by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Another one of the many interesting and notable developments of the growth of the arts in greater Los Angeles in the first few decades of the 20th century was through the “little theater movement,” in which the amateur theater sprung up, as it did throughout the United States, during the 1910s and 1920s.
As expressed by Dorothy Chansky in her discussion of the movement, “its proponents believed that theater could be used for the betterment of American society and for self-expression” while it “opposed commercialism.” Joining playwrights, including Eugene O’Neill, whose first produced plays were in such a theater, and actors, she went on were liberal political activists and social workers, journalists, students and many others—all inspired by the European Independent Theater Movement.
While the earliest exemplars in the American version were in the East, Los Angeles counted among its contributors, Sigur Russell and Ole Ness, who briefly operated the Potboiler Art Theatre (there was some irony in that title as “potboiler” means seeking commercial success) during the mid-1920s. While they drew on amateur acting talent in the region, they also had the support of prominent film producer and studio owner Cecil B. DeMille and others in the rapidly growing motion picture industry.
There was not, however, enough popular support to keep the enterprise going beyond a short span, but the Homestead has a couple of artifacts in its collection related to this interesting organization, including a February 1926 issue of its publication Footlights and tonight’s highlighted object, a program for the 30-31 July presentation of Oscar Wilde’s Salome.
The Footlights issue is notable for being part program and part newsletter and there is a short piece explaining some of the history of the theater saying that it was “the local phase of the National Little Theater Movement.” The Potboiler “started as a Bohemian center in the basement of the Egan Theater, which opened in 1913 as the Little Theater on Figueroa Street, just south of Pico. From there, the enterprise “evolved, through its Main Street, Chinatown and North Broadway residences to where it is today.”—that being a location at 930 S. Grand Avenue.
Because of its modest origins, one-act plays were mounted exclusively, but, in its growth, the Potboiler “as produced sixteen full-length plays.” On the back cover is a list of these “Past Productions” including Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, three works from O’Neill, Tolstoy’s Redemption, The Blind by Maeterlinck, and Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author.
Russell and Ness, however, had ambitions “to emphasize the social as will as the dramatic” through “balls, receptions and gaities [sic]” that would reflect its aims as “a spirit” not an organization. One such event was “a grand costume ball” to be held on 24 February and which was a revival of the type of “abandonment and jollity” that were found “in the old days” of the theater when such events were for “free spirits who for a time where released by the Potboiler Spirit from the demands of art or bricklaying.” Alas, there was a period in which “we began to take ourselves seriously and forgot to play,” leading to “long faces and pallid appearances” from workers.
Referring to the problem of the commercial, the piece concluded by observing:
There has never been any question in the past as to where the money went because there was not any money. Deficit followed deficit. Now, however, money will be apportioned to the production funds of future months to insure the future of the theater.
De Mille contributed a short article, as well, and a preface noted that “an apreciation from Cecil B. DeMille is praise from Caesar” and that “his interest in the little and art theaters is real.” In fact, for the production of The Candle underway the week this edition of Footlights was published, the film giant allowed two of his actors, Robert Ames and Leatrice Joy, to take part.
In his essay, DeMille wrote that “upon the shoulders of the Little Theater movement lies the burden of insuring an advancing artistic future for both the stage and screen.” He noted that the public expected both “finished technique, and new faces” with the latter reflecting a predilection for novelty and “fresh personalities.”
Given this, he continued, “we must, then, look among the amateurs—among those who enter a play at school, college or in the little theaters just as a lark—and find themselves possessed of unguessed power.” He then praised directors of amateur presentations “whose recompense is frequently only the satisfaction of seeing an almost imperceptible spark of genius in some unseasoned beginner, and of fanning it into the first glow of a successful career.”
While he affected modesty by suggesting this was “merely the viewpoint of a motion picture producer,” DeMille concluded by highlighting a vital function of little theaters: “that of encouraging people to become interested in one of the great arts, whether as player, playwright, or spectator.” The Potboiler “is a credit to the little theater movement, which is to be endorsed without qualification.”
The staging of The Candle was hailed as “the most significant event in the history of the Los Angeles Little Theater Movement and a most brilliant example of cooperation,” due to DeMille’s assistance, along with that of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer loaning an art department member, while Universal Pictures and Western Costume provided “properties and dozens of mechanics.” Additionally, “the best of the Los Angeles musical world are joining the fold” and this, it was hoped meant that “all debts will be paid and a production fund established to eliminate the struggles which were caused by the first 19 productions.
