THE FAMOUS ACTRESSES OF STAGE STRUCK
CLARA MORRIS (1847-1925) grew up in the shadow of poverty. Her mother’s sewing, cooking and housekeeping skills kept her employed in a number of boarding houses. She was able to keep Clara with her as long as she remained silent and still. Clara’s love of reading and telling stories to the boarders caught the attention of teenaged Blanche Bradshaw who felt that Clara could gain work as a ballet girl in the ensemble at Ellsler’s Academy of Music in Cleveland. After a nervous introduction Ellsler saw something in her and engaged her for two weeks. From the ensemble she was given small parts, then larger roles and at 16 played Queen Gertrude opposite Edwin Booth’s Hamlet. During her 8 years with the Ellslers she played many roles from Shakespeare’s heroines to Eliza in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She became a favorite actress in the city but when an opportunity to play leading roles at Wood’s Theatre in Cincinnati opened for her in the late 1860s she accepted the offer. Intent upon getting to New York, she asked Mr. Ellsler to write to some managers on her behalf. Lester Wallack ignored the letter, Edwin Booth had already engaged someone else, but Augustin Daly said he would see her. He offered her $35 a week to start, a salary which was to keep her and her mother and would be doubled if she made a favorable impression.
Her salary enabled her and her mother to eat meat but once a day. Her New York debut at Daly’s Theatre playing the lead role of Anne Sylvester in Man and Wife was a triumph earning her five curtain calls. In 1873 after playing several leading roles including the sensational Cora in Article 47 she left Daly’s management to join Albert Marshman Palmer’s company in The Geneva Cross which was the biggest hit of the season. Clara performed in over 80 productions for three decades. She traveled throughout the country and Canada and audiences were extremely moved by her emotional power. Camille was among her greatest roles although at first she was against doing it. Palmer convinced her she must do it for a benefit during the season of 1874-75 when the suffering of the poor during a ‘dreadful winter’ was so horrible that the actors were the first to offer help. All of the major theatres in New York gave a benefit on the same day. Having never played Camille she got the book and studied all night “while my mother worked the coffee pot.”
After the performance, Palmer wrote a note to her saying she had scored the hit
of her life. Critics have said that she acted with her nerves, shed real tears and felt every part she was playing. However the American Bernhardt as she was known used so much energy that she experienced cold, fever, and periods of total collapse and disease, suffering untold physical and mental torture. Theatres at which she was playing had to be closed and audiences dismissed because she was unable to appear. William Winter, the most renowned theatre historian and critic of the nineteenth century, wrote about Ms. Morris in “Shadows of the Stage” (1893) “Her conquest was through the emotions. Her method was controlled by taste and made symmetrical by repose. Her best moments were those of frenzy, as when love struggles in the heart with knowledge that it is wasted and in vain....But even in the wildest of those moments she displayed an artist’s control of herself and her resources.” She retired from the stage and began a new journey writing three autobiographical novels about her life and the stage and several novels and magazine articles.
MINNIE MADDERN FISKE (1865-1932) was born into a theatrical family in New Orleans. Christened Marie Augusta Davey, her stage name was to be Minnie Madern. She played the Duke of York in Richard III at the age of three, soon gained acclaim as a prodigy, and at six, toured opposite British actress and most powerful female manager in New York, Laura Keene, in Hunted Down (1871). Singled out by the Herald as a "wonder" whose talents surpassed "that (of) some of the mature artists who surround her", she took New York by storm, starring in Fogg's Ferry (1882). Here, she met and married Legrand White. White's family financed Caprice, in which Minnie sang In The Gloaming, making the song a popular hit. She sat herself by the hearth to sing and did not move to the edge of the stage, spotlighted n the presentational style. This was her first major break with theatrical tradition. Eventually Minnie and Legrand divorced, but their work had shed a new light on the stage.
In 1890, Minnie married Harrison Grey Fiske, the editor of the New York Dramatic Mirror. She retired from the stage to reside with Harry on Manhattan's Upper East Side. But, in 1894 she brought A Doll's House to the stage for a single benefit performance. America, for the first time, embraced the work of Henrik Ibsen, and Minnie returned to acting, becoming known not only for her unique characterizations of Ibsen's heroines, but as the first realistic actress in the United States and subsequently "The First Lady of the American Stage".
A staunch defender of animal rights, Minnie's wide travels allowed her to discover instances of cruelty to animals unnoticed by ordinary citizens. She protested the cruelty of fur-trapping, bullfighting, the decimation of the egret population for their feathers used in women's hats and she took on the President, Theodore Roosevelt, protesting his hunting expedition to Africa. She risked illness in winter by occupying top-floor hotel rooms with windows wide open for birds to fly in to be fed. Once asked what person had most influenced her life, she said it was St. Francis of Assisi because "he cares for all living things".
