Treading the Boards with Theatrical Actor Gertrude Workman (1885-1972)

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

A comment from Cheryl Temple, a Homestead docent and wife of a Temple family member, on the Museum’s Facebook post concerning yesterday’s “Treading the Boards” post on a mid-December 1908 program from the Mason Opera House in Los Angeles mentioned that there was a stage actor in the Workman family and this stirred a long-dormant memory of a long-ago conversation on that subject.

David D. Furman (1917-2008), who was the Attorney General for New Jersey and a Superior Court judge in the law, chancery and appellate divisions, told me that his mother, Gertrude D. Workman (1885-1972), was a professional actor, but this had been all but forgotten until Cheryl’s comment rekindled the recollection. Notably, Gertrude’s second cousin was Josephine M. Workman (1882-1977), who lived next door as their fathers (and first cousins) William H. and Joseph Workman were quite close.

A cabinet card photo from about 1890 of the Workman sisters, Mary Julia, Elizabeth, Charlotte and at the lower center, Gertrude, from the Homestead collection.

Josephine, who performed as a whistler in Los Angeles theaters as early as 1897, went on to be a successful silent film star during the first half or so of the 1910s as Princess Mona Darkfeather. Gertrude began as a thespian in amateur circles as a teenager in school plays, while also being well-known for her readings and recitations. In 1914, however, she headed to New York to pursue a professional career on the stage and, for about seven or eight years performed there and elsewhere on the eastern seaboard, as well as a lengthy engagement in Los Angeles in 1921-1922 before she seems to have retired from acting.

She was born the second-youngest of the seven children of William H. Workman (1839-1918) and Maria (pronounced Mah-rye-ah) Boyle (1847-1933). Her mother’s father Andrew Boyle purchased land on the east side of the Los Angeles River in what was known as Paredon Blanco (White Bluff) because of the exposed cliffs above the watercourse and, in addition to running a shoe store, was also a winemaker and dealer. In 1867, Maria married William H., who was a long-time partner with his brother Elijah in a successful saddlery and harness business.

The Workman family in the 1900 census at their Boyle Heights estate.

After Andrew Boyle’s death in 1871, the couple maintained his property, but as Los Angeles’ first boom intensified by mid-decade, a portion was subdivided and, with banker Isaias W. Hellman and merchant John Lazzarovich, William H. established, in spring 1875, the subdivision of Boyle Heights. Workman was also politically active, having served on the city’s board of education and Common (City) Council through much of the late 1860s and the 1870s, and, when Gertrude was a toddler was elected mayor and served a single term in 1887 and 1888, during the next and much larger boom. From 1901 to 1907, he served three terms as city treasurer.

It was during that era that Gertrude, who attended the Cumnock School of Expression and was a 1905 graduate of the private Girls’ Collegiate School, began to attract attention for her acting and directing abilities, with these focused initially in amateur performances throughout the Angel City. Some of the earliest publicity she received in local newspapers were for benefit entertainments she organized for the Brownson House, a settlement house working with immigrants and people of color in a gritty area west of the river that is now completely industrial. The institution was under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church and Gertrude’s eldest sibling, Mary Julia, was a founder and long-time president of the association that managed it.

Los Angeles Express, 28 December 1906.

For the Christmas season of 1906, there were many festivities, but, on the 28th, came what the Los Angeles Express called “the best part of the program,” this being “a dramatization by Miss Gertrude Workman of ‘The Birds’ Christmas Carol'” by Kate Douglas Wiggin, who’d briefly lived in Los Angeles while training to teach kindergarten and who went on to write the famous Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903). Her holiday story was her second published work, appearing in 1888, and proceeds were directed to the San Francisco kindergarten she established a decade prior.

The performance was by children from the Brownson Sunday School and Bishop Thomas J. Conaty of the Monterey-Los Angeles Diocese was an honored guest. The paper noted that the play was rendered in front of a Christmas tree which had the novelty of being decorated with electric lights. The rendition was “cleverly acted, and the performers won the hearty applause which they received.” Gertrude went on to organize and direct several benefit entertainments for the institution in succeeding years, including one in 1908 that featured the famous Helena Modjeska, whose country estate in a canyon in the Santa Ana Mountains is an Orange County historic site.

Los Angeles Times, 29 March 1908.