Perhaps no element of the Footlights issue was more emblematic of the “Potboiler Spirit” than a jaunty little essay by “George Ho Del,” who acted in Potboiler productions and who also appears to be the same George Hodel believed by his son and others to have been the killer of Elizabeth Short in the infamous Black Dahlia incident of 1947. The notorious doctor was a young musical prodigy who performed at the Egan in the mid-1910s, so his involvement at the Potboiler is another remarkable tangential tale.
In his piece, “Ho Del” referred to the desire to introduce light-hearted events within the Potboiler Spirit through “The Gaieties of Grand Avenue” in mid-March. With this event, he continued “the individual vices and personal sins of Potboiler Personalities will be exposed to the full light of day, through the use of pantomime, symbolism, song and dance, legerdemain, synchronism, and mud-slinging.” Through these, he went on, the “public may know” about a raft of modern problems, including “The Undoubted Shortcomings of the Tariff, the Box Office System, the Free Pass Evil, the Partisan Favoritism in the Appointment of Lady Ushers, the Curse of Insufficient Publicity of our Artists, and all the Whatnots.”
Moreover, “an intimate glimpse will be vouchsafed of the actual inside mechanics of the Potboiler machine—the turbulent, incisively intellectual, and yet big-hearted conflicts of artists, players and director. These things will be laid bare so that you may feel directly sympathetic with the cause; so that you may become, in all reality, one of the bunch.”
The goal, then, was that
combining art, uplift and clean fun, without affectation, we will try once more to rejuvenate those care-free Bohemian times of good-natured criticism that were prevalent in the whole-hearted days when the Potboiler boiled, to use a vulgar but unaffected phrase, boiled in all ebullient camaraderie. And to give us a flavor of the days when the Potboiler Theater was, so to speak, nothing but a struggling Art Center, struggling once and struggling ever, “For Art’s Sake.”
If this was the George Hodel of Black Dahlia notoriety, then this is notable as an element of his life as a Potboiler Bohemian not quite nineteen years of age.
By the time the theater mounted the production of Wilde’s famous one-act Salome in mid-summer, they’d secured a new home at the Gamut Club building at 1044 S. Hope Street. The Gamut Club was a long-standing musical and general arts organization, established in 1904 by the omnipresent Lynden E. Behymer and male musicians in the city.
Among the lead actors was Gareth Hughes, a native of Wales who became a successful stage actor in the United Kingdom and on Broadway before he began a film career that spanned from the late teens through the early thirties; Ruth Helen Davis, a stage actress, playwright and producer; and Nigel de Brulier (born Francis Packer), also a British stage actor who came to Los Angeles to work in movies, including the same role in Salome in its 1923 film version.
It is de Brulier’s character, Jokanaan or John the Baptist, whose head is brought to the titular character on a silver tray by her request to her step-father, King Herod, as a reward for her famed “Dance of the Seven Veils.” The dance for this production was created specifically by the actress performing as Salome, Ingeborg Torrup, who was an accomplished dancer before becoming an actress, especially in roles that made use of her dancing abilities.
Notably, the role of “A Nubian” executioner of John the Baptist was played by James B. Lowe, a black actor in Los Angeles who also performed at the Potboiler in the title role of Emperor Jones, the 1920s play by O’Neill, for which Lowe received acclaim, and he performed in other plays there. When Universal Pictures made a film version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, released in 1927, the titular role was originally performed by noted African-American stage actor Charles Gilpin, who, however, quite because of the dislike he had for how the role was developed.
A Universal Pictures executive, however, saw Lowe performing at the Potboiler and was so impressed that he went backstage after the show, asked Lowe to take on the role of Uncle Tom for the film and immediately signed him to a contract. Lowe, who played small parts in at least two other films made in 1926, was paid $500 a week for his featured role in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. His film career, however, was limited to that short duration, though he was the only black actor other than the legendary Paul Robeson to have a starring role in a Hollywood film in that era, and he died in Los Angeles in 1963 at age 83.
In addition to the play there was a dance program overseen by Alexander Oumansky, a choreographer who worked with the famed ballet dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky in Russia and then, upon coming to America, with the Metropolitan Ballet. He moved to Los Angeles in 1924 to choreograph shows for the theaters owned by Sid Grauman. The six-part program included about a dozen dancers along with Oumansky and there was a pianist providing accompaniment.
While the Potboiler Art Theatre announced plans earlier in 1926 to built a 350-seat venue in Hollywood, this ambition went unrealized and the troupe continued for several more years. Likely because of the Great Depression compounding the problems of a company already dealing with a lack of commercial support, the theater closed down by 1932.
The program and the issue of Footlights are, however, interesting and notable artifacts connected to what was purported to be the region’s first “Little Theater” during that movement’s heyday and its Bohemian “spirit” is also a fascinating element of 1920s artistic endeavor, even as it sought to benefit from its connections to DeMille and the Hollywood film industry.