RUTH CHATTERTON: “Electric Lights . . . Stellar Heights.”

[ PART TWO of a continuing series of articles on the stage and film career of Ruth Chatterton.  The first installment Ruth Chatterton: On the Great Divide looked at her early life and the beginnings of her stage career, up to stardom in The Rainbow in 1912. ]

There was a time, up until the very end of the nineteenth century, when nearly all entertainment was live.  Excluding printed media, entertainment meant human interaction.  Live music.  Live drama and comedy.  Actors on a stage performing live every night (but Sunday), performances that were scripted, but were never exactly the same and could change with the moods of the players and the reactions of audiences.

Compared to modern entertainment, nothing was as bright, nothing was as loud.  No lasers, halogen or LEDs, but electric lights that glowed and sizzled, burning bright and  hot.  No microphones, no amplification, no PA systems — just the human voice that had to range from a whisper to a scream, while being both audible and intelligible to audiences a hundred rows away.  And these audiences were not easily impressed.  Many were devotees of theater and, just as fans of science fiction can’t be fooled by a poorly constructed sci-fi epic, there were many in the audience who were self-styled experts in the dramatic arts who knew the difference between craft and crap, and weren’t shy about expressing it in public.

The players themselves had to be a tougher breed than most today — travel by train was uncomfortable: noisy, dirty and slow.  In bad weather it could be disastrous — life threatening (as the article “Troubles of a Road Company,” below, vividly describes).  An actress who dared travel alone across the U. S./Canada border risked detention and deportation as an “undesirable character,” a euphemism for “prostitute.”  Only those who had risen to the top of their profession stayed in the best hotels, performed in the best theaters and got to experience the comfort of remaining in one city for weeks, or months at a time, allowing for a routine of fine meals and a good night’s sleep.

The remainder had to work their way up in rat infested, fire-trap theaters, and stay in the lowest hotels and boarding houses that were frequently the only ones willing to provide lodging for actors, who had a bad reputation for sneaking out before dawn leaving unpaid bills.  Sometimes, it was the manager of a touring company, with barely enough cash to get home himself, who abandoned his players in mid-tour with no means to get another meal or bed for the night.  The actors had to “work their way home.”

There were alternatives.  You could work and remain in a local stock company and possibly stay in one town, even your home town — every hamlet had local theater, but it wasn’t a way to earn a living, not full-time.  You had to travel and take chances to become a full-time, professional player, much less a star.  Players in the lower rungs remained in the dregs for as long as they could stand it, depending on the depth of their love for, or obsession with, the life of an actor until they found success and a level of comfort.  Or they packed it all in and “retired” to a less exciting, but less strenuous, more dependable line of work —  or marriage.

There were some who were fortunate, who found success not overnight, but within a few short years and at an age where their young bodies and minds had not been worn down by many years in the business.  Exceptional talent and good fortune rather than saintly patience and super-human endurance would be the lot of just a few.  This is the story of one of those talented and fortunate few.


Ruth Chatterton as “Judy,” with the “orphan children” of Daddy Long Legs (1914), the most important and successful work in Chatterton’s career to date.  The play was based on a best-selling book by Jean Webster (a grand-niece of Mark Twain) that she adapted for the stage.  Produced and directed by Henry Miller, it was so popular that the best known movie actress on earth, Mary Pickford, would purchase the rights and film it several years later.

* * *

When The Rainbow ended its first Broadway run at the Liberty Theatre the first week of June, 1912, Ruth Chatterton was being hailed as “one of the finds of the season,” “a natural ingenue,” an actress “without a trace of affectation,”  She was nineteen, and she had been a working professional actor for less than three years.  It was only the beginning.

Although hyperbole for new stars was the norm on Broadway, there seemed now an obsession with youth — young performers who critics claimed were getting younger all the time and were receiving more attention in the press than the “legitimate” theater had ever before seen, a youth movement not unlike that which struck Hollywood in the mid 1950s with James Dean, Elvis Presley and Natalie Wood, or American pop music in the 1990s with boy bands, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.   Except that in 1912, their counterparts were all female: Billie Burke, Elsie Janis, Alice Brady, Marie Doro, Laurette Taylor.  And now, Ruth Chatterton.

Whether Ruth Chatterton was part of a female youth movement on the American stage or simply an exceptionally talented, young actress, Henry Miller wasn’t about to allow his new protege, his star pupil if you will, deviate from the path he had planned for her, a plan visible to us with the  benefit of hindsight.  Over the next three years, he would slowly build her confidence and career with a handful of carefully chosen steps that would prove she was not the product of the whims of fashion in theater.  After her initial flush of success in the Rainbow, he would soon get back to theater basics with Ruth, in a project surprisingly small, and now long obscure.

