By: Samuel L. Leiter
(No. 4 in the series)
May 29,2020: The last two days in May were decidedly fallow for New York theatre production during the twenties, thirties, and forties. Over those three decades, only seven shows opened on May 29; even worse was May 30, with a mere three. And of them all, regardless of the day, only one had even a smidgen of importance. Here’s what opened during those years on May 29.
Oddly, despite the paucity of openings, there were two in 1922, one a straight play, the other a musical. The former was Howard Herrick and Harold McGrath’s dime-novel crook melodrama, The Drums of Jeopardy, which eked out eight performances at the Gaiety Theatre under Ira Hards’s direction. It was thoroughly panned, both its production and script, which revolved around a refugee Russian prince named, of all things, John Hawksley (C. Henry Gordon), who escapes from the Bolsheviks to New York with two priceless emeralds, the “Drums of Jeopardy,” gems reputed to bring bad luck to their owner.
A huge Bolshy named Boris (Paul Everton) pursues the prince with the aim of snatching the jewels and killing him. Finally, he’s stopped by “Cutty” (William Courtleigh), the godfather of the heroine, Kitty (Marion Coakley), who’s really a Secret Service agent, and the big fellow is deported to his homeland. The drum set is broken up to prevent their spell, and John and Kitty get engaged.
Heywood Broun argued that “The exposition was often muddled as well as tedious,” and John Rankin Towse claimed that “the ingredients are imperfectly mixed and badly cooked.”
The musical was Red Pepper, which played at the Shubert for 24 performances. Edgar Smith and Emily Young wrote the book, Howard Rogers and Owen Murphy penned the lyrics, and Albert Bumble and Owen Murphy composed the tunes. The rather tedious show was a vehicle for veteran blackface vaudevillians, James McIntyre and Thomas Heath—McIntyre and Heath—who were “funnier than ever” to a critic called Q.M, who appreciated their familiar patter as two clownish guys always getting the better of each other, dropping wisecracks and bits of farcical philosophy as they go. As we’ll see below, blackface was still a significant component of mainstream entertainment, even as performers of color were moving steadily into the theatrical spotlight.
“Red Pepper” is a race horse at the heart of the plot, but there’s barely any plot since the show, more a revue than a book musical, was not “about anything in particular,” according to the Times. The action moved around from Havana to Arizona to Georgia, all of it merely an excuse for comedy numbers, 16 songs, and chorus dances displaying dance crazes of earlier years, such as the cakewalk and the shuffle.
The sole remaining May 29 show of the decade was Chippies, another fly-by-night number, which fluttered in for 22 performances at the Belmont Theatre in 1929. Written by Luther Yantis and directed by George Smithfield, the overly sentimental play tells of Painsville, Ohio, girl Beth Ramsey (Maud Brooks), who flees her boring small-town life for Cleveland’s fast lane, where she becomes the mistress of speakeasy boss Tony Perotta (Cullen Landis). She learns from her old boyfriend (Warren Colt) that her mom (Maude Dayton) is dying but she can only return to see her if her morality is confirmed by Tony’s marrying her. He agrees but when she gets back home, it’s only to see her mother laid out in her coffin.
Chippie’s stereotyped characters and mediocre acting made it ripe for the woodpile. According to the Times, “The most significant comment on Mr. Yantis’s playwrighting” was the fact that a drunken character who had nothing to do with the action offered its sole moment of amusement.
May 29 in the thirties offered a similarly unimpressive lineup. In fact, the best of the three shows was a revival of that old antislavery chestnut, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in the 1853 version adapted by George Aiken from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel.
By 1933, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, once America’s most popular play, had become a rare commodity in New York, no major revival having been seen since 1901 (there had, though, been two minor ones, in 1907 and 1921). Nevertheless, it still had enough historical, political, and dramatic value to inspire this mounting, given at the Alvin Theatre in a 25-performance run sponsored by the Players Club, their 12th annual all-star revival of a classic work. Earle Booth directed, and Donald Oenslager did the sets.
Despite its huge cast, all the black roles were played, as in the old days, by whites in blackface. Otis Skinner was Uncle Tom, a role he first played in 1877 when he was only 19; Elizabeth Risdon was Eliza; Pedro de Cordoba was George; Thomas Chalmers was Simon Legree; and Fay Bainter played Topsy, with many esteemed actors in minor roles.
