation officer in the New York Department of Corrections. Her work as a probation officer seems to have been a career choice rather than a mere job, from the gist of newspaper articles, and her choice may have sprung from her father’s background as Emigration Commissioner at Castle Garden (precursor to Ellis Island.)

The separation may have been due to Walker’s decision to go on the stage sometime after 1900. Perhaps it was the fact that this required long absences due to out of town engagements, or the fact that acting was not considered a proper vocation in the social world they both came from. Though it appears they never divorced, the separation may not have been amicable. In newspaper articles about daughter Evelyn’s debut in society, her engagement several years later and subsequent marriage, all fail to mention her father. She is invariably listed as the daughter of Mrs. Starr King Walker. Indeed, in the 1920 census Emily Walker is listed as “Starr King Walker,” yet it is clearly her, not her husband, listed with daughter Evelyn.

From various publications, we can trace Starr King Walker’s early career:

The New York Dramatic Mirror, 18 April 1903

On its first presentation in Toronto at the Princess Theatre 6-11, David Harum was accorded a reception worthy of the play. The part of David Harum was well taken by an actor new to this city, W. H. Turner, whose portrayal was better than could ordinarily have been expected. Curtain calls were frequent and all the player had to respond to the flattering tributes paid them. Among those worthy of notice were Dorothy Turner as Mary Blake, and Starr King Walker in the part of John Lennox. Gordon-Shay Opera co. 13-18.

Another reference from The New York Dramatic Mirror in September of 1903 to the production of David Harum with Starr King Walker in the role of John Lennox. This is listed as the Number 1 company, suggesting a stock tour.

Another reference a month later in The New York Clipper tells of three members of the David Harum company, Walker being one of them, having been proposed for membership in the Jersey City Lodge of the B. P. O. E. (The B. P. O. E. is the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks, founded in 1868 from an earlier club, The Jolly Corks. The Jolly Corks was a drinking club, founded in 1866 by a group of New York actors to circumvent the New York law that closed saloons on Sunday. In later years, many actors joined the Elks as a way of having a place to socialize while playing in towns across the country.)

From The New York Dramatic Mirror, 2 April 1904

 

 

 

 

 

 

Above is a very good likeness of Starr King Walker, who has been engaged by Mr. Keith to play light comedy roles with his Philadelphia Stock company. Mr. Walker has a baritone voice of remarkable range, he having studied both here and abroad for nine years under the best masters. Many flattering offers for vaudeville and light opera Mr. Walker has refused because of his preference for dramatic work. Friends predict for this young actor a brilliant future.

The New York Clipper, 3 September 1904

CALIFORNIA
Los Angeles
Belasco Theatre (John H. Blackwood, manager).—This new and cozy theatre, controlled by Belasco, Mayer & Co., of San Francisco, will offer “The Wife” as its opening bill Aug. 29, presented by the Belasco Stock Co., which includes Martin L. Alsop, Adele Block, Oza Waldrop, Louise Mackintosh, Mary Graham, Fay Wallace, Agnes Rankin, Starr King Walker, Richard Vivian, Howard Scott, Robert Rogers and James A. Bliss. George W. Barnum, assisted by Louis Bishop Hall will have charge of the stage.

The Daily Courier-Light (Corsicana, Texas) February 1, 1905

A Problem Play is Faultlessly Presented
“Iris” by Arthur Pinero
Laurence Trenwith—Starr King Walker

Mr. Walker, as Trenwith, is a passionate lover and by a kiss thwarts his rival, but his truly splendid work is done in the last act. Listening to a story that tears his heart, he departs in silence, depicting the soul whose inward fires torture it.

New York Telegraph, 6 August 1905

GOES TO VAUDEVILLE
Dorothy Turner, in conjunction with Starr King Walker, has taken the vaudeville plunge in Chicago. She was given a trial performance at the Haymarket Theatre last week in a clever little playlet, “Bluffing a Bluff,” by Anna Steese Richardson, who wrote several successful sketches for Lillian Burkhart and others. Miss Turner, who is best remembered in the East through her connection with the David Harum company, has been a member of the Belasco Stock Company in San Francisco the past season. The sketch was favorably received, and will be booked for the Western Circuit at the opening of the regular season.

Theatre Magazine, Volumes 9-10 January 1909

The Stars of Tomorrow
Starr King Walker gives an object lesson by his work as the private secretary of the Fool in “A Fool There Was” how strong an impression may be made by intelligent acting of a small part. “Repose, thy name is Walker,” was one of the plaudits flung at him for his bit in the play.

The New York Dramatic Mirror, 11 January 1911

Among the coming stars in this generation is Starr King Walker. He has achieved success in De Mille and Claggett’s The Third Rail, materializing stellar promise given in interpretations in A Fool There Was and other productions. In Hartford, critics said:

Hartford Daily Courant, Thursday, Dec. 1, 1910—“First honors fell to Starr K. Walker as the ‘Third Rail.’ Not so very long ago the best known theatrical monthly of America published a short article on Mr. Walker among others, under the title of ‘Stars of Tomorrow,’ and from his acting in the present play it would seem that the prophecy would be fulfilled. He is one of those easy, reserved, good looking young fellows who speak quietly, making every effect count.”

Hartford Daily Times—“Folks who strolled into Parson’s Theatre Wednesday evening made a discovery. They found out that the methods of producing laughs in audiences followed by young Jack Barrymore and Thomas W. Ross and the suave William Collier, are not the only methods to be followed in conveying fun from a manuscript to the seats occupied by playgoers. In ‘The Third Rail’ (a new play produced by De Mille and Claggett) there is a Starr King Walker, a young man with an engaging smile, a more engaging manner, and a still more engaging intelligence in comedy acting. It is to be believed that Mr. Walker made friends with Hartford Wednesday evening, because he is blessed with all these traits. Mr. Walker is not mentioned as the star of the play, but he shines.”