The Fiskes singlehandedly fought the Theatrical Syndicate for more than twelve years. This was a monopoly, established in 1896 and led by the New York producers Marc Klaw and Abraham Erlanger. Theatres declining to do business with them were ruthlessly eliminated, managers refusing to cooperate were blackballed. Plays were chosen for mass appeal, conservative, strictly commercial, with rampantly deceptive advertising. The Fiskes, barred from performing in any Syndicate house, forged on, performing one night stands in tents, Churches, skating rinks, open barns and theatre spaces deemed unacceptable by the Trust. Along with the elite who clamoured to see Mrs. Fiske, some of their most spellbound audiences consisted of cowboys out West sitting on the ground underneath the open sky. The Manhattan Theatre on 33rd Street had escaped the eagle eye of the Trust, and, here, the Fiskes established the Manhattan Company, again rocking tradition with its dedication to the ensemble rather than the star.
The theatre critic Ward Morehouse wrote of Minnie: "Mrs. Fiske never had beauty, but she had magnetism. She had with all of her nervous, jerky manner, subtle and finesse, and she was as much at ease in light-handed drawing-room comedy as she was in the problem plays of Ibsen." Sometimes it seemed as if she was not acting at all. She would hold playgoers spellbound, as in Salvation Nell, without moving or without speaking for ten minutes, simply cradling her drunken lover's head in her lap.
Minnie gravitated to plays that highlighted American life. She sought out and nurtured young American writers, tirelessly shaping their plays into landmark productions, intent on revealing for audiences spiritual uplift and a message of hope.
Though she was reticent to be interviewed or speak publicly on acting, she agreed to a series of meeting with Alexander Woollcott in 1916. His book: "Mrs. Fiske: Her Views on Actors, Acting, and the Problems of Production" was published in 1917. Here, in "The Science of Acting", she defined great acting as "a thing of the spirit, in its best estate a conveyance of certain abstract spiritual qualities, with the person of the actor as a medium. The eternal and immeasurable accident of the theatre which you call genius, that is the matter of the soul. But with every genius I have seen - Janauschek, Duse, Irving, Terry - there was always the last word in technical proficiency. The inborn, the mysterious something in these players can only inspire."
BERTHA KALICH (1874-1939) was born Beylke Kalakh in what was then Austria-Hungary, the only child of Solomon, a poor brush manufacturer and amateur violinist and Babette, a seamstress who often made costumes for local theaters. Babette was an active opera lover and her devotion inspired in her daughter an all-consuming love for the stage. They often attended performances together ad when young Bertha came of age, her parents managed to send her to private music and drama schools. At age thirteen, she joined the chorus of the local Polish theater and later attended the prestigious Lemberg Conservatory.
While still barely a teen, Kalich sang in the chorus for La Traviata in the Lviv Polish Theatre Opera. A fellow actor, Max Gimpel then offered her a job at his pioneering Yiddish-language theater group, Yankev Ber Gimpel. Kalich had been performing in supporting roles in Polish, Russian, and German, but when Gimpel's leading lady left for America, Kalich became his prima donna, winning the title role in Avrom Goldfaden’s operetta Shulamis.After a series of performances in Budapest, Goldfaden offered her a permanent position with his company, and Kalich left later that year for Romania. She was able to pick up Romanian in a matter of months, and appeared in major roles there with the state theater. Anti-Semitic audiences that came to throw onions at her, threw flowers instead.
Kalich married Leopold Spachner in 1890 at the age of 16. They had two children, a son Arthur (who died young) and a daughter Lillian. Kalich already enjoyed a successful career in at least three countries and in four languages and her success prompted jealousies among rival actresses. In 1894, she was rumored to be the target of an assassination plot, and, offered a sponsership in New York by Joseph Edelstein of the People's Theatre, she and her young family fled Rumania in the middle of the night. Edelstein’s newly founded Thalia Theater was looking for fresh talent, and there Kalich appeared in Di Vilde Kenigin (The wild queen) and a Yiddish production of La Belle Hélène (Beautiful Helen). She also took reprised former roles of Shulamis, Juliette, and Desdemona in a number of Yiddish-language productions.