It was a straightforward revival of a show that had often included excessively sensational and farcical episodes to sustain interest in what had become an overly familiar, lachrymose artifact. Only one farcical moment, when Eliza and George are escaping in the hills, intruded. Without this lapse, wrote Richard Dana Skinner, “we should . . . have had one of the most amazing object lessons of this decade in the power of sheer make-believe and good acting to surmount the prejudices and cynicism of a modern audience.” He thought that, apart from a few outdated lines, the play held up remarkably well as a forceful and engrossing drama.
Oenslager’s Victorian-style sets of drops and wings (there were 25 scene changes), using only one or two practical props in each scene, were a principal attraction. Otis Skinner’s Uncle Tom was eulogized as a brilliant and touching portrait of martyred nobility, Chalmers’s Legree was completely honest in its ruthlessness and weaknesses, and Bainter’s mischievously strutting Topsy was deemed the crowning asset.
A year later, in 1935, a forgettable dramedy by Ragnhild Bruland (Ronnie Madison) called Furnished Rooms furnished the stage of the Ritz Theatre for 15 performances. Russell Morrison and Edgar Allen directed this drably realistic, “pathetically inexpert” (John Mason Brown), rooming-house play, written under a pseudonym by one of its actresses.
Sexual advantage is taken of shop girl Ann Hadley (Vicki Cummings) by her lecherous, middle-aged landlord, Frank Foster (John P. Morrissey), when she’s unable to pay her rent. Later, Ann and Foster’s college student son, Robert (Frank Reymann), fall in love. Robert finds out about his father’s foul play and has it out with him. Before long, the villainous Frank meets his timely end when his mistress sends a bullet his way.
The last of the decade’s May 29 shows survived just six performances in 1935 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. It was Addison Pitt’s Them’s the Reporters, a newspaper comedy by a writer for the Bronx Home News. Its language was considered offensive—albeit presumably based on how real journalists spoke—and the play was nastily dismissed. Brooks Atkinson called it “a typographical error.”
The central character is Peter (Cledge Roberts), an idealistic, young police reporter who hates his colleague’s scandalmongering. When Miriam Jordan (Helen Kingsley), whom he loves, is innocently involved in a car crash with a gangster, she’s so smeared by the press that Peter angrily denounces his profession and resigns. It costs him his job but he gets the girl.
There was one bright spot, however, in the performance of David Burns, eventually a Broadway stalwart, as a hard-drinking, henpecked reporter.
The forties were even less propitious for May 29 openings. One was a brief revival of Paul Vincent Carroll’s The White Steed in an Equity Library Theatre production at the Muhlenberg Branch of the New York Public Library. This Irish play had its first New York production in 1939, was given five showings in 1942 by a local semipro group, and ended its Big Apple life in this showcase starring respected actor Whitford Kane as the liberal priest Canon Matt Lavelle. The play’s theme, inspired by the reactionary rantings of radio priest Father Coughlin, sought to dissuade religious leaders from mingling too deeply in secular affairs.
Robert Garland noted: “Here was a thoughtful, timely and far from unimportant play, in a thoughtful, timely and far from unimportant resuscitation.”
Finally, in 1945, Round Trip, by Mary Orr and well-known actor Reginald Denham, and directed by the latter, opened at the Biltmore Theatre. Samuel Leve did the sets for this comedy that totaled only seven performances, although it employed several players of note, such as Sidney Blackmer.
Round Trip was a naughty comedy about marital infidelity, something that seemed at the heart of almost every other new show at the time. Set in the small town of Ironville, Ohio, it was a predictable tale, with a theatrical theme, about a vain, married woman, Sarah Albright (June Walker), who is acting in a play presented by the Ironville Women’s Club under the direction of New York actor, Clive Delafield (Eddie Nugent).
Clive caters to her, hoping she can help raise money for a play he wants to do. She, though, happily thinks he has more romantic interests. Eventually, she learns he has a live-in mistress in New York, a sexy, blonde stenographer (Phyllis Brooks), which dashes her dream of moving in with Clive and starring with him on Broadway.
The complications involv Sarah’s husband (Blackmer) seeking to retrieve his wayward wife, his leaving her to take up with the stenographer, the consequent divorce proceedings, and the machinations of the Albright’s promiscuous teenage daughter (Patricia Kirkland) to get her parents back together.
Critical sensibilities considered this a noxious piece of filth and waste of talent. Burton Rascoe abominated it as “a crudely contrived gas bomb.” Howard Barnes dumped on it as “Unctuously suggestive and halting in execution, the show is not even good enough for leering laughter.”
May 29, then, was infinitely skippable in the annals of New York theater of the twenties, thirties, and forties.