MYSELF WHEN YOUNG
Most of us fall into our life jobs by chance. We do not become department-store buyers, state policemen, railway mail clerks or candy makers because of any driving urge to these particular vocations, but because the paths of least resistance drifted us that way. We have—worse luck—to make a living, and this or that was the best or the first that offered.
The actor and the actress do not, with rare exceptions, drift on to the stage. They make a dead set for it. Nor do they think of it in terms of meal tickets. They cross the footlights out of an egotistic desire to strut before an admiring world. They hope romantically to win a fortune along with their pictures in the papers, but always they have been willing to starve cheerfully if accompanied by adequate publicity.
I do not sneer at this vanity; rather do I share it. Applause is sweet and most of the world gets little enough of it. It is more than sweet; it is an insidious habit-forming drug. Given a regular supply, the addict's eyes shine with an unnatural glitter; denied it, his cheeks cave in. Politicians also know these ecstasies and torments. It is not a pretty sight to see a broken actor or an ex-mayor frantically shaking the empty vial of incense.
Even the other arts offer no such reward as the stage. The lawyer may sway a jury as few actors can an audience, but bailiffs are at hand to stop a demonstration. The minister may only surmise the effect of his pulpit oratory; it is not decorous to cheer in church. The soldier wastes twenty years in sagebrush barracks waiting for his war. The writer must work indefinitely to win a public, and then his laurels are apt to be too much like a kiss by telephone. The painter and the sculptor commonly leave their rewards to be collected by their heirs. But the response to the actor is immediate, direct, ungrudging, complete. Small wonder that the stage never lacks for apprentices.
I was born to the stage, although, paradoxically, both my father and my mother came from stock that never set foot in a theater and thought it the vestibuled limited to Hades. My father's father, Isaac Tatum Hopper, was a Philadelphia Quaker, a rabid Abolitionist and conductor of the Philadelphia station of the Underground Railroad. Because of his participation in the Civil War the Friends churched him.
My father was so incensed at this action that he withdrew from the sect. My mother was a D'Wolf of Rhode Island. The D'Wolfs were High-Church Episcopalians, but they did not share that Church's usual tolerance of the stage.
Until their marriage my parents had never seen a play, but now they went almost constantly. They became passionately fond of the theater, the more so because of the interdiction of their youth.
My grandfather once said accusingly to my father, "John, I hear thee has been to see that player woman," meaning Laura Kean. "Is that true, John?"
"Yes, father, ninety-four times," my father responded.
For eleven years no child was born to my father and mother; then I, William D'Wolf Hopper, came, the only child. Doctors and biologists now put prenatal influence down as a superstition, I understand. It may be, but I find no other adequate explanation for my predestination for the stage.
I was born just off the Bowery, on Third Street, then a street of quiet folk, but within a year we moved to Forty-third Street, between Sixth Avenue and Broadway, then a brand-new block of brownstone fronts. When I was six my father died. He left an estate sufficient for my mother's comfort and to provide me at twenty-one with a legacy, which the stage took away from me.
Twice, long after his death, evidence of the general love borne my father came to me dramatically, incidents all the more affecting in that I have only the vaguest memories of him myself. A banquet given to Nat Goodwin, myself and other Lambs in London in 1899 was honored by the presence of Ambassador Choate. Mr. Choate's remarks were given over very largely to affectionate remembrance of my father and mother. He told, in passing, of my third birthday, and of how every visitor to the house greeted me with "Hello, little Willie, so you are three years old."
And I answered, "No, I ain't; I won't be three till Choke comes."
Nat Goodwin, who spoke later, commented in passing, "I remove my hat to any actor who can hire the Ambassador from the United States to the Court of St. James to three-sheet him."
Another time I attended a farewell dinner in San Francisco given by the Bohemian Club to Joseph Redding, a brilliant California lawyer and a rarely fine amateur musician. Redding told me privately that he was moving to New York to run away from his musical reputation.
"Every lawyer in California admits that I am a great musician, and the musicians agree that I am a first-class lawyer," he said. "In New York I hope to be a lawyer among lawyers."
As a guest I was called upon, and that call—you have guessed it—was for "Casey at the Bat." As I stood up, one hand on the piano, about to launch forth, a voice from the rear interrupted. A stranger to me asked my pardon for the intrusion, but pleaded that he was a transbay commuter who must leave shortly to catch the last train for the night. The gentleman spoke of his early association with Joseph H. Choate.
"A good many years ago," he went on, "Choate said to me one day, 'Bill, I want you to meet the most charming young couple I know.' I assented and dined with a Mr. and Mrs. John Hopper. The only blot on that very pleasant evening was the appearance of a puling infant who had to be kissed good night. I did so under compulsion; but, gentlemen, I would not kiss him to-night for all the gold ever mined in California. He stands before you," pointing to me.
The interrupter, it developed, was former Governor William T. Barnes.
Another old friend of my father has told me of an incident that would indicate that I come naturally by some of my frivolity. Sydney Howard Gay, the journalist, was a boon companion of my father.
