By: Samuel L. Leiter
(No. 7 in the series)
June 20, 2020: Readers following this series must be patient as we wend our way, once a week, through the summer doldrums of New York theater in the twenties, thirties, and forties. It would be great to stumble across a few historically significant summer shows from those years on the dates selected, but just finding shows—any shows—during June, July, and August is challenge enough. And finding any that have readily available photos to illustrate them is even unlikelier. For today’s list, in fact, I was able to turn up photos of only one production, John Ferguson, from my personal resources.
The few titles we’ll look at today are everything produced on June 20 during those bygone decades: Goat Alley, John Ferguson, and Hot Chocolates for the twenties, Find the Fox for the thirties, and Love on Leave and Icetime for the forties. Apart, perhaps, from John Ferguson, even theater buffs will likely draw a blank about these shows. Still, the less well-known, the more interest such forgotten efforts are likely to have.
Goat Alley, which managed eight performances at the Bijou Theatre in 1921, was by Ernest Howard Culbertson, who aimed offer a sociologically accurate depiction of contemporary black life. Not only did a piece about it appear in the Medical Review of Reviews, but, before the curtain, a doctor addressed the audience about the play’s truthfulness. Imagine: a play about blacks for whites that needed the patronizing assistance of medical experts to attest to its veracity! As it turned out, none of this “scientific” contextualization was of much avail, since nothing on view was either scientific or artistic.
A black cast, presumably amateur, performed the “crude and inexpert play,” as the Times described it, which only sporadically showed sparks of vitality. So unusual was it to see black actors in a Broadway play that the Times critic opined that whatever realism was present could as easily have been projected by “professional actors in blackface.”
Because it had a racy plot not unlike Eugene Walters’s Easiest Way, audience members under 20 were not allowed in. The action was set in a Washington, D.C., ghetto and focused on Lucy Belle (Lillian McKee), an ignorant, indigent young woman in love with Sam Reed (Barrington Carter). While he is in jail, however, she is driven to a series of unwilling affairs. Upon his release, the angry Sam, refusing to accept Lulu Belle and her bastard child, kills her.
Ludwig Lewisohn decried the sanitizing the play had undergone at the hands of the “sociologists and propagandists” in prettifying the ending, which originally had Lulu Belle, Medea-like, slay both her child and herself.
An April 1927, revival of the play, at the Princess Theatre, lasted a bit longer (13 performances). The Times critique included these insensitive words: this production “serves to dispel what seems to be a prevailing illusion—namely that all negroes are good actors. Although there are some first rate performances, there are also others which are pretty bad.”
Our next example, also from 1920, is the best-known one, but is not a particularly significant member of the June 20 club since it was not the play’s first production. Irish playwright St. John Ervine’s John Ferguson, a 1915 play, had given the recently born Theatre Guild—soon to become the most important American company of its time—its first success, following their initial failure in 1919 with The Bonds of Interest. The well-received John Ferguson recounts the tragic travails of John (Augustin Duncan), a crippled farmer, as he awaits the money from his wealthy mother in America that will prevent foreclosure of the farm’s mortgage.
Soon after the May 23 production of John Ferguson (24 performances) closed, virtually the same cast—calling itself the Repertory Theatre—produced it on June 20 at the Belmont Theatre. The major casting change was Dudley Digges’s role of James Caesar being taken by J.M. Kerrigan, a popular Irish actor from the original Dublin staging. Yet another version was staged in 1928, for matinees only, but that takes us too far from our purpose, although it might be of interest to note that the title role was again played by Duncan, who, though having become blind in the intervening years, also directed.
The June 20 mood was lifted in 1929 when a black revue called Hot Chocolates opened at the Hudson Theatre and ran for 228 jazzy performances. It was one of the few shows of its kind to make a dent in the late 20s. It sported a chorus of lovelies whom Francis R. Bellamy was at pains to describe as light enough in complexion to adorn a white chorus line. There was also a fine score by “Fats” Waller and Harry Brooks (and others), and a host of stageworthy talent.
