Lewis C. (Lewis Clinton) Strang.

Famous stars of light opera online

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f f r f r

in " The Charlatan."

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Copyright, igoo
By L. C. Page & Company


All rights reserved

Secowd Impression^ F^|jri\ary, 1906

« • - ' .

. « •


EUctrotyped and Printed by C. H. Simonds &> Co.

Boston, U.S . A.






• •



Francis Wilson .

• •



James T. Powers .'

• •



Walter Jones

• •



DeWolf Hopper .

• •



Richard Golden .

• «



Dutch Comedy and Its


TORS . . . .

• •



Thomas Q. Seabrooke .

. 118


Frank Daniels



Jerome Sykes

. 154


Dan Daly

. 168


Henry Clay Barnabee

. 176


Henry E. Dixey .

. 189


Otis Harlan .

1 •

. 208


Richard Carle

. 217


DiGBY Bell .

. 224


Jefferson DeAngelis

• •

. 236


Peter F. Dailey .

• •

. 256


Light Comedy in Oper








DeWolf Hopper in " The Charlatan " Frontispiece
James T. Powers as Flipper in " A Runaway


Joseph Weber ....

The Rogers Brothers

Frank Daniels in " The Ameer"

Jerome Sykes as Foxy Quiller in " The High

wayman " . . . .
Dan Daly in " The Lady Slavey "
Henry E. Dixey in " The Adventures of Fran


Otis Harlan in " A Black Sheep "
Richard Carle ....
DiGBY Bell in " Jupiter"
Jefferson de Angelis in " The Jolly

keteer" ....

Peter Dailey ....
Cyril Scott in " A Runaway Girl "
Harry Davenport








1 1




The men of especial prominence in light
opera in the United States are by no means
as numerous as the women of high rank in
the same line of work, and thus the com-
piler's selection of the persons to be consid-
ered in a volume dealing with the operatic
comedian can be made without great accom-
panying embarrassment. Biographical mate-
rial regarding the men is also much more
plentiful, and much more easily obtained,


12 Celebrated Comedians,

than data regarding the women. The
chief reason for this is that the men have
more material to furnish. Without excep-
tion, every man, regarded by the public as
firmly established in light opera or musical
comedy, has won his place by hard work.
He is not a sudden, unaccountable growth,
but he has been years in arriving, and behind
him is a career, embracing in many cases
practically every form of dramatic art.

The average man in the musical field of
the drama has, therefore, in point of service,
a better claim to consideration as an artist
than the average woman in the same field.
He, at least, may be said to have mastered
the fundamentals of his trade. Although
the prime reason for his success may be
an eccentric personality or an odd physical
equipment, he may justly claim, even at that,
to have learned by experience and by experi-
ment how best to use these personal pecul-
iarities. Furthermore, no one can for a

Introductory, 1 3

moment doubt the existence of unusual comic
talent in these men, though their crude jests
and buffoon tricks would often tempt one
into declaring that they have no conception
of real wit nor of genuine humour.

In the face of this almost ideal combina-
tion of comic talent with personality and a
varied experience, the question immediately
suggests itself. How is it that the comedian
in opera is so often a clown and so seldom
an artist ? It is well to explain, possibly,
that by a clown is meant a player who intro-
duces comic business and lines into a dra-
matic action without a logical reason for
their existence, who makes no pretence of
character exposition, but, for the sake of the
laugh, resorts to "gagging," and every variety
of " monkey-shine " that his ingenuity can
suggest. Of course no generalisation can
explain all the whys and wherefores of the
doings of the individual, but I think a fair
reason for the shortcomings of the operatic

14 Celebrated Comedians.

comedian may be found among the following
causes :

Primarily, there is the necessity for obtain-
ing popular success. No enterprise on the
stage involves a greater outlay of money
before a cent is taken in at the door than
a musical production. Moreover, the failure
of such a production means not only a great
forfeiture of money by all concerned, but it
means as well a considerable loss of prestige
by the comedian, whose name is so closely
connected with the venture. This feeling,
that the approval of the public must be
gained at all hazards, of itself kills originality
in the actor who is not morally courageous,
or who is in the least timid regarding his
ability. He is afraid to experiment. More-
over, should the actor dare to be original,
and should failure ensue, he is then actually
obliged to resort to any device in a wild effort
to save the piece from total wreck. Thus, in
" Cyrano de Bergerac," Francis Wilson at-

Inti'odiictory. 1 5

tempted something new, and failed. The
outlay in furthering the experiment had
been great, and, in an endeavour to make
the opera pay to a degree, and to recover at
least a portion of the money invested, Mr.
Wilson turned a study of character into an
exhibition of Francis Wilson.