In her new home, Kalich worked as a proponent of the Yiddish theater movement, helping the theatres gain credibility in addition to notoriety. Anti-semitism in America had initially led audiences to believe that Jewish immigrants were incapable of producing anything more than low-brow, minstrel entertainment, but Thalia had made a name for itself with its revolutionary Yiddish-language translations of Shakespeare. Kalich played a number of roles in these landmark works, even beating out the other male stars for a chance to play the coveted role of Hamlet. According to Yiddish theatre scholar Joel Berkowitz, Shakespeare's plays served "as both sources and symbols" in helping Jewish immigrants "cross the bridge from Yiddish to American culture."
Kalich, was compared to another famous actress of the time who had also played Hamlet. Many newspapers would go on to call her the "Jewish Berhardt" in the years to come.. Later in life, as Kalich began to suffer with glaucoma which eventually resulted in her blindness, she joked that the two were compared as Berhnardt played without a leg, and she, without her eyes. In addition to her work with Shakespeare, Kalich’s performance in Leon Kobrin’s The East Side Ghetto won enormous critical praise and increased Kalich's fanbase outside of the Jewish community. This production in combination with her performances in playwright Jacob Gordin's, didactic plays brought unprecedented attention to the Yiddish stage. In 1900, she starred as Freydenyu in the premiere of Gordin’s God, Man and the Devil, and that prompted Gordin to write the role of Etty in The Kreutzer Sonata and the title role in his Sappho and Phaon especially for Kalich. These productions made it out of the Yiddish playhouses, going all the way to Broadway, and establishing Kalich as a household name.
Kalich became a darling of the press who had not yet seen such accolades afforded to a Jewish actress. She was adored by both the Jewish press and Jewish audiences. She was considered the royalty of America Jewry, embodying the immigrant success story and enjoying a celebrity attained by few Jewish artists before or since. The Yiddish theatre itself had come to play a central role in the narrative of jewish immigration to the United States.
Kalich’s roles tended to be "women of the world," - Zaza, Fédora, Sappho and Magda. Under the tutelage of Harrison Grey Fiske, she gained in reputation, eventually going on to star in plays such as Maeterlinck's Monna Vanna. She picked up English easily, and, though her accent was slow to fade, she was able to transition to Broadway. Kalich acted in a number of plays for Fiske, both original works and adaptations of roles that she had created in Yiddish. By 1910, though, she was having trouble finding suitable roles in the light American theater for her more emotional and tragic style and though she would go on to work with heavy-hitters like producers Lee Shubert and Arthur Hopkins, her Broadway career had already begun to fade.
Kalich left New York for Hollywood in 1914, where she appeared in a few notable films, including a reprise of her hit Broadway role in Marta of the Lowlands. Success was short-lived, however, and by 1915, Kalich was frequently returning to Yiddish roles to supplement her income. Her mainstream success in the American theatrical world enhanced her prestige there, and she began to receive top billing at the Second Avenue Theatre alongside stars like David Kessler.
By the mid 1920s, Kalich’s eyesight was failing, necessitating prolonged absences from the stage. Though she officially retired in 1931, she continued to appear onstage occasionally, especially at evenings mounted in her honor that served to elevate her legacy in the Yiddish theatre community. Her last public appearance came on February 23, 1939, at a benefit for her at the Jolson Theater, where she recited the final scene of Louis Untermeyer’s poem “Heine’s Death.”
Bertha Kalich died on April 18, 1939 at the age of 64 from undisclosed causes. Although acting styles were beginning to change and her manner of acting was beginning to be regarded as too romantic and grand eve for the Yiddish stage, Kalich’s unrelenting aspirations to create a National Theatre, her life-long and tireless contributions to the Jewish people and her work toward raising the artistic standards of the Yiddish theater, cannot be underestimated.
ALLA NAZIMOVA (1879-1945) was born Adelaide (Alla) Leventon in Yalta, the youngest of three children of a brutal, ne'er-do-well Jewish pharmacist and his affluent, unstable wife. She adopted her pseudonym (the last name of a heroine in a novel) at the age of 10. Her father forbade her to use the family name, fearing that she would embarrass him. After she made her debut playing the violin to enthusiastic applause, he took her home and caned her so severely that he broke her arm. "Just because a few provincial fools applaud you, don't imagine you're Paganini", he said. Already wounded psychologically by the departure of her mother three years earlier, Alla began to examine 'Nazimova' from the outside, analyzing the way she looked, criticizing the unattractive way she wept.
She took naturally to acting. "If I have lived not beautifully, I must act beautifully", she wrote in her diary. At age 17 Ada Leventon abandoned her trainmen as a violinist and went to Moscow, the greatest theater centre in the world, to work with V.I. Nemirovich-Danchenko and Konstantin Stanislavsky and get to know Meyerhold and Chekhov. Using her street smarts to finance her acting education she honed her dramatic gifts. But in turn-of-the-century Russia, her outsize ambition was limited by her Jewish origins.
