[ PART THREE of a series of articles on the stage and film career of Ruth Chatterton. The first two are Ruth Chatterton: On the Great Divide, and Ruth Chatterton: ‘Electric Lights, Stellar Heights’. ]
“Five years ago Julia Dean . . . knew what it meant to try to get started and to struggle along in an effort to get somewhere near the top. So she tried to make it cheerful for the girl, who was playing a “bit” with her. ‘What do you think of this business now that you have started in it?’
“‘It’s splendid,’ replied the newcomer, ‘Do you know it doesn’t seem at all hard to me, and I want to do big things quickly. I think I’ll try and be a star in the next five years.’
“Julia Dean laughed. She had seen people trying to be stars in many times five years and never succeeding, and she herself, who was considered by many to be one of the best of the young leading women on the stage, had not yet attained anything like the point at which her new-found friend aimed.
“But the five years came and went as years have a persistent habit of doing, and in bright electric lights over the Gaiety Theatre is a sign which reads:
“And so the young woman who wished to be a star in five years got her wish, for it was Ruth Chatterton who talked to Miss Dean about her dreams and her plans, and now . . . is a full-fledged star in her own right, with a maid to dress her, and the star’s dressing room for her headquarters.” “Along Came Ruth,” The New York Times, October 25, 1914.
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Prior to reaching Broadway, Daddy Long Legs was thought of as a “western” product, a little play from the hinterlands, among the eastern press — at least in those cities in which it had not yet played, particularly in New York. Nevermind that in reality it was the product of three New Yorkers, two natives and one transplant, Jean Webster, Ruth Chatterton and Henry Miller. Chicago had “owned” the play for six months before letting it go on to its inevitable destination, New York City. From the moment it reached Broadway, New Yorkers, including an especially enthusiastic press, adopted it as their own.
Daddy Long-Legs played to full houses at The Gaiety Theatre nearly eight more months — 33 weeks and 273 performances — before the final performance of the season, May 15, 1915. It must have been especially gratifying for Ruth Chatterton, born in the city, to have had such an overwhelmingly positive reception in her home town, proof that the warm acceptance she had received from New Yorkers in The Rainbow three years before was not merely a passing fancy.
BELOW: The Gaiety Theatre program for the week beginning Monday Evening, May 3, 1915, the next-to-last week of Daddy Long-Legs on Broadway for the 1914-15 theater season. Charles Waldron, as “Jervis Pendleton,” was one of five actors (Frederick Truesdell, Guy Standing, George Alison and Henry Miller were the others) to portray the character during its three seasons, including several different touring companies, from 1914 to 1916. Three actresses, Renee Kelly, Frances Carson and Ruth Chatterton played the role of “Judy Abbott.”
Daddy Long-Legs, 1914-15 “Second” Season Schedule: Sept 28, 1914 (Broadway premiere) – May 15, 1915 (closing), New York City, The Gaiety; (Touring company “B,” May 3-7, Toronto, Princess Theatre – cut short by theater fire.)
During the New York run, Henry Miller formed a second “touring company” of Daddy Long-Legs. The touring company was scheduled to play one week, May 3-8, in Toronto at the historic Princess Theatre, one of Toronto’s two most prestigious venues. In the early morning hours of Friday, May 7, a fire in a floor of offices above the Princess Theatre quickly spread, destroying the entire building. Damages were estimated at more than $100,000 dollars, and the Daddy Long-Legs touring company lost scenery and costumes estimated at $12,000. It would not be the last time a Daddy Long-Legs company would be displaced by fire. But it would pale in comparison to another, man-made tragedy in the North Atlantic that same May 7th, 1915.
