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Recollections of Old Play-Bills

by Charles H. Pattee


In offering to the public my recollections of old play-bills I cannot be said to be travelling over familiar ground. For it is worthy of remark that while many bygone periods of theatrical history have found their chroniclers, their panegyrists, their enthusiastic remembrances, the space filled by the events of the Boston stage of 1852 to the present day has remained without a comprehensive survey, without a careful retrospect of its many notable and brilliant illustrations. To supply this void, to endeavor at once to preserve the memories of past grandeurs (already fading with the generation who enjoyed them), and to furnish to the younger portion of theatre-goers some conception of what the stage has been in its “palmy days,” I have employed my leisure in putting together this history of old play-bills. The changes which have overspread modern society, vast and manifold as they are admitted to be, are, perhaps, nowhere more perceptible than in the region known as the theatrical world. To one who has formed a link in that chain which formerly connected the higher ranks of society with the taste for dramatic art—with the cultivation of the beautiful and imaginative in both opera and drama—to such a one the contemplation of the altered relations now between the patrons of the drama and the ministers of art suggest many comparisons. The first stage performance I ever witnessed will not easily be forgotten. It took place in the Boston Museum in 1850; the plays were “Speed the Plough,” and a local drama (now happily banished from the stage) called “Rosina Meadows.” Thomas Comer, who was leader of the Museum orchestra, a gentleman, actor, and musician, took me under his charge and seated me in the orchestra near the bass-drum and cymbals, where I remained until the end of the performance. The time flew in unalloyed delight until the fatal green curtain shut out all hope of future enjoyment. William Warren, W. H. Sedley Smith, Louis Mestayer, J. A. Smith, Adelaide Phillips, Louisa Gann, who became the wife of Wulf Fries, the celebrated ‘cello player, residing in Boston, Mrs. Judah and Mr. and Mrs. Thoman, all of whom are dead with the exception of J. A. Smith, who is now an inmate of the Forrest Home in Holmesburg, Penn., and Mrs. Thoman, who was a charming actress, and for several seasons a great favorite with the Museum patrons. She was divorced from Thoman and became the wife of a Mr. Saunders, a lawyer residing in San Francisco, who died some years since. Mrs. Saunders is now living in the above city in retirement, and through the kindness of her cousin, Joseph Jefferson, is enjoying the ease of a genteel competence.

William Warren and Adelaide Phillips were the first performers who ever made a lasting impression upon me. William Warren, great as an artist and as a man. With pleasure do I pause from the record of events to present a description of the illustrious actor. He has now passed away, and to future generations the faithful description of one who delighted their fathers, and who can never be replaced, will surely prove welcome. He made his first appearance in Boston at the Howard Athenæum, Oct. 5, 1846, as Sir Lucius O’Trigger in the “Rivals” (the same character that W. J. Florence is now personating with the Jefferson combination). Mr. Warren remained at the Athenæum but one season, and during that time commanded the admiration of his audiences. Mr. Charles W. Hunt, a very good actor, had held the position of comedian at the Boston Museum for several seasons, but owing to some misunderstanding, left the establishment. Mr. Warren was engaged to fill the vacancy, and on the night of the 23d of August, 1847, he made his first appearance on the stage of the Museum as Billy Lackaday in the old comedy of “Sweethearts and Wives,” and as Gregory Grizzle in the farce of “My Young Wife and Old Umbrella,” and from that time, with the exception of one year’s recession (1864-5) to the termination of the season of 1882-3, was a member of the Museum company. Thirty-six years is a long test applied to modern performers, and he that could pass such an ordeal of time, must possess merits of the very highest order, such as could supersede the call for novelty, and make void the fickleness of general applause. All this Warren effected. The public, so far from being wearied at the long-continued cry of Warren, elevated him, if possible, into greater favoritism yearly. But his place is not to be supplied. No other actor can half compensate his loss. Independent of his faculties as an actor, so great a lover was he of his art that he would undertake with delight a character far beneath his ability. Other actors will not condescend to do this or else fear to let themselves down by doing so. Warren had no timidities about assuming a lesser part, nor did he deem it condescension. Artists of questionable greatness may deem it a degradation to personate any save a leading part. Warren felt that he did not let himself down, he raised the character to his own elevation. From this it follows that no great actor within my recollection had undertaken such a variety of characters. He was found in every possible grade of representation. His acting forms a pleasant landing place in my memory. As I wander backward, no other actor has ever so completely exemplified my idea of what a genuine comedian ought to be. He gained the highest honors that could be bestowed upon him in Boston, and established his claim to be considered one of the most chaste and finished of American actors. From Sir Peter Teazle to John Peter Pillicoddy, from Jesse Rural to Slasher, from Haversack to Box and Cox, he was equally great and efficient. I have heard it remarked that the late W. Rufus Blake stood without a rival as Jesse Rural, while Henry Placide was the best of Sir Peter Teazles. Never having witnessed the performances of those gentlemen, I am unable to speak of their merits, as older writers have sounded their praises for a generation. Saturday, Oct. 28, 1882, was the fiftieth anniversary of Mr. Warren’s adoption of the stage. The entertainment consisted of an afternoon and evening performance. The “Heir at Law,” constituted the bill for the day performance, and “School for Scandal,” was given in the evening. It was impossible indeed for the arrangements to be more perfectly accomplished. The character of the audiences was even more gratifying than its numbers. Never had been such an assemblage in any theatre. A great number of elderly persons, both men and women, interspersed with the younger people, gave a beautiful shading to the amphitheatre picture, as it was seen from the boxes. It was a tribute of respect to one who had been so long the pride of Boston. As a matter of record I give the complete cast of the plays:—

