Treading the Boards with a Program from the Mason Opera House, Los Angeles, 30 March-1 April 1905

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Lionel Barrymore (1878-1954) came from a long line of actors including his parents Maurice Barrymore (born Herbert Blythe) and Georgianna Drew and her ancestors, and was sibling to the famed thespians Ethel and John Barrymore. An Academy Award winner for Best Actor in 1931 for his work in A Free Soul, he originally hoped to be a painter and was known for his fine etchings and drawings as well his composition of music, but he took to the stage in his early teens after his mother’s death, performing with her brothers and other family.

For about fifteen years, Barrymore worked concurrently on stage and in film, but left the former for the latter in 1926 and, in roughly a quarter century afterward, was in nearly 100 movies, but he is chiefly remembered for his role as the grasping, greedy villain Henry F. Potter in the 1946 holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Stardom, however, first came to him on the stage in a 1903 comedy, The Other Girl, and the featured artifact from the Homestead’s collection for this post is a program for a three-night engagement of the work and its star at the Mason Opera House in Los Angeles from 30 March to 1 April 1905.

Los Angeles Express, 18 March 1905.

Barrymore first performed in Los Angeles in September 1893 with his uncles John and Sidney Drew (and the latter’s wife Gladys Rankin and her father) in The Rivals at the Los Angeles Theatre, a venue managed by Henry (Harry) C. Wyatt. When the Mason Theatre opened in June 1903, Wyatt became its lessee and operator, as a previous blog post here has observed. As for The Other Girl, it was penned by Augustus Thomas (1857-1934), who worked as an illustrator and journalist in Kansas City before finding success in playwrighting in the early 1890s. His use of American themes and material were one of his hallmarks.

The plot concerned Dr. Clifton Bradford, a pastor who was of “a type of muscular Christianity and played by Richard Bennett, a stage and film actor whose daughters Constance, Joan and Barbara all pursued careers in film and the theater, who hired Barrymore’s Mr. Sheldon, otherwise known as “Kid Garvy,” a champion boxer and saloon owner, to train him in pugilism. Catherine Fulton, portrayed by Doris Keane, who was largely a stage performer though she had a few silent film roles, fell for Sheldon with the two planning to elope.

Estelle Kittridge, played by Adelaide Prince, who was in love with the minister and was Catherine’s dearest friend, learns of the elopement and contrives to replace Catherine by locking her up in a backyard of a house, in the car as Sheldon is ready to drive off for the rushed marriage. On the way, he happens to run over Catherine’s fiancée, Reginald Lumley, played by Wallace Eddinger, whose career began as a child in works like Little Lord Fauntleroy, and Sheldon and Estelle are arrested and jailed.

Sheldon’s girlfriend, vaudeville performer Myrtle Morrison, played by Ella Ray, then substitutes for Estelle before a court, confusing everyone as to which of the three main female characters is “the other girl.” Catherine, however, confesses to everything and the situation is sorted out satisfactorily for all concerned.

Express, 25 March 1905.

In advance of the limited run of the play, the Los Angeles Herald of 18 March noted that “much interest is centered in the engagement of Lionel Barrymore” while adding that the work’s titular character “is promised to be the brightest, merriest, wittiest and most whimsical girl of them all.” With The Other Girl considered Thomas’ best effort and as produced by Charles Frohman with Barrymore and five other actors retained from the successful New York run, the article concluded that “the comedy will undoubtedly be one of the cleverest seen this season.”

The next day’s edition of the paper noted that “Lionel Barrymore in this play kept New York laughing all last year, when the piece was played at Charles Frohman’s three leading theaters [the Criterion, Empire and Lyceum] the entire season.” After the Big Apple, the work was performed in Boston and it was slated to run the entire summer of 1905 in Chicago.

In its “Music and the Drama” section on the 25th, the Los Angeles Express observed that The Other Girl “has proved to be one of the biggest comedy successes since the days of ‘Charley’s Aunt,” which was originally published in 1892, adding that “the story furnishes an abundance of fun, while it also has a deep touch of human interest and a unique love story as the central motive.”

The same day, Barrymore’s father, age 58, died in a sanitarium at Amityville, Long Island, New York, where he’d been committed for several years. It was reported that the thespian, who’d been admitted to the bar as a lawyer, first appeared on the American stage thirty years prior and was a leading man for such famous actors as Lillie Langtry and Helena Modjeska—this latter was a close friend of Georgianna Drew Barrymore, who came to California in 1892 to seek a cure (unsuccessfully) for tuberculosis at the urging of Modjeska, whose country home in the Santa Ana Mountains in Orange County still stands.

Los Angeles Record, 30 March 1905.

The “Amusements” column of the Los Angeles Record on the opening day of the engagement featured a photo of Barrymore and a female actor from the New York production, noting that he would be recalled for his role as an Italian organ grinder in his uncle John Drew’s starring vehicle The Mummy and the Humming Bird, which played in New York City in 1902. The Express, also of the 30th, reiterated that the play was Thomas’ finest and that “its remarkable record of last season . . . to capacity audiences, is proof of its popularity.”