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Daddy Long-Legs, 1915-16 “Third” Season National Tour Schedule, Broadway Cast, “A” Company: Sept 6 -11, 1915, New York City, The Gaiety; Sept 13-18, Buffalo, NY; Sept 23-25, Syracuse, NY, The Empire; Sept 27- Oct 2, Rochester, NY (Miller joins cast); Oct 4 – Nov 27, Philadelphia, The Broad; Dec 6-11, Cleveland, OH; Dec 15, Lima, OH, The Faurot; Dec 17-18 Grand Rapids, MI; Dec 20-25, Cincinnati, OH; Dec 27-Jan 1, 1916, Pittsburgh, PA; Jan 3-7, Baltimore, MD; Jan 10 – 22 (Tremont Theater fire, 1-23), Boston, The Tremont; Feb 7 – Mar 25, Boston, Hollis St. Theatre; Mar 27-Apr 1, Newark, NJ; Apr 3-8, Hartford, CT, Parsons Theater; Apr 10-15, Washington, DC; Apr 17-22, Detroit, MI, Detroit Opera House; May 1 – 16, Chicago, Powers’ Theater;
*Southern Tour company: (select dates from The New York Dramatic Mirror) Oct 4-6, 1915, Indianapolis; Oct 24-31, New Orleans; Nov 5-6, Memphis, TN; Nov 24-26, San Antonio, TX ); Feb 2-4, South Bend, IN; Feb 5, Kalamazoo, MI; Feb 7, Battle Creek, MI; Feb 8, Jackson, MI; Feb 9, Adrian, MI; Feb 10, Lansing, MI: Feb 11-12, Saginaw, MI; Feb 14, Bay City, MI; Feb 15, Port Huron,MI); *Western Tour company: (select dates from The NYDM) Jan 7-8, Lincoln NB; Feb 14-16, Omaha, NB; Feb 23, Waterloo, IA; 24 Marshalltown, IA; 25, Oscaloosa, IA; 26, Ottumwa, IA; 28, Keokuk, IA; 29, Ft. Madison, IA; Mar 1, Burlington, IA; 2, Burlington, IA; 3, Iowa City, IA; 4, Cedar Rapids, IA; 5-6, Davenport, IA;, 7, Moline, IL; 8, Clinton, IA; 9 Galesburg IL; 10-11, Peoria, IL; 13, Canton, IL; 14-15, Springfield, IL; 16, Bloomington, IL; 17, Streator, IL; 18, Champaign, IL; Tour company not specified: (select dates from The NYDM) Mid-February, Ottawa, Canada; London, Ontario, Canada; Feb 28 – Mar 4, Brooklyn, Montauk Theater; Mar 13-18, New York City; Brooklyn, NY, Mar 20-15; Apr 19, Butler, PA; 20 Oil City, PA; 21, Meadville, PA; 22, Bradford, PA; 24, Jamestown, NY; 25, Olean, NY; 26, Hornell, NY; 27, Corning, NY; 28, Elmira, NY; 29, Binghamton, NY; May 1-6, Brooklyn, Montauk Theatre; *these designations were used inconsistently, and sometimes not at all, in the “Dates Ahead” listing in weekly issues of The New York Dramatic Mirror.
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In the background, but never far from the public and private consciousness, was war in Europe. Although America would avoid direct involvement in hostilities for almost three years, the irrefutable evidence that war and its impact could not be avoided by official American neutrality came less than nine months after the war had begun. To the American theater community, it would come in the form of an unexpected and devastating, personal loss.
War had broken out in Europe in August of 1914, and by the time Daddy Long-Legs reached New York in the fall, the conflict had escalated dramatically. Two huge armies had squared off: the allied forces of France and Britain, and that of Germany (and German zeppelins were bombing London). Belgium, the nation in the middle, had become ground zero — a battleground, overrun by the armies at its borders attempting to obliterate each other, at great cost to the lives of Belgian civilians caught in the crossfire.
Ruth Chatterton, Jean Webster and the cast of orphans of Daddy Long-Legs became involved in charity events benefitting not only real orphaned children in New York, but those orphaned and homeless across the Atlantic. Throughout the fall and winter of 1914-15, Chatterton and Webster made appearances at fundraisers and also, in an oddly modern twist, opened a Daddy Long-Legs “Doll House,” a store selling “Judy” dolls and other souvenirs of the play with proceeds going to benefit Belgian children.
But it was another event that would shake Anglo-American theater to its core, one eerily reminiscent of that awful April 15 three years earlier in 1912 during the New York run of The Rainbow. On May 7, 1915, a German U-boat torpedoed the Cunard liner, the HMS Lusitania off the coast of Ireland. Over two-thirds of the nearly 2,000 persons aboard the ship were lost, approximately the same ratio as Titanic. But unlike Titanic which remained stable before sinking, the Lusitania capsized, preventing any lifeboats from being deployed, and sank in 18 minutes (versus 2 1/2 hours for Titanic). (Also unlike Titanic, vessels nearby were able reach the scene soon enough to prevent the loss of life from being even worse.) Among the casualties was the most prominent producer in American and British theater, Charles Frohman.
Frohman had been an employer of Henry Miller in the 1890s — Miller had been his top male lead then. In 1915, Frohman had on his roster of talent the largest collection of stars in the theater: Ethel Barrymore, John Drew, Maude Adams, Blanche Bates, Billie Burke, Marie Doro, among many others. He had also been instrumental in bringing the works of George Bernard Shaw, Sir James Barrie and Somerset Maugham and more to the stage in both Britain and America. It was on a business trip from New York to London that Frohman booked passage, and lost his life, on the Lusitania. His body was recovered and returned for burial in America.
