UNCLE TOM'S CABIN.
THE ORIGINAL UNCLE TOM TELLS HOW THE PLAY WAS FIRST PRODUCED.
Money Managers Have Made Out of This Favorite Piece—Feeling Against the Actors Who Played in the South.
It seems almost superfluous at this day to speak of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," which is at once so familiar and yet so powerful in its hold upon the people. Witness its success at the Grand Opera-house the past week. Nothing was done in the way of stage preparation that might not have been commanded by the most ordinary attraction; the advertising was anything but liberal, and little stress was laid upon anything save the bloodhounds and donkey; at these even, when pictured in flaming colors upon the side-walls, the public pretended to laugh. True, the company was good, in one or two instances excellent, possessing the oldest living, if not indeed the original Uncle Tom (Mr. George Kunkel), but of this the descriptive "three sheets" made no mention. Yet the piece had eleven presentations to crowded houses, some the most enthusiastic. This drama has been the target of much bitter criticism and unmerited censure. It has been called sensational, trashy, exaggerated and improbable by some, and monstrous in character by others. Yet it still lives and now enjoys the distinction of being the most successful drama in a pecuniary sense ever put upon the stage, having played to more money than any other piece known. It has enriched many managers, and given to our stage, which may be mentioned as a matter of local interest, another whose reputation is as universal and popularity as boundless as that of the play itself. R. E. J. Miles, the Dramatic Director of the late Festival, as well as the manager of three of the most popular houses in America, first became identified with affairs theatrical through this wonderful piece. "Uncle Tom's Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly," as a drama of any pretentions, was first produced at the Museum, Troy, N.Y., in 1852, with the appended cast.
Uncle Tom . . . . . Mr. G. C. German
The following season, 1853, it was introduced to the New York public at the old National Theater, with but few alterations, either as to text or characters, creating such a furor that for weeks people were turned away from the doors. Manager Miles, then only known as a ring master or four-horse rider in a circus, being by some lucky circumstance attracted to the theater, was so impressed by the story that, though recognizing many of the objections now urged against it, he saw as well its destined popularity and determined to get hold of the play if possible. The version then being performed was George L. Aiken's, the only known copy of which was in the possession of the prompter and, as a matter of course, not for sale. Miles, however, was not discouraged by this, and immediately set about preparing a dramatization of his own. He visited the theater night after night, jotting down on cards carried for the purpose the outlines of the play, act by act, which he, after returning to his hotel, filled out with dialogue and incidents from Mrs. Stowe's novel. He had never spoken to a half dozen actors in his life prior to this, yet with a boldness characteristic of the man, returning to this city he immediately organized a company and began what afterwards proved a most successful tour of the small towns of the surrounding country. Bloodhounds and donkeys, though not unknown to the stage even at that day, were left to such Bowery tragedians as Blanchard in his "Forest of Bondy," and Uncle Tom simply as Uncle Tom fairly enriched the newly-fledged manager. Others, among whom might be mentioned Jarrett and Palmer, J. P. Smith and Jay Rial, coming after him and operating upon a more extensive scale, have made immense sums of money out of it. Jarrett and Palmer in a season of fourteen weeks cleared $45,000, playing the piece to $27,000 in a fortnight in Philadelphia. G. C. Howard, the original of the part of St. Clair, and his wife, the first Topsy seen upon the boards, both grew wealthy, and are now an aged couple living in retirement in Cambridge, Mass.
Managers have grown rich, the Topsys and St. Clairs have amassed fortunes, the Gumption Cutes have become property-holders like McVicker, and Evas without number have achieved both wealth and distinction as did Mrs. Edwin Booth, but poor Uncle Tom, the original, like the faithful old house servant of the Shelbys, "has lost everything in this world, though he, too, like the others, has made many a dollar through the instrumentality of this play.
George Kunkel, now some sixty years of age, was originally a minstrel performer, at one time the proprietor of the famous Nightingale Minstrels. He began life as a printer in his native town, Greencastle, Pa., afterwards drifting to Philadelphia, where he first became known to the profession as a member of the "Old Virginny" Minstrels. As the basso of a church choir, he attracted great attention, which ultimately led to his introduction upon the stage.
"But how came you to play Uncle Tom?" queried the Commercial Gazette scribe, who, together with a number of other interested listeners, had been entertained for hours by Mr. Kunkel's anecdotes of the old Eph. Horn. Daddy Rice, and the other minstrel celebrities of bygone days.