In spring 1908, Gertrude played the lead in the Haresfoot Dramatic Club’s offering of The Deceiver at the Cumnock School’s hall, while her younger brother Thomas also had a role. That summer, she played Mrs. Darling in a production of Peter Pan at the Temple Auditorium to benefit the Los Angeles Orphans’ Home, located in Boyle Heights and which was raising funds for a library. A fall benefit concert at the Cumnock for those impacted by severe flooding in Georgia included Gertrude’s acting and she returned to the venue in spring 1909 for another amateur theatrical.

With these few years of increasing local renown for her abilities under her belt, Gertrude enrolled at Stanford University and graduated in 1912, with she becoming an officer for a judicial board of discipline for women students and a leader in the Stanford Suffrage League, which advocated for women’s voting rights in local and state elections that finally (and narrowly) passed in 1911.

Express, 10 April 1909.

Gertrude also garnered significant attention for her performances in school plays. In late October 1910, she had the leading female role in George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple, adjudged to be “the most pretentious dramatic offering ever attempted by Stanford students.” She and male lead Harry Seward, also from Los Angeles, were “considered the best Thespians now appearing on the Stanford stage” and performed together frequently over their time together at the university. Another example of her work was in her last semester in 1912 in which she had a major role in The Admirable Crichton, another work by James M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan.

Upon graduation and her return to Los Angeles, Gertrude resumed her amateur theatrical work, but in a more developed and organized fashion. She joined the Amateur Players’ Club soon after coming back from Stanford, was an early member of the Little Theater, which was part of a movement discussed in an earlier post on this blog, and was the founding secretary and then president of the Los Angeles Drama League, which also included Mrs. Samuel T. Clover (Mabel Hitt) as a leading light.

Express, 7 February 1912.

Gertrude was also a sought-after speaker, including for readings and recitations, as well as for lectures. In spring 1914, she addressed the Van Nuys Woman’s Club on “Modern Drama and Dramatists” and focused on three writers, Henrik Ibsen, Maurice Maeterlink, and George Middleton. The Van Nuys News of 15 May reported that her presentation “was most interestingly presented and kept the rapt attention of all present,” while her readings from the trio of playwrights “well merited the enthusiastic applause that each received.”

At the end of July 1914, the 29-year old decided it was time to set her aims substantially higher and the Los Angeles Times of the 30th reported,

Gertrude Workman, a well-known amateur player, and daughter of a well-known old California family, left yesterday for New York to undertake a professional career.

Miss Workman has had a thorough training in the dramatic schools of this city and is recognized as a girl of unusual talent and charm.

In the highly competitive world of Big Apple theater, she secured, by September, a role in a play called Help Wanted and followed this early in 1915 with a part in Maternity, an adaptation of a 1904 French work by Eugene Brieux and which dealt with birth out-of-wedlock, opened at the Princess Theatre on Broadway and starred the well-known Richard Bennett—though the piece closed after just 21 performances.

Times, 30 July 1914.

Perhaps one of those who saw Gertrude demonstrate her theatrical talents soon after her arrival in the Big Apple was Walter F. Furman, a California native then living in New York City, as the couple became engaged in October 1915 and were wed the following March. Yet, while most women upon marriage abandoned their careers, Gertrude, who gave birth to her only child, David, in 1917, continued her acting and did so using her maiden name.

She had something of a triumphant return to her home town in August 1921 when she appeared in The Ruined Lady, a two-act comedy written by Frances Nordstrom (who also wrote for movies) and whose male lead was Edward Everett Horton, best known for his many character roles in films along with work in radio and television, at the Majestic Theatre. The play had ran for several weeks, with the Los Angeles Record of the 20th briefly noting that Gertrude, one of the pair of new additions to the cast, “is a well-known Los Angeles girl, her father being a former mayor of this city.”

Los Angeles Record, 20 August 1921.

When the engagement ended, Gertrude stayed for an extended period in the Angel City and was feted by family and friends while also making public appearances. In one case of the latter, she performed at the venerable Friday Morning Club, whose members were among the most elite of Angeleno women, but her presentation of a trio of “ultra-modern dramas” raised a bit of a ruckus (if such a term applies to such proper exalted environments of etiquette.)

The Express of 19 November, which observed that Gertrude was recently with the company of Jessie Bonstelle, one of the most prominent women in the theatrical realm at the time, in a company in Buffalo that included a then-unknown and inexperienced William Powell, later a major film star, expressed the view that

Although Miss Workman’s plays were most artistically produced and displayed remarkable directorial ability on the tiny and unaccustomed stage at the clubhouse, the lines of some of the characters in the plays and the profanity in their conversation proved just the straw that broke, not the proverbial camel’s back, but the serenity and conventional spirit of some of the members.