Miller left New York the second week of June, “for the summer,” according to the Dramatic Mirror, to relax at his Connecticut farm.   It was a short rest.  He was back by the end of July to supervise the production of a series of one-act plays at Proctor’s Fifth Avenue Theatre.  A storied venue on West 28th Street, the Fifth Avenue Theatre was in the heart of the theater district — in the 1890s.  But in the intervening years, “Broadway” gradually migrated a dozen blocks north, and the Fifth Avenue Theatre was now a venue for vaudeville — the best in vaudeville — but not often the kind of sophisticated, artistic fare for which Henry Miller was known.

Proctor’s Fifth Avenue Theater, c.1905.  At 28th and Broadway, it was in the heart of the Theater District — in the 1890s.  By 1912, “Broadway” had moved a dozen blocks north, and Proctor’s hosted vaudeville.  But the multitude of music publishers on the same stretch of West 28th had earned the street a new nickname, “Tin Pan Alley,” for the constant clanking of upright pianos with their tin sound-boards, heard from open windows.

One of these “playlets,” as the press called them, was Susan’s Gentleman, a one-act comedy by Kate Jordan.  It starred Ruth Chatterton who also produced it under the direction of Henry Miller.  The New York Dramatic Mirror referred to it as Chatterton’s “Vaudeville debut.”  It was a debut in impressive company: also on the bill with Chatterton’s little comedy was a future legend, the entertainer, singer/comedienne Fanny Brice.  (And as further evidence that “vaudeville” wasn’t synonymous with cheap entertainment, Mae West, The Great Houdini, and W. C. Fields were all appearing at vaudeville houses in Manhattan that same week.)

Susan’s Gentleman was also Chatterton’s debut stage production.  It is indicative of Miller’s respect for Chatterton’s talent and his interest in furthering her career that he was giving her the opportunity to expand her abilities beyond acting.  It was something she would pursue seriously in the second half of her career, before and after entering the movies.

Miller had staged Susan’s Gentleman earlier, in May, but this new production with Chatterton debuted at Proctor’s on August 5 for a scheduled run of one week, to be followed by another one-act playlet, with a completely different cast.

The Dramatic Mirror was not favorably impressed by Susan’s Gentleman, and in particular cited Chatterton as being “unable to portray the slangy qualities” of her character, a young woman of the Lower East Side.  The remainder of the cast fared worse, though The Mirror‘s reviewer thought that Chatterton played well in a scene of pathos near the conclusion of the single act play.

But Chatterton and Miller had little time to deconstruct her performance or her first attempt at stage production.  The Rainbow was about to open a national tour at the start of the new theater season, at Brooklyn’s Broadway Theatre, beginning August 31st.

The huge Broadway success of The Rainbow had been trumpeted in local newspapers across the United States and Canada for three months during its New York run, and theater owners, all the major chains, regional groups and independents, were eager to see the play and the crowds it would surely draw in their buildings.  From an early season start at the end of August in 1912, through the following April into Canada, The Rainbow was as well received as had been anticipated.  It was not the first extensive road tour for Chatterton — she had toured in The Great Name for more than five months prior to its Broadway premiere.  But this time, she wasn’t part of a new production that was  being fine-tuned from town-to-town with the pressure to hone it to near perfection prior to an opening night in Times Square.  It was already a phenomenally popular show, a veritable well-oiled machine with a ready-made, enthusiastic audience wherever it played.

The Rainbow tour included lengthy stays in major cities — eight weeks during the 1912 holiday season in Boston, and one month each in Philadelphia and Chicago in January and February of 1913.  There were practical reasons for this.  Train travel in the northeast and midwest in the winter was unpredictable, at best.  Lengthy stays in the larger cities during the winter months made sense in all respects, not just financial.  Upper midwest and Canadian venues were smartly scheduled later, beginning in April.  It was risky business to do otherwise.  February in Kansas could be brutal.

A lengthy stop in one town meant that the local press had that rare opportunity to do something that modern media does 24 hours a day — interview a young celebrity or star “in-depth.”  So it was that during the month long stop of The Rainbow in Chicago in February, the “Matinee Girl” (“Mae Tinee”) of the Chicago Daily Tribune was granted rare entrance into a backstage dressing room that amounted to little more than a broom closet.  Tucked inside were Ruth and Mrs. Chatterton, getting Ruth’s hair and makeup ready for the next show.  Such press intimacy with the star in her curlers and cold-cream was possible only for a female reporter — no “boys” were allowed near the ladies’ dressing rooms.

