by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As Los Angeles grew dramatically in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so did its stature in the arts, whether this was to do with music, art, motion pictures, or the theater, and this latter is the focus of today’s entry in the “Treading the Boards” series of posts. The highlighted artifact from the Museum’s collection is the program for the week of 22 August 1910 for the Belasco Theatre, situated on the west side of Main Street just north of 4th Street and above the Van Nuys Hotel.
The venue was built in 1904 by Frederick Belasco, brother of the renowned producer David Belasco, and their nephew Maurice Mayer, with the partners owning a couple of San Francisco theaters and looking to expand their portfolio. The theater was built over several months with the design by local architect Abram M. Edelman, son of the first rabbi in the Angel City, Abram W. Edelman. The contractor was Philip H. Wilson and the mason was W.A. Dumcombe.
With a seating capacity of 1,200, the Belasco had a large balcony for the time, a half-dozen boxes on each side and six loges on the orchestra section of the floor, well designed for theater parties, while the color scheme, reflected in early programs, was green, gold and ivory. It was added, in a 16 August 1904 article in the Los Angeles Times that “the stage is of ample proportions for the production of the largest plays, and is particularly well adapted [for] the requirements of a stock organization.”
The account observed that plays to be produced “includes [a] wide variety, ranging from the light farces of frivolity to the romantic and classic drama of serious purpose.” Most were to be new to the Angel City’s theater-going public with the first production being “The Wife,” credited to David Belasco and Henry C. De Mille, whose son, Cecil, became one of biggest names in the film industry. The manager was John H. Blackwell, a former Washington, D.C. newspaper critic who was recently the business manager for Mrs. Leslie Carter, the well-known “American Sarah Bernhardt.”
Just about two weeks before the venue’s opening, Frederick Belasco came to Los Angeles and stated that he and Mayer were looking to establish “the most important theatrical circuit in the west” with their two San Francisco theaters, the Belasco, a recent acquisition in Oakland and, expected over the next couple of months, venues in Denver, Salt Lake City and Seattle.
A major competitor, also growing his theatrical empire, was Alexander Pantages, whose first Angel City theater opened in September 1910. Belasco added “I will be mightily surprised if the play-goers of this city do not concur in my declaration that it is indeed a theater to which they may refer with pride.”
On 30 August, in its review of the opening, the Times called the Belasco “an exquisite theater” and approvingly noted “a brilliant scene—not gaudy, but refined brilliance, enriched by the lavish yet tasteful decoration of the house.” Among the luminaries in attendance was Mayor Meredith P. Snyder and Governor George Pardee, as well as well-known critic and writer William Winter, in from New York City. It was noted that workers were busy until the previous evening and the murals were not yet complete, but the event was deemed “a social and artistic success.”
In summer 1910, Blackwood was the president and general manager of the theater under the Belasco-Blackwood Company and the featured performance for the week of 22 August was “A Contented Woman,” written by Charles Hoyt at the end of the 19th century as a farcical commentary on woman suffrage.
As noted by local papers, the timing of resurrecting the play, however, was excellent as California would, the following year, join the growing ranks of states that allowed women to vote in state and local elections, with national suffrage coming in 1919 with the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution.
One of the early pre-show notices stated that tickets for a performance were purchased by the Native Sons and Native Daughters of the Golden West for the 9 September commemoration of California’s admission to the Union six decades before. A rehearsal a week ahead purportedly demonstrated “a state of perfection seldom noted until the final rehearsal” as all cast members, save the principal male, were veterans of the production.
A summary of the play printed in several regional newspapers observed that “A Contented Woman” was written by Hoyt (whose string of musical comedies in the 1880s and 1890s made him famous, though the loss of his two actor wives, a baby son and his reckless reactions including drinking and escapades that led to his contracting syphilis left him a wreck and he died in 1900,) “long before the movement for a general enfranchisement for women-folk was started.” It was also considered superior to other works on the topic of suffrage.
The basis for the work was a movement in Denver that led to the passage in 1893 of a woman suffrage bill for the state of Colorado, but, of course, rendered in an over-the-top farcical manner. The gist was that a couple ran against each other for mayor of the Mile High City over the hotly contested issue and, while Grace Holme, played by Helene Sullivan, bests Benton, portrayed by Richard Vivian (the sole major cast member who was new to the work), “she realizes that, after all, the proper sphere of woman is her home life.” It turned out, moreover, that her enemies in the political world learn she did not meet the minimum age qualification, so she was forced to vacate the position anyway.
The day of the first performance, the Times observed that “A Contented Woman” was “made timely by the current suffrage agitation” and so constituted “a well-burnished revival,” including the one name among the cast that some readers might recall, veteran character actor Charles Ruggles, a Los Angeles native who has the rare distinction of three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his work in film, radio and television and whose brother Wesley, who achieve distinction as a director, including with the Oscar-winning western, Cimarron (1931).