Riding home from his office at Number 110 Broadway with Gay on a horse-drawn omnibus of the time, my father found the bus crowded to suffocation, as New York's public transportation vehicles always have been. The two of them plotted a hoax designed to empty the bus and provide them with seats. My father became a maniac, suddenly violent; Gay, his keeper. They played their rôles with such spirit that the bus was emptied of its passengers instanter—with one exception.This exception, a frugal person who, having
From the photo, by Sarony Pub. Co. Collection of Albert Davis, Brooklyn, N. Y.
Edna Wallace and DeWolf Hopper in "Panjandrum"
paid his fare, had no intention of abandoning it, shrank terrifiedly into a far corner, but stuck it out. Taking this as a reflection upon their acting, Gay and my father clinched and rolled down into the straw which, in winter, always covered the floor of the busses as protection for the cold feet of the passengers. The remaining spectator climbed hurriedly upon his seat, held his umbrella before him as a shield and shrilled to Gay, "Kill the brute, kill him!" But he valued his ten cents more than his life and never passed the door.
The only child of an idolizing mother and widow, I grew up a spoiled brat. I repaid my mother's idolatry with idolatry; but as her love demanded no sacrifice whatever, I became a selfish young pup intent exclusively on making the world my oyster. I was Willie in my childhood, and in later years I have been Will or Wolfie to my friends. DeWolf, my stage name, was born of the vanity of youth. I despised the Quaker plainness of Hopper, and William had a plebeian sound to my fastidious ears, but I thought D'Wolf, my middle name, distingué. In later years I have regretted that affectation, but it no doubt was, unconsciously, a shrewd move. The actor, like soap and hair nets, finds a distinctive trade name useful. The public remembers an unusual name more easily, so long as it is pronounceable. The D'Wolf became DeWolf through a proneness on the part of the public to pronounce it "Dwolf."
I achieved stardom and made my first great success in "Wang." My name being only moderately familiar, nine ticket buyers in ten asked not for seats for Hopper, but for seats for "Wang." When my manager and I chose a bill to succeed "Wang", we purposely called the play by the meaningless syllables, "Panjandrum." Rather than stumble over "Panjandrum", the public asked for seats for Hopper, as we intended that they should. Showmen learned the fundamentals of advertising long before the business world.
My father and mother had intended me for the law. Joseph Choate, one of the greatest lawyers of the past generation, was my godfather and in due time I was to start reading law in his offices. But as my godfather observed me he became increasingly skeptical of my forensic future.
As I was emerging from adolescence, he said to my mother, "I don't think Willie will be a pronounced success at the desk, Rosalie. I fear he lacks concentration. I do not associate him with briefs, somehow, but his voice, his physique, his presence should make him a rare pleader."
That voice, physique and presence already were posturing in amateur theatricals. My first amateur performance must date back at least as far as my tenth year. My mother had taken me to Boston, where we were visiting the Frederick Whitwells. Either young Fred, aged eleven, or his sister Natalie, aged eight, had a birthday during my stay, and as part of the occasion Natalie had written a play unbeknown to her elders, which we children presented as a surprise. The guns of the Civil War were scarcely cool, and the play opened with the outbreak of hostilities.
Four little husbands bade an affecting goodby to four little wives in Act One, and were off to the wars. Three years elapsed between the two acts, during which time the characters aged alarmingly. The curtain of Act Two disclosed four little wives, old and gray, thanks to charcoal wrinkles and much flour on the hair. They sat knitting by the fireside when the four little husbands limped home from the wars, one by one. This one had lost a leg at Shiloh, that one an arm at Antietam, a third was much the worse for Libby Prison, and the fourth was sightless. Each had performed incredible deeds of heroism and was rather immodest about it.
When the fourth little husband had recited his Iliad and his Odyssey, the four little wives arose and in a singsong declaimed, "We, too, have not been idle."
They left the stage momentarily to return each with her favorite doll in her arms. I have seen and played in many dramas, but none with a more effective curtain. Their elders were convulsed and the players accepted this enjoyment as a spontaneous tribute to their art.
As a boy of fifteen I appeared in Ralph Roister Doister, earliest of all known English comedies, at a Sunday-school entertainment at Octavius Brooks Frothingham's Unitarian Church, and before that I had been giving, on the slightest provocation, my Senator Dillworthy monologue, in which I, with the aid of a silk hat and a Lawyer Marks umbrella, burlesqued the spread-eagle school of oratory.
When I graduated at twenty to the professional stage, I reversed the usual matriculation of the actor by beginning well up the ladder and skidding downward. In an amateur performance, for charity, of "Conscience" at the Fourteenth Street Theater, I played an old man. Jacob Gosche, then manager of Theodore Thomas' orchestra, was present and professed to be struck by my performance. Cynics have intimated that the fact that I had money might have influenced Mr. Gosche's enthusiasm. I hope not. Gosche introduced himself and suggested that I turn professional. Only a small sum of money lay between me and this consummation, he indicated. Not yet of age, the money my father had left me was not yet mine to command, but with an indulgent mother that was no obstacle. She advanced the funds needed to finance the Criterion Comedy Company, with Gosche as manager and F. F. Mackay as director. We went on the road with a repertoire of three bills; "Our Boys", a reigning London success; "Caste"; and "Freaks", the latter an adaptation of Hausemann's "Tochters."