A year earlier in a candid interview via telephone with a reporter from the New York Times, Ruth had given her first in-depth interview and an account of her earliest days on stage at the Columbia Theater in Washington, D. C.  To the Chicago reporter she gave additional details on those early days and of her first meeting with Henry Miller.  She also gave accounts of her more recent experiences with men, or rather, boys.  Asked if she receives a lot of “mash” (love) notes,

“I do.  From college boys.  You see, the part (of Cynthia) is especially attractive to very young fellows.  They are all the time writing asking for pictures and if they can meet me, etc.”  [Mother Lilian interrupts, you can almost hear her “Brooklynese” coming through the printed words:]  “You can bet Ruthie never answers ’em.  She always answers letters from girls, but never any of the other crazy ones.  I see to that.”

“Ruthie” goes on to describe the extent to which young men have gone in trying to meet her:

“At a certain college, the boys actually made bets about me.  They bet $100 that . . . they would meet me.  One of them happened to know somebody who knew me and maneuvered . . . an introduction.  It leaked out [to Ruth], though, before the boy got his money.   You see, the only way he could prove he had met me was for me to recognize him in some public place when all the rest [of his friends] were there.”

Ruth then gives the denouement — a brush-off:

“One night then, when mother and I were at dinner, a crowd of college boys all trooped in and took tables near us.  The one I had met caught my eye and bowed and smiled.  I CUT HIM DEAD!”  “You done noble,” said I (the “Matinee Girl”).   “O, boys are the LIMIT,” she (Ruth) agreed.”

She also described the “renting” of pictures of her among boys:

 “when one of them has [a] picture the others haven’t — they rent the picture — so much a day.  PAY for the privilege of owning it one measly day!”.

[Little more needs to be said.]  All the above interview quotes from “Chatty Miss Chatterton Does Not Belie Her Name,” by Mae Tinee, Chicago Daily Tribune, February 23, 1913.

* * *

1912-13 Season tour schedule for The RainbowClick on the highlighted dates and cities for additional images and documents (they will open in a new tab or window):
Aug 31-Sept 5, Brooklyn, NY, Broadway Theatre; Sept 9-14, Buffalo, NY, Star Theater; Sept 16-18, Syracuse, NY, Empire Theater; Sept 19-21, Rochester, NY; Sept 23-28, Baltimore, MD; Sept 30-Oct 5, Washington, DC; Oct 7-12, Pittsburgh, PA, Nixon Theater; Oct 14-19, New York City, Grand Opera House; Oct 22, Trenton, NJ, Trent Theatre; Oct 25, Scranton, PA; Oct 28 – Nov 2, Brooklyn, NY; Nov 4 – Dec 21, Boston, MA, The Tremont; Jan 2, 1913, Hartford, CT, Parsons Theatre; Jan 6 – Feb 1, Philadelphia, PA, The Garrick; Feb 3 – Mar 1, Chicago; Mar 3-8, Cleveland, OH; Mar 10-15, Cincinnati, OH; Mar 17-22, Detroit, MI; Mar 23-29, St. Louis, MOApr 2, Ft. Wayne, IN, Majestic Theatre; Apr 3, Grand Rapids MI; Apr 7-12, Toronto, Canada; Apr 14-19, Montreal; Apr 21-22, Ottawa.
Rotogravures of scenes from The Rainbow appeared in syndicated news articles in Sunday newspapers throughout America and Canada during the second and third “national tours” of the play in the 1912-13 and 1913-14 seasons.  From the Fort Wayne (Indiana) Journal-Gazette, Sunday, January 11, 1914.  The final performance of The Rainbow was on Saturday, February 7, 1914 in Newark, New Jersey.

* * *

At the end of the first national road tour of The Rainbow, the play’s second season, Ruth and mother Lilian returned to New York and their apartment on 431 Riverside Drive at 115th Street, in the Morningside Heights neighborhood, only a few blocks north of Manhattan’s upper West Side, and almost directly opposite from the eastern side of the island where Ruth was born — 129th Street in East Harlem — little more than twenty years earlier.

Columbia Court 1910

Columbia Court, North Corner Riverside Drive and 115th Street in 1910. It was the home of Lilian and Ruth Chatterton in 1913. (NYPL Digital Collection.)