She graduated into the Moscow Art Theatre but left to tour the provinces and then work with the Paul Orleneff Company in St. Petersburg. The company visited New York in 1905 performing The Chosen People on the lower east side. Although she spoke not a word of English, she so impressed Henry Miller and the Shuberts that they hired her on the condition she learn English in six months. She did and opened in Hedda Gabler on November 13, 1906. She adopted the name Nazimova at this time. During the next two years Nazimova was acclaimed for her portrayals of other Ibsen characters: Nora in A Doll's House, Hedwig in The Wild Duck, and Hilda in The Master Builder. She was so successful that the Shuberts built a theatre especially for her. On April 18, 1910, she opened the Nazimova Theatre, playing Rita Allmers in Ibsen's Little Eyolf. Ibsen had been so impressed with her interpretations of his characters that the declared "Nazimova will stand without a peer on the American stage as the delineator of the 'soul-harassed woman."
Nazimova's fame led her to Hollywood, where from 1915 to 1925 she appeared in 17 motion pictures, from potboilers like War Brides (1916) and Heart of a Child (1920) to silent-screen versions of her stage successes. With her role in War Brides, a strident feminist was invented, if only temporarily, for the screen. Nazimova boasted to a reporter for the New York American that her decision to appear as a figure of suffrage in War Brides was intended to be a contribution to the 'womanhood of the world'. By the mid 1920s, Alla was in financial straits and agreed to allow her mansion to be developed into a hotel. The property-renamed The Garden of Allah Hotel & Villas opened on January 9th, 1927.
She returned to the stage in 1928 as Madame Ravenskaya in Eva La Galliene's production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. She became a US citiizen in 1927 and went on to create the roles of Christine in Eugene O'Neil's Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) and O-Lan in Pearl Buck's The Good Earth (1932). She also directed and starred in tow more very well-received New York City revivals of Ibsen's Ghosts (1935) and Hedda Gabler (1936).
She returned occasionally to movies for small parts including the 1941 remake of Blood and Sand as Tyrone Power's mother, In Our Time (1944) and finally in the World War II tear-jerker Since You Went Away (1944) with Claudette Colbert. She died at the age of 66 of a coronary thrombosis.
KATHARINE HOUGHTON HEPBURN (1907-2003) was born to wealthy and educated parents in Hartford, CT in 1907. Her career on stage, film and television spanned over 66 years earning her 4 Academy Awards, 2 BAFTA's, 1 Emmy Award and a total of 57 nominations for awards of excellence. The product of a liberal and socially conscious environment, her parents were instrumental in shaping her vibrant and headstrong personalty. Her father, a surgeon, fought for birth control and the eradication of sexual diseases and her mother marched with suffragists for voting rights for women. Katharine was the second child in a large family whose athletic activities and zest for life provided her with a love of all sports and a self-confidence that would exhibit itself often both on and off stage. Hepburn was known for performing all stunts herself and for being an expert swimmer, golfer and tennis player.
Following in her mother's footsteps she attended Bryn Mawr College, the all women's institution in Pennsylvania where she majored in history and philosophy. She struggled with college life; her grades were poor and she considered dropping out. Then, after appearing in several student productions, her focus changed and her grades excelled. She became determined to be an actress on the stage and despite the disapproval of er father; in 1928 she began her professional career in earnest. Upon the recommendation of John S. Clark, a man who lived next door to Bryn Mawr's campus and who had witnessed her performance as "Pandora" in The Woman in the Moon during the annual Elizabethan May Day celebrations, she travelled to Baltimore to meet Edwin H. Knopf, producer, with Clark's letter of introduction firmly in tow. Initially rejected, she persisted and eventually was cast in a small role in Knopf's stock company.
Her acting training was non-existent and at this time, twins evident that she needed goal coaching and practical advice for appearing on the stage. Frances Robinson-Duff, the pre-eminent voice teacher of the day took her on and worked with her regularly to correct her inconsistent rhythms and often-high pitched and shrill sound. After a somewhat rocky beginning on the stage, including being fired from no less than 4 productions, at the age of 25, she played the leading role of 'Queen Antiope' in The Warrior's Husband on Broadway to glowing reviews and caught the attention of Hollywood agent Leland Heywood. He convinced film director George Cukor to see a screen test of Hepburn and as a result, she was cast opposite John Barrymore in the young director's RKO film A Bill of Divorcement. Thus began Hepburn's film career; starring in over 44 features, and winning her first Academy Award for Best Actress in Morning Glory in 1933.
