TROUPING WITH UNCLE TOM
Fay Templeton and Mary Pickford and All the Other Little Evas
RALPH EUGENE LUND
The air was full of music as the Plantation Brass Band swung into Main Street headed by a black giant in cardinal red. He proudly twirled a drum-major's baton as he led the company of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in the morning street-parade that preceded the afternoon performance of "the great instructive and moral drama."
Farmers from miles around, who always came to town to see "Uncle Tom's Cabin," held their nervous horses as the procession of brass drew near, every member of the dusky symphony mounted on his own prancing spirits.
The eager crowd pressed forward into the street while the band strutted by in pompous glory, their instruments bellowing minor chords.
Suddenly the throng shrunk back and hundreds of trembling feet clung to the curb in joyful terror.
"Hey, Ma! Look! The bloodhounds! The bloodhounds!" The high-pitched voice of a ten-year-old pierced the blare of trumpets. His mother gripped his hand to hold him back, but it wasn't necessary. He was a country boy accustomed to dogs, but he wouldn't have gone near those dogs for all the money in the world. Bloodhounds were man hunters. These bloodhounds were woman hunters! Every evening and two afternoons a week they chased Eliza across the ice.
Audiences in those days were demonstrative. The same people turned out for "Uncle Tom's Cabin" year after year. The same women wept and screamed season after season when the "yaller gal" held her sawdust babe close to her breast and with courage born of desperation rushed into the raging, ice-jammed Ohio River. The same men lost control of themselves, year in and year out, and in loud voices from the balcony challenged the heartless Legree to come out on Main Street and fight like a man.
The scene is laid in the middle seventies in almost any American city. The "bloodhounds" were a sensation. Never before had they been in a production of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," although the play had been running for a quarter of a century at the time Jay Rial conceived the idea of adding great Danes to the cast. Al Martin's company tried real bloodhounds but they were not a success. They looked too innocent and peaceful. He finally gave in and standardized the fiery Danes like the others and called them bloodhounds.
In the early days of "Uncle Tom's
Cabin" the only street attraction preceding the performance was "little Eva," who attracted great crowds when she appeared with her long golden curls and angelic face, accompanied by her father, who was a picturesque figure in the same black broadcloth coat with black buttons and the same lavendar trousers that he wore on the stage in role of St. Clare. George C. Howard was his name. He was the proprietor of the first Tom show. The play had been written by his nephew, George L. Aiken, especially for his four-year-old daughter, "Little Cordelia Howard, the Youthful Wonder," who had made such a pronounced success in "Oliver Twist," that she was to be starred in the first dramatization of Mrs. Stowe's novel. The play opened at the museum in Troy, New York, September 27, 1852, and ran for three months, a record which still remains unbroken in Troy, although the population has doubled many times since then.
Closing in Troy, the play ran for nearly a year at the National Theater in New York. Cordelia's mother played Topsy while her grandmother had the role of Ophelia. A sprinkling of uncles and cousins among the men in the cast made the performance look like a family reunion. Little Cordelia starred in the role of Eva for eight years with great success in this country and Europe and then retired from the stage at the age of twelve. She is still living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as Mrs. Cordelia Howard Macdonald.
Although it was seventy-five years ago to-day that the child actress reached the height of her first phenomenal success, her memory is keen and vigorous. The first little Eva has recalled many interesting things in connection with the first production of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and she is probably the only living person who can remember the premiere performance of the slave play.
But what of all the other little Evas? Who were they and where are they now? They must have interesting tales to tell, if one only knew where to find them. It must be that many distinguished living actresses were the Evas, the Topsys and the Elizas of yesterday, but the historians of the theater have held themselves smugly aloof from "Uncle Tom's Cabin," for although it has been the most influential and the most successful play that the world has known, it has been looked upon for half a century as a "rube show" and was regarded with disdain by scholarly chroniclers during its heyday.
After the bloodhounds, jubilee singers, the street parade and other circus features were added to the venerable production, actresses who played in Tom shows, as they were termed professionally, did not usually boast about it in their reminiscences.
The tide seems to have turned, for the slave drama is enjoying a
new vogue. Mary Pickford and Eva Tanguay are proud to recall how
their endearing young charms were poured into the role of Eva.
