by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As Los Angeles’ theatrical community grew during the first decades of the 20th century, there was a veritable burst of new theaters, companies, and acting schools in the Angel City, especially during the Roaring Twenties. One of the leading figures in that world was Marta Oatman (1873-1949), though she has long been forgotten, and for about twenty years she was widely regarded as an acting coach and director on the local stage.
Oatman was born Marta Giertz in Daberkow in what was long the province of Pomerania in Prussia, but which, two years before her birth, became part of a unified German Empire. When she was seven years old, in 1881, her father Carl, a builder, and mother Lena Mediger migrated, with their several children, to the United States and settled in Kane County, just west of Chicago. Lena died just months after their arrival and Carl married Minnie Schultz five years later.
It is not clear how Marta got into acting, but, in 1897, the Chicago Chronicle reported that she appeared as an “elocutionist,” which could mean that she gave a dramatic reading, at a church concert in Elgin, where the family long resided. Perhaps she appeared in amateur productions after that, though Marta married in spring 1898 to Jesse B. Oatman, the only child of dairyman Edward Oatman and Louise Browning.
Shortly afterward, the Oatman clan packed up and headed west, where they settled in the Highgrove community just northwest of Riverside, where Edward became a prominent orange grower. Within a few years, however, Marta and Jesse divorced and she found her way to the professional stage and, by 1909, she was in touring companies, with an early performance reviewed in Indianapolis that summer.
A February 1910 notice in the Detroit Free Press stated that
a curious combination of ability and opportunity was shown in the way a young western society girl succesfully went upon the stage. Marta Oatman, of Riverside, Cal., went to New York about a year ago, studied one season at a dramatic school, appeared at a special matinee at that institution and received praise from the New York critics in their reviews . . . Miss Oatman has appeared in many of the large cities and been particularly commended for her intelligence, subtlety and emotional power, remarkable for one so new to the dramatic stage. Her experience demonstrates that talent can find a place on the modern stage and that opportunity does occasionally knock at the door of the stage aspirant of the present day.
Oatman was hardly a “young” newcomer, being already in her late thirties, but she managed to build a substantial resume over the next several years with leading roles in plays, including her star turn for two years in Madame X, written in French in 1908 and shortly adapted to English, performed throughout the country, with perhaps her best-known role being the mother of the March sisters in an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s famous Little Women.
In December 1913, when the four-act play was performed at the Majestic Theatre in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Times observed that Mrs. March was “one of the most lovable characters” and “there is special interest in the character on this occasion, as the woman who plays the part is a Riverside girl and got most of her schooling in this city.” The paper continued that “her name is Marta Oatman, and although her parents came from Berlin, Germany, she was brought to this country when she was two years old [she was, as noted above, seven], and got her education and her first stage experience here.”
A few days later, the Los Angeles Express featured the actor and repeated that she was “brought up in Los Angeles and Riverside” though she was in her late twenties when she moved from Illinois and it added, erroneously, that “she is the daughter of the late E.J. Oatman, the pioneer orange-grower of California to irrigate by gravity flow.” She was, of course, Oatman’s daughter-in-law, albeit briefly.
In any case, this piece recorded that “she made up her mind some years ago to carve out a name for herself as a writer” and noted that “most people would think a beautiful orange ranch in Southern California the most perfect spot imaginable for sitting down, far from the maddening [that would, apologies to Thomas Hardy, be “madding”] crowd, to write plays and novels.”
The Express continued that Oatman “has come back to her home city a leading woman with a manuscript novel in her trunk and a nearly-completed play which William A. Brady has accepted for publication in the fall.” The paper then quoted the actor as claiming, “I’d rather talk about the play than anything else. It is a drama dealing with evolution.” This was elaborated upon with the statement that the heroine was a “girl of the slums” and the hero “a man of the Fifth avenue [New York] class” and Oatman added “the environment of a ranch was too circumscribed” for her tale of human nature and class differences.
A month later, a Portland, Oregon newspaper added to the “history” of the actor, stating that she was born in Riverside and made her acting debut in a stock theater in San Diego, followed by work in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit and Washington. During the mid-1910s, Oatman worked with companies in Oakland, Spokane, Butte, Montana, with her Madame X being particularly popular.
In May 1916, as she was preparing to end her engagement in Spokane, Oatman told the city’s Chronicle that “my plans will take me to Riverside, Cal., before very long” and continued “that is my home, you know” and adding that she was “looking forward to a summer on the beach at Ocean Park [Santa Monica] and fishing at Catalina Island” where her dream was to land a massive tuna much as western novelist Zane Gray was widely known for. The following year she appeared as “Marta Oatman & Co.” at Lansing, Michigan in Their Double Lives and, in 1918, the troupe was performing in Houston.
When the 1920 census was taken early that year, Oatman was living in New York City with a cousin and her son and her occupation was given as “theatre actress,” but she soon afterward came back to Los Angeles. At the beginning of 1921, she was reported by the Los Angeles Express to be interested in appearing in productions put on by Frank Egan at his “little theater,” these being venues with under 100 seats and which were becoming popular in the Angel City.