Billed as “A New Tanskin Revel,” the show originated at Harlem’s popular night spot, Connie’s Inn, where its opening scene took place as customers started to arrive. There followed a succession of sketches with some memorable dancing, both solo and chorus. This was the show that introduced Waller’s classic “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” which would one day serve as the title for a hit Broadway revue of Waller’s tunes. “Jazzlips” Richardson was the evening’s mirth provoker and Margaret Simms its principal female singer. At one point, Louis Armstrong, who was in the orchestra, did a standout solo.
Finding a show that opened on June 20 in the thirties is like looking for a needle in a haystack, the only one available being Frank Martins’s turkey, Finding the Fox, which appeared in 1930 and disappeared three days later. Performed at Wallack’s Theatre, it was a spoof of murder mysteries that the Times called “a frantically foolish and preposterous nondescript” comedy. The characters were supposed to be a group of actors improvising the plot as it progressed. At the end, the cast revealed that the whole thing was a joke.
For our next endeavor, we leap into the following decade where just two shows await us. The first, as appropriate for something a wartime title, is Love on Leave, by A.B. Shiffrin. This fitful sex comedy at the Hudson Theatre could barely squeak out a week. Many left in mid-performance from this loser about a teenage girl’s sexual curiosity.
Lucy Wilson (Rosemary Rice) is the 15-year-old daughter of a famous specialist in child psychology, Sam Wilson (Millard Mitchell, seen in countless movies). Intrigued by the conduct of a local tramp (Joann Dolan) and wishing to taste life so she can become an actress, Lucy sneaks out of her house in Astoria, Queens, dressed whorishly, to follow the tart to Times Square. There she ends up in a seedy hotel room with a saintly young sailor named Nick Hardy (John Conway), whom she attempts vigorously to bed.
The sailor, unlike those then typical on the stage, is a fine, upstanding fellow with a mind as clean as soap. Recognizing that Lucy is lying about her age and experience, and thinking of his own sister at home, he returns her to her family, but she tries to shift the blame from herself to the boy, claiming he drunkenly seduced her. The cops are dragged in, but the family doctor (Ross Matthew) settles matters satisfactorily, and Nick ends up with Lucy’s sister (June Wilson).
The general line taken by the critics was that to handle the subject of juvenile delinquency as farce was socially irresponsible. Besides, said Herrick Brown, it was “a crude and badly written charade from any angle.”
And then there was Icetime, a musical revue on ice skates shown at the huge Center Theatre in 1946 and successful enough to run 405 times. The period boasted a number of spectacular ice-skating revues (“icestravangazas”), including a regular series at Madison Square Garden.
This first example of the postwar era featured acts like the low-comical Bruises (Monty Stott, Geoffe Stevens, and Sid Spalding)—formerly four, now three—reprising their routine as dowdy charwomen. Comedy was also the specialty of tiny Paul Castle and the virtuosic Freddie Trenkle. The chief figure skater was pretty Joan Hyldoft. Other acts included barrel jumper James Caesar (who also leaped blindfolded through a hoop of knives); trick double skaters Helga and Inge Brandt; and acrobatic Jack Reese, who did a complete somersault on skates.
There were numbers for young children, like “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary,” Cossack dances, high-speed routines, and so on. A minstrel show concluded act one, with such old standards as “Mandy” and “Shine On, Harvest Moon.” Colorful production numbers presented “The Nutcracker Suite,” “The Garden of Versailles, “Sherwood Forest,” and the like.
So familiar had such skating revues become most critics had lost interest, especially George Jean Nathan, who announced: “Totally lacking in imagination, it repeats everything in the antecedent exhibits in even less attractive costumes and even less slightly scenic cut-ups.” Otis L. Guernsey, Jr., described it as “a gorgeous monotony which seems to get showier and emptier as the evening passed.”
Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Hopefully, our next installment will hold something more durable to contemplate, but I wouldn’t bet on it.