Marjorie Rambeau, Francine Larrimore and Effie Shannon were
distinguished in the same role. Fay Templeton, Jennie Yeamans, Pearl
White, Mary McVicker, who later married Edwin Booth, and many
others destined to fame made early appearances as Eva. Julia Marlowe says that the part of Eva was the dream of her young life and appeared to her at one time to be the height of all striving, although she never attained to this eminence.
Annie Adams, mother of Maude Adams, played Aunt Ophelia in San Fransisco in the early seventies, while David Belasco, in the same city and the same period, distinguished himself as Uncle Tom. Mrs. Fiske, Nellie Holbrook, mother of Holbrook Blinn, and Henrietta Crosman are three more immortals who made the slave play a whetstone for their genius.
Rose Melville, Lotta Crabtree, Emma Dunn, Laurette Taylor, and even Fred Stone— yes, Fred Stone—essayed the role of Topsy. The star of "Stepping Stones" recently obliged the writer by rummaging through the attic and retrieving a playbill of Sutton's Double-Mammoth Uncle Tom's Cabin and Specialty Company, dated 1889, in which his name appears opposite the character "Topsy No. 1." This peculiar billing brings to mind the last word in puerile, absurd showmanship. In their competition for public favor the various proprietors of Tom shows had vied with one another for half a hundred years, adding to the original play new lines and business, bloodhounds in outrageous numbers and other features that appealed to the ingeneous audiences of the period.
In one scene Topsy is made to say "I was nebber born. I just growed," and the actors of the eighties and nineties might have said with truth that the play was never written. It "just growed."
The last and greatest of these abominations to human intelligence was the introduction of the double Topsy, the double Uncle Tom and double Marks. Two actors playing the same role appeared on the stage at the same time. Some of the lines were spoken in unison. Other lines were soloed by the actor billed as "No. 1" while number two Topsy, Marks or Tom followed the articulate actor like a shadow.
Queerly enough, the idea appealed to audiences and many companies adopted it. Thereafter Topsy, Marks and Tom were seen as twins more often than not. With this "improvement" the bigger and better Tom show had reached its zenith and there was no direction in which it could progress except downward. With all this, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" has never gone completely out. Tom's famous line, "Yo' can kill my body, massa, but yo' caint kill my soul," has proved prophetic. There is something about the old play that refuses to die. For seventy-five years it has played in theaters, halls, barns, tents and showboats. There has never been a season that has failed to provide a living for several companies of Tom troupers.
Emma Dunn, best known as the star of "Old Lady Thirty-one," who
played Topsy with the Woodward Stock Company twenty-five years ago,
says, "Bad acting couldn't kill it. It always played to big houses
no matter how terribly it was played." When she opened in Kansas
City she thought it great fun to play Topsy, but all this joy was
cancelled after the first performance. "I remember that I romped
through it and had a very jolly time," she says, "until it
came time to take the black off. Then I was sorry I was not playing one of the cakes of ice on which Eliza makes her escape."
Miss Dunn was never what was known as a full-fledged Tom actor or she wouldn't have complained about so small a matter, for it was common practice to let Topsy double in another role. This necessitated washing off the cork several times during the performance and appearing on the stage alternately black and white. Fletcher Smith tells how he appeared as Tom in the Chloe scene, washed off the cork and entered as George Harris, later blackening his face again to reenter as Uncle Tom in the last act where he was mercifully permitted to die and go to heaven.
Henrietta Crosman, now retired in Pelham, N. Y., is among those who can remember about this "doubling" business, though fortunately her color range did not go to the extremes of black and white, for she played Cassie and Eliza. The latter was an octoroon, and you could use your imagination for the variation in hue. As she remembers, Miss Crosman was sixteen or eighteen when she played Eliza in Brooklyn and in Cincinnati.
Many amusing tales are told of the complications that resulted from these abbreviated casts, for there were twenty-one characters in the play and seldom were there more than a dozen principals in a traveling company.
Frank Gilmore, executive secretary of the Actors Equity Association, tells of a Simon Legree who doubled as Marks. Legree used to fall dead when a shot was fired off-stage by an unseen person, supposedly Marks. He was always careful to die with the upper part of his body concealed behind a wood wing while his boots protruded on stage. At this point in the performance the actor would subtract himself from the boots without disturbing them, making a lightning change and reenter as Marks, his own executioner. In this character he would turn to the dead Legree (represented by the boots) and fire a parting shot to make sure of the villain's demise.