In spite of several major hits, many of her films were declared box office 'flops' at the time (yet recognized today as classics). Her love of the stage combined with her desire to resurrect her image from the failure of these films brought her back to the theatre time and time again. In 1938, after being labeled 'Box Office Poison' by the Hollywood press, she returned to New York and collaborated with playwright Philip Barry to bring his new play The Philadelphia Story to Broadway. A sophisticated comedy about a privileged young woman from an A list society family; the role of Tracy Lord was written for Hepburn and fit her to a tee. During the successful run in New York, her then beau Howard Hughes purchased the rights for the film version and through skillful negotiation, she orchestrated her salary, casting and full control of the project with MGM.
Hepburn's business acumen and savvy approach in contract negotiations secured her reputation as a woman who knew hot o handle the male dominated profession many times throughout her career. Never one to sit idle for too long, she performed Shakespeare on Broadway as Rosalind in As You Like IT in 1950 and subsequently spent two seasons at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, CT in the roles of Cleopatra, Portia, Beatrice and Viola. In 1969, almost two years after the death of her co-star and partner in life, Spencer Tracy, she starred in her first and last musical, Coco, playing the legendary fashion designer Coco Chanel. She received her first Tony Award nomination for her performance and her second in 1982 for The West Side Waltz. Hepburn died at the age of 96 at her family home 'Fenwick' in Old Saybrook, CT.
EARTHA KITT (1927-2008) enjoyed a long career on stage, in television, film, nightclubs, and the recording industry. Born on a cotton plantation in St. Matthews, South Carolina, she had a difficult and impoverished childhood. Her mother was a sharecropper of African-American and Cherokee Indian ancestry. The identity of her father was never known, but it is believed that Eartha was a product of rape, and her father, a white plantation owner. She was named "Eartha" because it had been a good year for crops. Given away by her mother several times, she was beaten and overworked by relatives who called her the "yellow gal".
At age 9, Eartha's mother died, and she was sent to live with an aunt in Harlem. She enrolled in the New York School of Performing Arts, and had to be tutored because of her illiteracy. When her aunt started abusing her, Eartha ran away, and, in order to survive, ate from garbage cans and lived on rooftops and in the subways. She later learned that her aunt was in fact her biological mother who had abandoned her at birth.
At 16, on a dare from her best friend, Eartha auditioned for the Dunham School of Dance and won a full scholarship to study with Katherine Dunham--the Black matriarch of modern dance. During the early 1940's, she toured internationally with the troupe as a featured dancer-singer in major productions of Carib Song, Blue Holiday, and Bal Negre Bal. While in Europe, Eartha left the dance company and started her solo career as a popular cabaret performer. She was the toast of Paris, singing at the famed Carroll's Nightclub in 1950, when actor-director Orson Welles discovered her. Welles called her "the most exciting woman in the world", and cast her as Helen of Troy in his European production of Dr. Faustus. This jump-started her career as an actress and opened doors to the American stage. After successful singing engagements at The Village Vanguard and The Blue Angel, Leonard Stillman cast Eartha in his Broadway production of New Faces of 1952, in which her show-stopping rendition of the song "Monotonous" established her as a bona fide Broadway star. Other stage appearances followed including Shinbone Alley, Jolly's Progress, and a 1954 Tony nomination for the coveted role of Teddy in Mrs. Patterson. Eartha wrote three autobiographies: Thursday's Child, 1956; Alone With Me, 1976; and I'm Still Here: Confessions of a Sex Kitten, 1989.
She sang in ten different languages, and throughout the 1950's and 1960's, hits including "C'est Si Bon", "I Want To Be Evil", "Uska Dara", "Under The Bridges Of Paris", and the enduring "Santa Baby" made Eartha an international recording star. She worked regularly in films, starring opposite Sidney Poitier in Mark of the Hawk, 1957; with Nat King Cole in St. Louis Blues, 1958; and opposite Sammy Davis, Jr., in the title role in Anna Lucasta, 1959. In 1960, the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame honored her with a star. Her television appearances included I Spy, Mission Impossible, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Nat King Cole Show, and To Kill A Cop, among others. In 1966, during the third and final season of the Batman television series, Eartha took over the role of Catwoman for Julie Newmar. In 1968, her career took a devastating blow after she criticized the Vietnam War while attending a White House luncheon sponsored by Lady Bird Johnson. She was blacklisted by the Johnson Administration for 10 years, and forced to find work abroad. In 1978, Eartha made a triumphant return to the American stage as Queen Saleem La Lume in Timbuktu!, for which she received a Tony Award nomination. During a special Washington, DC performance, President Jimmy Carter greeted her with a big smile and an even bigger sign that read: "Welcome home, Eartha!"