Treading the Boards with a Program for “Desire Under the Elms,” Wilkes’ Orange Grove Theatre, Los Angeles, 28 March 1926

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The banning of books in schools is in the news right now as the so-called “culture wars” continue to be waged on multiple fronts in American society, but, of course, there is a long history in this country of battling about the role of government in deciding what is considered moral and decent in the context of freedom of speech and choice.

The highlighted object from the Homestead’s holdings for this post is representative of this issue with the program from Wilkes’ Orange Grove Theatre being for the eighth week (that of 28 March 1926) of the staging of Eugene O’Neill’s play “Desire Under the Elms.” O’Neill is considered one of the very best of American playwrights, but his work could be shocking and immoral to those who lamented their themes and contents.

Los Angeles Record, 5 September 1924.

Notably, the work, directed in Los Angeles by Dickson Morgan, drew from Greek tragedy, both from Euripides and his play “Hippolytus,” as well as French playwright Jean Racine’s “Phédre,” in his intense drama, set in New England in 1850, about the aged patriarch Ephraim Cabot, his young third wife and his son, who has an affair with his stepmother, leading to a child born out of wedlock and who was killed by the mother when she became frantic that the baby would be a barrier between her and her lover.

Frank discussions of sexuality, along with infanticide and alcoholism, were considered scandalous to many and there were issues with audiences in New York, where the work premiered the prior year but ran for an extended period with great success, and in San Francisco. In Los Angeles, however, the protests actually translated into legal action (a year after the famous Scopes Monkey Trial concerning the teaching of evolution at a Tennessee high school,) though this did not stop “Desire Under the Elms” from becoming a hit and being performed for nearly three months.

Record, 19 February 1926.

The venue opened in 1908 on Grand Avenue near 7th Street as the Walker Theatre in a six-story building constructed by George Walker and designed by Eisen and Son, which later became Walker and Eisen, favored architects of Walter P. Temple in many of his building projects during the first half of the 1920s. The 900-seat venue went under several different names (Nielson, Clune’s Grand Avenue, Mozart, Brooks, Strand, Walker Auditorium, Walker’s Theatre Beautiful, Grand Avenue and, finally, Fine Arts) until it was rechristened Wilkes’ Orange Grove in 1924.

Thomas Wilkes was the lessee until 1929 and there were four more incarnations of the theater until it closed and was razed in 1946 for yet another parking lot, this one for a Robinson’s department store, though today there is a residential and retain building on the site. As always, the Los Angeles Theatres blog has a wealth of information about the theater, while the Cinema Treasures blog has a brief description and a couple pages of related images.

Record, 2 March 1926.

The opening of “Desire Under the Elms” was on 9 February 1926 and nine days later, the Los Angeles Record reported

The expected happened last night.

Clergymen and members of the board of education decided that Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms,” at the Orange Grove theater, was an immoral play. And so they prevailed upon [Los Angeles Police Department] Sergeant Sidney Sweetman and his vice squad to “raid the joint.”

As a result all actors in the production were taken to central police station at the close of the performance later to be released on $50 bail each.

Purportedly, the problem for the guardians of moral sense in the Angel City were “bedroom scenes.” The paper observed that the New York production included the arrest of the show’s managers, but all this did, typically, was to spur more curiosity and interest so that “speculators were commanding four times the face value of the admission tickets and there was a sell-out for four months in advance.”

Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, 8 March 1926.

Much the same, predictably, took place in Los Angeles as the play was performed for ten weeks to standing-room-only crowds. Undoubtedly, the publicity generated by the arrest and subsequent trial brought more attention than if the gatekeepers of purity had let the matter alone.

Another entity that decided to weigh-in on the matter, at a police commission hearing at the beginning of March, was the reconstituted Ku Klux Klan, with spokesperson Rush Bronson unleashing “a scathing denunciation” of the play, with his jeremiad summarized as castigating the work “as being too filthy to be called immoral.” While there were reportedly cries of “Amen” during Bronson’s rant, the Los Angeles Times of 3 March ended its coverage by noting that the commission members said and did nothing at that meeting.