Secondly, there is the proneness of the
theatre-going public to demand that an
actor continue indefinitely in the line of parts
in which he has made his greatest successes.
This condition of affairs, however, is always
as much the fault of the player as it is of the
public. I doubt if the public ever failed to
appreciate an artistic and powerful character
creation in a striking environment, simply
because the actor presenting that charac-
terisation had entered a field strange and
unexplored as far as he was concerned.

Thirdly, there is the force of habit. It
is undoubtedly an effort to break away
from clowning propensities long indulged

1 6 Celebrated Comedians.

in. Tricks of that kind grow on one until
they become second nature. Take the case
of DeWolf Hopper, for example. He showed
early in his career that he was not without
ability as a character actor. Since he has
reached starring eminence, however, he has
consistently played the buffoon. If he were
asked why he never tried something of more
value artistically, he would probably answer
that public opinion was against it. I do not
believe that is true. On the contrary, I am
inclined to think that the novelty of seeing
Hopper act — if he acted well, and if the
opera in which he acted were worthy —
would prove a drawing attraction of remark-
able power. The truth is, in Hopper's case
the habit of clowning has become so fixed
that he cannot break away from it without
more effort than he cares to make.

The buffoon we shall always have with us,
and he is not without his legitimate uses in
the wide range of theatrical entertainment.

Introductory. 1 7

What is objected to is, not his existence, but
his domination. The proper field of the
operatic comedian is low comedy, where there
is ample opportunity for him to exhibit act-
ing as an art. Clowning, even in its most
subtle aspects, is merely trading on instinct.



Although Francis Wilson cannot be said
to have made any startling advance in his
art since the halcyon days of the old Casino
Company in New York, when his impersona-
tion of Cadeaux in " Erminie " brought him
into popular favour in so extraordinary a
fashion, nevertheless at the present moment
he is generally accorded first place among
the light opera comedians in this country.
If one Umit him to his own peculiar field of
burlesque operetta, it is safe to add that his
supremacy has never been seriously chal-
lenged since he came into prominence. The
reason for Francis Wilson's long continued
leadership is not so much that he is a man


Francis Wilson. 19

of unusual talent as that he, almost alone of
his contemporaries, learned before his habits
were immutably fixed the necessity of going
outside of his own narrow and limited expe-
rience for inspiration in his work ; he learned
that it was dangerous to rely too long on the
meagre supply of amusing tricks that so
often constitute the whole technical equip-
ment of a professional buffoon. Mr. Wilson
has, going hand in hand with his ability as
an entertainer, the impersonating instinct of
the true actor. He has an intuition for char-
acter exposition, and, because of that instinct
and that intuition, his clowning has a back-
ground of solidity and histrionic strength
never felt in the clowning of the man who
merely plays himself.

Francis Wilson's training has been long,
severe, and thorough. He started humbly
enough as a negro minstrel, and he had his
apprenticeship experience with the conven-
tional drama in the stock company of the

20 Celebrated Comedians.

Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia.
His reputation in the light opera field did
not come to him with a rush, — it was not
born in a night to fade away in a day. He
laboured faithfully with the McCaull Opera
Company and at the Casino before he was
recognised as of stellar proportions. It may
fairly be claimed of him that he earned all
that came to him, and, in declaring that of
recent years he has given the public nothing
that could compare in artistic finish with his
thief in "Erminie," it must also be borne in
mind that operatic parts of the calibre of
Cadeaux are so rare that, even at this late
day, Cadeaux stands practically unique.