I was lost to the law, but "Choke" displayed an admirable stoicism.
Although Gosche had seen me as an old man in the amateur show, I was cast as a youth, an eccentric comedy role, in "Our Boys." In "Caste" I played variously, a swanky English officer, the juvenile lead and a light-comedy plumber; and in "Freaks" I did a bombastic charlatan. The type system, whereby an actor or actress is condemned for life to play only the sort of character which he or she has first done conspicuously well, was not yet in vogue. Versatility was the first demand of the theater; without it one was not an actor.
A few of the heroic roles, such as "Othello" and "Hamlet", were thought a bit beyond the range of the ordinary actor, but with such exceptions every player in his or her time ran the gamut from blank verse to low comedy.
As Blanche Bates was told at the outset of her career by her mother, "An actress should be able to play Topsy or Lady Macbeth equally well. It is not how she looks, but what she makes the audience think and feel." They were, as a result, better actors, man for man and woman for woman, than the products of to-day's specialization. Or such is my opinion.
My money lasted me four years. The second year of the Criterion Company I attained twenty-one and got my hands upon all of it. The faster we lost money, the more lavish Gosche and I grew. In the third year we scuttled the Criterion Company and organized the Gosche-Hopper Company with Georgie Drew Barrymore, mother of Ethel and Lionel and Jack, as leading woman at the then very large salary of one hundred and twenty-five dollars a week. As a vehicle we chose the Mormon thriller, "One Hundred Wives", written for us by two Chicago newspapermen, Colonel Pierce of the Inter-Ocean and J. B. Runnion of the Tribune. Two seasons of "One Hundred Wives", despite the support of Georgie Drew Barrymore and a generally excellent cast, disposed of what was left of my heritage and I returned to Broadway to look for a job on my merits—in the theater, of course.
In these four years we played the road as far south as New Orleans, west to Kansas City and north to Montreal, week stands in the larger towns, one-night jumps in between. This was routine in the theater from the time when the railroads first pushed West to the Missouri River until labor and transportation costs and the movies virtually destroyed the legitimate stage in all save a handful of the greater cities. Hundreds of actors of the first rank did not play New York at all, or for no longer than a week or two in a season. The road was the theater and the theater the road until about 1910. Plays customarily were financed and cast in New York and launched there, because the boast that a play had come from a run at such and such a theater on Broadway was worth money at the box offices in the hinterlands. The Broadway engagement frequently was played to a loss, but what of it? Six months' losses in New York could be retrieved usually in three months on the road. Last year, according to Billboard's annual compilation, three out of four new dramas produced on Broadway failed. More than half did not survive six weeks. And there was no road to anoint and heal their Broadway wounds.
A twelve weeks' run on Broadway once was phenomenal, but whatever the run, the production went on tour as a matter of course. Now a play may run a year on the Great White Way without finding any one willing to gamble on it as a road venture.
The play of to-day is designed for Broadway and must make its money there or not at all; certainly not one in fifteen New York productions is seen any more on the road other than in stock or repertory shows, and that one, barring such occasional prodigies as "Lightnin'", will confine itself largely to cities of one hundred fifty thousand or more. Cincinnati and Kansas City see fewer good plays now than Zanesville, Ohio, and Springfield, Missouri, did twenty years since. Booth, at his zenith, played such towns as Bowling Green, Kentucky, and Saginaw, Michigan.
I was about to say that one-night stands were history except for repertory shows, Tom shows, medicine shows, and the like, which play under canvas and still wheedle a living out of the towns of five hundred to ten thousand, when I happened to glance at the route list in the Billboard. There, in the second week of July, 1925, I found Miss Blanche Bates in "Mrs. Partridge Presents", a moderate Broadway success of last season, listed as playing Pueblo and Grand Junction, Colorado, Price and Logan, Utah, and Pocatello and Idaho Falls, Idaho, all within seven days. Here are one-night stands as actors knew them before Hollywood.
Pueblo may continue to see infrequent number-two and number-three road companies in new plays, but it is a safe hazard that Price, Logan, Grand Junction, Pocatello and Idaho Falls have not watched another Broadway cast headed by a star in a recent success in at least ten years. Many larger towns between Maine and Oregon have not been so favored in more years than that, their opera houses abandoned, torn down, burned or given over to films, occasional minstrels and political rallies.
In one week in middle August, again, I found that splendid all-star revival company of "The Rivals", headed by Mrs. Fiske, playing Everett, Tacoma, Yakima, Walla Walla and Spokane, Washington, and Missoula and Helena, Montana. I'll wager that there were young men and women of voting and marrying age in the Yakima, Walla Walla, Missoula and Helena audiences who never had seen a stage play before. A teacher of elocution and dramatic coach in a town of twenty-two thousand in the Middle West canvassed the graduating class last spring and learned that only ten of its members had seen a play other than amateur in their lives.