Hartford Evening Post—“S. K. Walker played the part of the hero with such excellent judgment, skill and discretion that I am inclined to predict great things of him in the future. He has an uncommonly attractive personality, a distinct and authoritative grasp of comedy, that unusual quality in the modern actor, a knowledge of the value of time and the unique faculty of making the audience realize what he is thinking about without the use of excessive pantomime. I can recall no one of our younger actors who possesses these qualities in so well balanced a degree, and I look for the success of one as expectantly as I do for the success of the other.

The Billboard, 6 January 1912

Chicago premiere on 25 December 1911 of “The Woman” by William C. De Mille, directed by David Belasco.

Starr King Walker as Tom, son of Hon. Jim Blake

The New York Dramatic Mirror, 24 January 1912

CHICAGO STAGE
The Woman, at the Olympic, is still drawing audiences of good size. A more thoroughly excellent co. has not been here this season. Gladys Hanson’s wife is most attractive and a fine example of emotional acting that moves and convinces. Peter Raymond makes Tim Neligan a genuine politician of the class that follow the crowd which has the money. Starr King Walker gives to Tom, the boss’s son, the right American spirit and independence with the skill of a good actor. All the others deserve the many good things said about them in the reviews.

The Green Book Magazine, Vol. 8 1912

However, these are but a few of the young actors who seem to take their profession seriously and who appear anxious to grow and develop in their chosen calling. There are many, many more besides these, a few random names which occur to me being Clinton Preston; Harrison Ford, Ralph Ramsey, Starr King Walker, ….

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 30 March 1913

“The Governor’s Lady” at the Broadway Theater This Week
At the Broadway Theater on Monday night “The Governor’s Lady” will pay a return visit to Brooklyn. It was chosen by Mr. Belasco for production on account of its force and because of the possibilities which it presented for his stage management. Alice Bradley, who wrote it, is a new author who was taken by the New York public on her merits alone. The play comes here exactly as it was presented during its long run at the Republic Theater in New York.

As for the players, they are up to the high standard that Mr. Belasco sets for his productions. There is the sweet womanliness and homely dignity of Emma Dunne, the virile force of Emmett Corrigan, the handsome presence and vivid power of Gladys Hanson, the reserve and manly air of Milton Sills, the matured character studies of Teresa Maxwell-Conover and Starr King Walker.

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, 16 April 1913

BELASCO PLAY TONIGHT
This evening at the Lyceum, “The Governor’s Lady” will begin an engagement of five performances. This is Alice Bradley’s play produced by William Elliott and David Belasco with a cast that is reputed exceptional. It includes Emmett Corrigan, Emma Dunne, Gladys Hanson, Milton Sills, Starr King Walker, W. H. Tooker and Teresa Maxwell-Conover together with thirty others. The play tells a story that is direct and simple, but appealing in its tenderness, it is said.

(The Governor’s Lady was notable for realistically recreating, in typical David Belasco fashion, an entire Child’s restaurant, complete with working grill!)

The Internet Broadway Database lists two later credits for Starr King Walker:

The Thirteenth Chair – Nov 20, 1916 – Closing date unknown, with S. K. Walker in the role of Edward Wales.

Daddies – Sep 5, 1918 – Jun 1919, with S. K. Walker in the role of William Rivers

No later references to Starr King Walker’s acting career have been found. This may be due to the state of his health, which could have begun to deteriorate about this time. His WWI draft registration card lists his address as the home of his mother at 109 W. 86th Street, and his New York Times death notice states he passed away at the home of his mother on March 31st, 1921. He is buried with other family members in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.

Fast Facts:
Born: 10 August 1874, New York City, New York
Married: 4 September 1893, New York City, New York-Emily M. Sheldon (b. January 1869)
Children: Evelyn Sheldon Walker (b. January 1895)
Died: 31 March 1921, New York City, New York
Buried: Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, Kings County, New York
Member of The Lambs

 

John Perugini

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.

Fast Facts:
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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Henry Woodruff, aka Harry Woodruff

Henry Mygatt Woodruff was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1869, son of Samuel Vincent Woodruff and Emma Jane Coite. It appears he may have been named after his grand uncle, Henry Mygatt, who had died without children. His family moved to New York City at some point between 1877-1879, then moved to Jersey City, New Jersey shortly after. This may be why some biographies and his New York Times obituary erroneously list his place of birth as Jersey City.

We have this account of young Harry Woodruff’s stage debut at the tender age of nine, from Munsey’s Magazine in 1893:

In the year 1879 an advertisement in the New York papers called for children to appear in a juvenile “Pinafore” troupe to give performances at the Fourteenth Street Theater. The notice came under the eye of a little golden haired boy who, having been taken to the theater a short time before to see “Baby” and “Old Love Letters” had returned to his home in Jersey City stage struck. The sight of this advertisement seemed like fate to him. Without consulting anyone, he seized his hat, and, frequently inquiring his way, at length arrived at Chickering Hall, where the voices of the children were being tried.

When the new comer’s turn arrived –”Well, my little man, what can you sing?” asked the stage manager.

“I can sing ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers,’ ” was the reply.

“Try it,” came the command.

They took him up on the stage, and, fired by the great desire of his heart, the little fellow sang out with all his might.

“Good,” cried the manager, “you are engaged at two dollars a week.”

And thus began the stage career of Henry Woodruff, now playing a leading role with Charles Frohman’s Company in “Surrender.” Parents objected, but Harry persisted, and won quick promotion in his chosen course.

Harry was soon in demand for boy’s parts, and appeared with a number of well-known actors, including several roles in Edwin Booth’s company. He took over the role of Ned, the cabin boy, in The Black Flag, an engagement lasting four years, playing the role nearly twelve hundred times. In the fall of 1887, he joined A. M. Palmer’s Stock at the Madison Square, with which he remained four years, then came a year spent traveling abroad.