Los Angeles Express, 12 March 1926

As the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News of 8 March noted, the play “continues its great run at the Orange Grove, where it is taxing the capacity of that cozy playhouse.” It added that “the interest shown by the play-going public in this tragic tale of greed is an evidence that Los Angeles will support plays for thinking people.” Wilkes announced that future bookings were cancelled and “Desire Under the Elms” would continue “as long as the public supports it.”

That paper on the 14th declared, as the sixth week began, that “O’Neill has employed realism in drawing an accurate picture of life, and without attempting to be didactic [that is, moralistic], has shown the consequences of greed in a manner that will bring a lesson home to everyone.” Starring as Ephraim Cabot was Frank McGlynn, who, at 6’4″ and with a lean, gaunt physique, created a sensation in his stage portrayal of Abraham Lincoln, and he was praised for his performance in “Desire Under the Elms.”

Illustrated Daily News, 25 March 1926.

Articles throughout March also mentioned cast members like Forrest Taylor, who played one of the three Cabot sons and who was a producer at a Portland, Oregon playhouse; Norman Feusier, another of the Cabots, who had a play produced in Pasadena during the run; Harrison Terry, who played a sheriff, and who was featured talking about his original vocational intention of being a minister; Margaret Wesner, who played a young girl; and Jessie Arnold, who played the lead female character, Abbie Putnam, to much acclaim. The Cabot son with whom Abbie had the incestuous affair was played by Arthur Lubin, who was much admired as an actor, including in movies, but went to be a film director best known for his five features with the Abbott and Costello comedy team.

As for the criminal proceeding before a municipal court Judge William Frederickson, the original trial date of 22 March was continued a few weeks because of a crowded calendar. The Record of the following day reported that the ministers and educators who instigated the arrests of the cast “ordered certain scenes cut out,” but noted that the company “announce they will fight any radical changes in the presentation of their play.” The Times of the same day added that there were some alterations made, but reiterated that the actors wanted to perform the work as O’Neill wrote it.

Express, 8 April 1926.

The 9 April edition of the Los Angeles Express recorded that “the S.R.O. [Standing Room Only] sign was hung out this morning as the trial of 26 members of the cast and management of ‘Desire Under the Elms’ swung into its second day of action,” the first taken up with jury selection, which yielded nine women and three men. Four prosecution witnesses included Sgt. Sweetman, an LAPD officer, a patron and Aletha Maxey Gilbert, the “City Mother” who has been featured in a prior post here.

Defense attorney William Arthur Green, who specialized in representing theatrical folk, tried to introduce the Bible as evidence and was rebuffed by the jurist, but, on cross-examining Sweetman, who, with the officer, claimed that they heard indecent words justifying the arrest, got him to admit that “police officers don’t use their mental faculties while on duty, ” this appearing to be in the context of determining whether a word recited by an actor was immoral.

Los Angeles Times, 10 April 1926.

The Times of the 10th noted that Harry C. Osterbert, who attended the play, was shocked at its content, with Gilbert agreeing that the work was “very shocking” and a writer, Matilda Kastel, supplementing these prosecution witnesses. John Arrington of the Record wrote, two days later, that Sweetman was known for being a “keyhole sleuth” and mocked him and the officer as they “rub their finer sensibilities against the sordid atmosphere of the Cabot intimacies. He went on to suggest that “these sex plays, now so popular, have become a great public menace” to the likes to Sweetman and concluded that “now that [he] has set an example by attending three times, the sides of the Orange Grove theater bulge each night in holding the audiences.”