This trick of cutting a player in half was well known and had a variety of uses. Fred Maynard, who succeeded the late Frank Bacon in the stage production of "The Miracle Man" when the latter quit the cast to star in "Lightnin'," played Marks in Minnie Foster's production of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" shortly after the Civil War. He tells how George Wyatt, as Uncle Tom, used to drop dead in the wings, his feet and legs extending on to the stage. From this position he would raise himself on his elbows and play "Hearts and Flowers" on the violin to accompany his own death.
It was not unheard-of for the child—or the woman—who played Eva to let a curtain be solemnly drawn in front of her dying bed while she slipped off the night gown that covered her plantation costume and reentered a few seconds later as one of the mourners.
"One time," said Maynard, "I put on a benefit performance in
Scituate, Massachusetts, with Agnes Allen, mother of the Warren
Sisters. There were only three women and three men in the cast. I
Harris and St. Clare and then blackened up for Uncle Tom.
"In those days the actors used to dress the stage and change the scenery in addition to playing multiple roles. We used playful mastiffs for bloodhounds. The scenery was all on rollers. We played in schools and town halls—sometimes on twelve-foot stages. Those were the days of oil lamps. If the janitor walked from the wings to the center of the the stage to trim a flickering wick during a scene, nothing was thought of it."
When Maynard tells of these things he does not smile, nor does he expect his hearer to be amused. "There was nothing funny about it," he explained. "The wick had to be trimmed and it was trimmed, that's all. Things were different than they are now. People had a different attitude toward the theater. They enjoyed it more. They didn't care whether Eva gave a 'restrained' performance or some other kind; when she died it was sad and they cried. You may think these performances were tawdry and ludicrous, but unless you lived at that time you will never know what realism is. Realism is something the audience does to a play. We always had realism because it came in the front door."
This willingness of the Tom audience to supply from its imagination everything that was lacking on the stage made it possible for lapses to pass without comment that seem incredible to-day.
Tom Wise, shepherd of the Lambs and often called the dean of American actors, made his beginning as Uncle Tom. He is full of recollections of the slave drama and here is one of them:
"I played 'Uncle Tom' the first year I went on the professional stage, for the celebrated Bowery tragedician known in the profession as 'Neck and Neck' Stetson. The company consisted of six people, with no dogs, donkeys or other animals, and no children, which made the casting of the play rather difficult and meager, but as we were playing in a country that saw but few theatrical performances, we were allowed to escape with our lives.
"The next time that I played in 'Uncle Tom' was with a stock company in St. John's, N. B., in 1895. We had a very excellent company but no child actress for the part of Eva. But we found a girl working in a cigar store, who had played Little Eva ten years before. She was at this period about 18 years old, and development and appearance of a woman of 35, but she was the only thing in the way of Eva that we could find, so she got the part. When she sat in my lap and asked Uncle Tom to tell her about the new Jerusalem, poor old Uncle Tom was nearly covered by her comparative immensity, but the production was a huge success.
"Since then I have not appeared in 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' but have always maintained it was a great classic, and Uncle Tom one of the best roles with which I have ever been associated."
It cannot be denied that the stage production of "Uncle Tom's
Cabin" was one of two things; either it was the world's worst play
or it was so good that nothing could be done to it that could
utterly spoil it. This play became the "hamfatter's" para-
dise, and it is no wonder that during the last thirty years of its run it has been held in low esteem as an artistic vehicle. But there was something about it—an elusive something that has been fanned into new flame. There is something that makes actors who played roles in the barn-storming Tom shows proud of their heritage to golden memories. Joseph Jefferson, James K. Hackett and Denman Thompson were all, in their time, featured in the play.
Said Holbrook Blinn, "I regret to say I never played in 'Uncle Tom's Cabin,' and during all my career I have deeply regretted the loss of this valuable experience. Furthermore, I have deplored the loss of a topic of conversation always dear to actors. However, I am in a way related, as my mother, Nellie Holbrook, a star actress of her time, was the original Eliza in the San Fransisco production way back in the seventies.