The upper West Side was largely undeveloped until the last decades of the nineteenth century when elevated trains were built on Ninth Avenue.  With access to convenient transportation to downtown office buildings and retail establishments, the upper West Side became the home of professionals, in particular educators and those in related institutions (it was the home of, among many, Columbia University, Barnard College, CUNY, Fordham University, as well as The Museum of American Natural History and, much later, Lincoln Center).  It was also home to many in the entertainment industry, and remains so to this day.

The old Columbia Court apartments, 431 Riverside Drive (at 115th Street), New York City, home to Ruth and Lilian Chatterton in 1913.  Built in 1910 as a luxury apartment building overlooking the Hudson River, it was acquired by Columbia University and converted for student housing in 1994 as Woodbridge Hall.  (Google Maps).

But the upper reaches of Broadway and Riverside Drive were relatively isolated — little more than rolling meadows and open pasture until the construction of the subway system in the first decade of the twentieth century.   Accordingly, land prices rose in the upper West Side above 110th Street and further north into Morningside Heights.  Luxury apartment buildings began to be constructed in the area with scenic views of the Hudson River along Riverside Drive.  In 1913, Morningside Heights was as close to a leafy suburb within the isle of Manhattan as one could find, and though Riverside Drive and adjacent Riverside Park were often filled with sightseers headed for Grant’s Tomb and the Claremont Inn, it was far enough to be secluded from the bright lights, noise and congestion of midtown.  And in an irony probably not lost on Ruth, the Chattertons’ apartment was still only a block away from Broadway and a mere ten minute subway ride to the theater district.

Mother Lilian had been Ruth’s chaperone, personal assistant and traveling companion since she gave Ruth permission to join the Columbia Players in Washington, D. C., in the summer of 1909.  Ruth had traveled solo from New  York to D. C. then, but once she became a professional player, Lilian became her all-in-one entourage.  However this summer, after the theater season ended, Lilian was now Ruth’s companion on a vacation to Europe, nearly three months from June to August 1913, “visiting friends” in France and England.  Departing New York in June, they returned from Liverpool on the White Star Line steamer Celtic on August 16, in time for the beginning of the third and final season of The Rainbow.

The Rainbow, 1913-14 Season Tour partial schedule:  Sep 5, Eau Claire, WI, The Grand; Sep 13, St. Paul, MN; Sep 15-20, Winnipeg, Manitoba, The Walker; Oct 1-2, Butte, MT; Oct 3, Great Falls, MT; Oct 4, Helena, MT; Oct. 6, Missoula, MT; Oct 7-8, Spokane, WA; Oct 9, Walla Walla, WA; Oct 10, No. Yakima, WA; Oct 11, Aberdeen, WA; Oct 13 Tacoma, WA; Oct 14, Everett, WA; Oct 15, Birmingham, WA; Oct 16, Victoria, BC; Oct 17-18, Vancouver, BC; Oct 20-25, Seattle, WA; Oct 27-29, Portland, OR; Oct 30, Eugene, OR; Oct 31, Medford, OR; Nov 20-22, Oakland, CA, The MacDonough; Dec 20, Colorado Springs, CO, Opera House; Jan 5-6, 1914, Des Moines, IA, The Berchel; Jan 19, Fort Wayne, IN, The Majestic; Jan 26-31, New York City; Feb 2-7 (closing), Newark, NJ;

Unlike the first tour, which stayed primarily in the northeast, nearby midwestern states and Canadian provinces, the second tour during the 1913-14 season took the road company of The Rainbow immediately to the upper mid-west and western Canada (better September than December in Minnesota or Manitoba!), and all the way to the west coast before Thanksgiving.  But this tour would wrap up early — Henry Miller needed to begin preparations for his next production with his new star.  The Rainbow company returned east for one final week on Broadway at the end of January, 1914, then gave their final performance in Newark, New Jersey on February 7.

There was no time for reflection or self-congratulations.  Henry Miller would organize and begin rehearsals hard on the heels of The Rainbow.  His new production was booked to open February 19, for a weekend in Atlantic City, followed by a week in Washington D.C.  If this sounds familiar, it is: Miller was following the same opening schedule as he had with The Rainbow.  Actors, like ball players, are a superstitious lot.  Was it superstition on Miller’s part, or just good business sense to open his new production on the same schedule as his recent hit?  Miller and company would soon find out that, in this case, superstition could be safely ignored.

