by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As Los Angeles grew from a small frontier town to a major American city over the court of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, among the many examples of development was the forms of professional entertainment that amused Angelenos in such areas as music and theater. One of the premier venues in the Angel City for live performance was Ozro W. Childs’ Opera House, opened in 1884 on Main Street between First and Second.
Known subsequently as the Grand Opera House, the theater, later owned by the remarkable William H. Clune, operated until 1936 when the building was razed and the site became, as so many older buildings did, a parking lot. The first link above is for a post on this blog about a Grand Opera House program from 1887 and tonight’s highlighted object from the museum’s holdings is for a program for the venue from 20-22 August 1891 when The City Directory, a farce described as “Paul M. Potter’s Laughing Absurdity,” was performed there.
Potter, born Walter McLean in the seaside resort city of Brighton, England, was a journalist and theater critic for the New York Herald and Chicago Tribune and worked for the latter when he penned The City Directory, his first play. The musical comedy premiered at the Chicago Opera House in spring 1889 with Russell’s Comedians as the company performing the farce, which then went on to the Bijou Theatre in New York, Russell’s home venue. The play was one of the major successes of the following season and had a total of over 200 performances.
The plot was rather simple, as a Chicago detective named John Smith goes to the Big Apple to arrest a criminal, also John Smith. In his misadventures, the detective and his quarry run into six other John Smiths, including a banker, messenger, janitor, actor and stage manager. The three-act performance includes “musical interruptions” written by William S. Mullaly. The piece, which was “reconstructed” by Louis Harrison, was advertised as “constructed for laughing purposes only.”
As the dates approached for the performance at the Grand Opera House, the Los Angeles Express and Los Angeles Herald ran advance publicity on The City Director. For example, in its edition of the 15th, the latter noted that “Russell’s record is preeminent as an organizer of talented farceurs” and reported that “innumerable innovations have taken place with the performance since it scored its success at this theater two years ago.” With these improvements made, it was expected that “the present engagement will act in the nature of a surprise to those who before enjoyed its benefactions of laughter and wholesome entertainment.”
Two days later, the Herald expanded on its anticipation by proclaiming that “it is safe to say that no company of the gilt-edge calibre of this one has ever graced out town.” Promising that all of Russell’s company were participating “and the performance given with the same careful attention to detail” attendant to its productions around the nation for three years, the paper averred that the play “should drawn forth an audience large enough to test the utmost capacity of the house.”
The evening before the first performance, the Express reported that “The City Directory, probably the most successful of that popular style of entertainments termed farce comedties” was opening on the 20th. It noted that the play “has conquered New York and met with what newspapers call an ‘ovation,’ that is a tremendous audience, incessant laughter and deafening applause.” It praised the actors and said that each “contributes an important part to the general unceasing merriment.”
On the opening day, the Herald added one more plug, informing readers that “the humor of the play is said to be rich, the action spirited, the dialogue bright and breezy and the situations are laughable.” The appeal would be widespread as “old and young enjoy the mirth provoking fun, because it is novel and dissimilar to anything yet put forth.”
In its review, the Express reported that there was a large audience for the opening night and felt the changes from the performance of two years past were generally better for the play. It noted that “some of the novelties are very funny” and added that “the action is very rapid and the waits between acts very short, making a performance that keeps the attention and risibles to the highest tension.”
Further observed was that most of the male characters were “famous fun-makers in black and white faced comedy” but that “the old-time minstrel dialect clung to the lines a little too prominently in some of the parts.” Minstrel shows with white actors performing in black face were immensely popular at the time and remained in vogue through the 1920s.
As for the female actors, one was complimented for being “the most graceful exponent of the skirt dance,” while others stood out for “pretty posing in handsome costumes” as well as “some very good singing.” One Maym (also known as Mayme) Kelso “has an exceptionally rich contralto voice, and will doubtless be heard in opera in the not distant future.” Kelso, in fact, appeared in several major Broadway productions subsequently, but also went on to appear in nearly 80 films between 1911 and 1927, when she retired, and the actress and singer died in South Pasadena in the late 1940s.
Receiving particularly high praise was Julius P. Witmark, denoted “a phenomenal young singer” who “probably got the most hearty applause of the evening for his fetching vocalism” His singing possessed “a purity and sympathetic sweetness which never fail to please.” Witmark later went on to be a prominent New York music publisher with two of his brothers before his death in the late Twenties. Mulally’s handling of the music was also given kudos for “producing light gems, with beautifully arranged harmonies.”
The Express secured an interview with Russell, who told the paper of other productions he felt would be coming out to the Pacific Coast in short order and, when asked, who were the best comedians he’d seen developing recently, singled out his own Dan Daily, the stage manager John Smith in The City Directory. Daily was known as “the eccentric comedian” and was that way in real life, too, as the tuberculosis-afflicted actor was known for the last couple years of his life to have subsisted solely on snails and champagne! Russell also mentioned Eddie Foy, who did rise to stardom in later years, including a vaudeville act with his seven children as “Eddie Foy and the Seven Little Foys,” the subject of a 1955 film starring Bob Hope and James Cagney.
The program not only lists the information for The City Directory, but highlights the following attraction, a one-man performance by renowned actor Lewis Morrison, whose fame was secured by playing Mephistopheles (the Devil) in Faust and which he reprised for his performance at the Grand Opera House. Born Moritz W. Morris in Jamaica, the actor, who died in 1906 at age 61, was the grandfather of the well-known Bennett sisters, Barbara, Constance and Joan, and the great-grandfather of the notorious talk show host, Morton Downey, Jr.
There is also an essay about the world-famous French actor, Sarah Bernhardt, known commonly as “The Divine Sarah.” The piece stated that “once in a generation, in the lordly realm of art—seldom more frequently—there appears a figure whose genius, whose gifts, whose powers are so overmasterful among contemporaries, that of that figure, of that genius and its art expression, the use of adjectives seems out of place.” More of the gushing praise continued for Bernhardt, whose “horizon of her lofty art seems at an almost infinite distance” and “like to perfect harmony in music.” The managers, McLain and Lehman, were pleased to announce that “The Divine Sarah” was appearing at the Grand Opera House on 14 September and offered that “nowhere will her surrounding, the appreciation to be shown, or the satisfaction to be realized, [would] be more fitting and appropriately concomitant to her genius” than at the theater.
In addition to the aforementioned program elements, it is always interesting to see the variety of advertisers in publications like these, including grocers, tailors and dressmakers, photographers, and others. One particularly notable ad is for William H. Hoegee’s business, then consisting of awnings, tents, sails, tarpaulins, flags, camp furniture and more, though later his company became a major sporting goods retailer. Pictured in the ad is a remarkable “Portable Dwelling and Camping House” which a four-gabled roof and cupola at the top and examples of which were for rent that summer at the recently established resort town of Redondo Beach.
The artifact is one of the earliest theater programs in the museum’s collection with only the Grand Opera House example from 1887 being older, so it is also noteworthy for being a rare instance of a late 19th century object as part of the Treading the Board series.