by Paul R. Spitzzeri
She’s generally forgotten now, but Lillian Albertson (1881-1962) was a theatrical sensation in he first few decades of the 20th century, first as a stage actor, then as a director and producer, with her peak probably being the long run at the Majestic Theatre in Los Angeles of “The Desert Song” a musical with a story by Otto Harbach, Frank Mandel and Oscar Hammerstein II (the latter would soon create “Show Boat” with Jerome Kern and then later begin his remarkable partnership with Richard Rodgers) and music by Sigmund Romberg.
First titled “Lady Fair,” the work premiered on Broadway at the end of November 1926 and ran for 465 performances. It was inspired by a rebellious group in Morocco called the Riffs and it set in 1925 when the events on which the musical were based took place. In it, a French general is sent to pacify the Riffs, who are led by a French native known only as the “Red Shadow,” who turns out to be none other than the general’s son, Pierre. The “Red Shadow” also falls in love with Margot, the fiancé of his father’s captain and, after she tells the real person behind the disguise that she hoped to be swept off her feet by someone as dashing as “The Red Shadow,” he kidnaps her.
The general eventually confronts the rebel leader and challenges him to a duel, but, naturally, the song will not consent and loses the support of the Riffs. While a dancing girl seeks to reveal the identity of the “Red Shadow” to the captain, this was successful and, though the leader’s identity is finally made known, an arrangement is made between the French and the Riffs and Pierre and Margot, of course, are able to be together for the proverbial “happy ever after” ending.
Albertson, born in Noblesville, Indiana, but raised in Los Angeles, probably migrating with her family during the famed Boom of the Eighties, which occurred later in that decade. She debuted on the stage in San Francisco just after the turn of the 20th century before venturing to New York where she secured roles quickly with the famous company of David Belasco and traveled back to Los Angeles early in 1903 to perform at the Burbank Theatre.
A well-known early play in which she starred was “Paid in Full,” though, after retiring, marrying, having a son and divorcing, she returned to the stage to produce and star in “White Collars,” which had a long, successful run in the Angel City. She also took the opportunity to leasing the theater of the powerful women’s organization, the Friday Morning Club, and renamed it the Figueroa Playhouse.
At the end of 1927, she secured a long-term lease to the Majestic, which was built nearly two decades before by M.A. Hamburger, scion of the builder of a prominent Los Angeles department store of that name (and which went to become the May Company), which was a few doors north on Broadway at 7th, while the theater and its office building were closer to 8th.
After a successful production of “Hit the Deck,” which opened at the Belasco in New York in April 1927 and enjoyed a long run on Broadway, Albertson turned to “The Desert Song,” which opened for the Christmas holiday that year and was such a success at the Majestic that it ran to mid-November 1928.
The program noted that the play, which began its Los Angeles engagement at the Windsor Theatre, on Western between 2nd and 3rd, before moving to the Majestic when Albertson secured the lease, was entering its “28th California Week” and was performed each evening, including Sundays, as well as Wednesday and Saturday matinees and it also observed that “The Desert Song” was simultaneously running in Chicago and London, as well as New York.
Pierre/The Red Shadow was played by Perry Askam, who also entered the theater world at San Francisco, though he worked on Broadway after concluding his service in World War I, first with the French Army and then with the American Expeditionary Force after the United States joined the allies in spring 1917. Askam played the role in a production of “The Desert Song” in San Francisco in spring 1928 and then signed on to reprise it for Albertson in Los Angeles. Askam’s older brother Earl played the lieutenant of the Red Shadow.
The young actor and singer who played Margot was Elvira Tanzi, an 18-year old Los Angeles resident of Italian descent for whom great things were predicted when she garnered rave reviews for her performance and her singing, though she never broke out beyond her local success in “The Desert Song.”
The dancing girl who sought to unmask the Red Shadow was Nenette Vallon, a native of France, who went on to have a minor film career. Johnny Arthur played a French journalist and appeared in the 1929 film version of the musical and is probably best known for playing Darla Hood’s father in the Our Gang shorts. Myrtis Crinsley, who played the reporter’s secretary, also had a brief film career in the late Twenties and through the 1930s.