* * *

Alice Jane Chandler Webster was the daughter of a niece of Mark Twain; her father was Twain’s publisher in the 1880s.  She received a private school education, took the name “Jean” while in her late teens, and attended college at Vassar where she became interested in social issues, including penal reform and the institutionalization of destitute and orphaned children.  After graduating Vassar in 1901, she traveled and wrote, both short stories and novels, and by 1912 at age 36, had published eight books under her nom de plume, Jean Webster.  In the fall of 1912, while Ruth Chatterton and Henry Miller were touring The Rainbow, Webster’s latest novel, which had been serialized for months in the Ladies’ Home Journal, was published in book form and became an immediate best seller, Daddy Long-Legs.

The focal point of Daddy Long-Legs is eighteen-year-old Jerusha Abbott, or “Judy” as the children of the asylum for orphans call her.  Judy is herself an orphan child who grew up in the institution and was kept on longer than all others because of her ability to perform tirelessly all of the drudgery and thankless tasks the head matron of the asylum and her assistants heaped upon her.  The “daddy long-legs” is her anonymous benefactor, a wealthy supporter of the asylum, who takes an interest in Judy and decides to fund her college education, anonymously of course.  Judy’s only obligation, aside from completing her studies, is to write once a month to inform her anonymous benefactor of her progress.  She grows to love her benefactor, imagining him to be a fatherly figure, a weathered, gnarly old gentleman.

In Webster’s original book, this expository “prologue” constitutes the brief, first chapter.  The remaining chapters consist of Judy’s letters describing college life to her “daddy long-legs.”  While in college, Judy falls in love with the wealthy Jervis Pendleton.  However, Pendleton’s relative convinces Judy that it would be wrong for someone of such uncertain origin to marry into the venerable and august Pendleton clan, so she breaks off the relationship, while he thinks she has fallen for someone else.  The drama is resolved at the play’s close when Judy discovers that her “daddy long-legs” and Pendleton are one and the same person.

It is not a stretch to imagine that the story of an intelligent, talented young woman being given a once-in-lifetime opportunity by an older father figure must have struck a chord in both Chatterton and Miller.  It isn’t clear when Miller first became aware of it, and it is tempting to think that possibly Chatterton may have brought it to his attention.  Either way, Miller saw dramatic possibilities in the story, despite its having the slightly unorthodox form of a young woman’s diary.

Adapting Daddy Long Legs for the stage required the reworking of an episodic tale composed of many “chapters” into a cohesive four act play.  Webster, who had not previously written for the stage, had to expand the first, expository chapter into an entire first act.  That first act would become a showpiece for the previously unseen range of talent possessed by Ruth Chatterton.

Well before The Rainbow wrapped up its final season, the media interest in Miller’s next production was already building.  The Washington Post, still keeping close tabs on their adopted stage-daughter, reported the “elevation” of Ruth Chatterton in Miller’s coming production, before waxing nostalgic about the City’s role in the beginning of career:

“Henry Miller is making preparations for a new production which will elevate Ruth Chatterton, his young leading woman, to stellar rank. . .  Mr. Miller will not appear in the new play, but will allow Miss Chatterton to ‘go it alone.’  Miss Chatterton has made a tremendous success as the daughter in The Rainbow.  It was a foregone conclusion that, sooner or later, she would become a star.  Her rise, however, has been more rapid than was anticipated.  Only a few summers ago she made her stage debut in a summer production at the Columbia Theater in this city.”  The Washington Post, January 18, 1914.

The curtain hadn’t yet risen on the first act of the first performance of Daddy Long Legs when it became obvious that one of major stories of this production would be that of two young women — the actress and the author — Ruth Chatterton and Jean Webster. Daddy Long-Legs‘ producer, Henry Miller, was well into the second half of his career, and while not resting on his laurels, he no longer had the need, and certainly didn’t have the time, to take a lead role in each of his own productions.  He had produced several other plays while at the same time appearing in The Rainbow six days and eight performances a week for three seasons.  He may very well have felt the need for a break from that level of multi-tasking.

An English-born immigrant to Canada, Henry Miller had been on stage since the 1870s, and had become the star of top Broadway producer Charles Frohman’s company in the early 90s.  He had very little left to prove as an actor.  Now 55, he appeared to relish the role of producer/director, and it was in this role that he made other contributions to the theater as important as his stage roles and productions.   He made Ruth Chatterton a star.  He did something similar for Laura Hope Crews, who starred with Miller in The Great Divide, in 1906-1907, probably the high point of both of their careers.  (She also played a key supporting role in The Rainbow.)  Crews would play scores of supporting roles in films later in her career, the most famous being her “Aunt Pittypat” of Gone With the Wind (1939).  She would leave this earth in 1942 only months after having starred in one of the biggest stage hits of its era, Arsenic and Old Lace.