Harry Woodruff Digital ID: th-63215. New York Public Library

Back from his travels, the season of 1891-92 saw him appear in A Kentucky Colonel, Ye Earlie Troubles, His Wedding Day and The Girl I Left Behind Me. After a season as Charley in Charley’s Aunt, Harry Woodruff entered Harvard College, where he remained four years, though he gained a temporary leave of absence in the spring of 1897, to go to London with Secret Service.

His reasons for leaving show business to attend college are rather interesting. There are a number of newspaper articles in the New York Times and other papers alluding to a rumored engagement to young Anna Gould, daughter of tycoon Jay Gould. Some accounts have Harry being approached by New York Police Superintendent Thomas Byrnes, at the behest of Jay Gould, in order to dissuade him from the engagement. It was rumored that Gould then offered to pay for Woodruff’s college expenses, with the purpose of having Harry study law in order to better suit him as part of the family and the social circles in which they moved.

It was a confused and continuing saga, with Miss Gould later becoming engaged to someone else, then abruptly calling off that engagement only to announce yet another engagement to Harry Woodruff. She was sent abroad by the Gould family, her father having died by this time, and while in Europe was wooed and won by a French aristocrat. Apparently her 15 million dollar inheritance attracted many suitors, and though true love may have been involved in Harry’s case, he may well have been one of those with dollar signs in their eyes. In any case, Harry Woodruff never married.

The circumstances of Harry’s engagement and college education were the inspiration for a play by Augustus Thomas, as he relates in his 1922 book, The Print of My Remembrance:

A little later than this Harry Woodruff came to see me at New Rochelle. He had then left the stage and been two years at Harvard College under romantic conditions. Harry had won the affections of a daughter of a wealthy family whose members objected to an actor as a husband for the young woman. They agreed, however, that if Woodruff would go through Harvard and equip himself for another profession the objections would be withdrawn. They also agreed to pay his way. While Woodruff was at his studies the family took the young girl abroad and, with a change of scene and her wider opportunities, succeeded in arranging for her an alliance with one of the nobility. With this accomplished, the family had notified Woodruff that the financial support they were giving him at the university would be withdrawn. Harry was courageously making arrangements to pay his own way through the remaining two years, and regretting he had not secretly married the girl, as he had an opportunity to do.

This possible set of relations—a young man in college secretly married and the family trying to marry his wife to a foreign nobleman—struck me as a pretty complication for a comedy. Having a contract with Goodwin for something to follow “In Mizzoura,” I developed that story into a three-act play which I called “Treadway of Yale.” Goodwin accepted both the scenario and the finished script, but before the time came for production he married Maxine Elliott, of whose dramatic ability he had such high opinion that he thought the comedy gave her insufficient chance. He therefore forfeited his advance payments on it and returned the script. It was produced some time later under the title, “On the Quiet” by William Collier under the management of Will Smythe, and later revived by Charles Frohman when Collier passed under his direction.

After being graduated from Harvard in 1898, Harry quickly resumed his acting career, working steadily with many top actors and directors. Among other credits, he appeared with Mrs. Fiske in Mary of Magdala and in 1903 played the title role in a revival of Ben Hur. A season earlier, in 1902, he appeared in Joan o’ the Shoals opposite Henrietta Crosman. During the play, Miss Crosman had to simulate climbing up a cliff to replace a beacon light. Directly behind the light was a large electric fan that gave the effect of heavy winds. At one performance, she leaned too close to the fan and her dress was caught and began ripping to shreds. It appeared she might be drawn into the fan, and as her screams brought the audience to its feet, she was rescued by Harry, her leading man. As is often the case with stage accidents, the scene continued as if nothing had happened!

The great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 occurred on April 18th, leaving the city devastated. Starring in Brown of Harvard at the time, Harry responded along with the rest of the New York theatrical community to aid fellow actors who’d been working in San Francisco at the time of the quake. He was listed as treasurer of a committee formed to aid actors who were stranded and destitute as a result of the catastrophe. Indeed, The New York Dramatic Mirror listed numerous benefits by theatrical companies across the country raising funds for disaster relief, proving that the acting community has a long record of service to those in need.

Brown of Harvard closed in May of 1906, and headed out of town for a lengthy tour. It would provide Harry Woodruff steady employment for the next several years.

Henry Woodruff & Laura Hope Crews in “Brown of Harvard”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When the show played Boston in the Spring of 1907, opening night saw the house packed with Harvard students who, according to the New York Times, “did their utmost to break up the show. They yelled at every actor and hurled lemons from all sides of the house.”

Five of the disturbers were arrested, and the following day this apology appeared in The Crimson:

Last evening the presidents of the four classes publicly apologized for Monday night’s demonstration at “Brown of Harvard.” J. D. White ’07 expressed the apology as follows:

“We, the presidents of the four undergraduate classes of Harvard University, have come here tonight on behalf of the undergraduate body to express our regret both to Mr. Harry Woodruff and his company, and the audience of Monday night, for the demonstration on the part of some Harvard men during the performance.”

This was not the first excitement on the Brown of Harvard tour for Harry, though. When the show was playing in Pittsburgh in October of 1906, he found himself under arrest, as we see in this article from the New York Times under the headline, “HENRY WOODRUFF, PRISONER”:

PITTSBURGH, Nov. 1—Henry Woodruff, the actor, on Hallowe’en, with several other actors, started out to see the fun.

Everything went well until Woodruff saw Policeman J. P. Kinney arrest Louisa Ford, colored, who was getting too boisterous. Woodruff remonstrated with the policeman. Kinney retorted that if he didn’t keep quiet he would take him along, too. Woodruff told the policeman his identity, and Kinney told him that he didn’t care if he was the President of the United States. Then Woodruff retorted, and they started at each other, while the dusky Louisa tried to make her escape down an alley.

Kinney blew his whistle, and soon a score of policemen were on hand. The wagon also arrived, and Woodruff and Louisa were escorted to the station house. There Woodruff got into more trouble trying to explain to the Sergeant, who threatened to lock him up. Woodruff’s friends had arrived by this time, and got him away after he had furnished bail.

