Wednesday, December 25, 2019

A Musical Bubble in Two Bottles: The History of Mamzelle Champagne - Part II

A guest posting by Eric Shanower
To read Part I click here

Chorus girl and artists' model Evelyn Nesbit. Her verdict on Mamzelle Champagne: "Putrid."

By summer 1906 the Madison Square Roof Garden had been closed for several years. Its re-opening on June 25 was a notable occasion—though how notable it would become no one knew beforehand. About one thousand people were in attendance to see the Broadway debut of Mamzelle Champagne.

The show’s star, Harry Short, almost had a serious accident during his first entrance. He appeared in an airship—actually a box run on wires from the gallery. The attendant working the ropes gave too much slack and the box slammed into the proscenium arch, nearly throwing Short out into the orchestra. He kept his nerve, however, and climbed down onto the stage, continuing as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened.


Actor Harry Short, who played the lead role of Fuller Spice on opening night.

Many accounts claim that Harry Short was onstage performing the number “I Could Love a Million Girls” when the shooting occurred. One account claims that the song had ended and Short had just spoken the line: “I challenge you to a duel, let it be pistols,” while another account claims that one of the Big Six chorus girls sang a line that ran, “I challenge you, I challenge you to a duel, a du-u-el”—either of which might account for the audience’s momentary confusion over whether Thaw’s gun shots were part of the show. Yet another account claims that Arthur Stanford had just finished singing “There Was a Maid” while the six chorus girls of Spice’s Big Six waited for their cue to enter and sing “I Could Love a Million Girls” with him.

The most reasonable version of events seems to be this:

The time was approaching 11:00 PM and Mamzelle Champagne was nearly over when Eddie Fowler, as rich plumber Gustavus Hicks, strode downstage to the footlights and, quoting a catch phrase employed earlier in the action, bellowed: “Here is the spot where the hero slays the villain!”

“We will fight with pistols,” retorted Harry Short as Fuller Spice, in response to the plumber’s challenge. Fowler and Sylvia Starr exited, leaving Short alone on stage to sing “I Could Love a Million Girls.” After the first verse, the Big Six entered to join Short. They were singing the song’s refrain when Thaw, obsessed by the idea that White had “ruined” Thaw’s wife Evelyn, approached White in the fifth row and without warning fired three times.


Spice’s Big Six performing “I Could Love a Million Girls.”

As blood poured from White’s wounds, two of the Big Six women screamed and fled into the wings. “Get back into your line!” Lionel Lawrence, acting as stage manager, shouted loudly enough for the audience to hear. One of the women headed back onstage, but again turned to flee. Two of the remaining four women on stage collapsed. Lawrence ordered the orchestra to continue playing and rang down the curtain on one of the most dramatic endings of a performance in theatre history.

As the audience members realized that the shots hadn’t actually been part of the show, several fainted. Lionel Lawrence, fearing a panic, rushed into the house from the wings, shouting, “Ladies and gentlemen: A serious accident has happened. We shall not be able to go on with the play. I ask you, therefore, to pass out as quietly as you can. There is no need for any alarm, I assure you.” Most of the audience calmed down and filed from the theatre without a dangerous amount of commotion.


Harry Kendall Thaw, millionaire Pittsburgh playboy, whose sanity was in question long before he shot White, in a sketch by Ike Morgan, illustrator of The Wogglebug Book by L. Frank Baum and friend of Wizard of Oz composer Paul Tietjens.

Meanwhile the on-duty fireman Paul Brudi intercepted Thaw, who was heading toward an elevator. Brudi disarmed Thaw and escorted him down to street level in the elevator and into the custody of New York City policeman Anthony L. Debs. Evelyn Nesbit Thaw, who’d been sitting near the rear of the theatre with her husband and two friends during the performance, fled to the apartment of her close friend May McKenzie, a chorus girl who’d played the role of Bardo in The Wizard of Oz during its pre-Broadway run in Chicago in summer 1902.


May McKenzie, Wizard of Oz actress and staunch chum of Evelyn Nesbit Thaw. McKenzie stuck to her friend’s side throughout Harry Thaw’s trial. Though expected to be called as a witness, she was not.

Stanford White had died instantly. His body slid onto the floor and lay in a pool of blood among pieces of glass from a broken bottle. Lionel Lawrence covered White’s ruined face with theatre programs. Some cast members, still in costume and make-up, mingled with the straggling audience, asking for details of the shooting and predicting dire failure for the show. Others fanned those of the Big Six chorus girls that had fainted on stage. The rest of the Big Six huddled in the dressing rooms.
One account of the murder offers the curious information that when skaters enjoying the roller rink inside Madison Square Garden heard that a man had been shot on the roof, they dropped their skates and ran up six flights to the roof to see. Some neglected to take their skates off and tried to climb the stairs on their wheels.

Within hours newspaper headlines screamed reports of the murder. Reviews of Mamzelle Champagne offered details of the shocking event while critical reaction to the show itself was tepid.

A review in the New York Clipper of June 30, 1906, claimed that “there is little to try the brain of the auditor . . . The book can be whipped into better shape, and later performances will probably see an improvement in it. Some changes to the company are advisable too.”

