Treading the Boards with the Victorian-Era Melodrama “After Dark,” Erlanger’s Biltmore Theatre, Los Angeles, October 1929

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Previous posts on this blog in the “Treading the Boards” series dealing with Los Angeles theatrical history prior to 1930 have included coverage of performances of modern and experimental plays, especially during the Roaring Twenties, but today’s entry dealt with a several week run in fall 1929 that was purely about nostalgia and “good old-fashioned” entertainment.

The same month that the stock market crashed in New York City and ushered in the Great Depression, Angel City playgoers flocked to Erlanger’s Biltmore Theatre, a venue behind (west of) the hotel of that name that remains a major landmark in downtown Los Angeles, for the revival of an 1869 work by Irish playwright Dion Boucicault called “After Dark.”

Los Angeles Herald, 7 November 1887.

The play, subtitled “A Drama of London Life,” though that was changed in 1929 to “Neither Maid, Wife nor Widow,” was not regarded as highly for the intricacies of the plot or the complexity of the characters so much as for the recreation on the stage of the seedier sides of the capital city of the British empire and the somewhat hackneyed topic of a well-to-do man seeking to claim a fortune by marrying his cousin while forsaking his wife.

Boucicault, a veteran of “Victorian suspense” plot devices that involved using mirrors to creatively simulate near-drownings in ponds, rotating prison walls to show daring escapes, and exploding ships, coopted an American playwright’s pioneering use of tying a character to a railroad track—a device used repeatedly in stage and film work for decades thereafter. In this case, it was using the London Underground subway system, which opened earlier in the 1860s, to great dramatic effect.

Los Angeles Express, 7 July 1894.

“After Dark” with its clear delineation of dastardly villains and upright heroes was immediately popular in Britain as well as in the United States and its first performance in Los Angeles was in 1887, during the great Boom of the 1880s that burst forth in greater Los Angeles, at Hazard’s Pavilion at Fifth and Olive streets, across from Central or Sixth Street Park (now Pershing Square), just a short distance east of where the Biltmore opened in 1924. It returned a few more times through the end of the 19th century and a 1915 film version was also shown in the Angel City.

The return of the play in October 1929, coming just as the stock market crash in New York City was imminent and which ushered in the Great Depression, came after a revival proved quite popular in eastern American cities. The highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s holdings for this post is a program that played up the effort of the producer Hal Espey to recreate as much of late 1860s London as possible for an immersive experience for the audience. So, for example, the item stated that the “Engagement Extraordinary” and featuring the pointed finger symbol (an ancient “emoji” of sorts?) common to the era, was followed by the note that it was for a “Third Week Beginning October 21, 1869,” rather than 1929.

Express, 2 October 1929.

Because there was so much enthusiasm in other productions (in Hoboken, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland and San Francisco) represented by a great deal of audience response, including hisses, boos and catcalls for villains and the opposite for the more heroic characters, the item contained this notable request, though it may be that this was part of the period atmosphere:

The management is grateful for the enthusiastic reception given this famous old melodrama, and trusts that audiences will distinguish between appreciative hilarity and noisy interruption which perils the enjoyment of the play and embarasses [sic] the actors. An excess of hilarity on the part of a few spectators who are unaccustomed to the artistic traditions of the old-fashioned melodrama can go far towards marring the pleasure of a very carefully planned production. The management appeals to our patron’s [sic] sense of fair play to control their high spirits within the bounds of good manners. Patrons will confer a favor by pointing out to the ushers anyone whose conduct is a nuisance.

The listing of scenes in the four acts, including names of songs is provided and in the section for the final act, there was another admonition that “it is earnestly requested that the patrons of this Theatre refrain from eating peanuts, as it mars the performance and annoys the audience. This rule will be enforced. Children in Arms admitted only at matinees.” As for the famous railroad scene at the end of the third act, it was noted that this constituted “the Most novel Effects Ever seen on any stage. THE MONSTER COMES!”

Venice Vanguard, 3 October 1929.