Heir at Law.

Dr. Pangloss Wm. Warren
Dick Doulas Chas. Barron
Zekiel Homespun George Wilson
Daniel Doulas A. Hudson
Kenrick Jas. Nolan
Steadfast J. Burrows
Henry Moreland J. B. Mason
John Fred Ham
Waiter J. S. Maffitt, Jr.
Cicely Homespun Annie Clarke
Deborah Doulas Mrs. J. R. Vincent
Caroline Dormer Norah Bartlett

School for Scandal.

Sir Peter Teazle William Warren
Charles Surface Chas. Barron
Joseph Surface Geo. Parks
Sir Oliver Surface A. Hudson
Sir Benjamin J. B. Mason
Crabtree Geo. Wilson
Moses Wm. Seymour
Careless Geo. C. Boniface, Jr.
Rowley J. Burrows
Trip J. Nolan
Snake F. Ham
Sir Harry J. S. Maffit, Jr.
Servant to Joseph A. R. Whytal
Servant to Lady Sneerwell Geo. Cohill
Lady Teazle Annie Clarke
Mrs. Candour Mrs. Vincent
Marion Norah Bartlett
Lady Sneerwell Kate Ryan

Mr. Warren remained at the Museum during the entire season, and made his last appearance on any stage as old Eccles in “Caste,” in May, 1883. From that time to the day of his death, which sad event occurred Sept. 21, 1888, Mr. Warren made Boston his home, residing at No. 2 Bulfinch Place, the residence of Amelia Fisher, where he had lived since the departure of his cousin, Mrs. Thoman, for California, in 1854. Mr. Warren left property to the value of a quarter of a million dollars. He made no public bequests, but bequeathed his entire estate to his relatives. Who is there in Boston that has not heard of Miss Amelia Fisher, the “dear old lady” of Bulfinch Place, where she has lived so many years, and at whose hospitable board so many have been welcomed? Miss Fisher, accompanied by her sisters Jane, afterwards Mrs. Vernon, who was for many years the “first old woman” of the New York stage, and Clara, afterwards Mrs. Gaspard Maeder, married in America in 1827, and made her début at the Park Theatre, N. Y., singing a duet, “When a Little Farm We Keep,” with William Chapman. Miss Fisher was for several seasons attached to the Tremont Theatre in Boston, and although possessing respectable abilities both as singer and actress, never attained the prominent place in the profession accorded to her more talented sisters. Miss Fisher retired from the stage in 1841, and for some years was a teacher of dancing in Boston. For over thirty-seven years Miss Fisher has entertained at her home a swarm of dramatic celebrities. Here Mr. and Mrs. James W. Wallack, Charles Couldock, Peter Richings and his daughter Caroline, Mrs. John Hoey, and Fanny Morant, dined together where, in later days, Joseph Jefferson, George Honey (the celebrated English comedian), Ada Rehan, Annie Pixley, Mr. and Mrs. McKee Rankin, and Mr. and Mrs. Byron, ate their supper in the old kitchen, and were merry with wit and song. Since the death of Mr. Warren, Miss Fisher has not enjoyed good health, although her hospitable board is still surrounded by her friends and guests.