This morning Woodruff appeared before Magistrate Brady, charged with interfering with an officer, and paid a fine of $5 and costs, in preference to going to the workhouse for ten days. He is highly indignant over his arrest, and declares that the whole proceeding was outrageous.

At some point Harry had visited Hawaii, perhaps on his round-the-world tour about 1890, and had fallen in love with it. When he became part of the Actors’ Colony in the village of Siasconset (or ‘Sconset, as natives call it) on Nantucket Island in the early 1900s, he built the first “upside down house” there, inspired by Hawaiian architecture. An “upside down house” had its bedrooms on the ground floor, and living quarters above. He named the house “Aloha,” and it became a gathering place for artists and actors during the summer months. Built around 1904, he sold the place in 1916 shortly before he died, leaving furniture and memorabilia in the house, perhaps knowing he had no further need of it. Indeed, children of the family who bought “Aloha” recalled that it looked like he had merely stepped out and planned to return at any moment.

And perhaps he did. In Nantucket Ghosts: 44 True Accounts, several people relate their encounters with Harry’s ghost in the house. Some report seeing him looking in from the second floor porch, accessible only from the inside, and others recall hearing him pacing and looking through things in the attic. One young visitor, sleeping in the attic and completely unaware of its previous owner, reported waking to find a man standing next to his bed. “Hello, I’m Harry Woodruff. I’m sorry to have woken you,” he said in a very formal, old-fashioned way. Then he turned and walked off into one of the storage rooms. When the young man got up and looked in the room, it was empty!

Harry Woodruff, center, surrounded by fellow actors at Aloha

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aloha as it appears today

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Though Brown of Harvard is his last show credit in the Broadway Internet Database, Harry was still involved and interested enough to attend that first meeting of Equity members on May 26th, 1913. Passenger lists show that he had just arrived back in New York on May 23rd on the S.S. Cristobal, from the Canal Zone. Most likely he was sailing back from the west coast or some point farther beyond—perhaps his beloved Hawaii.

Like many other founding members of AEA, Harry Woodruff tried his hand in early silent films. He has two film credits: a short entitled The Beckoning Flame and a western entitled A Man and His Mate, both in 1915.

Harry Woodruff died in his room at the Algonquin Hotel in New York on October 6th, 1916. His New York Times obituary states he had been ill about six months, and the cause of death was an acute attack of Bright’s disease, now known as chronic nephritis, a kidney disease. His only known survivor was one of his brothers, not named, who was living in Pittsburgh.

Fast Facts:
Born: 1 June 1869, Hartford, Hartford County, Connecticut
Died: 6 October, 1916, New York City, New York County, New York
Member of The Lambs, The Players

 

 

 

W. J. Ferguson, aka William J. Ferguson

William J. Ferguson Digital ID: th-12184. New York Public Library

William Jason Ferguson was born in Baltimore in 1845, the son of Alexander and Anna (Wilson) Ferguson, both Scottish emigrants. His father died when William was only four years old and he went to work at an early age as a “printer’s devil” for the Baltimore Clipper newspaper. A job as a “train boy” for the Baltimore and Ohio railroad soon followed, and in the course of this job (selling candy, newspapers, and various other sundries to passengers) he met Baltimore native John T. Ford, owner of several theatres, including the recently re-built and re-named Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D. C. Ford asked young Ferguson to deliver a package to his brother, Harry Ford, treasurer of Ford’s theatre in Washington on Tenth Street, and as a result of this encounter he landed a job as a “call-boy” at the theatre. Ferguson described his duties as call-boy as working at the direction of the prompter, giving the half-hour and fifteen minute calls to the actors, as well as various other duties, including copying out in longhand script pages for the actors in the play. Thus, his long career in the theatre began.

On the evening of April 14th, 1865, Ferguson was called upon to replace an ailing actor in that evening’s play, Our American Cousin, starring the actress Laura Keene. With the Civil War recently ended, word was out that President Lincoln would be attending that evening’s performance. This was not Ferguson’s first foray on the stage at Ford’s, having appeared in numerous plays at Ford’s, including The Apostate on March 18th, 1865, a play which starred John Wilkes Booth in what would be his last stage appearance. On that fateful April evening, at the very moment when Booth shot the president, Ferguson was standing near the prompter’s desk in the wings off stage right, waiting to make an entrance with Laura Keene. They both had a clear view of the presidential box, which looked out onto the stage from the opposite side of the house. Ferguson witnessed the assassination, and in making his escape Booth ran between Ferguson and Keene as he made his way to the alley door backstage. Out of deference to Edwin Booth, well-known actor and brother of the assassin, Ferguson did not write about this experience until many years later, but much mention was made of his connection to the event during the publicity for a 1915 WWI propaganda film, The Battle Cry of Peace, in which he played the role of—Abraham Lincoln!

In his written recollections Ferguson remembers, as part of his call-boy duties, delivering some script pages some months earlier to John Matthews, another member of the cast that evening, at his room across the street from the theatre. Matthews was at that time renting a room in the Petersen house, the same room to which the dying president would be carried after being shot. On this earlier occasion, Ferguson arrived with script pages in hand, and recalls Matthews having a visitor, a fellow actor who was lying on the same bed in which Abraham Lincoln would later die. That visiting actor, lying casually on the bed smoking his pipe, was none other than John Wilkes Booth.

After that auspicious introduction to the stage, Ferguson’s career blossomed. He soon found his way to New York, appearing in Mrs. Conway’s stock company in Brooklyn for two seasons. Appearing with numerous stock companies in a variety of roles, he made a reputation for himself as a fine actor. He was in the original cast of Charley’s Aunt and appeared with the famous actor Richard Mansfield a number of times. Ferguson appeared as Mansfield’s valet in Beau Brummell and years later, recounted this anecdote:

In the character of the valet it was Ferguson’s place to hand the Beau his gloves, his stick, and finally his hat. Upon the opening night he proffered the hat to Mansfield, turned the wrong way around. Had the Beau put on the hat in the way it was handed to him and strolled down Piccadilly or Bond Street, the faux pas might have created a scandal. When Ferguson discovered his error he turned pale under his make-up.