The New York Dramatic Mirror of July 7, 1906, said, “As most of the patrons sit at tables sipping cooling drinks and chatting, it does not matter very much what is going on on the stage, so Mamzelle Champagne will probably fill the bill as well as anything else that might be put on. . . . The music is jingly and more or less catchy . . . The cast is mediocre.”

Some critics proclaimed Mamzelle Champagne a failure—Kenneth Lord of the New York Sun, who left the theatre mere minutes before the shooting, declared it “hopelessly bad”—while others thought it might reach success with judicious revision.


Producer Henry Pincus’s wife, actress Viola De Costa, played the title role of Mamzelle Champagne.

Despite all critical opinion, audiences flocked to subsequent performances of Mamzelle Champagne. Thaw’s murder of White—the “Crime of the Century”—was international headlines. People bought tickets not so much because of what was happening on stage, but because of ghoulish fascination with the scene of the crime. In the Manhattan of 1906 arriving late to a theatrical performance was far from unusual, but audience members each night crowded the Madison Square Roof Garden theatre twenty minutes before the curtain rose. Patrons requested seating as close as possible to the table where Stanford White had been sitting.

A newspaper article noted that random lines of Woolf’s script seemed to comment grotesquely on the notorious event of opening night, lines such as:

“Here’s where I forget my wife and all my other troubles.”

“My little girl, they say old men are the worst.”

“Fare-thee-well, purveyor to degraded tastes.”

“And this is where our hero dies upon the spot.”

To its credit the show didn’t try to trade on the sensational publicity of the murder. Mamzelle Champagne did its best to put the tragedy behind it. But tragedy provided Mamzelle Champagne unexpected fortune. It became the most successful Madison Square Roof Garden show up to that time, extending performances into late August after all other New York roof garden shows had finished their summer runs.


After the shooting, the sales of sheet music for the song “I Could Love a Million Girls” exploded. The publisher had difficulty keeping up with orders.[Frances G. Spencer Collection of American Popular Sheet Music. Crouch Fine Arts Library, Baylor University. Waco, Texas.]

After opening night Mamzelle Champagne went through many changes, as most stage shows did in a time before theatrical previews. Much of Woolf’s dialog, which was easily lost on auditors in the open air of the roof garden, was pruned or simply eliminated. Several new musical numbers filled the empty spots, including a new opening chorus—“Life”—and a new closing—“The Goddess of Liberty.” Harry Lester Mason played a new comedic character, Heinrich Hasenpfeffer, a detective with a thick German accent. John L. Kearney assumed, to critical acclaim, the role of Fuller Spice when Harry Short left the show after the first week. The hit of the show turned out to be future Broadway playwright and Hollywood screenwriter Maude Fulton—in her first Broadway role—as Mabel Chatterton, wearing a red jacket and singing “Could I Fascinate You?” The single interpolated song, “Somewhere” by Charles K. Harris (lyricist of the 1893 smash hit “After the Ball”), regularly received four or five encores each night. Publicity touted the frothy concoction as “the biggest theatrical fad” of the summer season with the claim that it “leaves no bad taste.”


Actress Maude Fulton was said to have been sixteen years old when she made her Broadway debut in Mamzelle Champagne. She was actually twenty-five.

But the public couldn’t forget the murder. Every evening countless audience members asked the ushers to point out “the exact spot” where the tragedy occurred. The head usher grew so tired of these questions that he took to hiding in the shadows during intermission.

On July 15, a distant relative of Harry Thaw, Henry Phipps Hoffstet, and his companion John Lee Hobart attended a performance of Mamzelle Champagne. During the first act they carried on a loud conversation and insulted the actors onstage. Conductor Cassius Freeborn complained to producer Henry Pincus, declaring that the two young men were distracting the orchestra and that the musicians wouldn’t be able to play for the second act if the disturbance continued.

A waiter was sent to tell Hoffstet and Hobart to be quiet. They merely insulted the waiter. Producer Pincus called the police, who arrested the two men for disorderly conduct. At the police station Hoffstet fainted and was sent to New York Hospital. Pincus then withdrew charges and the offending men were released.

Events involving the Mamzelle Champagne company weren’t all so grim. On the afternoon of July 18, the show—with all it actors, musicians, costumes, and scenery—transferred for a single benefit performance to the Hebrew Orphan Asylum at Amsterdam Avenue and 137th Street. The company, orchestra, and equipment traveled in a parade of automobiles provided by Richard W. Meade, President of the Metropolitan Transportation Company. The orphans were reportedly delighted by both the show and the souvenirs distributed. Immediately afterward, the company rushed back to Madison Square Garden for the evening performance.


Spice’s Big Six up close and personal.

Morbid curiosity about the show faded, but ticket sales remained robust. Audiences seemed interested in attending Mamzelle Champagne for its own sake. Refinements to the show continued. New features debuted even during its final week, when a blackface toe dance by Madlyn Jane Summers was introduced.


August 1906 newspaper advertisement for Mamzelle Champagne.

Copyright © 2019 Eric Shanower. All rights reserved.

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