Treading the Boards with a Program from the Grand Opera House, Los Angeles, 13-15 August 1891

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Among the great many changes that came to greater Los Angeles during the Boom of the Eighties, that peaked during the 1887-1888 administration of William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste, as mayor of the Angel City, was the burgeoning of entertainment, including touring musicians and orchestras and actors and theater companies. It was one of a significant number of milestones when critically acclaimed and popular performers made the city a necessary stop on any tour of the western United States.

Even thought there was the inevitable bust as the 1880s came to an end and the “Gay Nineties” featured several years of drought locally and a debilitating economic depression that burst forth in 1893, there was still significant growth in the region and options for theatrical diversions continued to expand. One of the main venues in the city as the curtain came to a close on the 19th century was the Grand Opera House, formerly Childs’ Opera House, built by Ozro W. Childs, a Gold Rush-era settler in Los Angeles who became one of its leading capitalists for some forty years until his death in 1890.

Los Angeles Express, 1 August 1891.

His theater, built by A.W. Gray and considered very modern when completed in 1884, was situated on the northwest corner of Hill and 5th streets across from what was generally known as Central or Sixth Street Park and which later was renamed Pershing Square. This section of town was transitioning from a rather remote residential enclave to a mixed area of houses, churches, and commercial buildings and saw explosive growth during the boom that quickly followed. By 1887, the venue was rechristened the Grand Opera House and another previous post here featured an August 1891 program from the venue, which was managed by George R. McLain and Martin Lehman.

This post spotlights another program from that month, but from a week prior with a different theater company performing one main attraction and two other featured works, all presented by the Lyceum Theatre Company controlled by impresario Daniel Frohman, whose brothers Charles and Gustave were also prominent in the industry. Frohman built the first Lyceum Theatre, located on Park Avenue South between 23rd and 24th streets in New York City in 1885 until it was razed and replaced by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Building that is still at the site, while a new Lyceum, completed in 1903, opened on 45th Street between 6th and 7th avenues and still operates under The Shubert Organization.

Los Angeles Herald, 4 August 1891.

The theater company first performed in Los Angeles at the Grand Opera House in August 1888, just after a major renovation, and returned again the following year. Promotion, as expected, was heavy for the appearance of the theater company in the three major English-language daily newspapers, the Express, the Herald and the Times. In its 1 August edition, the first of these observed that “our public regard as a great dramatic event of the near future the reappearance of Daniel Frohman’s Lyceum Theater Company at the Grand Opera House” because the troupe “holds a deservedly high place in public estimation.”

The paper continued that a well-rounded stock company was not one with a prominent star “in an environment of inefficients” and it asserted that “many persons in this community have a feeling” toward the Lyceum ensemble “bordering on affection” as “they are getting into the category of old and valued friends.” Among the standout performers were Georgia Cayvan, who joined Frohman in 1886 and remained with him for about a decade before starting her own company that included a young Lionel Barrymore, and the British-born thespian Herbert Kelcey, who first performed in America in 1882. Among new actors in the troupe were Effie Shannon, who became Kelcey’s wife (perhaps common-law), and Eugene Ormonde, who, like Shannon, went on to do some film work.

Express, 8 August 1891.

On the , the Express added that “the program offered by the Lyceum company during the coming engagement . . . will comprise only novelties” including two nights of The Idler by C. Haddon Chambers, whose first major stage success was in 1888 with Captain Swift, starring Maurice Barrymore. The follow-up was The Idler, which did well on its debut in 1890, on Thursday and Friday nights, the 13th and 14th, while a Saturday matinee featured The Charity Ball, written by David Belasco, who was a powerful theatrical producer, and Henry de Mille, father of Cecil, the famous film director, and the Saturday evening piece was Dion Boucicault’s 1844 work Old Heads and Young Hearts, which just closed at the Lyceum in New York and was staged with “the quaint old costumes” of the time in which it was debuted nearly a half-century prior.

Largely echoing its rival, the Herald of the 4th stated that the Frohman ensemble was to launch its third engagement in the Angel City and that “this company has been so thoroughly accepted by the Los Angeles public that no word of commendation is necessary” especially with so many favorites returning.” Adding that “this engagement . . . will be fully as notable as the previous ones,” the paper observed that the roster of works “includes more novelties than have been given in the same length of time by any company for years.”

Herald, 8 August 1891.

The Express of the 5th went much further in its unstinted praise of the Lyceum troupe, gushing that “the high excellence of this company is so well known throughout the land that even in cities where they have never been there is always someone who has visited New York and can speak by personal experience of their attractiveness.” It was also claimed that no production included “ever a speech or a situation which would offend the most fastidious” and it cited an eastern newspaper as averring that it was fine to bring a female to one of the Lyceum’s offerings. Finally, the account concluded by nothing that the Frohman ensemble would not be returning to the Angel City for two years.

Two days later, the paper persisted in piling on the platitudes, extending this to American theatergoers who were adjudged to be “the best patrons of amusements generally of any in the civilized world at present.” This and the assertion that it was “the natural ambition of Americans to be the best in their class with whatever they undertake” meant that the coming of the Lyceum company meant that, of American troupes, “none have been able to preserve the same high standard of excellence.” Keeping as many actors together for as long as possible was said to be a Frohman trademark.