Mansfield was quick to grasp the situation, and with one of his most courtly bows gave the hat back to the valet, so that he might turn it around, which Ferguson did with pantomimic apology.

As Mansfield put on the hat and passed out of the door he whispered to Ferguson: “That’s a good piece of business; keep it in.”

From Ferguson’s New York Times obituary:

Mansfield’s tremendous success in “Beau Brummell” has been attributed by A. J. Palmer, manager of the theatre in which the play was produced, to the beautiful finesse of Ferguson in the role of Mortimer, the valet. Mr. Palmer has said that without this aid Mansfield would not have succeeded in the title role.

W. J. Ferguson, as he was most often billed, appeared on New York stages steadily until at least 1920 in addition to touring the country. After 54 performances of a Feydeau farce called The Girl from Maxim’s at the Criterion Theatre in 1899, the cast took the play on tour. While appearing in New Haven, Connecticut in February of 1900, some of the cast were ice skating on Lake Whitney when cast member Mayme Kealty fell through a hole in the ice. Ferguson came to her rescue, and news of the heroic deed make the local papers, resulting in a bit of unintended publicity for their local run!

As with other stage actors of his time, Ferguson found work in the fledgling motion picture business. Beginning around 1914, he appeared in numerous silent films, including the above-mentioned The Battle Cry of Peace in 1915. 1922 saw the release of five films featuring Ferguson, including his last film, Yosemite Trail. It was during the filming of this movie that the 77 year-old Ferguson broke his hip, and this ended his acting career.

Of William J. Ferguson’s personal life, little is known. Shortly after leaving Ford’s Theatre, he married actress Fannie Pierson, who died in 1878. In 1880 he married Catherine Ferrell. According to his New York Times obituary, he died in Pikesville, Maryland, near his native Baltimore, while resting at the home of relatives. His obituary indicates he was survived by his widow. No surviving children were mentioned. His obituary goes on to state Mr. Ferguson lived to be known as the “actor who has played enough melodrama characters to populate a town.” At his death in 1930, he was the last surviving cast member of Our American Cousin.

Fast Facts:
Born: 8 June 1845, Baltimore, MD
Married 1st: ca. 1865-1870 – Fannie Pierson (b. unknown-d. 1878)
Married 2nd: 1880 – Catherine Ferrell
Died: 3 May 1930, Pikesville, Baltimore Co., MD

 

 

Digby Bell

Digby Bell was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1849, son of William J. Bell, a broker. Though various sources state his birth name was Digby Valentine Bell, I suspect his birth name may have been William Digby Bell. There is a family in the 1850 Milwaukee census consisting of William J. Bell, 23, and wife Genet L. Bell, also 23, both born in New York. William is listed as a broker. They have one child, a son named William D. Bell, listed as 6 months old. Given that the ages listed were those at the time of the census date for the 1850 census, which was 1 June 1850, the age of William D. Bell would agree with Digby Bell’s known birthdate of 8 November 1849.

The 1908 edition of Who’s Who on the Stage by Walter Browne & Frederick Arnold Austin states that Digby Bell’s family moved to New York when he was five years old, where he received his education. I have been unable to find this family in the 1860 census, but this biography was published during Digby Bell’s lifetime, so one can assume the details were either provided by him or confirmed before publishing.

Where I suspect his “adopted” name came from is a Digby Valentine Bell, born in 1804 in St. Christopher (St. Kitt’s), West Indies. This Digby V. Bell was also a broker, later a member of the Michigan state legislature and other elected offices in Michigan, where he died in 1871. He is listed in the 1829-1830 New York City directory as a clerk, living at 35 Forsyth St. Though I have not been able to confirm that our Digby V. Bell’s father, William, was the son of the older Digby V. Bell, it seems likely he was indeed either a son or some close relation. Digby Bell’s father, William J. Bell, was born in New York about 1827, so the fact that Digby Valentine Bell, born 1804, was in New York about that time would be consistent with his being our Digby Bell’s grandfather.

In any case, Who’s Who on the Stage states our Digby Valentine Bell became a member of the Stock Exchange after graduating from college. However, the biography of Digby Bell in the 1901 edition of Louis C. Strang’s Celebrated Comedians of Light Opera and Musical Comedy in America makes no mention of this, but gives this glimpse of his early life:

His father was a Wall Street broker, and it was not until he failed that the son gave any thought to the necessity of earning his own living. After disaster came, Digby Bell first secured a position as cabin passenger clerk with the White Star Steamship Company. He was gifted with a baritone voice of excellent quality, and he finally decided that it was worth having it trained for opera. With this purpose in view he went to Italy, where he studied music for five years.

In 1876 he made his debut in grand opera at Malta, his first roles being those of the Count in La Sonnambula, and Valentine in Faust. Other appearances in Naples followed, and he then returned to America to appear in a series of concerts in Boston, Chicago, and Detroit. In 1878 he made his New York concert debut at Chickering Hall, supported by several other artists, including his wife, identified in the review as Signora Lilla Belletti.

Digby Bell’s first wife was born Lillian W. Dunton, in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Upon completing her education, she taught school for a short time in Portland, Maine. An item in The Maine Journal of Education in 1874 states she had resigned her teaching position in order to complete her musical education in Europe. She was already known in the area as a singer, and after three years of study abroad, made her debut at the Teatro Fondo in Naples in 1877, appearing in La Traviata and other operas. This is most likely where she met Digby Bell, who appeared in the same opera at that theatre during this period. The marriage ended in divorce about 1882-83. She continued to perform, being known in Europe as Lilla Belletti (an Italianization of her Bell surname?) and in America under the name Lillian Dunton. A local news item in the Bath Independent (Maine) in 1896 about her visit to the area still referred to her as Mrs. Digby V. Bell, nee Lillian Dunton. Lillian Dunton died suddenly of gastritis in Brecia, Italy in 1902. It is not known if she is buried there or if her body was returned to America for burial.