With the name of Adelaide Phillips there are many dear associations. When at seven or eight years of age I went to see her at the Boston Museum, the days she began to sing in “Cinderella” and the “Children of Cyprus.” How the old days rise up before me now. She was then in the spring of life, fresh, bright, and serene as a morning in May, perfect in form, her hands and her arms peculiarly graceful, and charming in her whole appearance. She seemed to speak and sing without effort or art. All was nature and harmony. Miss Phillips was a great favorite in Boston where she made her début at the Tremont Theatre in January, 1842, in the play of “Old and Young,” personating five characters, and introducing songs and dances. Although very youthful, she displayed great aptness and evinced remarkable musical talent. On the 25th of September, 1843, she first appeared on the boards of the Boston Museum, which then stood at the corner of Tremont and Bromfield Streets, where the Horticultural Hall now stands. The character which she assumed was Little Pickle in the “Spoiled Child.” At the opening of the present Museum, Nov. 2, 1846, Miss Phillips was attached to the company as actress-danseuse, and doing all the musical work necessary in the plays of that time. She was a most attractive member of the company, and as Morgiana (Forty Thieves), Lucy Bertram (Guy Mannering), Fairy of the Oak (Enchanted Beauty) was greatly admired. Her first decided success was as Cinderella. She was now about eighteen years of age, and the tones of her voice were rich and pure. She did not aim at “stage effect,” and her singing and acting were exquisite. At that time, 1850-51, Jenny Lind was in Boston. Miss Phillips was introduced and sang to her, and her singing was so brilliant, so ringing, so finished, that her hearer was astonished, and uttered exclamations of delight. The noble-hearted Jenny sent her a check for a thousand dollars, and a letter recommending Emanuel Garcia, who had been her own teacher, as the best instructor, and amid all the triumphs of her professional career, the affection and kindness which was showered upon her by Mlle. Lind, and her Boston friends, who came forward to show their willingness to aid Miss Phillips, was never effaced from her mind. After remaining abroad several years, she returned to Boston, appearing at the Boston Theatre Dec. 3, 1855, as Count Belino, in the opera of the “Devil’s Bridge,” supported by the popular favorite, Mrs. John Wood. She first appeared here in Italian opera a year later as Azucena in “Il Trovatore,” Madame La Grange being the Leonora. In this opera Miss Phillips was heard with great effect and never were her talents as an actress more conspicuously displayed. At the conclusion of the performance, the favorite singer received an ovation, applause rang through the theatre; the emotion which was evinced by her friends and admirers was evidently shared by herself. The character of Azucena remained a favorite one with Miss Phillips to the last. The characters in which she excelled were Maffio Orsini (Lucrezia Borgia), Rosina (Barber of Seville), and Leonora (Favorita). In 1879, she joined the Ideal Opera Company, and carried into it her vocal and dramatic culture. She continued with this company until December, 1881, when she made her last appearance on any stage in Cincinnati. Her last appearance in Boston was at the Museum, the home of her earlier triumphs, in the role of Fatinitza, a few months before her departure for the West in 1880. Ill health compelled her to relinquish all her engagements, and on the 12th of August, 1882, accompanied by her sister-in-law, Mrs. Adrian Phillips, who was the Arvilla in the early days of the Museum, sailed for Paris. After a few days’ rest in that city, they reached Carlsbad, and took apartments at Konig’s Villa, a pension for invalids. A few weeks thus passed until suddenly, on Oct. 3, 1882, the change came, and Adelaide Phillips was gone. The death of this gifted and good woman produced a painful sensation in Boston, and, indeed, all over the country she was deeply regretted. In private life she was amiable and kind-hearted, ever ready to assist the distressed. By her family and friends she was idolized, by the public she was respected for the purity of her life, and admired for her talents. Herewith I give a copy of the “bill” of Miss Phillips’ last benefit at the Museum, prior to her departure for Europe.