"Peter Jackson, the greatest colored pugilist of all time, played Uncle Tom in her production. As an actor he was also in a class by himself, if Bill Nye's estimate of his histrionic power is to be taken as final. When asked his opinion of Jackson's performance as Uncle Tom, Nye replied to his interviewer, 'Well, I would say anatomically perfect, but Uncle Tomically awful!'"
John L. Sullivan was another gentleman of the rosined arena who distinguished himself in the slave drama. There is every reason to believe that he was as good in the role of Legree as Jackson was in the role of Tom. Unable to fully express his tragic urge in the Legree role, Sullivan mounted to the dizzying heights of vaudeville and made a triumphant tour, lecturing on "The Curse of Drink," a subject he knew backwards they say.
Hobart Bosworth, who played a small role in "Uncle Tom" in the Golden Gate City in 1887, was in the same company with Annie Adams, mother of Maude Adams, who played Aunt Ophelia. Ethel Brandon was Eliza. Bosworth tells a funny story of Eliza's escape at the opening performance. "I played the bit called Tom Loker. In the scene where Fletcher holds the attention of Loker and the other slave-driver down stage while he describes to Eliza the way she is to escape through the window 'at back' with her pickanniny, Miss Brandon—who was stout and matronly—crept through the door at back, mounted the table and stepped through the window as directed. The table gave way and she took a fall which must have been painful, and in full view of the audience she rode the window ledge astride, screaming for help. We slave-catchers acted like gentlemen. We helped her through the window and then came down stage again, continuing our scene as if nothing had happened, and got a big scene-call for our chivalry.
"We used Mrs. Croker's great Danes for the ice scene, and as they were really fierce, they were supposed to be tied with wires so that they could go only so far on the ice. Stockwell as Marks ran out on the ice, yelling to the dogs, 'Go back! Go back!'
"The dogs were supposed to pursue and snap at Marks on this cue
but they did not budge. So Stocky kept yelling 'Go back!' for the
benefit of the audience, while under his
breath he whispered to the dogs 'Come on! Come on!'
"Then he got rattled and reversed it, whispering 'Go back!' and telling 'Come on!'
"Chaos reigned supreme.
"When the hounds, having been tied short through some error, were let loose to run the length of their tethers and snap at the wretched Marks, the audience became hysterical in the extreme, for instead of using fire wire, the stage hands had leashed the dogs with new white clothes-line!
"Altogether it was the funniest performance I have ever seen. The audience had a marvelous time and the newspapers the next day congratulated us for at last having made 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' really interesting, and expressed the hope that we would continue to enrich the play with inspired work.
"That week was my only association with 'Uncle Tom's Cabin.' Was it not enough? From then on I was connected only with the aristocracy of the stage at Daly's Theater in New York and I don't think I ever saw 'Uncle Tom' but once again, when in 1902 I toured the country as Mrs. Fiske's leading man and we went to a funny little theater in Davenport, Iowa, to see a performance by colored troupers. We went to laugh but remained to pray, for we saw an exquisitely beautiful, dignified and marvelously pathetic and sweet performance given of Uncle Tom by Charles Albins, who afterwards came to New York and played Othello."
It would hardly be fair to close the forms without mentioning Fanny Ward, who never played in "Uncle Tom's Cabin" but whose press agent replied to a letter requesting an interview while Miss Ward was on a vacation. He confidently stated that Fanny Ward was Mrs. Stowe's first choice for the role of Eva but that she was unable to accept because of a contract to appear with Joseph Jefferson. This would make Miss Ward some twenty years older than her wildest claims of youthful longevity.
It is noteworthy that Mrs. Stowe was opposed to the theater and tried to prevent the dramatization of her novel. She had nothing to do with the play or its players.
Asa Hutchinson asked her permission to adapt the novel to the stage. She declined to permit its dramatization, replying that its uplifting influence in the theater would introduce a grave danger to the national morals, for it would persuade pious people to the habit of playgoing. In this she was right in a way, for when others had dramatized it without her permission, it became the only play that thousands of devout sectarians permitted themselves to witness during the entire course of their lives. A great many of the readers of this article will recall that this attitude was not uncommon in the smaller communities as late as the nineties.
Mrs. Stowe is known to have attended the theater only once in her life, when, at the Boston Museum, in 1853, she was induced to enter a box, heavily veiled, to be moved to tears by the performance of little Cordelia Howard.