Shortly afterward, Egan opened a dramatic school at the theater building on Figueroa Street near Pico Boulevard and Oatman was hired, in addition to teaching the primary acting classes two evenings a week, to assist Howard Gaye, who formerly worked for famed film director D.W. Griffith and headed the motion picture department, which operated a film studio on the structure’s roof. The site today is a parking lot across Figueroa from the Convention Center.
While Oatman continued her work treading the boards, teaching became her main vocation and, in 1923, she opened her own drama school, first with an affiliation with Thomas Wilkes Theatrical Enterprises, at a location two blocks south of Egan’s, though she continued her affilation with Egan for a time. One of her early partners was Willamene Wilkes, director of the Majestic Theatre’s stock company and there were nine other faculty members (for departments like dancing, production, stage craft, and piano for children and adults) including Shakespearian actor and leading man for about a dozen years in The Mission Play at San Gabriel, R.D. MacLean, who headed the Shakespeare section.
Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the museum’s holdings is a narrow single-sheet program for the production of The Marta Oatman Players of Walter Hackett’s Captain Applejack, which debuted on London’s West End theatrical district in 1921 as Ambrose Applejohn’s Adventure and was a hit during its year-and-a-half run. Retitled, with the subheading of “An Arabian Night’s Adventure” when it came to Broadway, the piece was also adapted to film in 1923 by Louis B. Mayer with Fred Niblo directing it under the title of Strangers of the Night and a 1931 “pre-Code” (meaning it had some risque elements before the Hays Code of censorship was introduced in 1934) talkie under the title Captain Applejack was produced by Warner Brothers.
The three-act play concerned the titular character who was tired of his life with a young ward named Poppy Faire in the country in Cornwall, in the southwestern corner of England, and was readying to sell his estate when he is visited by several strangers with varying reasons for suddenly appearing at his doorstep. That evening, Applejohn has a dream in which he has become a pirate named “Captain Applejack” and his unexpected guests were his opponents, but the next day he discovers that these strangers were actually robbers looking for buried treasure at his property. After vanquishing these thieves, Applejohn comes to the understanding that his life was hardly boring.
Oatman was the director, while two of the lead actors, Kirk Bond and Eugene Renard were also stage technicians (a set performed the first night and a second set, including some who changed roles from the previous evening, featured another cadre of actors). None of the performers appeared to have had much of a career on the stage, though Ruth Covell, who played Poppy Faire on the first evening, later married Charles Lane, a character actor of note in a huge number of films.
In its brief review of the performance, the Times of 13 October 1928 praised the “nice feeling for the purely farcical” delivered “with smoothness and comprehension” and it added that, “in spite of having been done by nearly every little theater group,” the Oatman troupe’s production “was received with enthusiasm and enjoyment by a capacity house.” Yet, the piece went on, “the performance on the whole lacked consistency and unity” even as the actors “seemed filled with the spirit of the play” particularly in the raucous second act with its piratical dream sequence.
George Belden as Applejohn needed “a dignity and polish” though he got the play’s humor even if “his pirate chief got beyond his control” as “he roared impressively and sufficiently but lost his lines in the big noise.” The other actors were mostly credited with performing well, With Covell as Poppy demonstrating “charm and finish” while Josefina Perea, a rare Latina actor in local theatrical circles, “was forceful but ight have been lighter and more posied” as the Russian robber Anna Valeska.
While the two performances were the only official ones for ths production, the Times reported on the 16th that the Oatman company took the play to Fillmore in Ventura County and did it as a benefit “for the flood sufferers,” this being in reference to the terrible disaster involving the collapse of the St. Francis Dam near Santa Clarita, which sent a huge wall of water down the Santa Clara River and through Fillmore and other areas of the Santa Clara Valley and into the Pacifif at Ventura.
Not long after this short run, Oatman decamped for extended periods to New York City to work in the theater there, though she returned to Los Angeles for stretches to resume teaching and to direct productions of works by Alexandre Dumas and George Bernard Shaw. In the early thirties she reopened her school at the Figueroa location, though she soon moved to a Hollywood venue across from Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and a couple doors down from the El Capitan. She also taught at the National Broadcasting Studios’ University of Radio to teach classes and give private lessons in “radio dramatics.”
In 1933, after a quarter century of being single (the 1920 census stated she was a widow, though her ex-husband, who remarried, lived for another five years beyond that), Oatman married George W. Brace, a successful dentist in Escondido, north of San Diego. She still operated her Los Angeles school, which moved to a Wilshire Boulevard location near the Wiltern Theatre, and briefly ran a branch in Escondido, remaining active until about the early 1940s. She died in Los Angeles in April 1949 and was buried in her early hometown of Elgin, Illinois.
This program is one of ten that are in the Homestead collection, so we’ll see about showcasing more of them in future posts under the “Treading the Boards” heading!