In addition to the cast, which was the same that performed during the Chicago engagement, the Espey staff was listed, including general manager Frank Wilcox, who was one of the lead actors, while William A. Brady, who was in his mid-20s when he produced the play when it was first performed in America in the late 1860s, was credited as allowing for it “by arrangement.” This came by legal action he filed against Espey, though Brady was also subject to a suit in 1869 by American playwright Augustin Daly, who claimed the railroad scene was plagiarized from his own “Under the Gaslight,” produced in 1867.

There was a good deal of advance publicity and anticipation of the revival of “After Dark,” with the 1 October 1929 edition of the Los Angeles Times observing that “scribes writing about the current vogue” of the play, “make much of the fact that much of the joy is elicited by the actions of the audiences themselves.” This included patrons’ proclivities to “cheer the hero, hiss the villain and weep at the heroine’s tribulations” so that the demonstrations meant that “the patrons [are] as active in entertaining themselves as the actors in performing that chore.” It was even reported that, in San Francisco, actors were pelted with coins and getting welts, so managers requested that audience members throw paper money to the performers instead.

Los Angeles Record, 5 October 1929.

The Venice Vanguard of the 3rd, noting that the play was only to have a very short run of a few days, stated that “contrariwise to all traditions of show business this ancient cadaver has been resurrected by no less potent a pulmotor than that erratic but powerful force—public approval,” though it was and remains very much a tradition to bring back many old chestnuts, whether of Shakespeare or others.

The paper added that the Hoboken engagement was so well received that the play was mounted in the other cities noted above “to prove that the come back . . . was not a flash in the pan.” Moreover, continued the account, “all of the current productions are done seriously in the manner of long ago. Therein lies the charm” because “to oldsters it may conjure up fond memories of youth,” while younger audience members were to find that “its crudities provide a source of double distilled fun.”

Los Angeles Times, 6 October 1929.

That day’s edition of the Los Angeles Express observed that there was, as the headline noted, “Talent Galore in Hokum Play,” and noted:

What with stories that a real bar with almost real beverages is about to be opened as an atmospheric adjunct, a snorting, whistling, ringing locomotive parading the streets as a ballyhoo, advertising matter that harks back to velocipede days, interest in “After Dark” has reached a pitch that may well fill the heart of Dion Boucicault’s shade with pride.

The paper expounded on this aspect of a bar the following day as it stated that “signboards announcing the thirst-allaying beverages of the pre-Volstead [Prohibition] era flamboyantly assail the visions of passers-by.” This included the fact that “the basement of the playhouse is given over to a honest-to-goodness barroom” and it was reported that “visiting the saloon in San Francisco became almost a rite during its stay in the Bay City.”

Express, 8 October 1929.

On the 6th, the Express opined that the ghost of the playwright would be spinning in his grave over “the manner in which his gaudy old melodrama is received by the audiences” as well as “in contemplation of the royalties he don’t cut in on [sic.]” With respect to theatergoer reaction, it was stated that “the very things that Boucicault designed to do most harrowing will call forth the loudest laughter from the ’29 patrons.”

On the other hand, “there is no attempt to burlesque the veteran” so that the play is performed as it was six decades before and it was opined that “perhaps in this sophisticated age that is the secret of its vogue.” Notably, it was added that, along with “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” the play was was perhaps the most profitable in theater history and that Brady was receiving royalties (he did lose everything during the subsequent depression), while Boucicault’s heirs did not. In terms of ticket buyers, it was recorded elsewhere in that day’s edition that “the number of oldsters who wish to revive acquaintance with the ancient melodrama is remarkable.”

Express, 10 October 1929.

In its edition of the 7th, the day before the opening, the Los Angeles Record noted that there would not only be the “oldtime bar with all its ante[sic]-Volstead features save the anti-Volstead over one-half of one percent,” this being the limit of alcohol in such Prohibition-era beverages as “near beer,” but old sports and theater posters, a “sliding-top” lunch counter and much else to lend the aura of six decades before.

As for reviews of that opening night, Monroe Lathrop of the Express wrote that “the audience was at least half the show” and that with the decoration of the Biltmore “here is a gorgeous document of the playhouse of the late nineteenth century, with its villains and gambling hells, its forged and incriminating documents, its love faithful unto death and heroes saved from the cold water of the North River and the wheels of the onrushing locomotive in the tunnel.” The theater, Lathrop continued, “has . . . become a museum of oratorical actors, grandiloquent dialogue, and—can you believe it!—original theme songs.”