Reviews in the Express, Herald, Record and the Los Angeles Times of the 31st were all positive. The first of the papers noted that Barrymore “won the approval of a representative audience” and not because of his impressive theatrical pedigree, but “because of his own merits as an actor.” Referring to the play as “a social sketch,” the unidentified reviewer observed that “there is the same charm of good taste, smart dialogue and amusing situations as is usual from the pen of Augustus Thomas.”

The Express review concluded with the observation that

There is nothing invidious in the statement that Barrymore looked and talked the part of the modern “pug” to perfection, without exaggerating the character. The same degree of naturalness and freedom was conspicuous in the work of all the performers [Bennett, in particular, was highlighted for his work.]

The Herald‘s unnamed reviewer thanked Thomas for providing two successful comedies that season, the other being The Earl of Pawtucket and highlighted the fact that these had “the advantage too in that the atmosphere is entirely American and deals in a delightfully satirical manner with people we all know.” The opening night was deemed “a most emphatic success” for playwright and for Barrymore, “who proved himself worthy of this family—the ‘first family’ of the American stage.”

Los Angeles Herald, 31 March 1905.

The work was adjudged “clean and wholesome in every line and one which makes laughter almost as natural and spontaneous as breathing,” while “the various character types are strongly limned and as true to life and convincing as they are amusing.” The reviewer opined that “Lionel Barrymore was never Lionel Barrymore but constantly Kid Garvy . . . his walk, his manner, the smile with which he met any threats of physical violence and a thousand other things made his character stand out as clear cut as a cameo.” Yet, The Other Girl was not “a star play” and the other actors were praised for their excellent work.

For the Record in its critique, “Lionel Barrymore, of course, is most of it,” but Grace Henderson, who was nearing three decades of stage work and went on to play in some 120 films during the silent era, was featured for her “naturalness” in her part, while Bennett and Eddinger “do not rob Barrymore of any prominence, but earn high praise for themselves” in what was summed up as “a rattling good comedy drama.”

Finally, the Times determined that the play was “eminently satisfactory” and while there were plenty of comedic complications, “for all their hopeless tangle, the situations in this unique and well-written play are extremely probably and almost inevitable.” As for the star,

Being both a Drew and a Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore must perforce be an actor, and a good one—that goes without saying . . . the impersonation from make-up to stage business, is fine and convincing, without a touch of exaggeration to mar its completeness. Mr. Barrymore shows all the poise and restraint that are his by a noble birthright and by hard study.

Bennett was feted for his work, as was Eddinger’s “capital characterization of a big-hearted, soft-headed, rather stupid young scion of an aristocratic New York family. The remainder of the cast were deemed “capable actors [who] do their share toward making ‘The Other Girl’ an unusually finished performance.”

Record, 31 March 1905.

Once the final performance, three evening and one matinee, was given and the cast left town, the Times, in its edition of 2 April, revealed something of an April Fool’s surprise to its readers. The paper’s issue of 30 March, in its routine listings of hotel guests, noted the arrival at the Rosslyn of Tully Marshall, and it turned out, in the early April article that “it is possible that Tully Marshall can play the part of ‘Kid Garvy’ as well as Lionel Barrymore can play it,” as that was open to critical review, but, continued the Times

But there is no difference of opinion on the part of the public as to the duty of the Frohman management and the Mason Operahouse [sic] management to inform the public that Lionel Barrymore had temporarily left the company which carried his name as a headliner. A simple announcement from the stage on the opening night, to the effect that Mr. Barrymore had been called away to attend the funeral of his father, would have been appreciated as an act of good faith.

The piece concluded that Marshall, who was Barrymore’s New York City understudy, would have been received with understanding and empathy, but given that he appeared “under the false color of Barrymore,” the paper growled that “the deception was an inexcusable fraud upon the public.”

Times, 2 April 1905.

It does, however, seem hard to believe that any of the four reviewers from the Angel City papers could not distinguish Barrymore from Marshall, a California native who was 14 years older and bore no discernible physical resemblance to the star, unless the makeup and the acting were of such a quality that the deception was perfect enough to fool the professional critics.

In any case, it is also a fact that theatrical etiquette and standards mandate that any change to the cast warrants either a notice in the program or an announcement from the stage, as noted above. With respect to the program, it has a beautiful full-color cover of a woman in a flowing dress smelling a bouquet of red roses and the name, city and lessee/manager’s name and there are a goodly number of local business advertisements, as well.

The program is a fine representation of the Angel City’s theatrical scene as the growing city continued to draw top-drawer talent and works, even if, in this case, what was promised as to the top-billed star (who was the grand-uncle of actor and television host Drew Barrymore) proved to be a chimera, though for understandable reasons.

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