It was added that “from the cold-blooded viewpoint of the critic,” who was not named, “the entire bill was admirably handled” and “the scenic effects being produced with surprising economy of time, space and settings.” It being noted that “Miss Workman appeared in all three pictures [?] chosen to display three phases of her thespian art” and was supported by one woman and three male actors.

Express, 19 November 1921.

Curiously, the piece also opined that the presentation was a reminder of when “faithful amateurs, arrived now at [the] professional stage, began to dream and “strut and fret” across little theater stages. In fact, the little theater movement placed a great deal of emphasis on experimentation as well as delving into themes of deep moral, political and social import and this appeared to ruffle the feathers of the prominent women of the Friday Morning Club.

The 23 March 1922 edition of the Hollywood Citizen reported on a presentation given by Gertrude in the film capital, noting that “charming her audience with her first words,” Workman, who was described as having been “for some time director of dramatic interpretations in Columbia University” talked about the successes of the New York Theater Guild. Perhaps smarting still from the reaction of the Friday Morning Club, it was noted that “she expressed the wish that women’s clubs and Little Theaters in the West might join in fostering true art” while adding that so much could be accomplished in the latter that was not possible in the commercial theater realm.

Hollywood Citizen, 23 March 1922.

Gertrude read “Mr. Pim Passes By” by A.A. Milne, author of the Winnie the Pooh books, and the Citizen recorded that she

was most entertaining, and held the attention of everyone present for she managed to picture every character so distinctly as to build almost a living picture of the scenes as they passed before the eyes.

Some rapprochement obviously occurred with the Friday Morning Club, however, as Gertrude was invited back to perform at a benefit in late April to raise funds to complete the new clubhouse. The work was Milne’s play Belinda, with Workman playing the lead and the director being Lloy Galpin, who holds the long-forgotten distinction of being the first local woman to run for Congress when she finished third in a primary election in May 1923 and who was described in the article as “another interesting personality in dramatic circles from among Los Angeles girls.”

Express, 22 April 1922

After spring 1922, it appears that Gertrude’s acting career was largely curtailed, though why is not clear. The Christmas Day 1927 issue of the Times included a lengthy article on Gertrude, named as Mrs. Walter F. Furman and who was reported as heading in the Century Play Company’s original manuscripts department, which took into consideration works submitted to it by playwrights. In an interview, she explained that “the demand for one-set plays and for small-cast plays has increased very materially,” with economics being a core issue, as she added that a producer recently visited her department and asked specifically for plays in which the set didn’t change, showing little concern about anything else.

Moreover, Gertrude continued, “plot does not seem to be considered so much in plays any more. What the theater-goer appears to want very much now is atmosphere.” Plot and character, of course, mattered, but humor was also considered vital and she went on to observe that authors often are unaware “that they don’t see heavy and serious plays on the stage today.” This comment is interesting given her Friday Morning Club experience just half a decade earlier.

Times, 25 December 1927.

Workman also discussed how her company kept the rights to stock theater works almost every time a piece was sold for production on Broadway, which was, of course, of great benefit to the playwright and she noted that the biggest success of 1927 for Century was the play Porgy, later rendered into Porgy and Bess and which premiered in October. There was also a rise in stock theaters, while Gertrude identified two main types of audiences, with those in bigger cities wanting to see the latest Broadway smash, while smaller city playgoers were largely interested still in older works.

In the 1930 census, Gertrude, living with her steel industry executive spouse and their son, listed her occupation as “theatricals broker,” so she may have moved to another part of the Century firm or went to another company entirely. Ten years later, she had no occupation listed in the census, but, in 1937 she was reported in a newspaper article as a literary agent for playwright Jean Ferguson Black, best known for her work, Penny Wise.

Gertrude listed in the 1930 census as a “Theatricals Broker” while residing with her husband and son at South Orange, New Jersey.

In the 1950 census, her vocation was given as “theatrics play agent” and she occasionally gave talks to community groups on the theater world, as well as a turn on the stage from time to time. When Gertrude turned 80 in 1965 and was visiting, the Times called her “one of the earliest instigators of little theater in Los Angeles. Seven years later, she passed away just prior to the death of her younger brother, Thomas.

Thanks again to Cheryl for the comment and the jarring of the cobwebs in the deep recesses of the memory concerning Gertrude Workman, a notable figure in early 20th century theater in the Angel City!

Leave a Reply