Miller’s contributions to the careers of others extends even to the legendary, truly one-of-a-kind talent, Alla Nazimova.  Miller didn’t develop the talent of the  Russian/Ukrainian/Jewish Nazimova, she was already a major star in Europe before she came to America and New York in 1905, but her initial effort at establishing her own theater here was unsuccessful.  In late 1906, Henry Miller hired her to play Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (with Laura Hope Crews also in the cast), and that role brought her stardom on Broadway.  She would continue to star, produce and direct for the stage and have a theater in her own name — The Nazimova Theatre on 39th Street — before starting a career in film in the late 1910s, acting, writing, producing and directing (she promoted a young Rudolph Valentino in her version of Camille; and later became godmother to Nancy Reagan).  A career with definite similarities to that of Miller’s own — and not without resemblance to that of another Miller protegé, Ruth Chatterton (minus the Valentino and Nancy Reagan connections, of course).

* * *

“Daddy Long Legs” 1914-1915 Season.  (Click on the highlighted dates and cities for additional images and documents (they will open in a new tab or window):
Feb 20 (opening night) – 21, Atlantic City, NJ; Feb 23-28, Washington, DC, The National; Mar 2-4, Syracuse, NY, Empire Theater; Mar 5-7, Rochester, NY; Mar 9-11, Indianapolis, IN, English’s; Mar 16-indefinitely, Chicago, Powers’ Theater; Sep 28-indefinitely (May, 1915), New York City, The Gaiety;

Daddy Long-Legs opened on February 20, in Atlantic City, and spent the weekend (minus Sunday for a travel day to Washington).  It was an instant hit.  The response in the city by the sea was reported in the New York Dramatic Mirror the following week:

“Henry Miller achieved one of the biggest events in his career as an actor-manager on Friday night when he introduced to an Atlantic City audience the first performance of “Daddy Long-Legs” in which Ruth Chatterton is featured.  In introducing Miss Chatterton as the principal member of the  co[mpany], Mr. Miller brought a new star to the front, for the work of the clever young actress brought forth a response seldom achieved by an actress of her years. . . there was in her work an indefinable charm that won instantly the following of [the] audience.”  The New York Dramatic Mirror, February 28, 1914.

The following week in the nation’s capital, at The National Theatre, Daddy Long-Legs was hailed by correspondents to the Dramatic Mirror and called,

“a veritable triumph for Henry Miller, its producer and his new star Ruth Chatterton.  The Jean Webster story, well dramatised and excellently staged, envelops her [Chatterton’s] delightful personality in exquisite form.  She is assisted by a most capable company.”  Special to The New York Dramatic Mirror, March 4, 1914.

After six days and eight performances in Washington, Miller’s company returned to New York state with shows in Rochester and Syracuse.  The latter city may have been second only to New York City in the Empire State in its intense media coverage of live theater, and local papers had been advertising the coming of the latest Miller-Chatterton production to that city’s Empire Theater for more than a month.

The second week of March found the company in Indianapolis, another city with close local coverage of the stage by the press, and the city where Ruth Chatterton had gotten one of her earliest glowing notices when she appeared in The Great Name with Henry Kolker in the spring of 1911.  Three years later with Daddy Long-Legs she found the media and the city just as appreciative of her work, or more so, but a press somewhat less fawning toward the production as a whole compared to the early coverage of the play in the eastern papers:

“Now and again there comes a dramatist clever enough to take a story and turn it into dramatic form which is more entertaining than the story itself . . . and Miss Jean Webster, who is credited as the author of the dramatic version, also wrote the [original] story.  The play has not yet been rounded into complete form — it lacks smoothness in many places, and the actors occasionally forget their lines, but such insignificant trifles are lost sight of in the excellent material at hand.”  The Indianapolis Star, March 10, 1914.

Having given kudos to Jean Webster, the reviewer lauds the producer and his star:

“Henry Miller, whose knowledge as an actor has led him to make no mistakes in this production . . . has selected a company of unusual ability and Miss Ruth Chatterton, who appears as Judy, fits into the part as few actresses could.  She brings to bear a sweetness and unsophistication and a sense of humor which give full value to the lines and at the same time lend weight to the part she essays.”  The Indianapolis Star, March 10, 1914.

In Chicago, management of Powers’ Theater had to terminate a currently running play which had recently become a favorite of critics in order to accommodate the scheduled arrival of Henry Miller’s company on March 16.

Young Wisdom, [is] the best satirical comedy seen here this season [but] the success of that play has been abandoned for the present, [due to] the arrival of Ruth Chatterton in Daddy Long-Legs.” Chicago Notes, NYDM, March 11, 1914.