Mr. Wilson has been especially fortunate
in avoiding conventionality and sameness in
his characterisations. Even in parts of unde-
niable similiarity, he has been consistently
inventive and resourceful. His originality
and his artistic attainments have kept him
from becoming wholly a routine actor, when

Francis Wilson. 21

circumstances seemed to have conspired to
keep him faithfully to the single rut in the
road that sooner or later wrecks a reputation.
By thus dodging the almost inevitable, he has
constantly kept the theatre-going public inter-
ested in his work. There is continually
abroad the feeling regarding him that some
day he will surprise somebody. For Francis
Wilson, in spite of the many years that he
has been a prominent figure in the theatrical
world, and in spite of the fact that he has
made recently no appreciable advance in his
art, has never yet forced on one the impres-
sion that he has reached his limit. His is an
optimistic temperament that inspires opti-

Francis Wilson was born in Philadelphia
on February 7, 1854. His parents were
Quakers, as were his ancestors for many
generations back, and it was his parents'
intention that he should receive a good com-
mercial education, and live a sedate business

22 Celebrated Comedians.

life. Instead of that, however, he became
a negro minstrel. How that happened Wil-
son tells himself :

" I was stage-struck from early youth, and
nothing pleased me so much as to attend a
performance at one of the Philadelphia thea-
tres. I was blessed with a retentive memory,
and could easily master the lines of a good
part of every play witnessed. As soon as
possible, I would write down all that I re-
membered, fill in the blanks with dialogue
of my own invention, and then the whole
concoction would be produced in the cellar,
or, possibly, if it seemed especially good, in
the home of some one of my schoolboy

" When I was ten years old, I was dividing
my attention between my lessons at school
and the practice of jig-stepping in the cellar.
I remember of reading in James Rees's life of
Forrest that the great tragedian advised
actors to learn singing to give grace to the

Francis Wilson. 23

voice, fencing to give grace to the hand, and
dancing to give grace to the body. I accord-
ingly mastered many difficult dancing steps,
and even got so that I could sing a song
fairly well. One day I sought out * Billy '
Wright, who was performing in a Philadel-
phia concert-hall. He whistled the ' Essence
of Ole Virginny ' for me while I jigged away
as best I could.

"My efficiency in the art of jigging se-
cured me an engagement to appear with a
minstrel company in Third Street, managed
by Sam Sanford. I was called Master
Johnny on the playbills, and my first pubUc
effort was in the familiar negro farce called
' The Virginia Mummy.' I could not realise
that I had become a full-fledged professional
until I received my earnings on salary day,
all in pennies. My parents knew nothing of
my enterprise, and I didn't intend that they
should. I used to dodge in and out of my
room without the knowledge of any one in

24 Celebrated Comedians.

the household, and all went well until my
mother began to wonder why the sheets and
pillow-cases on my bed were so dirty. It
was the burnt cork, which I never had time
properly to wash from my face and hands,
that had discoloured them. So I was watched,
and it was not long before it was discovered
just what I was up to."

Then followed trials and tribulations for
the youthful aspirant for theatrical honours.
Home discipline could not cure him, how-
ever, and the first opportunity found him
back at Sanford's. Of course there was
more home discipline, and more running
away, until, at last, young Wilson threw
aside all restraint, and cast his lot for good
and all with his beloved minstrels. Besides
playing at Sanford's, he travelled in the West
with Birch, Wambold, and Backus.

" But I had high aspirations," continued
Mr. Wilson, "and the life of a minstrel did
not altogether suit me. I got Sanford to

Francis Wilson. 25

give me a letter of introduction to E. L.
Davenport, then at the Chestnut Street Thea-
tre in Philadelphia. Davenport was such a
big man, and I was such a small boy, that I
hesitated before I faced him. I went out to
Fairmount Park to take a walk and think
over the matter. As I came to the bridge
over the Schuylkill, I took out that precious
letter, and thought I would read it. Letters
of introduction are always open, and, there-
fore, always flattering to the introduced party,
and I hoped a peep at the contents might
brace up my courage a bit. It was a windy
day, and, while I read, the letter was blown
into the river. I didn't have the courage to
ask Sanford for another letter, and, as I was
half afraid of Davenport anyway, I dropped
my high tragedy ideas for awhile."

It was shortly after this that Wilson formed
a partnership with James Mackin, and the
singing and dancing team of Mackin and Wil-
son very soon became a favourite feature of

26 Celebrated Comedians.

minstrel and variety shows. The two pooled
their interests in Indianapolis, and were
almost immediately summoned to New York
to play an extended engagement with Birch,
Wambold, and Backus's San Francisco Min-
strels. After that Tom Maguire took them
to San Francisco to become members of one
of the most notable minstrel companies ever
gotten together. Two years in Chicago with
Arlington, Cotton, and Kemble were followed
by an engagement in New York in Josh
Hart's Theatre Comique, Harrigan and
Hart being the principal members of the
company. This practically ended Wilson's
minstrel experience.