As “The Desert Song” continued its long run with the start of July, the Los Angeles Times on the first day of the month observed,
That women are becoming more and more prominent in the business and financial world cannot be denied. The same might well apply to the theatrical field . . . today we find women in the producing field, though admittedly few and far between. The only one in the West is Lillian Albertson, under whose management “The Desert Song” is now appearing at the Majestic Theater and whose production of “Hit the Deck” proved a great drawing card in this same house recently.
The article noted that Albertson employed 125 persons and the payroll amount “remains right here in Los Angeles, where the railroad companies, hotels, apartment-houses, restaurants, department stores and merchants generally are benefited thereby.” She told the paper, moreover, the most of the talent for her productions were local, with just a few exceptions, “believing that within the boundaries of this State is more talent and ability to the square inch than in any other State in the country.”
On the 3rd, the Los Angeles Record pointed out that “The Desert Song” was nearing its 250th performance at the Majestic and that it “shows promise of breaking a lot of records. Having completed its 27th week, the paper continued, it “is proving the biggest kind of a hit,” and the Friday the 13th show would turn out to be more than lucky, as that was to be the landmark 250th consecutive performance.
The paper even found it newsworthy, two days later, to highlight a non-human actor in the musical, the donkey known as Black Bottom, a name bestowed on the beast by Arthur, as well as Borax and “sugar donkey,” because Vallon referred to the creature as so sweet. The Borax name, however, came from his infamous owner, Death Valley Scotty, who convinced a wealthy Chicago investor in Death Valley mines Scotty insisted were full of valuable minerals and had the man build the remarkable mansion and complex available to visitors as Scotty’s Castle. Purportedly, the donkey had to be coaxed into becoming an actor thanks to generous helpings of lumps of sugar provided by Albertson.
On the 7th, the Los Angeles Express ran a brief feature on Tanzi, “the little Italian prima donna” who came from a family of musicians and singers, and who held something of a reception in her dressing room after a recent performance of “The Desert Song” including one of her former local schoolmates. The paper added, “she talks as easily as she smiles or cries” and noted that “charm must be acquired, and Tanzi has been collecting it since she made her first courtesy (curtsy) to the public in Los Angeles scarcely one year ago.” The piece ended by asserting, “And that’s Elvira Tanzi, who after capturing the hearts of San Francisco theatergoers, has returned to Los Angeles” with her stating, “my heart is here, and ‘home is just where the heart is.'”
As for Crinsley, she was given a brief bit of publicity in the Los Angeles Record, also on the 7th, as it was related that she was a dancer, but, she told the paper, “I found out that I could sing before audiences, because the heat, one day several summers ago, made me too lazy to dance.” She asked the manager of a show if she could sing a tune instead of offer her dance number and, though cautiously given permission, “the tremendous ovation received” led the astonished manager to order her to include the song each performance. The article concluded “since then Miss Crinsley has been developing her voice, but never forgetting her dance.”
On the 10th, the Times reported that “‘The Desert Song’ continues to pack the Majestic Theater at every performance” despite expectations that there would be a diminishing of interest after its early success. The paper added that Askam’s vocalizing was developing “in richness and power since he was last seen here” and that the teenage Tanzi “is well on her way to real stardom.” Arthur and Crinsley were praised for their comedic prowess, which, of course, also involved Black Bottom as part of the light-hearted elements of the performance.
The Express of the same day concurred in expressing that the musical was “surging on like a mountain torrent, though the verbiage was almost verbatim from the Times piece, suggesting these were advertising pieces from Albertson and the Majestic. In any case, “The Desert Song” continued its run for nearly four more months and was clearly the highlight in the producer’s Los Angeles career.
As for her lease of the Majestic, it looks to have ended briefly about 1930, been renewed in 1031 for the performance of “Paris in Spring” and then ended again. Perhaps it was the influence of the worsening Great Depression that began in fall 1929, but it turned out that the Majestic was soon to have its run come to an end. In 1933, the shuttered theater and building were razed after a comparatively short existence of a quarter century.
In any case, this program is representative of the venue, but, especially, of its remarkable lessee, who was a rare example of a woman actor turned director and producer and, evidently, the only of her kind in the western United States at that time. For a great deal of information and many photos of the venue, please see the Majestic’s page on the Los Angeles Theatres blog.