By: Samuel L. Leiter
(No. 27 in the series)
May 23 was a rather lonely date in the annals of New York theater during the 1920s. Apart from the second of two revivals of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, which opened at the Masque Theatre for 16 performances in 1927, only one show used the May 23 slot, but it was a doozy. I’m referring to Anne Nichols’s surprisingly popular comedy about religious intermarriage, Abie’s Irish Rose, which struck a resounding gong in the teeming melting pot of Roaring Twenties’ New York City.
No one ever pretended that Nichols’s play was anything but a potboiler for the masses, Heywood Broun, for example, calling it “a synthetic farce.” “There is not so much as a single line of honest writing in it,” he groused, adding, “the play is so cheap and offensive that it might serve to unite all the races of the world in a common hymn of hate.” Regardless of such explosive condemnations, the play packed them in at the Fulton Theatre for five and a half years, racking up a long run of 2,327 performances that would remain unchallenged for fourteen years. It enjoyed worldwide productions in the years to come, including a Chinese-language version, was revived twice in New York, and became two films and a radio show.
Inspired by a real-life story, Nichols wrote Abie’s Irish Rose in less than a week. Despite two very successful West Coast productions she had great difficulty in getting a Broadway mounting, so she invested all her money and put it on herself. Hurt by reviews like Broun’s, although some were kinder, the show did poorly at first. Two months of good word-of-mouth, however, turned the tide and the show was soon a cash cow that, by the time it closed after five and half years, had made Nichols a millionaire.
The sentimental farce has a Romeo and Juliet story about Jewish Abie Levy (Robert B. Williams) and Irish Catholic Rosie Murphy (Marie Carroll), who had met overseas and gotten married. At home, faced by their fathers’ displeasure at the match, Abie palms his wife off as Rosemary Murphyski, and she tells her dad her spouse is Michael Magee. The meeting of Mr. Levy (Alfred Wiseman) and Mr. Murphy (John Cope) sets off detonations of discord, but all is harmonized when the couple undergoes two more marriages, one in each of their respective religious traditions, and Rosie has the diplomatic good sense to bear twins, thereby uniting old Levy and Murphy in loving grandpahood.
The well-performed play owed much of its success to its appealing cast, although none went on to become big names. Of those who liked it there was the Evening Journal, which called it “a lively play . . . handsomely mounted [with] study and care.” The Times wrote prophetically, “Personally, we hope to be present at little Rebecca Rachel and Patrick Josephy Levy’s second birthday, if not their Hudson-Fulton centennial.” Humorist Robert Benchley, though, despised the play and hated having to write a weekly note on it for Life. He used the opportunity to aim barbs such as, “Among the season’s worst,” Where do the people come from who see this thing? You don’t see them out in the daytime,” and “Come on, now! A joke’s a joke.”
Abie’s Irish Rose was the classic example of a play that begins very slowly, drawing its initial audiences by means of cut-rate tickets, and gradually develops into a smash. Only Nichols’s faith in it kept the bloom on the rose. From May to October it didn’t have a single profitable week. To keep it alive Nichols had to raise money quickly. She asked gambler/gangster Arnold Rothstein for a $30,000 loan. He said yes only when she agreed to let him write all of the insurance on the play for its entire life.
It is also interesting that producer Oliver Morosco, who had produced it on the West Coast before it ventured East, later claimed to have made considerable contributions to the script when it was called Marriage in Triplicate.
And that’s what happened on May 23 in the 1920s.
Click Here for #24 in the Series ON THIS DAY IN NEW YORK THEATER: March 13 in the 1920’s
Click Here for #25 in the Series ON THS DAY IN NEW YORK THEATER: March 28, 1939
Click Here for #26 in the Series ON THIS DAY IN NEW YORK THEATER: April 18, 1946
Samuel L. Leiter, Ph.D.
Drama Desk voter
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