" I began in San Francisco to look long-
ingly toward legitimate work," said Mr. Wil-
son, ''and William H. Crane gave me the
first words of encouragement to persevere in
my purpose. Mackin knew of my aspira-
tions, and often derided me, both in private
and in public, for my temerity in looking

Francis Wilson. 27

upward. I bore his verbal strictures with
comparative indifference, but when he under-
took to knock the ambition out of my head
with his fists, I made up my mind it was time
to square matters. Accordingly, I took boxing
lessons in Chicago of Col. T. H. Monstery, a
prominent teacher of the art of self-defence,
and soon showed my pugnacious partner that
I was his master at the game. In the future
he avoided physical discomfort by treating
me with courteous consideration. Colonel
Monstery also taught me how to use the
foils, and I entered the sword contests in the
Gilmore Garden games in 1876, winning,
with the help of his careful coaching, the
amateur championship of America."

Mr. Wilson acknowledges that he perfected
himself in fencing, with the hope that a knowl-
edge of the art would help him in his ambi-
tion to become an actor of tragedy. He had
even committed to memory a number of
Shakespearian parts, and had selected the

28 Celebrated Comedians.

roles in which he thought that he could
make a success. He thought that a period
of training in stock work would do him no
harm, so he gave up the seventy-five dollars
a week, which he was making as his share of
the profits with Mackin, and applied to Wil-
liam D. Gemmill for a place in the stock
company of the Chestnut Street Theatre in
Philadelphia. Thus in 1877 he ceased being
a negro minstrel, and became a general utility
man at a salary of fifteen dollars a week. In
the course of the season he also became
fencing master to the company, and some of
his pupils were Charles Bradshaw, William
E. Sheridan, William J. Ferguson, Frank W.
Sanger, and A. H. Canby, who was afterward
Wilson's manager.

"I imagined," remarked Mr. Wilson, *'that
my forte would be the very serious parts, and
I never dreamed that I could be successful
in humourous roles. After the production
of * Hamlet,' for which, by the way, I ar-

Francis Wilson. 29

ranged the duel in the last act, I was cast for
the part of Farmer Banks in 'Wild Oats.'
I remember I had to say, ' Nay, nay, you
shall not pass this gate except over my
dead body.' I was dead letter perfect a
week before the comedy was produced, and,
in addition to my own part, I committed
to memory the lines of several of the other
characters. One night the man who played
Lamp, the theatrical manager, was unable
to appear, and I was given the part. I
think that was the happiest night of my
professional career. I made a fair success-
being twice recalled, and later I also made
something of a hit as Cool in * London
Assurance.' "

The next season Mr. Wilson received an
increase in salary of five dollars a week, and
as Charles Stanley, the leading comedian,
elected to play many of the character parts,
much of the low comedy fell into Wilson's
hands. His success in this line of work

30 Celebrated Comedians.

knocked all the tragedy out of him, and he
made up his mind to follow the advice of
William Daly, the stage-manager, who said
to him after his performance of Lamp :
"Young man, you keep on like that, and
you'll be playing leading comedy. The idea
of a fellow with such legs and such a nose
aspiring to serious work."

For ten weeks Mr. Wilson acted the Judge
and Templeton Fake in " M'liss " with Annie
Pixley, and then returned to the Chestnut
Street Theatre to play second comedy char-
acters, among them Sam Gerridge in *' Caste,"
and Sergeant Jones in "Ours." Before the
season was over, however, he obtained his
release from the stock company, and appeared
as the Baron, a serio-comic heavy part in
" Our Goblins." He remained with this
attraction the succeeding season. The com-
pany finally went to smash in San Francisco,
and it was there that Wilson made his first
appearance in opera, taking the part of Ad-