No one at the time could have known or predicted that it would be autumn before a play other than Daddy Long Legs would take the stage at Powers’ Theater.

When it opened in Chicago on Monday night, March 16, Daddy Long-Legs was an unqualified hit with the audience at Powers’ Theater and the theater press of Chicago.  Chicago Daily Tribune theater critic Percy Hammond, in an allusion that a modern reader might find cryptic, found the play’s sensitive and positive portrayal of destitute children to be a strong argument against the then-popular theory of “eugenics,” — one discredited by its application in Nazi Germany a generation later, but still considered by some as viable in 1914 — a theory that the human race is best continued by selective breeding, and that only the physically strongest babies and intelligent children deserve to live:

“The chances are that you will become very fond of the fascinating young waif who acts as heroine to “Daddy Long Legs,” and that ere the evening is over you will be glad to see your eugenic theories swimming merrily away with your smiles in the auspicious tears inspired by that ingratiating drama”  Percy Hammond, The Chicago Daily Tribune, March 17, 1914.

Chicago correspondents to the New York Dramatic Mirror were more conventional in their enthusiasm for the production:

Daddy Long-Legs has all the attributes making for great popularity.  Its wholesomeness, sentiment, romance, wit, pathos and optimism, keenly delighted large audiences.  The chief charm of the play however must be credited to Ruth Chatterton who invests the leading role with brightness and spontaneity.”  Chicago Notes, NYDM, March 25, 1914.

An enthusiasm that was undiminished the following week:

Daddy Long-Legs at Powers’ . . . has scored one of the biggest hits of recent years.  Ruth Chatterton in the leading role has scored a tremendous triumph.”  Chicago Notes, NYDM, April 1, 1914.

Indicative of the significant impact young Ruth Chatterton had already made upon the hard-boiled, frequently truculent and often intractable theater critics of the early 20th century press is this description of her heroine of Daddy Long-Legs, and how at this early stage she had already become “Judy,” and had made this fictional character of Jean Webster’s story, novel and now stage play, her own:

“She is an attractive, young Ruth-Chatterton sort of person when you first meet her at Powers’, the star orphan.  On the contrary, there is nothing pathetic about this Miss Jerusha Abbott, called ‘Judy” for short . . . she is a frank, outspoken foundling with a leaning toward excusable impudence.  You may feel a bit nervous that she [Chatterton] will overdo the thing in critical moments, but when they come you find them quite safe in her hands.

“Not many things in the theater are finer and truer than Miss Chatterton’s little, ‘O’, when she is told of her good fortune; like most other players, she does the most difficult things the best.  She does them all well, however, and besides she is rich in youth, beauty and charm. . . The audience last evening was entranced.”  Percy Hammond, Chicago Daily Tribune, March 17, 1914.

As word of the play spread, audiences packed Powers’ Theater night after night — three weeks after it opened, the Tribune reported that there were “seats for sale four weeks in advance.” [emphasis added, Chicago Daily Tribune, April 12, 1914].

In fact it was a historical event in Chicago theater, and critic Hammond chastised the local press for giving more ink to a scandalous production at another Chicago venue, rather than giving Daddy Long-Legs the credit it deserved as it played to record-breaking audiences at Powers’ Theater:

“Do you realize that at Powers’ an epoch-making (box office) drama has been produced, that a new star has been born, and that their conjunction promises to be one of the most successful stage affiliations ever formed?”  [parentheses in original.]

“On the authority of Mr. Powers and from corroborative personal observation it may be stated that nothing like Miss Chatterton and Daddy Long-Legs has happened to Powers’ Theater in twenty years.  No other star, says the manager, has so endeared herself to the populace since [then] . . . no other play has so touched the fiscal chords of sympathy and delight.”  Percy Hammond, “Belated Attention is Paid to Miss Chatterton and Her Play,” Chicago Daily Tribune, April 12, 1914.

But not only did Daddy Long-Legs get the media attention it deserved, it became part of the fabric of the City in the middle of 1914.

On July 10, a cast of child actors, “juveniles,” performed a special “Matinee ‘Ice Fund’ benefit show” of Daddy Long-Legs to assist impoverished families and children suffering in the record-breaking heat in Chicago during the summer of 1914.  On the following day, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that the “Juvenile Performance of ‘Daddy Long-Legs‘ Nets $500 for Cause,” a healthy sum of money in 1914, when a dollar carefully spent could feed a small family for nearly a week.