She had been unable to stop the dramatization, for she neglected
to reserve dramatic rights. For the same reason, she never received a dollar from the millions that poured into the box-office in every country in the world. Her son estimated the number of performances in his time to have reached three hundred thousand.
While those players were presenting "Uncle Tom" in every city, town and steamboat landing in the United States, Jefferson DeAngelis was playing it in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and other far-away places. There is no known language in which it was not translated. DeAngelis later appeared in William A. Brady's all-star revival in 1901 with Wilton Lackaye as Uncle Tom, Theodore Roberts as Legree, Maud Raymond as Topsy and Georgia Olpe as Eva.
Topsys, Evas and Toms began young and grew old in their roles, giving place to new players who grew old in turn while the play went on and on.
To-day a new Eva has risen who will not grow old, for her youth will be preserved in the celluloid. Virginia Grey is the child prodigy who plays Eva in Universal's screen production of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Tom is played by the negro actor, James B. Lowe.
In a recent letter to the writer Cordelia Howard Macdonald briefly sketched her career as Eva, as given in the early part of this article. She acknowledges a portrait of Virginia Grey, saying graciously, "I am sure she is more like Mrs. Stowe's Eva than I ever was."
It is interesting to compare the equipment of a company such as the one in which Tom Wise was snowed under by the massive Eva with that of the motion-picture, which required nineteen months to produce.
When the troupers of old wanted to stage "Uncle Tom" they got together six or more actors, a pair of dogs, some burnt cork and a pot of hamfat with which to remove the cork, and they were ready to storm the town hall. Only a few dollars were needed to finance a Tom show that would satisfy the folks of the outlying regions.
More than $2,000,000 were spent in bringing Universal's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" to the screen. In excess of 2400 "atmosphere" and minor players were engaged during the production. And 977,000 feet of film were exposed in order to select the necessary footage for the showing of 3531 scenes.
The last of the Mississippi's mighty side-wheelers, the "Kate Adams," was chartered for nine weeks and rebuilt to conform to the period of the '50's under the name of "La Belle Riviere," employing the services of fourteen skilled craftsmen who labored for two weeks on cabinet-work, smoke-stack plumes, rails and other details.
Twelve carloads of "cornfetti," a special breakfast food, were used to add to the volume of the snow scenes. Four hundred tons of gypsum were needed to cover the ground for the ice scenes to add to the snow effect on the massive set which covered three acres.
The bloodhounds were especially imported from England for the
production. They are of the rare Ledburn strain, only a few of
which are in the United States and the
six blooded animals were purchased by Universal at a cost of $20,000.
The fog effects were obtained by the burning of two hundred tons of lowly, worn-out automobile tires; the picture results are most artistic but the esthetic effects during the filming wre not so happily received by the nostrils of the brave players.
A quarter of a million feet of lumber was used for the construction of the massive sets, including the Shelby home with slave quarters; the St. Clare mansion; the Legree plantation, with negro cabins; the auction rooms; the tavern and the other numerous settings.
Fifty bales of moss were shipped from Mississippi for the embellishment of the trees at Universal City to conform to the true Southern atmosphere.
Sixty-five separate and distinct sets were built.
One thousand full-sized trees were hauled from the mountains of Southern California to Universal City, transforming a desert wasteland into a gorgeous Southern tropical vista. Ten thousand artificial magnolias, oleandors and other southern blossoms were manufactured for the garden scenes. These were intermingled with the real flowers especially grown for the purpose.
Six giant sun-arcs, burning all night, augmented the rays of the sun in forcing the growth of a plot of grass especially needed for a scene in the St. Clare patio. And furthermore 66,000 individual items of hand "props" were utilized during the filming of "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
Sixty-seven gallons of liquid rubber were required for the making of the thousands of cobwebs necessary for the "aging" of the various sets.
This cobweb machine, which has made a fortune for its designer, is the latest ironical invention of a hurry-up era in which fanatic progress, sighing for new fields to conquer, turns backward to recapture the spell of the past.
A million dollar toy is sprayed with the dust of illusion. Tottering Uncle Tom, long believed to be tottering his last, returns to die the most opulent death of his long career at the hands of the same ruthless Legree; and the little Cordelia Howard, the "child wonder," who created the role of Eva, may witness the performance of the new Eva, just three quarters of a century after her own premiere.