by Paul R. Spitzzeri
A prior post here under the “Treading the Boards” banner highlighted, from the Homestead’s holdings, a Belasco Theatre program from August 1910 for the performance of the woman suffrage satire, “A Contented Woman.” That post covered some of the history of the Main Street venue, which opened in 1904, as well as discussion of the piece and its actors, part of a Belasco company headed by the actor Lewis S. Stone, who went on to be an Academy Award nominee in 1929 and well-known for playing the father of Mickey Rooney’s Andy Hardy character in a slew of 1930s and 1940s films.
This offering takes us back over a year when the firm that operated the theater, including Frederick Belasco, brother of the famed producer David, and John H. Blackwell, who was manager, offered a week’s engagement from 24-30 May 1909 from the company of the four-act play, “Beau Brummel,” penned by Clyde Fitch in 1890 and which was then in its 244th consecutive week. Fitch, born in Elmira, New York in 1865 embarked on a decade-long run of great success beginning with this piece, which was written for the British thespian Richard Mansfield, widely regarded for his Shakespearian roles, operettas by Gilbert and Sullivan, and his famous take on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
George “Beau” Brummel (1778-1840) was a notable figure in Regency-era England using personality, style and wit to rise to the pinnacle of London society, including the Prince of Wales, future King George IV. His arrogance, extravagance and his unfettered tongue, however, combined with massive gambling debts and the virtual epitome of the British dandy who set trends in sartorial splendor saw his high position crumble. He fled to France to avoid repercussions for his financial floundering and died there nearly a quarter century later, a shell of his former elegance and sophistication.
In fact, Mansfield’s death at age 50 in summer 1907 left big shoes to fill for anyone trying to take on a role so strongly identified with its originating actor, but Stone and the Belasco Company thought they’d found a worthy successor in Howard M. Scott, who’d been working in San Francisco and Los Angeles stages since at least the early 1890 and was well-regarded for his character roles.
The 10 May 1909 edition of the Los Angeles Herald reported that Blackwood’s summer season schedule for the theater was such that patrons “would have some genuinely good theatrical entertainment” and the roster “is unquestionably the best play schedule the Belasco management has ever offered” with most of the works new to stock companies, much less to local audiences. An ad in the paper a week later observed that the mounting of “Beau Brummel” was the first by an stock company in the world and referred to it as “a production of unrivaled elaborateness” and “positively one of the biggest events of the year.”
A couple of days prior to the opening night, the Los Angeles Express noted that
It is a comedy of manners pure and simple and will give the Belasco players another fine opportunity. To Howard Scott in particular will come the greatest chance, and in all probability the greatest success in his Los Angeles career, for he will be seen in the title role.
While many theater-goers will have in their mind’s eye the exquisite Beau presented by Mansfield, there is no question that Scott will give a decidedly finished and convincing portrait of the famous character.
The Herald of the 23rd added that the actor’s assumption of the role “will gratify an ambition he has long cherished” and it reported that “Mr. Scott has devoted years of study to the part and has spent probably $250 out of his own pocket in preparing himself for what he expects will be the triumph of his career” while seeking to have his makeup done to mimic what Mansfield did in his portrayal. The Times of the same day observed that “those who know Mr. Scott’s convincing stage capabilities and pronounced personality look for a distinguished and finished portrait of the celebrated and exquisite beau.”
There was an interesting feature profile on the actor in the Los Angeles Record of the 25th, with journalist Katherine M. Zengerle, who began her piece with the exclamation “‘Beau Brummel’ shopping in Los Angeles!” Scott, it seems, went out to some of the downtown stores and the writer noted that “Poor Brummel had to bargain with the girl across the counter” as if this was far beneath the dignity of the character/actor, who was more suited (!), apparently, to being waited upon appropriately by a New York city clothier of distinction.
Sitting to talk with Zengerle, Scott noted that
It’s almost enough to make a fellow nervous to think of attempting to do the part when so many people have in mind the picture of Mansfield’s exquisite “Brummel.” But, oddly enough, I have made a study of the part for many years, never thinking I’d play it myself.
He related how he’d once rehearsed a small part with Mansfield, who expressed “the very height of the art” even as he would not deign to speak to the young actor, instead telling the director that Scott was too close to him and too loud and unmodulated. When the rehearsal ended, Scott told the director that the star did not like him and was assured this was far from the case.
Zengerle added that Scott was leaving for New York City in July and was to appear in a play debuting at the end of the summer. She went on to note that he’d been in the Angel City and the Belasco company for five years, since, presumably, the opening of the theater and, prior to that, was at the Alcazar Theatre in San Francisco (which, as so much in the city, was destroyed by the earthquake and fire of April 1906.) The piece ended with Scott relating that he’d thought about being a minister, but, he said, “I think the best sermons are being taught from the stage and I believe my profession is going to be the means of sending home the great lessons in ethics and morality.”
In its brief review of the opening night’s performance, the Record commented that the rendering “delighted a large audience” and that the lead actor “made an exquisite beau, his costumes being well chosen, and he wore them as to the manner born.” His acting was considered to be well-done given the short time he had to prepare and the paper added that “from the first, it was evident that he would do credit to himself” even as the nearly 20-year old work “has little enough to recommend it to modern audiences.”