"Well, that is getting away from our subject," replied the old gentleman, he just having concluded a graphic description of a champion jig-dance contest between Joe Brown and Jim somebody else, dead and forgotten more than forty years ago.
"How did I come to play Uncle Tom? Well, let me tell you about Smith and Nixon's Hall first. I opened that, you know, right here in this city, maybe before some of you were born. See, the old hall was here on Fourth street, 'tween Walnut and Vine, the old Jenny Lind Hall. I was playing my minstrels there, 'Kunkel's Nightingale Minstrels,' when they started to build the new place between Main and Walnut, and I engaged it before the ground was broken. I'll come to Uncle Tom directly. We opened to fourteen hundred people, a big house for Cincinnati I can tell you in those days. They had Spanish quarters then, and we used to take hundreds of them at the box office every night. They wouldn't allow you to deface American money then, but I used to have a sharp die and made my treasurer stamp about a hundred dollars' worth of this Spanish money with Kunkel's Nightingale Minstrels and give it out for change. It was considered a great advertising scheme in those days, and occasioned considerable talk. But about Uncle Tom. Well, I was traveling with my minstrels through the South when Mrs. Stowe's novel first came out, which was in about '48, as near as I can remember, and having my curiosity excited by the violent opposition it was meeting in that section of the country, I determined to read it. This was at Wilmington, North Carolina. So secretly securing a copy of the work I repaired to my room in the hotel one afternoon and double-locked and bolted the door before taking the book from its hiding-place."
"Was the feeling against it so intense?"
"My dear boy, you have no idea the excitement that was created. So careful was I to prevent detection that I even hung a towel upon the knob of the door to shut out any chance people at the key-hole. The book entranced me. I read it again and again, the last half proving to me then, as it does to this day—the most exciting novel ever written. An idea struck me. I determined to produce it upon the stage right there in the South."
"Rather a dangerous undertaking, one might suppose."
"Well, rather," replied the veteran, with a quiet smile, "but we knew the money in it, and concluded to make a trial. A sketch in one act, occupying about three-quarters of an hour in its presentation, was prepared and produced at our next stopping place, Charleston, South Carolina, at the conclusion of our minstrel show. More elaborate versions were afterwards prepared by Mr. Aiken and Mr. Williams, of the Boston Museum, but this was the first production, and I the first Uncle Tom."
"And the excitement"—?
"The excitement. Well, it was so great that a meeting of the City Council was called, and resolutions passed prohibiting any colored man from entering the hall. Parson Brownlow, of Tennessee, denounced it in the bitterest terms, and upbraided the people of Charleston for even allowing the name 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' to be posted on their walls. Negroes came secretly to us and offered as much as $5 and $10 in gold, fortunes to them, you may believe, for a peep at the performance. Some we did slip up into the 'flies,' but it finally got too warm for us, and at Savannah we had to give it up. At Baltimore we presented the piece again, then using Aiken's five-act dramatization, and I have continued playing the character of Uncle Tom ever since, both in this country and England. We had no bloodhounds in those days, those, with the donkey, being introduced in the play by my present manager, Mr. Rial, about six years ago. The first innovation was the bringing of the jubilee singers upon the stage, which occurred in 1876, at the Bowery Theater, New York. They are a never-ending source of trouble, as are the dogs, the latter being, as you may imagine, extremely dangerous."
"How about the drawing qualities of the piece in other cities?" asked the scribe.
"In the smaller towns it is still as popular as ever, and Rial is still making money with it. However, the 'jumps' are too long. For instance, we came from Baltimore to Louisville, from Louisville to this city, and from here again to Brooklyn, where we play for a week. This makes railroad fares heavy, you see, but with all such disadvantages it is a money-making piece still. In England, as well as here, it is popular, and one traveling company at least over there is doing an excellent business."
"About the dogs?"
"Well, they are the genuine article, carefully trained for the part they play, but still dangerous. They are kept well in hand by the colored boys, who are always with them, and never allow them to go unmuzzled. As for myself and the other actors, we are strangers to them, and they would be just as liable to tear us up as anyone else."
Kunkel's "Uncle Tom," it may be added, is considered the best now to be seen. It is a careful, conscientious piece of acting, and so intensely pathetic at times as to affect the coldest auditor. Mr. Rial, as a shrewd manager, should have made more of this gentleman's advent to our city, as his local popularity would of itself have drawn hundreds to the theater.