Farewell Benefit of Miss Adelaide Phillips.

Re-engagement of the eminent artists, Mr. Charles
and Mrs. Barrett.

Friday Evening, June 27, 1851.

The Honeymoon.

Duke Aranza C. D. Pitt
Rolando L. Mestayer
Jacques W. Warren
Lampedo J. W. Thoman
Count J. A. Smith
Balthazar J. L. Monroe
Lopez G. H. Finn
Campillo A. Bradley
Lupez S. F. Palmer
Juliana Mrs. Barrett
Volante Mrs. Thoman
Zamora Miss Adelaide Phillips
In which she will sing “Ah, What Full Delight,” from the opera of the “Bohemian Girl.”
Hostess Miss Rees

Fancy dance  —  Miss Arvilla.
Comic dance  —  Masters Adrian and Fred Phillips.

Conclude with

The Swiss Cottage.

Corporal Max L. Mestayer
Nat. Tick W. Warren
Lisette Miss Adelaide Phillips
In which she will sing “France, I Adore Thee,” and “Liberty for Me.”

A great attraction in Boston, way back in the fifties, was Anna Cora Mowatt. Her engagements were always very successful, the theatre being crowded with fashionable and intelligent audiences. Mrs. Mowatt was not a great actress. Delicacy was her most marked characteristic. “A subdued earnestness of manner, a soft musical voice, a winning witchery of enunciation, and indeed an almost perfect combination of beauty, grace, and refinement fitted her for a class of characters in which other actresses were incapable of excelling.” Mrs. Mowatt was born at Bordeaux, France, during the temporary residence there of her parents about 1820. She married very young, and for a short time enjoyed every luxury that wealth could purchase. Her husband’s bankruptcy drove her to the stage, where she made her first appearance at the Park Theatre as Pauline, in “Lady of Lyons,” June 13, 1845. Her engagements here in Boston were played at the Howard Athenæum, then under the management of Mr. Wyzeman Marshall, who still lives, and can be seen upon the principal streets of Boston almost daily. The “houses” were very large, tickets being sold at public auction. At the termination of her engagement she was serenaded at the hotel, and throughout the country she met with the same flattering reception. Mrs. Mowatt’s favorite roles were Viola, Rosalind, and Parthenia, characters now fresh in the public mind, made so by Miss Julia Marlowe. Mrs. Mowatt made her last appearance on the stage at Niblo’s Theatre, N. Y., on the 3d of June, 1854. On the 7th of that month she became the wife of W. F. Ritchie. Mrs. Ritchie died in Paris a few years since, where she was much regretted by the social circle of which she was the admired star.

In 1852, at the National Theatre, which was situated on Portland Street, Charlotte Cushman commenced her farewell to the stage in the tragedy of “Romeo and Juliet.” Charlotte Cushman was now at the summit of her art. She was universally allowed to be the greatest tragedienne of the day. And this recognition was due to her fine genius. She owed nothing to artifice or meretricious attraction. Nothing was left to chance, for the indomitable spirit and zealousness with which she had sustained herself under adverse circumstances had done not a little to elevate her in the regard of her countrymen and admirers. This was the first of a series of “farewell engagements,” inaugurated by Miss Cushman, and continued to her real and positive farewell in 1875.