Florence Reed (1883-1967), who’d honed her craft after several years in New York City, “was pretty and whetted the desire of the audience to see her in a role in which she would have greater chance to show her talents.” Reed would go on to appear in films from about 1915 to the mid-Thirties, including a well-regarded turn as Miss Havisham, the wealthy woman left at the altar and who wore the wedding dress the remainder of her days spent in a decaying mansion, in 1934’s version of Charles Dickens’ famed novel, Great Expectations (a young Jane Wyatt played the child Estella, who lived with Miss Havisham and had a complicated relationship with the novel’s protagonist, Pip).
Other actors who were mentioned were DeWitt Jennings (1871-1937), who appeared in stage work for about fifteen years and had parts of about 150 films, including the 1935 classic, Mutiny on the Bounty, with it stated that “his work [as the father of the key female character and desired by Beau and his nephew] was amusing and added greatly to the production”; George Webb (1887-1943) who also combined stage and movie work and who “was warmly applauded and did the best work he has presented in Los Angeles” as the drunken fop, Lord Manly; and Charles Ruggles, who played Brummel’s nephew, while it was concluded that “the rest of the Belasco company did good work with their parts.”
A brief review in the Los Angeles Express, also on the 25th, it was opined that the play “will be more entertaining about Thursday,” the fourth day of the run, “as by that time the players probably will be more familiar with their lines.” Still, the unnamed critic felt entertained and commended the actors for having “considerable valor” in taking on the work, “especially on the part of Howard Scott” because of the inevitable comparisons to Mansfield’s definitive portrayal. Scott “is most clever in his interpretation of the role and gives a convincing picture” and “is the exquisite, through and through.” Others briefly named in praise were Ruggles, Jennings and Reed, along with Richard Vivian as Beau’s valet and secretary and Adele Farrington, who played one of the love interests and whose husband, Hobart Bosworth, was a Belasco company member and soon-to-be early film star.
In its analysis, the Herald was praised for his rendering of Brummel’s “spiritual transformation,” though it was felt that it was not until late in the work that “Mr. Scott appears to awaken to his role” as he was so concerned to hew closely to the Mansfield template.” Yet, given the challenges faced by the actor, he played the role “with few excesses of method and with rare insight.” Reed was singled out for expressing “dainty scorn” toward Lord Manly and “instant sympathy” with Brummel and Jennings was lauded for making “a ludicrous part human and inspiring, even lovable,” while Vivian was considered near Scott in excellence.
Farrington was given good notice and Frank Richardson, playing the Prince of Wales, acted “with some distinction,” while James Applebee, playing the odious moneylender, was “extraordinary” in winning the sympathy of the audience. What the reviewer could not countenance was the inability of the cast to remember their lines properly and Scott “was not the least offender in this regard” as he repeated lines fed him via “the sibilant murmur of the man behind the scenes” that those up front could easily discern. Still, the performances were such that “the acting triumphed over even its own defects.”
In fact, the aggressive programming schedule was such that after the cast finished its last performance of “Beau Brummel” on the 30th, the cast immediately convened and “rehearsed all of last night” for the next play, “Merely Mary Ann.” As for the star turn for Scott, it did not lead him to the career arc that he likely was hoping for, though he remained a fixture on the Angel City stage over the next several years.
A feature on the actor in the Record in August 1913 by Estelle Lawton Lindsey, who soon became the first woman to serve on the Los Angeles City Council (and as a Socialist, no less), focused on Scott’s “perennial youth, sartorial super-excellence, [and] his unfailing courtesy.” He was extensively quoted on his career, his view of the stage and his explanation of how actors stayed young because “excessive excitement . . . leaves no time for worry, the synonym for wrinkles.” Still, he was leaving the city for work elsewhere, specifically Salt Lake City, but he vowed to return “to spend the latter end of my perennial youth among the people and the places I love.”
Lawton ended her essay with the observation that she last saw Scott “before a flower stand daintily holding a blossom up for inspection between his thumb and index finger and smiling,” but he had a rough several years ahead. In May 1917, the Los Angeles Times briefly reported that the thespian spent “long terms in three New York hospitals,” though for what remained unstated. His funds exhausted and his doctors recommending a return to California, Scott was rescued by theatrical impresario Oliver Morosco who paid the expenses of the trip home.
The actor continued to work, including in some film roles, until 1920 when he went back to his hometown of San Francisco to take part in a production. In September, however, he was preparing to open in a play called “Just Around the Corner” when he was attacked on Bush Street, robbed of jewelry and money, and beaten so badly that he was knocked unconscious. Though he was said to have avoided a concussion, he was, after being taken to the Palace Hotel suffering from amnesia and, in distress, lamented that he could not remember any of his lines.
Nothing further could be found about the unfortunate actor, though a listing of deaths in San Francisco included the terse statement that a Howard Scott, age 58, died on 5 August 1921. Perhaps it was the thespian and maybe death resulted from complications from the injury, but no corroboration could be found in newspapers. In any case, the assault seems to have ended his career, if not his life, and is a sad coda to his starring role as Beau Brummel, which may well have reflected the acme of a career of roughly thirty years in a particularly tough and fickle business.