This item is from the Decatur Daily Republican, Decatur, Illinois, dated 17 March 1883:

‘Notwithstanding the decree of the New York Court, which granted a decree of divorce to Mrs. Digby Bell and prohibited the husband from marrying again, that gentleman made his appearance at a Chicago hotel on Sunday with a new wife, known to the stage as Miss Laura Joyce, who was herself divorced a short time ago from James V. Taylor, a wealthy New Yorker. Bell and Miss Joyce were married in Pennsylvania.’

No record of Bell’s marriage to Laura Joyce is found in Pennsylvania, but a marriage record for the couple is found in Jersey City, Hudson County, New Jersey. However, the date of the marriage is 21 April 1883, more than a month after the newspaper item in Illinois announcing their marriage. For some reason, many sources list their marriage as taking place in 1882.

Laura Joyce, whose birth name was Hannah Joyce Maskell, was born in Newport, England in 1856. She studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and made her stage debut at London’s Strand Theatre. She came to America and made her first New York appearance in 1872. A contralto, she appeared in many of the Gilbert & Sullivan operas, most often alongside her husband, Digby Bell. The couple also appeared together in a number of other theatrical plays, both musical and non-musical alike. Laura Joyce Bell died in 1904 at the couple’s home in New York City after a year-long illness. She was survived by her husband and several children from her previous marriage.

Laura Joyce Bell

In the 1901 Celebrated Comedians of Light Opera and Musical Comedy in America, Digby Bell tells us in his own words how his career changed, almost overnight:

“My becoming a comedian was brought about by what might be called a freak of fortune,” continued Mr. Bell. “When I returned to this country, I started out in Italian opera, but finding that I would be wearing fringe on my trousers if I continued in that line, I next took up opera in English. The company was stranded in Montreal, and our only way of getting out of town was to produce ‘Pinafore,’ which had not then been done in Canada. I was cast as Sir Joseph Porter, and well do I remember how much beneath me I considered the part. But laughter proved a very pleasing recognition of my first efforts as a comedian, and by the time we had played three weeks in Canada I felt that I had found the proper place at last.”

What Mr. Bell may not have considered at the time was that, at a height of 5’ 5”, perhaps his stature was more suited to the comedic roles he would become famous for, rather than the heroic baritone characters of Italian opera!

Digby Bell was an avid golfer and a New York Giants baseball fan. In his love for the game, he was joined by his best friend and fellow cast member in many shows, DeWolf Hopper. Along with Francis Wilson, Equity’s first president, they spent many afternoons at the ball park. In the 1885 production of The Black Hussar, Bell and Hopper performed a skit to a baseball-themed song called “One to Nothing” in which Hopper played the pitcher, and Bell appeared as the catcher with a birdcage on his head and boxing gloves, while a Mme. Cottrelli endeavored to make a home run with a diminutive bat.

Digby Bell on the golf course at Nantucket.

After a career in light musicals, Bell later appeared in non-musical comedies and even later, in vaudeville. He made two films near the end of his life, playing the title role in The Education of Mr. Pipp (1914), a role he performed on stage in 1905, and Father and the Boys (1915). As a widower, he lived at the Lambs Club in his later years, and was living there when his final illness struck in June of 1917. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery alongside his wife, Laura Joyce Bell.

Fast Facts:
Born: 8 November 1849, Milwaukee, Milwaukee County, Wisconsin
Married 1st: ca. 1878-Lillian W. Dunton aka Lilla Belletti (b. 5 July 1852 Gloucester, Essex County, Massachusetts-d. 7 November 1902 Brescia, Lombardy, Italy)
Married 2nd: 21 April 1883, Jersey City, Hudson County, New Jersey-Laura Joyce Maskell (née Hannah Joyce Maskell) (b. 6 May 1856 Newport, England-d. 29 May 1904 New York City, New York
Died: 20 June 1917, New York City, New York
Buried: Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York
Member of The Lambs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

William L. Abingdon

William Lepper Abingdon was born in 1859 (1862 in some sources) in Towchester, England. He attended private schools and began business as a clerk in a bank. At the age of nineteen, his fascination with acting led him to resign and take a job as a utility player with a theatrical stock company. After several years touring the provinces, he made his first appearance in London in 1887 at the Princess Theatre, where he remained for two years.

Engagements at other theatres led to a career known for playing “heavy” roles, though he was equally at home in farcical comedies, the plays of Ibsen and a range of other theatrical genres. One of his “heavy” roles was that of Professor Moriarty opposite William Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes at the Lyceum Theatre in London. In a New York Times interview in 1909 titled, “Confessions of the Villain Made by William Abingdon” he offered his take on the long list of heavies he had played in his career:

“Rather a disreputable list of acquaintances,” was ventured.

“Friends, rather,” Mr. Abingdon answered. “Yes, I might call them good friends, for they brought me reputation, a good salary, and many happy hours in the theatre.”

He made his first appearance in America in 1903, playing leading parts with Amelia Bingham in The Frisky Mrs. Johnson, The Climbers, and A Modern Magdalen. A newspaper interview in The San Francisco Call while on that tour reveals a man with a lively wit, giving his impressions of various aspects of this country, as well as the state of the English theatre at the time. Though he claimed reluctance to sit for the interview, he was obviously enjoying the process and ended it thus:

“I hope I have said nothing discourteous about America,” he concluded, looking down seriously at me as we rose to go, “because I’m jolly fond of it.” Then, smiling over his shoulder as we left him: “The interview wasn’t half bad.”

Pencil sketch of William Abingdon which appeared with the 1903 interview in The San Francisco Call.

After his first appearances in America in 1903, William Abingdon alternated between the stages of London and New York, and like so many other actors of the time, he also found work in the fledgling motion picture business. He made four films between 1914 and 1918, with his last film, Fedora, being released after his death.