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By the summer of 1915, Ruth and mother Lilian no longer lived on the outskirts of the city on Riverside Drive, but instead had relocated to mid-town, just blocks from Times Square. If that sounds horrific now, it was a much different mid-town in 1915 than we know today. The Chattertons were making their new home in a four-story townhouse, No. 65 East 52nd Street. It was a significant step up from their apartment at the Columbia Court on Riverside Drive in Morningside Heights.
East Fifty-second Street today, in the blocks between Fifth and Third Avenues, is part of mid-town Manhattan, and is a mix of high-rise buildings with business and retail tenants, hotels, several skyscrapers, including the Seagram Building, and Park Avenue Plaza, the green glass-clad building that today occupies the site that included the home of the Chattertons in 1915.
East Fifty-second at the turn-of-the twentieth century and well into the 1930s was a sedate, upscale, residential neighborhood stretching from Fifth Avenue to the East River. The row of three and four-story townhouses where Ruth and mother Lilian lived was modest in comparison to the imposing structures that housed prominent families of New York at the far ends of the street — the limestone and marble mansions nearest Fifth Avenue, and the architecturally stunning, luxurious apartment complex, The River House, at the foot of East Fifty-second, with docks for the yachts owned by its residents, on the East River.
The fact that the Chattertons could afford this upgrade in residence is evidence that Ruth’s income had increased dramatically since The Rainbow: Henry Miller had jokingly told Ruth in public during the curtain call the first night on Broadway that, despite her importance to that play, she should not expect a raise.
According to The New York Dramatic Mirror (in a 1915 article), few “leading men” were paid above what seems to have been an informal ceiling of $200 to $250 a week in “the best attractions,” and only for those periods when they were actually performing for the public — nothing for rehearsal time, and nothing when a company “lays off,” in other words, down-time between bookings.
In what may seem surprising today, “leading women” received the same pay “or a little more.” However, this additional money was offset by the fact that females had to “dress their parts expensively,” implying that at least some of the wardrobe cost was borne by the actress. Ingenues — which is what Ruth Chatterton was at the time of The Rainbow, received $75 to $150 per week, and “featured” ingenues received more. Ruth, however, was hardly a “featured” player at the time she signed her initial contract with Henry Miller in early 1912, though she certainly attained featured status well before the play finished its first season in June of that year.
At some point between the end of the final season tour of The Rainbow in February of 1914, and the Broadway opening of Daddy Long-Legs in September of that year, Chatterton likely signed a much more lucrative agreement. While the tremendous financial success the play had in its six month run in Chicago could not have been predicted, by the time the production opened on Broadway, Henry Miller and company had to know that success was virtually assured. As The New York Dramatic Mirror noted,
“Certain big salaries [are] paid to deserving people . . . [and] it is true that headliners are often paid big money under the impression that they ‘draw’ at the box office. Legitimate stars [also] share in the profits above a reasonable salary.” “Average Salaries,” The New York Dramatic Mirror, May 26, 1915.
Chatterton was no longer working for producers such as the legendary, tight-fisted Henry W. Savage, or Joseph M.Gaites who routinely produced a half-dozen productions simultaneously at a profit. These companies were entertainment factories. She worked for Henry Miller, whose own production company was closer to a workshop of artisans — though Miller also had investment interests in several other productions at any given time in addition to his own. It would be surprising if Ruth Chatterton was not receiving a share of the profits of Daddy Long-Legs in addition to her salary. Unlike her early days in The Rainbow, it was now appropriate and well-deserved that she share in the profits of Daddy Long-Legs, the artistic and financial success of which she was largely responsible.
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Twin tyros of theater and cinema: Mary Pickford, 23, and Ruth Chatterton, 22 (she would turn 23 in December), appeared in separate venues the same week in New York City. On Labor Day, September 6, 1915, Pickford’s latest work for Adolf Zukor and Famous Players-Lasky premiered at The Strand Theater: Esmeralda, a film based upon the play by Frances Hodgson Burnett and William Gillette, and adapted for the screen by the legendary screenwriter Frances Marion, who became Mary’s close friend. Ruth Chatterton opened the final season of Daddy Long-Legs with a Labor Day matinée at The Gaiety. A national tour would follow. These photo ad inserts appeared as seen above, side-by-side, in The Sunday New York Times, September 5, 1915. (I swear I found this months after I wrote of the Pickford-Chatterton connection in Part One of this series of articles on Ruth Chatterton.)