Perhaps the country is hungry again for the sound of the human voice in its drama. I hope so, but until there is more evidence of it, Miss Bates and the all-star revival of Sheridan's old comedy will have to be classed as missionary enterprises.
To play in Pueblo on Thursday; Grand Junction, thirteen hours distant across the summit of the Rockies, on Friday; Price, Utah, six hours farther across the desert, on Saturday; followed by Logan, Pocatello and Idaho Falls, can be no festive pleasure excursion, even in 1925. Hardship, discomfort and misadventure are inescapable in trouping. Forty years ago they were vastly more so. Hotels were bad as a rule, train service infrequent and unreliable, theaters individually owned and operated and each stand a law unto itself; companies were usually wildcat enterprises compounded of hope and enthusiasm, the business unorganized and the player with no protection beyond the good faith of the manager. Thanks to Equity, the actor or actress left stranded or unpaid to-day has only himself to blame.
Then we accepted conditions as a matter of course, expected them when we set out, muddled through them with as much ingenuity as we could muster and forgot them with the week or the season.
In those four years on the road in the late seventies and early eighties, we encountered enough slings and arrows to keep an actor of this generation in anecdotes for an idle winter at the Lambs Club, but only one left a lasting memory with me.
Christmas fell upon a Saturday in the first season of "One Hundred Wives" and found us in Mississippi. Out of some experience with Chambers of Commerce and local pride, I refrain from naming the city even after fortyfive years. The real celebration would come on Sunday, but preparation had begun early. I do not care to say that there was no sober citizen in the town on Saturday, but I speak advisedly when I say that he was not visible. The baggage-wagon driver and the entire stage and house crew were missing. Fortunately we carried our own stage carpenter. He and the rest of us trucked our trunks and enough of the scenery to set the stage from the station, set it up, took it down, hauled it back to the station, loaded it into the baggage car, lighted the kerosene footlights, manned the box office, the curtain rope, the props and ushered.
Matinées in the South in those days were played at noon. At twelve o'clock when not a five-cent piece had been offered at the box office, we hastily printed a sign on a strip of canvas to the effect that the performance had been postponed until one P.M., found a darky still able to walk, gave him a dinner bell and sent him through the business streets, carrying the banner and ringing the bell.
At one o'clock there still was not a soul in the house nor a nickel in the treasury. Not even the complimentaries distributed by the advance man had been offered at the door. We reversed the canvas, painting the joyful tidings that the matinée of this sensational drama, fresh from one hundred frenzied nights at Booth's Theater, New York, would positively be given at two o'clock, come one, come all, and sent our sandwich man forth with his bell to weave and ring again. At two o'clock not even the traditional boy and a dog—and the matinée was called off.
At the night performance fifty-three dollars was taken in at the box office, every cent of it drunk and demonstrative. The theater was an old-fashioned opera house, the first floor of the house on the second floor of the building. A flight of broad wooden steps led up from the street to the box office and the lobby. The house was still standing when I was there three years ago.
During the first act a belated citizen stumbled up the long flight of steps, slapped a quarter down at the window and demanded the best seat in the house.
The volunteer who was substituting at the window said, "Excuse me, sir, but downstairs seats are seventy-five cents. Our twenty-five-cent seats are in the gallery."
The customer announced belligerently that he did not intend to pay more than two bits, and that he expected the best that money could buy.
He said it so pointedly that the treasurer pro tem came out of the box office declaring, "You'll go down those stairs for nothing, you big bum!" and was as good as his word.
The repulsed lover of the theater bounced down forty-two steps, picked himself up and left. But he returned. He returned with at least a tenfold two-bits investment in firecrackers, with which Dixie always has celebrated Christmas. Bunch by bunch he lit his crackers and hurled them up the steps into the lobby, where they exploded like a sham battle. Inside, the fifty-three-dollar audience took the recurring fusillades to be part of the show and applauded madly.
It was not a troupe of barnstormers that played to these indignities, but a company that included Mrs. Barrymore and Ada Gilman, two of the first actresses of their time, and John Ince, father of Tom and Ralph Ince. Will Harris, father of Averill Harris, who is playing in "When You Smile" at the Walnut, Philadelphia, as I write, took one curtain by himself. A dagger in one hand and a revolver in the other, he kissed each to the audience, and escaped. The Mobile and Ohio train, which was to carry the company to Mobile, where we would catch the L. & N. for New Orleans, had been held two hours for us.
I was walking on the station platform while the conductor was getting his orders from the dispatcher, when two citizens lurched up and demanded thickly of me, "Say, young feller, are you part of this here show that played town this evenin'?" I coyly admitted the soft impeachment and prepared to dodge around a freight car.
"Well, we jes' wan' t' tell you tha's bes' damned show ever did see," they hiccuped. That, if not praise from Sir Hubert, was as gratifying at the moment.
