by Paul R. Spitzzeri
A previous post on this blog highlighted an October 1908 program from The Auditorium (also known as the Temple Auditorium and, later, the Philharmonic Auditorium), a theater across from Central Park (renamed Pershing Square) in Los Angeles, and featuring a play mounted by the company of prominent stage actor Lewis S. Stone, who went on to a long film career, best known for his portrayal of the father of Mickey Rooney’s Andy Hardy in an immensely popular series from 1937 to 1946.
Today’s post features another program, this one for the week of 14 December 1908, at the venue and again highlighting the work of the Stone company. The play this time was The House of a Thousand Candles, based on a popular 1905 novel by Meredith Nicholson and rendered for the stage by George Middleton, whose Embers: And Other One-Act Plays, was one of the first collections of stage works published by an American when it appeared in 1911 and who was the president, from 1927-1929, of the Dramatists Guild of America.
The story surrounded a strange effort by an eccentric man of wealth to tame the wandering ways of his namesake grandson. John Marshall Glenarm faked his death and had his will unsealed, requiring the grandson to live in a gloomy mansion in rural Indiana for a year and to do so “in an orderly and temperate manner.” If the younger Glenarm was to fail to follow the dictates of the will, the property would go to a young woman, Marian Deveraux of New York.
In the course of the four acts, there was intrigue concerning the elder Glenarm’s lawyer, who was seeking notes from a loan he took out from his client so that he could destroy them and avoid paying his debt, as well as a love story between the wayward Glenarm and the fetching Deveraux (played by real-life spouses Stone and Florence Oakley.” Naturally, the master of the house conceals himself in the building and emerges as the denouement takes place and a happy ending ensues.
Critics were divided about The House of a Thousand Candles. The Los Angeles Express‘s uncredited critic said that “Lewis S. Stone and company are doing brilliant work” with the leader engaged in “such uniformly brilliant work that the resultant praise he receives week after week must become monotonous even to himself” as he played young Glenarm “with his customary satisfactory intelligence.”
Among the other, mostly male, performers, one was singled out with DeWitt Jennings, the newest of the ensemble and who played Bates the butler, praised because he “acts in a manner to sustain his excellent reputation.” The two female actors, Oakley and Beatrice Noyes, who played a Catholic girls’ school student, were also bestowed accolades for their work.
The unnamed reviewer for the Los Angeles Times was approving, but in an interesting manner. The play “is so deliciously absurd that it delights and enthralls. You forget its banal situations, its hackneyed plot which is yet so wildly improbable, its impossible flatness, and startling abruptness of dialogue.” What made the play so intriguing was “its peculiar charm, which is the bewildering and awesome charm of the grotesque and fantastic.”
After what considered a slow first act, the second featured mystery and “ghostly suggestions and weird rappings” due to the clandestine search for the notes sought by the lawyer which apparently suggested the ghost of the elder Glenarm roaming the mansion. The height of action and intrigue marked the third act, which was deemed “vastly more exciting than the battle of Waterloo” and led to the “blessed calm after a devastating form” in the final act.
To sum up, the Times opined that The House of a Thousand Candles was “one of the most diverting things ever put upon the stage” and was not to be missed by anyone “in search of an absolutely new sensation. Curiosuly, the paper felt it was beyond the point to talk about the actors as “they have very little to do” with the play’s success.
Rather, “its strange hold on the imagination is due entirely to its own remarkable merits as a play.” To conclude, the review claimed that “nothing quite so rich . . . has been added to the gayety of our town for many a long day.” The frightening rapping in the second act and the thunder in the third “are worth the price of admission quite by themselves.”
For the Los Angeles Herald and its critic, Lemuel Parton, the play amounted to “much clatter and noise to small purpose” and was “a sort of inverted pig-in-the-clover proposition—rather diverting, but lacking in dramatic merit.” After mocking the ridiculousness of the plot, Parton proclaimed that “the most glaring defect of the piece appears in the failure of the author to take the audience into his confidence regarding the fact that the old man is not actually dead, and that Bates [the butler] is not the villain [young] Glenarm believes him to be.” Parton opined that “if there is one law of play building that is elementary, it is this one.”
As with the Times, Parton had very little to say about the cast. A subheading states that the “Auditorium players work heroically” and the end of the review observed that “the Stone aggregation has done all that good acting and good stating could possibly do for such a play.” Ultimately, though, this “howling drama of the most vociferous type” meant that “the dramatic version is even worse than the book.”
There were a few film versions of The House of a Thousand Candles, the first being a 50-minute version released in 1915 by Selig Polyscope and distributed by a partnership with that studio, Vitagraph, Lubin and Essanay as VLSE. Four years later, the film was remade as Haunting Shadows and starred H.B. Warner, who later achieved fame as Christ in Cecil B. DeMille’s epic King of Kings (1927) and was also known as Dr. Gower in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946.)
The sole sound version was in 1936 using the original title, but with a completely reimagined plot and characters. Its lead female was Mae Clarke, best known for having a grapefuit smashed in her face by James Cagney in 1931’s The Public Enemy, though she also was in that year’s classic Frankenstein as Dr. Frankenstein’s betrothed attacked on her wedding day by Boris Karloff’s monster.
Speaking of film, Stone was not the only member of his company to have a long career in the movie industry. DeWitt Jennings, who performed in seventeen Broadway plays between 1906 and 1920, made his first film in 1915 and, in just over twenty years, made appearances in over 150 movies. His best-known role was as the sailing master Fryer in the 1935 classic Mutiny on the Bounty with Clark Gable and Charles Laughton, but the character actor played many law enforcement officers and officials, prison wardens, judges and figures of authority before his death in 1937 at age 65.
Los Angeles native Charlie Ruggles, who played an Irish adventurer friend of Stone’s younger Glenarm, was another highly versatile character actor who worked on the stage consistently for about two decades and made his screen debut in a version of Peer Gynt in 1914. He specialized in comedic roles and made a series of comedies with Mary Boland in the 1930s and was well-regarded as a big-game hunter in the famous 1938 screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby starring Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Switching to television in its early days, he had his own show, The Ruggles from 1949-1952 and had a daily show in 1954-55. Ruggles returned to the stage in the late 1940s and won a Tony Award in 1959, though he continued in television guest spots on shows like The Beverly Hillbillies and Bewitched before his death in 1970 at age 84.
As for the program, it has a fine photo on the front cover of the theater, which also served for decades as the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, now celebrating its centennial season. In addition to providing information about the play, including the transcription of the Glenarm will, there are some jokes, floor plans of the auditorium and the musical program for performances. These included classical and pop tunes, such as the “Hits of 1909” like “Dolly Dear,” “You Will Have to Sing an Irish Song,” “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” and “Good Evening, Caroline.” A number of advertisements from local businesses are also of note.
Artifacts like these help document the growing world of entertainment in Los Angeles, reflecting the development of the city and that of the theater as the American middle class ballooned and could support theaters, theater companies and plays more frequently and on a larger scale.