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With the season-opening week at The Gaiety in New York behind them, the Daddy Long-Legs company hit the road for a national, final tour — and early in the tour, at Rochester, New York, Henry Miller joined the cast in the role of Jervis Pendleton. It wasn’t the only change Miller would make to his production.
Prior to the 1915-16 season Miller’s productions of The Rainbow and Daddy Long-Legs had played the larger cities in every region of the United States but two: the South and the Southwest. Given that Daddy Long-Legs had proved a money-making juggernaut in the major cities of the east, midwest and west coast, two new touring companies were formed to take better advantage of the widespread public interest and potential audience for the play. In addition to the original Broadway cast with Ruth Chatterton, two new Daddy Long-Legs production companies were formed, comprising a “Southern Tour” and a “Western Tour.” These additional companies would attempt to cover those areas that would otherwise be impossible with a single company tour. Thus there were shows in Memphis, New Orleans and San Antonio, as well as smaller cities — eight in Michigan alone, and in February, no less.
But the biggest event in the tour would come in Boston, where Ruth Chatterton and the Miller company arrived as scheduled January 10, 1916, for an “indefinite” run (most likely it was expected to be at least six to eight weeks, the same as The Rainbow had in Boston during the holiday season of 1912-13).
Two weeks into the booking at the Tremont Theatre, on Sunday afternoon, January 23, a fire of uncertain origin destroyed the stage and everything back of the footlights except some dressing rooms. Sunday was an off day for the show: the theater was empty except for a watchman on duty who was unaware of the fire until firemen pounded at the doors. Miraculously, the entire auditorium was left largely untouched, except for smoke and water damage.
It was almost unbelievable that Miller’s company was hit by a catastrophic fire for the second time in eight months. But theater fires were, unfortunately, extremely common in the 19th and early 20th centuries. After the hellacious 1903 fire at Chicago’s Iroquois Theater in which nearly 700 theater goers died, fire regulations were tightened and asbestos fireproof curtains, often backed by metal plates, became common and, in some jurisdictions, mandatory. Boston fire department officials could not recall, however, another theater fire that destroyed the stage while leaving the auditorium standing. Nevertheless, the loss was estimated at $125,000, the equivalent today of millions.
The Tremont Theatre stage in ruins. As the fire was gradually brought under control, one of the firemen quipped, “‘The Hose’ is the last thing that will be played here this season.” The Boston Globe, January 24, 1916.
The Daddy Long-Legs company, of course, had Sunday off, but lost most of their props and costumes in the conflagration. New scenery had to be built and new costumes made for every one of the 27 cast members. John B. Schoeffel, owner and manager of The Tremont was doubly hurt by the loss of his theater and the hit play he had booked,
“This play is one of the biggest successes we have had here in some time. We looked ahead to a run of several months and seats were sold far ahead,” John B. Schoeffel, quoted in The Boston Globe, January 24, 1916.
“It was only the tail of the dog that was burned off in the Tremont Theatre fire, but, unfortunately, it was the tail that wags the whole dog and Mr. Schoeffel owned only the tail. He is the chief real estate sufferer.” “Editorial Points,” The Boston Evening Globe, January 25, 1916.
There had already been considerable advance ticket sales for the Boston shows — the unfortunate Mr. Schoeffel opened his box office immediately on the morning after the fire to give refunds to all who had purchased tickets in advance. Fortunately for the Miller company, Daddy Long-Legs reopened at another Boston venue, the Hollis Street Theatre two weeks later, on February 7th. On March 9th, the Hollis hosted a night of performances for an Actors’ Fund benefit — Henry Miller and Ruth Chatterton contributed “Frederick Lemaitre,” a piece “specially prepared for the occasion,” according to The New York Dramatic Mirror. Miller, Chatterton and the remainder of the company remained in Boston through March 25th.
While the original cast (often referred to as the “A” company in the press) remained ensconced in Boston, the Southern touring company performed in the nation’s heartland, reaching twenty small to mid-sized towns in Iowa and Illinois from mid-February to mid-March. In another touring company, Renee Kelly, playing “Judy Abbott,” scored a notable success with Canadian audiences in London, Ontario and in Ottawa, also in mid-February. The new touring companies played dates in Brooklyn twice, Feb 28-March 4 and March 20-25, and in New York City March 13-18, and were well-received.