My partner, Jacob Gosche, had remained in Mobile, and I had planned to wait up until he should join us there. From the first time I saw a railroad train I had yearned some day to ride on a locomotive. I had persuaded this Mobile and Ohio engineer to let me ride on the steps of the cab, already was ensconced there and the train about to start, when Harris came in search of me to complete the poker game which was to occupy the men of the troupe until we reached Mobile. I protested that I could play poker any time, while this was my first opportunity to ride on an engine. Harris was so insistent that I was needed to complete the game that I gave in and took a hand.
Harris thereby saved my life. An hour and a half later, near State Line station on the Mississippi-Alabama border, our train collided head-on with a freight train in a cut.
The engineer of the passenger was killed, the fireman so burned and mangled that he lost a leg, and all three men in the freight locomotive killed. The freight-engine crew were drunk on Christmas cheer, it developed, and ran by a signal at State Line, where we were to pass.
Other than cuts and bruises, the passengers escaped, but the most of them huddled together in shock and bewilderment. The one doctor who chanced to be on the train did his utmost, the rest was left largely to us actors, but a troupe that had just finished with a Christmas Eve performance such as that was alert for any emergency. I remember Georgie Drew Barrymore laying her new and costly fur-lined circular under the head of the dying fireman of the freight. She sent that fur piece to the cleaners three times later. It would return apparently spotless, but always a day's dust and sun would bring back telltale stains, until she discarded it.
We carried the body of the dead freight engineer into our sleeper and laid it in a berth. The mangled and scalded fireman was laid across two seats in the smoker. I had used up the vaseline in my make-up box rubbing it into the man's burns, and returned to the sleeper to borrow more. It was the first time I had been in the immediate presence of death, and returning, I tiptoed past the berth where the dead engineer lay. Just as I passed, the corpse seized me by the left wrist and pulled me down. My heart stopped and I sank, numb with shock, to the berth edge.
The engineer was not yet dead. He had recovered consciousness, coldly sober and self-accusing. He held me there by a vise-like grip and cursed himself as I never had heard a man revile himself, and never wish to again. He consigned himself to the farthest reaches of hell, and was dead in five minutes. There was not an external wound on his body, but the autopsy disclosed scarcely a whole bone.
The negro feeder of the freight train was crushed under his engine almost against the fire box. He was singing hymns, delirious with pain. Harris begged the doctor to give the man something to end his hopeless suffering. The physician passed over a vial of chloroform.
"Don't give him all of it or you will kill him," he warned.
Harris turned his back and emptied the vial into a glass of whisky and I, holding my hat in front of my face to shield it from the blistering heat, held the glass out for the darky's groping hand. He downed it all, and died an easier death.
The tender of the freight engine remained on the rails. Its top was about level with the top of the cut. Fore and aft, the cut was blocked with wreckage, and it was a problem to get the recovered bodies away from the burning débris. The first car of the freight held lumber. Some of us wrenched three planks from the wrecked car and laid them from the top of the tender to the bank of the cut, a span of ten feet or so. When Harris essayed a gingerly trial trip the planks sagged ominously; so two volunteers stood beneath the center of the span and held the planks in the hollow of their arms. One of these volunteers was a man in his eighties. With an unnatural strength, born of the excitement of the moment, the octogenarian bore up his side more surely than did his companion, a man half his age, as Harris and I stumbled across the bending planks with the body, but once we were across, the old man collapsed in a heap.
I am one of two survivors of that company, I believe. The other is Miss Vivia Ogden, who played the child part. She made a name for herself later as a character woman, notably in "Way Down East" and "Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch", and she is one of David Wark Griffith's stand-bys for character bits in his pictures to-day.
That was early on Christmas morning of 1880. Mississippi was only four years out of carpetbaggery and Rutherford B. Hayes was President. Jack Barrymore was a babe of six months. I was twenty-two. At twenty-two the sixties are of an incredible antiquity, and were infinitely more so in 1880, when strong men retired to the chimney corner in their early fifties. The frontiers of old age have been so extended in my life that I never have caught up with that receding boundary.
The following summer, my wife, Helen Gardner, and I were waiting in the Erie station at Binghamton, New York, for a two a.m. train. It was a dingy station, the waiting room lighted by one flickering oil lamp. All engineers look alike in their working clothes, I have observed. An engineer opened the door, passed mistily through the gloom, removed the lamp from its bracket and lit his pipe at the flame. To my drowsy eyes he was the image of that Mobile and Ohio freight engineer, and the illusion brought back the scene so vividly that I had to put the pipe aside and go out into the air to shake myself together.
Ten or twelve years later, I dined one evening with Richard Mansfield in his private car in the railroad yards at New Orleans. There were no interlocking switches then and a railroad yard swarmed with bobbing lanterns carried by switchmen. I stopped one such, hobbling along on one leg and a wooden stump, and asked if he could direct me to the Mansfield car.
"Yes, Mr. Hopper," he said and showed the way.
"Do I know you?" I asked.