Among the reviews was one in the Los Angeles Record of the 23rd, which observed:
Whether the audience or the Belasco players got more fun from Monday night’s performance of Hoyt’s burlesque on [the] vote for women . . . will never be determined but had the hilarity on each side of the footlights been weighed, the weight might have rested with the thespians; and there was no gloom in the house. A better-pleased crown never left the Belasco.
As for the performers, they provided “a bubbling zest that made it all a snapping, rattling show,” though the unnamed critic allowed that the musical side of the performance was “out of deference for the traditions of a Hoyt farce,” though “no other reason was visible or audible.” Ida Lewis, who went on to work in film, was praised for her work as “Aunt Jim,” a voluble suffragette, while James Applebee, who played her “hen-pecked husband,” also was singled out, as was Sullivan. The view concluded that the play, “brought forth from the vintage of 1895 in many of its jibes and jabs[,] as equal rights is a satire on itself.”
The Times of the 24th seemed more ambivalent, stating that the play “seems to leave a contented audience, notwithstanding a thermometer of infernal indications.” While “A Contented Woman” was affirmed as “certainly a good farce,” the reviewer, also unidentified, added, “the humor seems to possess the wearing qualities of hotel soap.” It didn’t help that a rotund gent behind the discontented critic was possessed with “submarine rumblings, bubblings and finally positive detonations of mirth.
Exclaiming that “I never can get any real, solemn enjoyment out of a funny play,” even though this was a plainly advertised farce, the writer sourly noted that this was because of the fact that “the goat next to me will idiotically insist on laughing.” The reviewer did allow that “I didn’t blame the Man Behind for his guffaws” when it came to the performance of Applebee. As for Lewis, “one can fancy her Carrienationizing [Carrie Nation was a hatchet-wielding temperance fighter who died in 1911] a polling place with nothing more dangerous than an umbrella.”
Ruggles was given credit for his work in that “his rough-neck character is a bit of smooth-neck art” for an actor who was “always a master at concealing his own personality.” Among others noticed for their roles, Adele Farrington, who made many movies in the Teens and Twenties and who was married to stage and film star Hobart Bosworth, sang the best musical piece in the play and “she has as many encores as she likes, and a few more.”
A knock on the musical portion of the work, apparently, came at the end of the piece in which it was stated that octogenarian men were to be disappointed in the lack of a chorus, although Blackwood and his treasurer A.C. Jones “were thinking at one time, of appearing as show girl and pony, respectively.” So, it seems there was a grudging admission that the play was enjoyable, if dated and unnecessary for the modern theatrical world of 1910.
With respect to the program, it noted that the following week, the Belasco “will give the first performance by any stock company in the world of Charles Rann Kennedy’s great play, The Servant in the House,” and promoted the appearance of Bosworth, who was one of film’s earliest major stars including one of the first movies shot in Los Angeles and which featured Frank Montgomery, later the director and husband of star Princess Mona Darkfeather or Josephine Workman, granddaughter of Homestead founders William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste.
Another upcoming performance was “Such a Little Queen” starring Lewis S. Stone, whose 1908 appearance at the Temple Auditorium was the topic of a post on this blog and who went on to great note in film as a best actor nominee in 1929 and as the jurist father of Mickey Rooney’s Andy Hardy in the very popular series of the 1930s and 1940s.
Also of interest are the many advertisements, which, of course, allowed for the program to be distributed free to Belasco patrons, with examples including Christopher’s confectionary and its ice cream bricks; outing suits for women at William H. Hoegee‘s sporting goods store; the Bimini Hot Springs at “The Velvet Bath;” South Pasadena’s Cawston’s Ostrich Farm and the venue’s downtown store; the Mercer Car, promoted by Stone; the New Chutes Park which noted that “no intoxicating liquors [were] allowed in the park;” and, speaking of alcohol, which would soon be subjected to local and national Prohibition, two alcoholism treatment centers.
Concerning the Belasco Theatre, it existed for only a couple more years, as it was closed, with the venue becoming the Republic Theatre at the end of 1912 and then, from 1919 the Follies, which specialized in burlesque and “cheap skin flicks” for well over a half-century. In 1974, the building was torn down and a parking lot replaced it, though the construction of the Ronald Reagan State Building and a smaller lot are now on the site.
There are about ten other Belasco Theatre programs from this theater in the Museum’s holdings, so we’ll look to share them in future posts. In 1926, Edward, sibling of David and Frederick, opened a new Belasco venue on Hill Street between 10th and 11th and that still is with us as a Live Nation concert hall. For loads of information and great images on the original Belasco, check out the page on the Los Angeles Theatres blog.