Francis Wilson. 31

miral Porter, K. C. B., in a production of

In 1882, when he became leading come-
dian of the McCaull Opera Company, Mr.
Wilson's career in burlesque opera may be
said really to have begun. Colonel McCaull
had seen Wilson in " Our Goblins," and had
liked his work, and when he ran across the
comedian in New York out of a job, he
offered him an engagement. McCaull was
a bit startled when Wilson demanded one
hundred dollars a week. " I thought if I
asked a big price, McCaull would think more
of me," was the way Wilson explained it.
The negotiations came to naught. A few
weeks after that McCaull again met Wilson
on the street, and asked him what he was
doing. "Nothing," was the reply. "Will
you take the part I offered you } " queried
the manager. "Yes," answered Wilson,
"for one hundred dollars a week." "By
thunder, I'll engage you ! " exclaimed Mc-

32 Celebrated Comedians,

Caull, and so began Francis Wilson's fame
and fortune. His first part in the McCauU
Company was Don Sancho in " The Queen's
Lace Handkerchief," at the Casino in New
York. It is recorded that Wilson did not
make much of a success the first night, but
he worked up the part in the succeeding
performances until it became quite a feature.
He remained with the company three sea-
sons, appearmg as Tremolini in '' The Prin-
cess of Trebizonde," Sigismund in " Prince
Methusalem," Balthazar in " The Merry
War," Folback in " Falka," and Prutchesko
in "Apajune."

When McCaull retired from the Casino,
Wilson joined the new Casino company under
the management of Rudolph Aronson. Mar-
sillac in " Nanon " was his first part, and this
was followed by " Amorita," " The Gipsy
Baron," *' Erminie," and " Nadjy." Cadeaux
in " Erminie " is, without doubt, the part that
shows Mr. Wilson at his best. It is in every

Francis Wilson. 33

way a remarkably fine study of character,
and it would be just as effective if it were
in a play instead of in an opera. It is con-
sistently conceived throughout, always with a
keen appreciation of the theatrically humour-
ous ; it is elaborated to the last detail in
action, and yet it is never overelaborated,
the final result being the crowning subtilty
of deceptive spontaneity such as one finds,
for example, in Joseph Jefferson's Rip Van
Winkle. This deceptive spontaneity is to be
found only in the most closely studied and
carefully developed impersonations. It is the
sure indication of hard, conscientious, and
purposeful endeavour, and the effect of un-
studied naturalness and instinctive creation
that it produces on the spectator is the crown-
ing reward of the player. It may not imme-
diately bring him the loud-voiced approbation
of an undiscriminating public, which is wont
to value above all else acting that can be seen
without opera-glasses, such as Mrs. Leslie

34 Celebrated Comedians.

Carter's hysterical outbursts in " Zaza ; " but
it appeals forcibly to the seeker after genuine
art in the theatre, and, more than that, it
lives. Concerning Mr. Wilson's work, as
illustrated in his Cadeaux, one critic wrote :
"There are, doubtless, men on the stage
peculiarly gifted with a quality of infectious
humour, simple in its composition, and yet
defying analysis ; working without rule or
method, and dependent entirely for effect
on the sympathy of the audience. Such a
man was the late Mr. Charles Reed, whose
merest utterance, without any apparent device
of vocal inflection or accent, without any
attempt at facial illustration or gesture of
any sort, would set the house a-roaring. Mr.
Peter Dailey and Mr. Otis Harlan also occur
to me, at the moment, as possessors of this
crude but effective faculty. That it is capa-
ble of refined development for the higher
uses of the theatre has not been proven,
though I believe Mr. William Winter has

Francis Wilson. 35

proclaimed that the art of the minstrel
Charles Backus — who, like the others men-
tioned, had but to open his mouth to make
people hold their sides — was not essentially
different from that of M. Coquelin. It is
quite another matter when one comes to con-
sider the humour of Francis Wilson. Here
it is evident always to the student of his
methods and effects that nothing is left to
chance ; nothing- to the mirthful sympathy
of the audience. Wilson brings to his work
in comic opera the care of the student as
well as the spirit of the artist. The enunci-
ation of every line indicates discrimination
and a nice sense of comic proportions. He
would seem to have investigated the anatomy
of merriment, as Burton did that of melan=
choly, and to have learned every muscle,
joint, and nerve in the make-up of jollity.
The seeming spontaneity of his humour only
proves the more the thoroughness of his

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Online LibraryLewis C. (Lewis Clinton) StrangFamous stars of light opera → online text (page 1 of 11)