"Well, I had both of these when you saw me last," he answered, pointing to his legs. It was the fireman of the Mobile and Ohio passenger train, a son of the dead engineer.
I was back on Broadway at twenty-three, my patrimony gone. There still was ample time for a glorious career at law, which should have by this time, let us hope, made me Mr. Justice Hopper. My friends and relatives pointed out the follies of my ways, even mapped them with the care of a topographical engineer. Had I been in a mood to listen, which I was not, of course, my empty pockets would have spoken forcefully enough without any supporting arguments. A young man may have some doubts of his fitness for running a restaurant, for example, after four losing years and bankruptcy, but no succession of disasters in the theater has yet given one actor or actress pause for thought. And if one is to lose a fortune, there is no better age than twenty-three.
So the next season found me in the Harrigan and Hart Company at their theater at Eighth and Broadway, playing the young hero in "The Blackbird." This engagement had no significance in itself, but it marked the forking of the roads for me. Annie Louise Cary, then one of the finest contralto voices in America, was having tea with my mother one afternoon early in my Harrigan and Hart weeks.
"Annie, I want you to hear Will sing," my fond mother proposed, and Annie Louise listened with that polite attention an artist gives to the precocities of a friend's children, while I sang "The Palms" in French. I never had sung a note on the stage, I could not even read music, but I did unquestionably have the makings of a voice. Miss Cary was pleasantly surprised and flattering.
"That is a fine natural voice," she exclaimed. "By all means it must be cultivated."
Immediately I enrolled under Luigi Meola of the New York College of Music, and when the Harrigan and Hart engagement ended I gave my undivided time for eight months to my voice. Three months after I began, Meola's pupils gave a concert at Steinway Hall. I sang Schumann's "Two Grenadiers"; Miss Cary came, held her hands high above her head and clapped them noisily.
For practice in reading music by sight, I joined Samuel Warren's choral union. Warren was organist at Grace Church, then the parish of the Reverend Doctor, later Bishop, Potter. And at Grace Church I shortly became basso in the volunteer quartet which sang opposite the paid quartet.
I have two stock stories, one of how William Lloyd Garrison, the great antislavery leader, blacked my boots, and the other of how Bishop Potter put me out of Grace Church. There is a bronze statue of Garrison on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston across from the Hotel Vendome. When I am in Boston I like to steer some friend by the statue, pause idly to glance at it, read the inscription aloud, and say casually, "Ah, yes. William Lloyd Garrison. He once blacked my boots."
As Garrison has been dead nearly fifty years, and as few men ever have been farther removed from shoe shining, my boast could hardly be more absurd; yet it is true. In my childhood my mother and I were guests at the Garrison home, and the gallant old idealist, who had been a close friend of my grandfather, took me for a walk before breakfast one morning.
We wandered about the ruins of an old mill, and I came away with my shoes white with mortar dust. Before we entered the house Mr. Garrison carefully dusted those shoes for me.
In much the same sense is it true that Bishop Potter once put me out of his church. At the morning service he had announced that a returned missionary to the Indians would occupy the pulpit that evening, and bespoke the presence and the generosity of his congregation for the worthy man. The church was full that night and the platform crowded with clerical, dignitaries magnificent in their sacerdotal robes. On each side at the rear of the pulpit of Grace Church there is a niche containing an elaborately carved and fashioned sacerdotal chair, high-backed and roofed. The chair opposite the position of the volunteer choir was occupied this evening by a pastor emeritus, who caressed a beard, the peer of those surpassing whiskers which trade-marked St. Jacob's oil, a sovereign household remedy of the hirsute eighties.
Next to me sat a stout and giggly contralto. I whispered to the contralto that the reverend gentleman surely must be Saint Jacob himself, and added George Ade's comment that a club-foot is a deformity, a harelip a misfortune, but that a beard is a man's own fault. At this moment it is in order for the hairsplitters to arise and confute me with documentary evidence that Ade was a boy in high school in 1882 and wrote nothing about whiskers prior to 1897. What of it?
Hopper and Marshall P. Wilder in Their Own Version of the Balcony Scene from "Romeo and Juliet"
Whatever the vintage of the joke, the contralto was convulsed and in no state of mind to resist what followed. The missionary was more eloquent in Choctaw, I trust, than he was in English. He was tedious and statistical and he mumbled his words. Saint Jacob cupped a hand to his near ear and strained, but after a time he gave it up. He fidgeted in his chair, then fell asleep, which he could do the more readily in that he was hidden from the sight of the congregation. In a sleepy stirring he raised his right foot in a way that brought his knee against a support of the chair roof. The support gave way and the roof fell with an appalling racket to the tessellated marble floor. Had all the Indians detailed by the missionary attacked the church in a body, their war whoops would have been the cheep of a muted violin by comparison.
Saint Jacob awoke with a start, and as a realization of the truth came to him, he looked at Doctor Potter with a schoolboy's please-mister-I-didn't-do-it expression.
The fat contralto and I exploded. If I managed to regain control of myself, her muffled squeaks would set me off again.