An editorial in that paper on the same day carried the headline, “Protecting Our ‘Morals’?” and attacked those who tried to claim that “Desire Under the Elms” was, as the information filed with the court expressed it, “lewd, obscene and indecent.” It suggested that “the purity-guarding officials” who took the matter to court should see the play and that the jury have “sufficient cultural background to understand the distinction between realistic drama, however, crude and sordid, and the covert nastiness of a burlesque show.”

Record, 12 April 1926.

Calling for “a modicum of the dignity and intelligence which befits a great city, the Record added a postscript:

By the way, if our purity squad really seeks education in suggestiveness as it is staged in Los Angeles, we suggest that it visit the half-dozen burlesque shows operating day and night on the main thoroughfares, without police molestation . . . The Record despises the hypocrisy which vents its prudery upon one production and blindfolds itself to others, for obvious reasons.

Defense witnesses included women from prominent social clubs, one of whom called the play the most wonderful sermon on sin I have ever heard in my life,” and actors, with Estelle Taylor, wife of heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey, declaring that there was nothing at all immoral about “Desire Under the Elms.” The Record‘s Jack Carberry testified that there was far worse to be seen in more prurient staged presentations, such as those burlesques, and claimed he heard Sweetman say he’d spent $20 trying to gather evidence against these shows, which drew far more complaints” and this statement drew laughter from the crowd in the courtroom.

Illustrated Daily News, 14 April 1926.

It was extraordinary that the jury went to the Orange Grove for a personal matinee staging of the play and a bailiff swore the actors to perform the play as written. One of the LAPD officers held the script and followed along to verify that the piece was being presented faithfully to O’Neill’s writing. The paper noted that, following the one comedic line it heard in the play, “no Los Angeles audience ever witnessed a play given with the fire, the dramatic intensity, the beauty of action or faithfulness to plot and line, as was unfolded there.”

Singled out particularly was Jessie Arnold, who “may never do the things she did on the crowded little stage . . . she couldn’t do it constantly, for no man, or woman, has the physical strength to withstand the hysterical emotions which the actress gave to her part.” As for McGlynn, who was fighting illness and was replaced during the end of the run, he gave “the greatest interpretation of the father he ever gave” while the other actors were “equally good.”

Record, 17 April 1926.

It was written that female jurors wept with Arnold, that Sweetman applauded her, Judge Frederickson “forgot all about his dignity and clapped his hands loudly,” while the bailiff called her the best actor he’d seen. The audience applauded vociferously and the performers took their bows four times with Arnold carried to a couch and “was weeping hysterically” after the performance ended. It was stated that the prosecutor could only hope, at best, for a hung jury, while Green swore to appeal any convictions.

On the 17th, Carberry wrote a lengthy article titled “Reporters Hear ‘Desire’ Jury’s Deliberations” and observed that faulty designs in the Hall of Justice were such that this was possible because the transom window, the only ventilation in the jury room, was open allowing for ease of listening for the media. He adjudged that deliberations constituted, “one of the most stormy sessions ever experienced by a jury.”

After just ten minutes, the vote was 9 to 3 for conviction, but foreperson Elsie Parsons Collins, “shouted and yelled and decried the three women who declared the play ‘decent,” but, when a second tally was undertaken, a juror changed their vote to acquittal, and while there were two ballots of 7-5, it returned to 8-4, making this the hung jury mentioned above, even as eight more hours were consumed in trying to come to a unanimous verdict. A male juror purportedly “used language which Eugene O’Neill, in writing his story of ‘Desire’ never dreamed of using,” while another dared Collins to throw them out and she commanded, “Keep still—keep quiet—shut up.”

At this, Judge Frederickson dismissed the jury and thus ended “a farce” which interrupted the court’s busy schedule and which meant that “Keyhole” Sweetman was “trapped into giving a ‘million dollars’ worth of publicity to a play.” While Frederickson did order a new trial, the play closed and moved on to San Francisco, and, while there were continuances further into 1926, it appears that the matter was dropped. As Carberry put it, “that is the end of ‘Desire Under the Elms’ in Los Angeles.”

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