Although it is known he had two sons, no mention of his first marriage has been found. In May of 1906 he married the much younger actress Bijou Fernandez, daughter of well-known theatrical agent Mrs. E. L. Fernandez, in a ceremony attended by most of the New York theatrical community. He and Miss Fernandez had appeared together in the Amelia Bingham company in which he made his American stage debut.

Bijou Fernandez (1877-1961) began acting as a child, continuing her acting career as an adult before becoming a talent scout in later life. She came from a theatrical family, her father most likely being E. L. (Escamillo) Fernandez, and her mother was the former Emily L. Bradshaw, an actor herself before becoming one of the most successful agents of her time. Her grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Bradshaw, were also actors, having performed at both the old and the new Bowery Theatres in New York.

Sadly, William Abingdon ended his own life in May of 1918. With the war in Europe continuing, Abingdon’s two sons were serving overseas, one in the British army and one in the Royal Navy. Brooding on the state of the war, he left a note explaining his state of mind–this from the New York Times, 19 May, 1918:

“For some time I have been suffering from neurasthenia, melancholia, a desire to avoid people, and a lack of interest in anything and everything.” one of the notes read. “Haven’t been near the club in three weeks. Hiding away in cheap picture shows or staying in the house. Even baseball has no attraction for me. Everybody is against me. One more mistake and then—‘the great conundrum.’”

William Abingdon’s last public appearance had been on 17 February, in the Lambs Club Gambol, when he played “Death” in a sketch entitled “Christmas Eve in the Trenches.” A week before his death, he wrote “Exit” on a leaf in his diary.

Over 400 members of the theatrical community attended the funeral of William Abingdon, where the Rev. Dr. Nathan Seagle, pastor of St. Stephen’s Protestant Episcopal Church delivered these words:

“It was Mr. Abingdon’s work to interpret human nature to the world, and he did it to perfection.”

Fast Facts:
Born: 2 May 1859, Towchester, Northamptonshire, England
Married 1st: unknown
Married 2nd: May 1906-Bijou Fernandez
Died: 17 May 1918, New York City, New York
Burial: Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx County, New York
Member of The Players, The Lambs

 

 

 

 

 

Charles Abbott

Charles Abbott Digital ID: 57182. New York Public Library

Charles Abbott Mace, born in Boston in 1852, was the son of Sumner B. Mace and Elizabeth P. Chapman. His father died in 1865, and Charles is found in numerous Boston city directories at the same address in South Boston (96 F Street) living with his mother until 1889, when he married the well-known actress Maggie Mitchell.

He most likely began his acting career in Boston, but no information has been found from that period of his life. He was listed as an actor in the Boston city directories beginning in 1878, so he was certainly active in the theatre by that time. There is a Charles Abbott listed as a cast member in The Three Hunchbacks, a musical extravaganza which played 35 performances at New York’s Grand Opera House in 1871 and also toured, playing the Tremont Opera House in Galveston, Texas later that season. Whether this is the same Charles Abbott is not clear, but it certainly could have been. By 1884 he was appearing as the leading man in Maggie Mitchell’s company, when we find this newspaper item in the St. Paul Sunday Globe dated 12 October, 1884:

Mr. Charles Abbott, now leading man with Maggie Mitchell, is the same gentleman who so severely thrashed Osman Tearles [Osmond Tearle (1852-1901) English stage actor] English friend at the Morton house last spring for calling American actors “ham fatters.”

Evidently Mr. Abbott had a temper, and we will see more evidence of this a few years later. At this point, let us give a bit of background on Maggie Mitchell, whose career is worth mentioning here.

Margaret Julia Mitchell was born in New York City in 1837 (some sources say 1832), to a family with a theatrical background. She became enamored of the stage at an early age, and made her stage debut as a young teenager. By 1853 she had made her first appearance in Boston, when her future husband, Charles Abbott, was little more than a year old. In 1861, she found fame in the title role in Fanchon, the Cricket, which would remain a staple of her repertoire for many years. Small and sprightly, she retained a youthful manner and appearance into her fifties, and continued to play such roles well into her career.

Maggie Mitchell–1865 photo by Matthew Brady

A brief marriage about 1854, quickly ended by her family, resulted in a child, Julian P. Mitchell. He became a famous stage director and choreographer, even though he became completely deaf as an adult. He would sit on the piano or feel the vibrations from the stage in his stocking feet in order to sense the rhythm of the music. Julian Mitchell, who died in 1926, was the director of the 1902 musical version of The Wizard of Oz, staged thirteen of the Ziegfeld Follies, including the first in 1907, eleven Victor Herbert operettas, and many other Broadway productions.

Maggie Mitchell toured with her own company, appearing for several weeks each season at the Boston Theatre, and this may be how she met Charles Abbott. She played in theatres across the country, including appearances in Washington, D.C. where she was a great favorite of Abraham Lincoln’s, visiting the White House on several occasions.

After a fourteen year courtship, Maggie Mitchell married her manager, Harry Paddock, in 1868. The marriage produced two children, Fanchon and Harry M. Paddock. Tensions grew in the marriage, and the couple divorced in 1888. In 1889 she married her leading man, Charles Abbott, whose influence over her was said to have contributed to the dissolution of her marriage to Paddock.

Shortly after their marriage, we find another example of Charles Abbott’s temper in a New York Times article dated 14 December, 1889:

Philadelphia, Dec. 13.—In the lobby of the Park Theatre this afternoon Charles Abbott, husband of Maggie Mitchell, received a drubbing at the hands of William L. Lykens, business manager of Miss Mitchell, assisted by Advance Agent Girth of the same company.

The cause of the encounter was Mr. Abbott’s effort to dispossess Lykens of his position, and install Girth instead. When the company appeared in the city last Lykens was taken sick in his room at the Continental Hotel. He was taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital, and Girth was employed to fill the vacancy occasioned by his illness. After a while Lykens regained his former health, and resumed his old duties. Mr. Abbott didn’t take kindly to his reinstatement, preferring that his friend Girth should retain the place.