Record, 12 October 1929.

“After Dark,” the critic went on, was a play such that “its sublime naivete includes some pretty ghastly comedy” while its “spectacle” of an ornate dance hall featured a “righteous code” that was “as carefully guarded as those of our own speakeasies.” It was reported that the audience participation was at least partially “egged on by a claque [a group hired for heckling or applauding] planted at judicious points about the theater,” though others were “folks who were having a spontaneous good time.”

Yet, Lathrop stated that while Boucicault was a “master of hokum in his time, who surely wrote with his tongue in his cheek,” most of the actors “better the instruction . . . with overplay, noise and grimace.” To the critic, this overacting tended to “push the anachronisms at what they seem to regard as a stupid audience.

Times, 13 October 1929.

Philip K. Scheuer of the Times began his review by observing

The Biltmore Theater, one of the more refined and genteel playhouses of our city, last evening suffered such a horrifying loss of dignity as has not been noted in these parts for many years.

The play was “After Dark,” . . . [and] it will prove an unmitigated delight to everyone who loves the theater—and even, I am tempted to add, the circus. Acted to the hilt by a troupe versed in the delineation of palmy-day character, it abounds in humor and pathos and thrills of that dear dead day when heroes felt so honest a passion for heroines that they could confess it without a blush, and for their pains were laid before onrushing locomotives charging from the mouths of tunnels.

Highlighted was the copious use of the device of the aside, which, it was noted, preceded Eugene O’Neill and his modern masterpiece, “Strange Interlude,” (this play appearing at the Biltmore in March 1929) by decades, so that Scheuer noted that one of the more amusing parts of the performance was “the earnest and intense manner in which the players turn to the audience and divulge their deductions, to the obliviousness of those who are standing no more than a foot or two away from them.”

After praising many of the actors including Wilcox and Burns (a Los Angeles native who went to appear in several films during the 1930s), the critic concluded that “the numerous others you will discover for yourself when you settle into your seat at the Biltmore for an evening which your grandparents would have accepted as quite in the natural order of events, but which to you will be a unique and vivifying experience of quite another—and to them undreamt-of-kind.”

It turned out that the replica saloon proved to be immensely popular, as the Express, in its issue of the 10th, reported that some 1,500 audience members on opening night tried to get into the venue, which could only accommodate 200 at a time, while the next night the saloon was almost as much in demand. It was reported that Erlanger’s manager, V.E. Kennedy, was seeking possible additional space in the Biltmore Hotel’s galleria or in the garage across 5th Street from the theater.

On the 13th, Wilcox was asked by the Express if the revival was a fad, but responded that, while he thought so initially, he observed that no other play seeking to capitalize on the success of “After Dark” could do so. Noting that Espey called him to organize the production in Chicago, the actor and general manager told the paper that he occasionally sat incognito in the audience when not performing, and,

I concluded after watching many, many performances, and later as a member of the cast, playing a role, that the play wasn’t succeeding because it was simply a freak. The old melodrama has something the public wants. It has sentiment—tearful, unashamed unadorned sentiment. It has drama, the hearty, roaring drama of villainy thwarted and virtue rewarded, minus the vulgarity and obscenity of so many modern plays. It points a trend, in its old-fashioned way, in theater-going taste. The public wants romance, and if it can’t get it in modern drama, it will be old-fashioned, by gum!

Given the hiring, earlier in the Roaring Twenties, of Will Hays as director of the a national motion picture association and his ongoing efforts for more “clean” entertainment in the movies, leading, after a decade or so, to the establishment of the “Hays Code,” Wilcox’s comments are particularly interesting.

This program is another great artifact from the Museum’s holdings relating to the stage in pre-1930 Los Angeles and is especially noteworthy concerning the “fad” of “After Dark” as a play which, apparently, drew large audiences for five weeks, well beyond its original engagement length, as something of an antidote to modern plays and contemporary life—something we occasionally see in many areas of life at intervals. Speaking of intervals, “After Dark” was revived for its 150th anniversary with performances in London, though it was given some updating and reimagining.

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