Daddy Long-Legs played to a packed Powers’ Theater for nearly six months:  25 weeks and 200 performances.  The final two shows in Chicago were Saturday matinée and evening performances Labor Day weekend.  The company then took a much-needed break to recharge before opening what was actually a new theater season, in New York at The Gaiety Theater on Broadway.

On Monday, September 28, 1914, seven months after the first night in Atlantic City, and more than six after arriving in Chicago, Daddy Long-Legs returned to what was always its ultimate destination, New York City, on Broadway, at The Gaiety Theater.  The reception was astounding.  The leading theater critics nearly fell over themselves fumbling for words adequate to described what they had seen.

“All of the […] reports from Chicago and way stations concerning this little play of sentiment and romance have been vindicated.  It proved to be all that has been said of it.  Superlatives are really quite in order.  So powerful is its appeal to the heart, so refreshing is its charm, so welcome is its simplicity, that all critical analyses are unnecessary if not down right criminal.”  Review of opening night, The New York Dramatic Mirror, “The First Nighter,” issue published October 7, 1914.

And of Ruth Chatterton, The Dramatic Mirror and The Times were in rare concordance:

“The play serves to promote Ruth Chatterton, so pleasantly remembered in ‘The Rainbow,’ to stardom.  Her attainment of stellar heights is well deserved.” NYDM, October 7, 1914

“The play served to introduce Ruth Chatterton as a star to Broadway, a street which had known her quite pleasantly, if not very intimately, before in ‘The Rainbow.’  . . . Miss Chatterton, who is a very, very young woman to have her name in electric lights, gave no signs of soaring to the heights she reached last night in the first act of ‘Daddy Long Legs‘ . . in the opening scene she showed that there was nothing in stage work which she might not do at some time in the future.”  The New York Times, September 29, 1914..

Prophetic words.  And finally, just a few more:

Daddy Long-Legs, which came to New York after a long and prosperous run in Chicago, is by far the most pleasing and entertaining little play which has come out of the West or from anywhere else in many years.  It is not remarkable that it should have had a long stay in Chicago.  The remarkable part is that it left there at all.  It is hard to believe that any other city will get a glimpse of it in many, many days..”  The New York Times, September 29, 1914.

Until the end of May the year following, no other city would.

* * *

SOURCES:

Newspapers and periodicalsThe New York Dramatic Mirror (via fultonhistory.com); The New York Times (nytimes.com archive); The Chicago Daily Tribune (chicago tribune archive at proquest, pqarchiver.com); The Fort Wayne (Indiana) Journal-Gazette, The Indianapolis Star, The Syracuse Herald, The Washington Post (via historical newspapers and periodicals at ancestry.com);

Reference works.  Jean Webster, Laura Hope Crews and Alla Nazimova at wikipedia.org, Henry Miller at wikipedia.org and the Internet Broadway Database (ibdb.com); Proctor’s Fifth Avenue Theater and The Gaiety Theater at ibdb.com; historical information on Manhattan real estate for the Upper West Side and Morningside Heights, Andrew Alpern, Luxury Apartment Houses of Manhattan, An Illustrated History, Dover Publications, 1992.

Photos (excluding those reproduced from publications above):

Ruth Chatterton and cast from Daddy Long-Legs, detail from sheet music, “Daddy Long-Legs, Hesitation Waltz, Dedicated to Ruth Chatterton,” by Clarence M. Jones, composer, published by Frank Root & Co., Chicago, 1914, from the author’s collection; Proctor’s Fifth Avenue Theater and The Gaiety Theater from ibdb.com; Powers’ Theater from Lyman Beecher Glover, The Story of a Theater, 1846-1915, via Internet Archive at archive.org.  Jean Webster, photo, wikipedia.org; Laura Hope Crews, and Alla Nazimova photos, nypl.org, Billy Rose Theater Collection.  Photo of Columbia Court apartments, 1910, nypl.org, NYPL Digital Gallery Collections, New York Apartment Building Living, 1880s-1910s; Photo of 431 Riverside Drive, Woodbridge Hall (formerly Columbia Court), 2011, Google Maps Streetview.  Photos of Ruth Chatterton, The Rainbow original PR portrait by White, NY, c.1912; Ruth Chatterton as “Judy” in Daddy Long-Legs, PR portrait by Victor George Studio, Chicago, 1914; Ruth Chatterton original portrait by Nalinger Studios, Chicago, 1914, during the run of Daddy Long-Legs at Powers’ Theater, all from the author’s collection.

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About Gene Zonarich

I'm the King of the silent pictures -- I'm hidin' out 'til talkies blow over . . .
This entry was posted in American Theater History, Film History, Ruth Chatterton and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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