He saw Mr. Lykens at the theatre today, and said that Lykens had paresis [thus implying he had syphilis]. Lykens promptly called him a liar, and Abbott brought down his cane on the other’s head. Lykens then struck Abbott squarely between the eyes, and then the men rolled about the marble tile floor, and the ticket seller barricaded his office, thus securing himself from personal injury. Girth assisted Lykens, strange to say, and finally crying, “Here comes a cop!” stopped the battle.

Despite this tempestuous beginning of their marriage, Charles Abbott and Maggie Mitchell were together nearly thirty years until her death, at age 81, in 1918. She retired from the stage in 1892, but Charles Abbott continued to act, last appearing on Broadway in 1919 in A Regular Feller. His New York Times obituary states he was survived by his second wife, but she is not named.

Fast Facts:
Born: 27 March 1852, Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts
Married 1st: 13 June 1889-Maggie Mitchell (b. 14 June 1837-d. 22 March 1918)
Married 2nd: between 1918-1927-unknown
Died: 18 May 1927-Elmhurst, Queens County, New York

 

 

 

 

 

Charles S. Abbe

Charles Smith Abbe was born in Windham, Connecticut in 1859, son of John Randolph Abbe and Lucy Avery. His mother died the following year, two days after his first birthday. His father, a machinist and engineer, married Josephine Louise Robbins in 1861.

Charles Abbe began his long acting career at the Boston Museum Theatre in 1882 in a play called The False Friend. He spent a number of seasons at the Boston Museum, joining Edwin Booth’s company for the season of 1886-87. Kitty Molony, a young actress new to the company that season, recalled her first rehearsal of Hamlet in the role of Osric, a male role. From her 1931 memoir, Behind the Scenes with Edwin Booth:

When Hamlet was called and I took my place as Osric, Mr. Booth gave me an illustration of his tact. He let the scene proceed, but after rehearsal he drew me away upstage and said charmingly: ‘Will it break your heart if I take you out of Osric? It’s a man’s part; I never sympathized with casting girls for boys’ parts. I want my boys played by boys. Osric is a young man of the world—and they are always giving him to a delicate young woman.’

Of course, whether my heart broke or not had nothing to do with it, and when I saw Mr. Charles Abbe’s beautiful performance, I was converted to a male Osric. But that didn’t pay for my beautiful costume, which was never worn.

After his season with Booth, Charles Abbe returned to the Boston Museum, where his acting in the 1890 William Gillette play, All the Comforts of Home, brought him to the attention of producer Charles Frohman. Upon joining the Frohman forces, he made a success in his first New York appearance in 1892, again in a play by William Gillette, Settled Out of Court, which starred Georgiana Drew Barrymore, mother of Lionel, Ethel, and John.

Charles Abbe, ca. 1900, possibly as his character in Lost River

Like many other stage actors of his time, Charles Abbe appeared in early films, with nine credits listed in the Internet Movie Database. One of these was the title role in the 1921 version of Cappy Ricks. His New York Times obituary mistakenly cites him as the stage creator of this role, credit for which belongs to another Equity founder, Thomas A. Wise.

Working in films and on the stage all through the 1920s and into the 1930s, Charles Abbe made his last stage appearance on Broadway in 1931 in A Church Mouse. The play closed in March of 1932, and Abbe had plans to appear in the same play at the Playhouse in Cape Cod. Sometime in May, however, Abbe had a tooth removed and developed blood poisoning, was hospitalized, and died in June. He was survived by his widow and two daughters.

Charles Abbe was also a professional illustrator and cartoonist, with drawings published in both Puck and Life magazines. Regrettably, a search on the internet has not turned up any examples of his work.

Fast Facts:
Born: 23 May 1859, South Windham, Windham Co., CT
Married: 15 June 1888, Boston, MA-Emilie A. Bruce (b. 1862-d. 1946)
Children: Ruth b. 1889 Boston, MA    Olive b. 1891 Boston, MA
Died: 16 June 1932, Norwalk, Fairfield Co., CT
Buried: Windham Center Cemetery, Windham, Windham Co., CT
Member of The Lambs, The Players

 

 

E. Y. Backus

Ebenezer Young Backus (1851-1914) was born in Connecticut, son of Thomas Backus and Sarah A. Young. Named for his maternal grandfather, his mother’s sister Harriet Young married Charles Lewis Tiffany, who founded Tiffany & Co. in 1837 with Backus’s uncle, John B. Young. Backus’s first cousin Louis Comfort Tiffany (famous for his stained glass creations) partnered with Thomas Edison in 1885 to provide the first electric footlights in a Broadway theatre, the old Lyceum Theatre on 4th Avenue.

E. Y. Backus made his stage debut in the Boston Theatre in the late 1870s. He came to New York and joined the Empire Theatre stock company, serving as a stage manager as well as appearing in many of its productions. His first Broadway production appears to have been Lord and Lady Algy in 1899. He performed steadily on Broadway through the years, with his last Broadway appearance coming in 1914, a production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It at the Hudson Theatre.

E. Y. Backus married British actress Lillian Thurgate about 1892. She appeared with Lillian Russell at the Casino Theatre in 1894, also appearing in Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines with Ethel Barrymore. E. Y. Backus and his wife appeared together on the stage numerous times. She left the stage after her husband’s death and died in Katonah, New York in 1960. It does not appear the couple had children.

Actor Jim Backus (voice of Mr. Magoo, Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island) was a fifth cousin, twice-removed. Jim Backus, born in Cleveland, Ohio, was less than two years old when E. Y. Backus died in November of 1914, and it is unlikely Jim Backus was aware of the role his distant cousin played in the early life of Actors’ Equity.

Fast Facts:
Born: 5 August 1851, Killingly, Windham County, CT
Married: ca. 1892 Lillian Thurgate – actress (b. ca. 1872 England – d. 1960 Katonah, NY)
Died: 12 November 1914, Westport, Fairfield County, CT
Buried: Westfield Cemetery, Danielson, Windham County, CT