Herald, 14 August 1891.

Not to be outdone in the praise (or the purple prose), the Herald, also of the 7th, proclaimed that

No organization which has ever visited Los Angeles stands higher in the regard of our theater patrons, and although their visits are always during the summer, or what is generally looked upon as the unprofitable portion of the theatrical season, no company attracts larger or more select audiences than they.

On the following day, the paper reminded readers that “those who remember the charming performances of the Lyceum theater company upon their two previous visits to Los Angeles . . . will be pleased to hear that they will visit Los Angeles immediately after their present engagement at the Baldwin theater, San Francisco.” This venue was part of the massive hotel completed in 1876 by Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, the mining magnate who’d recently loaned the Temple and Workman bank nearly $350,000, though to no avail, though Baldwin, three years later, foreclosed on the loan and took possession of tens of thousands of acres of land to add to his burgeoning possessions in Los Angeles County, including his famed Rancho Santa Anita.

Los Angeles Times, 15 August 1891.

With these examples of publicity prior to the engagements (though it was notable to see that the Herald on the 13th went out of its way to assure readers that the Grand Opera House would be kept cool enough during torrid heat in the region so that potential patrons “need not stay away for fear of discomfort,”) the performances began with The Idler. Its review, published on the 14th, succinctly stated that “the play is possessed of extraordinary merit,” though its plot was adjudged to be “much ado about nothing.”

After Sir John Harding murders a man in America, the deceased’s brother Simeon Strong, seeks personal justice, but Mark Cross, a friend, who’d saved Strong’s life, talks him out of vengeance, but learns that, in another great dramatic consequence, that Harding’s wife had once been Cross’ beau. Cross manipulates the situation to lure the woman to his room (a shocking scenario for the Victorian age) with the basest of intentions, but as she wavers between yielding and holding true to her marriage vows, Harding appears. A full act is taken up with the convincing of Harding that his wife’s behavior was solely in his interests and a magnificent demonstration of her devotion—so much so that Cross leaves to undertake an expedition to the North Pole and there the play ends.

For the Herald, Edward J. Radcliffe, who played Harding, took the palm for his work, showing “a clear, cold strength” and “a remarkably effective delivery,” and the expression of his feeling that his wife was faithful “displayed a talent not far from genius.” When the curtain rose at the end and Radcliffe was not there, because Kelcey (Cross), Calvan (Lady Harding) and Isabella Nickinson Walcot, who played Cross’ mother, were to take their bows, it was noted that “the call was intended for him” and a second rise of the curtain brought Radcliffe out to join the others.

Kelcey was praised for carrying out “the very difficult work in his role with most admirable skill,” while the actor was not faulted for anything other than his tendency “to rely entirely on well worn methods, rarely introducing a new turn, pose or expression.” Ormonde was given kudos for his portrayal of Strong, while Shannon was said to be “an able and pleasing opposite.” As for Cayvan, she “had a part which called for her entire resources, and she won the admiration of all by the power she displayed, while Walcot was thought to be “a little out her line . . . but was effective throughout.”

In its take, the Express felt that Chambers “exhibits great and growing powers of dramatic construction” but observed that The Idler “probably does not give the same general satisfaction” as The Charity Ball. Cayvan, however, was given special notice for her work with it averred that she was better than in the latter production. Kelcey, who normally played the hero, was awarded praise for playing the villainous Cross with aplomb, while Ratcliffe was merely adjudged to have done “good solid work.” It was felt that Ormonde was overshadowed by Shannon, who was “pretty, piquant, graceful and natural,” and the remainder of the cast “did their usual satisfactory work.”

Finally, the Times offered that Chambers “has made a considerable stride” since Captain Swift and provided some praise of actors in the supporting roles, but added “the main interest . . . is centered in the balance of the cast.” Kelcey was cited for being “very earnest, very impressive, and even magnetic,” juxtaposing a studied indifference at some points, but “pouring out the pent-up passion of his love” for Lady Harding, while surprising those used to seeing him play the hero. Cayvan, meanwhile, “was also to a great extent a revelation” as he was “artistic in her abandon and thoroughly tragic in her despair and agony,” but she “never overstepped the bounds of nature.”

Ratcliffe, who impressed in The Charity Ball, “showed that he is indeed a valuable acquisition to this important company.” Ormonde, on the other hand, displayed a rigidity that was expected to dissipate with more performances in the Strong role, though “he has earnestness and evident intelligence” which would show through in other characterizations. The concluding comment was that “the audience, while not so large as the merits of the entertainment demanded, was yet of very fair size, and when it once got into the spirit of the play, was enthusiastic in applauding.”

As for the program, there is a short article on the last page that betrayed no small amount of excitement that Sarah Bernhardt, the French actor who a writer in the Smithsonian Magazine accounted was “the first modern celebrity” with her fluidity in gender roles, fashion sense, and her media savvy, was to appear at the Grand Opera House in mid-September. It is also filled with great advertisements for local businesses of all kinds.

Theater programs from Los Angeles from the late 19th century are generally pretty rare, unlike the early 20th century when the explosion in population, as well as the significant increase in theatrical venues and presentations, led to more of these documents surviving. We’ll look to feature more programs in future installments of “Treading the Boards,” so please check back for those.

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