Doctor Potter tiptoed across the platform and whispered, "Willie, I think you had better retire to the rectory."
"Please, Doctor Potter, may I go too?" the contralto pleaded hysterically.
"You may, and I wish I might go with you," the future bishop of New York replied.
I found no one anxious to engage my singing voice the following season and fell back on the legitimate. Fred Williams, father of Fritz Williams, who has been playing the doctor in "Rain" for these past three years, was stage manager at the Madison Square. Williams was the author of "The Blackbird" in which I had played with Harrigan and Hart, and through him I found a place as Pittacus Green in "Hazel Kirke" with the road company of the Madison Square.
Hazel was, I believe, the first of the wronged heroines, the Our Nells, of our drama, a theme that later was done to death and to burlesque. A simple Scotch lass wooed and won by a plausible Englishman and cast out by her stern father, she discovered too late that she had been married under the Scottish rite on English soil — but not altogether too late, for eventually they lived happily ever afterward. Probably "Hazel Kirke" has not been played in America for at least twenty years, but few plays have had more performances on our stage; "Uncle Tom's Cabin", of course, and "East Lynne" and "Charley's Aunt", perhaps. It played continuously from 1881 to 1885.
The "Hazel Kirke" tour carried us into the Rocky Mountains to Leadville, two miles high on the flank of the Great Divide, then the lustiest boom camp that ever buried its dead with their boots on. Leadville drowses to-day in the high Rockies, dreaming of its fierce youth, but in 1883 it was only four years old, the most spectacular mining camp in the world and producing a fifth of the silver and a third of the country's lead.
Easy come, easy go was the town's shibboleth, and the coming and the going was a startling spectacle to a New York youth in his early twenties. The greatest of the camp's gambling houses was the Brick Exchange, operated by a man from Brooklyn still in his thirties. The lower floor was a public gambling house, the upper a private one under the guise of a club of three hundred and sixty members, the badge of membership being a key to the premises. Harry Davenport and I wandered pop-eyed into the lower floor and were given the privileges of the club above. The first words I heard as we topped the steps were "And a thousand more", spoken by a player in a seven-handed poker game, and the goose flesh rose on my skin like a relief map of the Colorado mountains.
Champagne, the finest of Havana cigars and the best food in Leadville were served like the free lunch of New York bars. Having tried all, Davenport and I felt under certain obligations. We agreed to pool twenty-five dollars on a roulette wheel and were buying checks, when the proprietor ordered the croupier to return our money.
"Take it out in looking, boys," he told us, "and keep your money in your pockets. The odds are against you."
Our manhood thus impugned, we objected that we paid as we went.
"Give us a song then," the Brooklyn man suggested. "The boys would enjoy it."
Harry could play the piano after a fashion, but his repertoire was severely limited. When we came to canvass it we found only one song that he could play and I could sing, and it was not a tune that the environment suggested.
"We're sorry," we reported back, "but the
From the photo. by Sarony. Collection of Albert Davis, Brooklyn, N. Y.
From the photo. by Anderson. Collection of Albert Davis, Brooklyn, N. Y.
only thing both of us know is 'Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep'."
"Fine and dandy," the gambler applauded. "There's nothing I like better than a good hymn."
Davenport displaced the professor at the piano and to his accompaniment I sang that bass sailor's dirge. It was, now that I think of it, my professional debut as a singer, and a singularly gratifying one, too, after a fashion. Certainly I never since have sung any song to quite such a response. Something more than ten thousand feet above sea level and one thousand miles away, the citizens of Leadville appealed to me as reasonably safe from watery graves, and, so I assumed, apt to be correspondingly indifferent to a sailor's woes. Any of them were likely enough to be carried off suddenly by Colonel Colt or timber-line pneumonia, but there was not enough water within many rifle shots to drown a litter of kittens. And though the song is not exactly hilarious, I never had thought of it as likely to wring a tear from any one less susceptible than the immediate family of a lost mariner.
The roulette wheels were stilled, the faro banks closed, the poker players laid down their hands and the bartenders folded theirs. We were given the most decorous silence and as I got well into the song, red-shirted miners began to wipe their eyes furtively and white-shirted gamblers to blink mistily. The vigorous applause at the close was heightened by the apologetic blowing of noses in red bandannas here and there. Such a response left me dumfounded and vaguely ill at ease.
The next morning Charles Wheatly, who took his morning's hike as Leadville did its eye opener, took me on a long walk out among the mines, which, in that rarefied air, had my tongue hanging out. We stopped at an outlying saloon and ordered two bottles of beer at fifty cents a bottle.
The bartender looked me over closely and asked, "Are you the fellow that sang that rocked-in-the-cradle song up at the Exchange last night?"
I defiantly declared that I was, wherewith he pushed the dollar back across the bar.
"Your money's counterfeit here, partner," he told me. "You treated us last night, now we treat."