During the company’s stay in Washington, DC, the week of April 10-15, The New York Dramatic Mirror reported that Henry Miller had completed negotiations to present Daddy Long-Legs in London the following season, with an all-American cast, and had made preliminary plans to follow it with a “world tour.” Charles Waldron, who had played the male lead, “Jervis Pendleton,” would take the role in London, under the direction of Henry Miller’s son, Gilbert Miller, with the production set to premiere at The Queen’s Theatre in the fall, 1916 season. Judy Abbott would be played by Renee Kelly. Ruth Chatterton would have other plans.
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On May 1, 1916, Daddy Long-Legs returned to the city that two years earlier had welcomed the play and adopted Ruth Chatterton’s “Judy” and her cast of orphans, giving them a home for six months before releasing them to Broadway and the world at large. It returned to the same venue, Powers’ Theater, where night after night throughout the spring and summer of 1914 audiences had jammed the auditorium after having to purchase their tickets a month or more in advance due to the tremendous demand. It returned on this occasion with its producer, Henry Miller, in the role of Jervis Pendleton, the “Daddy Long-Legs” of the play.
This time, however, the response was a distinct disappointment. The verdict of the press was uniform: Chicago had spent enough time with Daddy Long-Legs the first time around. The play’s first champion in the Chicago theater press explained,
“Not many of us were present last evening at the performance . . The comparative vacuum in front of this popular bit of fiction may be explained by the fact that “Daddy Longlegs” existed here prosperously a year or two ago for twenty-five weeks, and that all of us, so inclined, witnessed [the play]. Still, the presence in the cast of such an eminent star and such a sane actor as Mr. Miller . . should have inspired more interest than it seems to have done. . . The company acting “Daddy Longlegs” at Powers’ is of the best. Percy Hammond, Chicago Daily Tribune, May 4, 1916.
Despite the having strongest cast yet assembled for the production, the artistic success of this edition of the play did not translate, at least in Chicago, to box-office success. Daddy Long-Legs closed at Powers’ Theater after little more than two weeks.
But the Tribune’s Percy Hammond had high praise for Ruth Chatterton and looked forward to seeing what her talent would accomplish in the future:
“Miss Chatterton . . has no faults, unless you resent a certain imperial manner that infests her performance. . . She played last evening with surprising freshness, considering how long she has been upon the job, and I await with both interest and confidence her next essay.” Percy Hammond, Chicago Daily Tribune, May 4, 1916.
“Her next essay,” would be a return to the past, of sorts, in a play written by A. E. Thomas, author of Chatterton’s original success story, The Rainbow. It would be a play that reflected generally the patriotic nostalgia brought on by the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil War, exemplified by the tremendous response, both positive and negative, to D. W. Griffith’s The Clansman, or The Birth of a Nation. It would be a role that combined the strongest elements of her two recent, successful portraits of young women — a role with which she would be identified at least as much as her “Judy Abbott” characterization for the remainder of her pre-Hollywood career.
“I have no dream of playing any special parts, of becoming a great actress along any set lines. What I want to do is to be versatile and play any sort of a part which happens to fall to me. Ability to do that is the true test of an actress, I think, and I want to be a real actress.
“But I do want, some day, to put on a play myself, stage it, I mean. When I go around to other theatres and watch plays I find myself thinking about ‘effects’ which might be secured with lights and things, and I try and work out plans for doing things differently. Some day I’ll be where I can try it, and then we’ll see. Maybe my ideas will be all wrong, but, anyway, I’m going to try them some time.” Ruth Chatterton, “Along Came Ruth,” The New York Times, October 25, 1914.
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Newspapers and periodicals. The New York Dramatic Mirror (via fultonhistory.com); The New York Times (nytimes.com archive); Chicago Daily Tribune (chicago tribune archive at proquest, pqarchiver.com); The Boston Globe (at newspaperarchive.com);
Reference works. For the Toronto Princess Theatre Fire, torontoist.com; The Lusitania, Charles Frohman, via wikipedia at en.wikipedia.org.
Photos (excluding those reproduced from publications above). The Theatre Magazine, October 1914 cover, The Gaiety Program, Week of May 3, 1915, and Portrait of Ruth Chatterton, Seattle, 1912, from the author’s collection; Toronto Princess Theater fire photo (via torontoist.com); East 52nd Street No. 59-65 in 1925, Museum of the City of New York Collections (mcny.org); East 52 Street today (maps.google.com); Tremont Theatre, c.1910 (en.wikipedia.org); Ruth Chatterton portrait by Lewis Smith, Chicago, 1914 (Broadway Photographs at broadway.cas.sc.edu).