by Paul R. Spitzzeri
There are many ways to trace the rapid development of Los Angeles from a frontier town to a major West Coast metropolis during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As the population skyrocketed, education, transportation, business and industry and other major areas of urban life reflected the transition. For people of color, opportunities were far fewer and the predominant American and western and northern European population reaped the lion’s share of the gain (including financial profit) from the massive growth in the region.
Cultural pursuits, including the arts, also expanded widely. The city’s first museum, the all-purpose Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art (now the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County) opened in 1913, but there were notable improvements in such areas as “serious music” (though the Philharmonic did not appear until 1919) and the theater before that.
With the latter, traveling stock companies were the rule in local performances until the early years of the 20th century, when local troupes began to be common. One of these was the John H. Blackwood Company, operated by the manager of the Belasco Theater in Los Angeles, and the troupe’s star was Lewis Shepard Stone (1879-1953.)
For years, Stone was a major presence in the city’s theatrical scene and today’s highlighted artifact is a program for “The Adventure of Lady Ursula,” a play by Anthony Hope, playwright and best known for his “The Prisoner of Zenda,” and performed at the Temple Auditorium the week of 26 October 1908.
The four-act comedy was first produced in London and New York about a decade prior and its title character was a strong-willed member of the nobility of early 18th century England, who, learning that a handsome peer of the realm has determined to never let a woman enter his house, bets that she gain admittance. She does so by knocking at the door and pretending to be ill, but Sir George only allows her to stay in his porter’s quarters.
Lady Ursula’s brother, insulted by this treatment, challenges Sir George to a duel. Ursula, to prevent disaster, masquerades as another brother and is admitted to the home and defuses the tension and the duel is avoided. She drops a handkerchief, however, revealing her identity. When she goes to London, Sir George follows and is able to return her earlier favor by stopping a duel that was to involve her. The play ends with the two falling in love.
In its review of the opening performance of the play, the Los Angeles Herald‘s Sidle Lawrence observed that “the acting is uncertain” noting particularly that Florence Oakley, playing Ursula, suffered from “nervousness . . . [which] did much to mar her interpretation.” While allowing for the fact that further performances would see improvement, he added, “it was well nigh ruinous to good acting.”
As for Stone, Lawrence noted he “was a virile and graceful Sir George; at his best in the mock-serious passages of the comedy,” yet he was expected to do better over the course of the week’s performances. The critic praised other elements of the production, observing that “the staging is good and the costuming picturesque.”
The program offered information about the next production at the Auditorium featuring Stone and his fellow players, George M. Cohan’s “45 Minutes from Broadway,” with it being claimed that Cohan would only allow Stone and company to perform that play.
The artifact also included a statement from the theatre to its patrons that “you have already given us no uncertain expression of your gratification of the splendid, conscientious work of the Lewis S. Stone Company” and that “the price of admission is ridiculously low for such rare performances” with “less deserving efforts” often costing four times the amount.
Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday matinees were a quarter for the best seats, while evening performance prices were 25 cents, 35 cents and 50 cents. Elsewhere are floor plans of what was called “Choral Hall,” one of two 950-seat halls within the theater and its availability for rental as “a unique little auditorium . . . for social gatherings, receptions, art entertainments, etc.”
As has been discussed on this blog previously, the Auditorium was constructed pon the site of an earlier wooden complex, Hazard’s Pavilion, by the Temple Baptist Church (alternately, the theater was also known as “Temple Auditorium,” but no connection to the Temple family) and which opened in 1906 with the church holding its services but leasing out to theatrical performances. In 1920, the year-old Philharmonic began a 44-year engagement at the theater, moving then to the Music Center on Bunker Hill.
The church continued to hold services in the Auditorium until the mid-1970s and the structure was torn down a decade later to be replaced by the seemingly inevitable parking lot. Under construction now, however, is Park Fifth, the first phase of which includes a seven-story apartment and retail structure, followed by a 24-story residential tower. There’ll be a total of 347 units with over 5,000 square feet of retail space. Pershing Square, the Biltmore Hotel, Metro subway access, and proximity to Grand Central Market and the Central Public Library are touted, as well.
As for Stone, his career moved from the theater to film by the mid-1910s, though he served in a cavalry unit in the Army during the First World War. One of his prominent silent film roles was in Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda and was an early Academy Award nominee for Best Actor in 1929 for his work in The Patriot. He made seven films with Greta Garbo in both silent and sound formats, including the classic Grand Hotel (1933.)
Stone’s best-known role, however, was as Judge James Hardy in Mickey Rooney’s highly popular series of Andy Hardy films, starting in the late 1930s. He was continued acting regularly, including late career movies like Angels in the Outfield (1951), Scaramouche (1952) and a remake of The Prisoner of Zenda, also from 1952.
On 12 September 1953, Stone was watching television with his third wife (his second spouse was his The Adventure of Lady Ursula co-star Florence Oakley, but the couple divorced) when they heard local teenagers throwing patio furniture in the couple’s pool. Stone, despite his wife’s pleas about his heart condition, ran out to chase the trio and fell dead from a heart attack. He was 73 years old. For his work in film over a period of some 40 years, Stone was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.