Nor were Davenport and I permitted to spend a cent in Leadville while we stayed. Wherever we went our fame had preceded us and what the house offered was ours. I learned then, what I have observed often since, that the most sentimentally responsive of audiences, the one most surely and easily reached by any suggestion of God or home or mother, is the audience that has no God, no home, and hasn't given a thought to mother in a year.
I was in good company with "Hazel Kirke." Among the cast were Mrs. E. L. Davenport, Annie Russell, Ada Gilman, Mrs. Cecile Rush, C. W. Couldock, Charles Wheatly, J. G. Grahame and young Harry Davenport. The son of Mr. and Mrs. E. L. Davenport—he one of of the finest tragedians, and she one of the first actresses of our stage—and a brother of the great Fanny Davenport, my accompanist in "Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep" is an actor and a gentleman worthy of his antecedents, but in 1883 he was an insufferably fresh youth of about eighteen. One of his most objectionable habits was that of helping himself to a cigar from any pocket but his own, and lighting it airily without so much as a by-your-leave.
Somewhere in the South I bought a loaded cigar, then a prime American practical joke and a favorite with the village cut-up. Removing my coat to my arm, I strolled up and down the platform of the railroad station, elaborately exploiting that cigar cuddled all by itself in a vest pocket. Harry lifted the cigar the moment he saw it, put it in his mouth, but did not light it. When the train came the men of the company found seats in the smoker. Harry sat down beside a countryman and struck up a conversation at once, as he did at all times with the strangest stranger. The boy being something of an amateur gardener, he soon found a common ground of interest with the farmer.
At length Harry was reminded of the cigar. He borrowed a match from his seat mate and lighted up. On the sixth puff the cigar exploded like a Roman candle, directly into the farmer's whiskers, which began to resemble an illuminated Christmas tree.
The farmer leaped to the conclusion that Harry was a Smart-Aleck city fellow bent on making sport of a countryman, and our huge relish of the joke confirmed him in that suspicion. The most direct way of recovering his lost dignity that suggested itself was hammering the daylights out of young Davenport, and it took all of us to drag him off the boy.
Harry was not the sort to be cured in one lesson. For perhaps a week he bought his own cigars, but he soon returned to our vest pockets. We tried burying the teeth of rubber combs in our perfectos, but he only tossed the doctored smoke aside and reached for another. In a Savannah hotel I encountered George K. Foster, a friend of my boyhood. Foster was traveling in the South for his firm, Foster Brothers and Fairchild, manufacturing chemists. He heard our grumblings about Davenport and suggested asafetida.
"It's probably the vilest-smelling stuff in the pharmacopœia," he explained, "a fetid gum resin, and a little of it will go a long way."
We rehearsed the plant as carefully as a new play. Foster provided a pellet of asafetida, and I enlisted the man at the hotel cigar counter as an accomplice. With a penknife we removed a conical section from the blunt end of a cigar, inserted the pellet and replaced the cone of tobacco. I then arranged the doctored cigar in next to last place in a box containing just six cigars.
Foster and the men of the company all dined together in the hotel.
As we got up from the table I said, " Gentlemen, I have found an excellent cigar at the stand in the lobby; will you join me?"
We sauntered toward the stand. "Let's have that cigar you sold me yesterday," I asked the dealer. He brought the box from the case, as arranged, and I passed it to Couldock, as the eldest, then to Wheatly, Foster, Grahame in that order, and finally, before taking the last one myself, to Harry. I took the added precaution of holding my thumb upon the last cigar. All except Harry lighted up immediately and lounged in a row of lobby chairs. Davenport, by some caprice, put his cigar in a vest pocket, but sat down alongside. Under the influence of this contretemps, our conversation was a bit forced for a time, but Harry was oblivious of that. He was delighted to sing solo at any time.
The hour grew late, our cigars grew short and Harry's still remained in his pocket. When the clock behind the desk pointed to 7:45 we were forced to start for the theater. We walked, Harry with us and still without the consolation of tobacco.
The theater originally had been a church, and a great stained-glass window extended the full height of the back wall of the stage, doing service for both floors of the dressing rooms that had been built back of the stage. Incidentally, the window was deeply inset, leaving a sort of shaft between the first and second floor dressing rooms. Grahame and I had the room directly over one occupied by Mrs. Davenport, Mrs. Rush and Miss Gilman.
When Harry had made up, he called upon his mother, as was his unvarying custom before each performance.
We heard him enter and greet his mother, and a moment later our ears were startled by his voice asking, "Do you ladies object if I smoke?"
The ladies, in their hapless innocence, did not object. The cigar was lit, Grahame and I held our breaths. Suddenly a chair was overturned below us, three women screamed, and the skirmish line of the world's most stupendous stench came up through the shaft. The concentrated essence of all the reeks in the aggregate that ever assailed my olfactory sense did not even suggest the plague that rolled up that shaft. It drove myself and all of us out of the dressing rooms and out of the theater, and it was fifteen minutes before we dared to return. The curtain was that much late.
Harry played his part with a deathly pallor on his face, but as the curtain fell on the first act he mustered a sickly grin and said with a vestige of his old sureness:
"I thought I smelled a rat!"