I have always had an objection to ladies personating Romeo, but I waived that feeling in favor of Miss Cushman. Her personation of Romeo was beautiful and even pathetic. The passionate grief of young Montague in the third act was subdued by a tearful pathos. Nothing could surpass her reading of the character: it was a triumph, and in a word it would be difficult to conceive anything more grand than this impersonation. It is difficult to conceive a character more highly dramatic or more impassioned than that of Lady Macbeth. The conflicts, emotions, and power of the ambitious queen were portrayed with a truth, a grandeur of effect, unequalled since by any actress. Miss Cushman’s impersonation of Meg Merriles was one of the finest illustrations of originality the stage ever witnessed. There was no effort to resemble the character. She entered the stage the character itself, transposed into the situation, excited by hope and fear, breathing the life and the spirit of the being she represented. In my opinion, when Charlotte Cushman died, so did Meg Merriles, and it will be many a day before the old gipsy queen will produce that indescribable effect upon an audience, as in the days of Cushman. At the Boston Theatre, June 2, 1858, Miss Cushman as Romeo, her farewell to the stage. At the same theatre, in 1860, another farewell, Miss Cushman as Romeo, who with the aid of Mrs. Barrow as Juliet, John Gilbert as Friar Laurence, and Mrs. John Gilbert as the nurse, made up a very strong cast. Here, at the Howard Athenæum in 1861, then under the management of that talented actor (who, by the way, was the best Hamlet I ever saw,) Edgar L. Davenport, Miss Cushman was announced April 11, 1861, positively her last night in Boston, when Romeo and Juliet was given with a remarkable cast. E. L. Davenport was the Mercutio, John Gilbert the Friar, John McCullough, Tybalt, Frank Hardenbergh, Prince Esculus, Dan Setchell, Peter, W. J. Le Moyne, Capulet, Miss Josephine Orton (a very brilliant actress, and now the wife of Benj. E. Woolf, of the Saturday Evening Gazette), Juliet, Mrs. John Gilbert as the nurse (she had no superior in this role), and Charlotte Cushman as Romeo, truly a fine array of talent, all of whom have passed away with the exception of Miss Orton and Mr. Le Moyne. This was Miss Cushman’s last performance of Romeo in Boston. In the spring of 1875, Miss Cushman played another farewell engagement, which proved in truth a reality. It was at the Globe Theatre, and Saturday, May 15, 1875, was announced as Miss Cushman’s farewell to the stage. Macbeth was the play, with Miss Cushman as Lady Macbeth. As an event worth remembering, I give the complete cast:—

Macbeth D. W. Waller
Macduff G. B. Waldron
Banquo Chas. Fyffe
Malcolm Lin Harris
Duncan James Dunn
Physician C. Pierson
Drunken Porter E. Coleman
Rosse S. Clarke
Seyter G. Conner
Sergeant John Connor
Donaldbain Miss Wilkes
1st Witch E. Coleman
2d Witch Mrs. A. Hayes
3d Witch J. H. Connor
Gentlewoman Miss Athena

A most inefficient company, exceedingly weak in the masculine department, while the actresses were barely tolerable. The highest anticipations of a brilliant engagement had been indulged in by the management, and bitter was their disappointment, and great the chagrin of Miss Cushman to find that this “positively farewell engagement” failed to create anything of a furore. The public had been so often deceived by these announcements, that they failed to respond to the box office. In this special performance of “Macbeth,” Miss Cushman was hailed with prolonged acclamations. Old admirers were there who still recollected her when she was the greatest ornament of the stage. Younger ones assembled to catch the last rays of a genius which had filled Europe and America with its splendor. The former sought this memory of days gone by, the latter came to pay deference to the verdict of a previous generation. At the close of the performance Miss Cushman was called to the footlights, there to receive the tribute due to her name and fame from the not over large audience. The spectacle was interesting, yet it was melancholy, not to say painful, to all who could feel with true artistic sympathy. Her last appearance was soon forgotten in the turmoil of dramatic events, but her name still gleams with traditional lustre in the annals of dramatic fame. Miss Cushman never again appeared in Boston, for on the 18th day of February, 1876, she breathed her last at the Parker House, Boston. Her funeral took place at King’s Chapel, in presence of a large concourse of people, and her body rests in Mount Auburn. Miss Cushman was a very wealthy woman, but her generosities were not numerous; even the little Cushman school, named in her honor, was forgotten in her will. Her relatives (nephews and nieces) reside, I believe, in Newport, R. I., and are the sole possessors of her large estate. I omitted to mention that Charlotte Cushman’s last appearance in public was as a reader in Easton, Penn., June 2, 1875.