Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Attend the Tale of Blanche Powell Todd

Blanche Powell Todd as Dorothy Gale.
This is the tumultuous tale of Blanche Powell Todd.

Blanche Powell Todd was the third actress to play Dorothy Gale, replacing Isabel D'Armond, who had been company No. 2's Dorothy in the 1903-'04 season. Anna Laughlin, who had created the part, was still touring with company No. 1.

Blanche's husband, Frank Todd, was also connected with The Wizard of Oz and this tale involves him almost as much as it involves Blanche.

Blanche Powell was born March 19, 1880, in Greenville, Pennsylvania. By 1900 she was getting small parts in popular touring shows, including playing Captain Sigsbee in A Female Drummer. In 1902 she was playing Wilhelmina in A Runaway Girl.

For the 1902-'03 season she joined the Foxy Quiller tour, playing Leona, the tight rope walker. Despite her small part, The Oregon Daily Journal of December 13, 1902, took notice: "Miss Blanche Powell, sweet-voiced and of startling beauty . . . earned recognition for [her] painstaking work."

Also in the Foxy Quiller tour was Frank Todd, who played "Splicer" and had staged the tour for Klaw and Erlanger. As stage manager, Frank may have been responsible for casting Blanche. The two began a relationship and were married during the run of the show.

Frank Todd (Nathaniel Frank Todd) was born in Lexington, Massachusetts, September 8, 1875. The Boston Daily Globe of June 1, 1902, discussing his career, reported that Todd "went on the stage a few years ago because he had a good voice and knew how to use it. . . . Klaw and Erlanger discovered in him a rising stage manager, and for the past seven years he has served that enterprising theatrical firm. For the past two seasons he has been out with Foxy Quiller." The first season starred Jerome Sykes for whom the show was written; the second season starred Richard Golden.

Jerome Sykes in The Billionaire.
After the Foxy Quiller tour ended, Frank was hired as stage manager for Peggy from Paris, but soon he was back with Jerome Sykes on his next show, The Billionaire. Sykes became ill, supposedly from attending a party without warm clothing and catching pneumonia, and Frank Todd had to perform as Sykes's understudy. When Sykes succumbed to his illness, December 29, 1903, Frank Todd continued in the starring role, seeing the tour through its next several engagements.

While Frank was touring with Peggy from Paris and The Billionaire, Blanche (now performing as Blanche Powell Todd) joined the tour of The Sultan of Sulu during the 1902-'03 season. Many theatrical couples found ways to tour together, but Blanche and Frank seem more often than not to be working different tours of different shows.

Click to Enlarge

During her time in The Sultan of Sulu, Blanche's career got a major boost when she appeared in the June 1903 issue of Burr McIntosh Monthly, a high-end magazine specializing in beautiful photographs. Blanche was featured in a full page photograph under a large rubber plant. The explanatory text stated:
" 'Rubber!' So many are interested in the development and growth these days. Blanche Powell Todd has gone to visit the Sultan of Sulu, and is interesting herself in the great problem of what the future has in store. Most of us are daily cultivating the rubber plant to aid us in our various searches, so we can not blame the poor girl."
In August 1903, Burr McIntosh featured Blanche wearing a swimsuit in another full-page photograph, this time printed in full color (see below).

By the winter of 1903-'04 Blanche had moved from The Sultan of Sulu to  the tour of A Chinese Honeymoon where she played Sing Sing.

Blanche Powell Todd in Burr McIntosh Monthly, August, 1903.

While Blanche continued her tour with the Chinese Honeymoon company, the death of Jerome Sykes left Frank Todd without a job. But another death of an actor would bring Frank, and eventually Blanche, into The Wizard of Oz.

J. Lod Sutherland had been stage manager for company No. 2 of The Wizard of Oz in addition to playing the part of Brigadier General Riskitt. While the Wizard company was in Beloit, Wisconsin, Sutherland died suddenly of a burst appendix on January 8, 1904. Wizard of Oz stage director Julian Mitchell, in need of a new stage manager and a new General Riskitt, hired Frank Todd. He was a perfect replacement, not only could he serve as stage manager, but he was also a basso—a prerequisite for singing the part of General Riskitt.

Frank seems to have found a good home with The Wizard of Oz company and he almost certainly suggested his wife, Blanche, would make a wonderful Dorothy Gale for company No. 2's 1904-'05 tour.

Blanche Powell Todd, March 1903.
On August 11, 1904, Blanche Powell Todd opened the new season of company No. 2 as Dorothy Gale in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Unfortunately, Frank had now moved on to Chicago to assist in Julian Mitchell's debacle of a play, Bird Center, in which Frank played the part of Chris Newbower. So the couple were once again performing in different shows.

Mitchell clearly had long-range plans for Frank Todd. The same day Blanche debuted as Dorothy, the following appeared in the papers: "Hamlin and Mitchell have engaged Frank Todd to produce their pieces, The Wizard of Oz, Bird Center and Babes in Toyland."

Blanche did well as Dorothy Gale. The October 14, 1904, Portland Oregonian said: "Blanche Powell Todd has the part of Dorothy Gale, the Kansas girl . . . She is one of the daintiest little women you might see in a year's beauty quest."

The Atchison (Kansas) Daily Globe of December 15, 1904, reported:
The Atchison people who fell in love with Maud [sic] Powell Todd, who took the part of "Dorothy Gale," the Kansas dairy maid, last night thought she might possibly be fourteen years old. She told reporters she has been married three years, and is so old she no longer tells her age, but she did not look it even when she said so. She said she appeared in Atchison three years ago in the chorus of Jerome Syke's [sic] production of Foxy Quiller, and that year married Mr. Todd, the stage manager of the company. . . . Mrs. Todd said her part in The Wizard of Oz is her first big part, and she seemed as delighted with her success last night as a high school girl who makes a hit before her relatives in an amateur play.
While performing in Nashville, Tennessee, on January 24, 1905, Blanche had to withdraw from the performance in the middle of the first act due to "an unfortunate attack of acute hoarseness." She was replaced by her understudy, Ethel De Marcy. (Ethel appears in some Wizard of Oz programs as Helen D' Marcy.)  By the time of the performance the next evening in Chattanooga, Blanche "was excellent as Dorothy."

September 3, 1905, cast announced for No. 2 Co.

The producers seemed to like Blanche, too. The New York Clipper announced on August 12, 1905, that Blanche "has been reengaged for [the 1905-'06 season of] The Wizard of Oz, in the part of Dorothy Gale. She is at present in the Catskills." But was this for company No. 1 or company No. 2?

Blanche was announced as the Dorothy of the No. 2 company on September 3rd (see image at left). But the following item appeared in the (New York) Morning Telegraph of September 14, 1905: "How nice to be sent for and made a fuss over! Blanche Powell Todd, after being transferred from the 'Wizard of Oz' No. 1 company to the No. 2 show was recalled after three performances and reinstated."

It seems likely that the producers had promised to get her into the No. 1 company at some point, and it's possible Blanche performed the role a couple times with the No. 1 company before Blanche launched No. 2's season in Meriden, Connecticut, on September 18, 1905.

The producers were having a Dorothy dilemma in the No. 1 company.

Anna Laughlin, the original Dorothy, had left the No. 1 company at the end of the previous season to star in The Land of Nod. And on September 4, 1905, the No. 1 tour began their new season in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with Katherine Roberts as Dorothy Gale. Yet even before Roberts's first performance, the producers had sent for Mabel Barrison to take over the part. Mabel had created the part of Tryxie Tryfle when The Wizard of Oz premiered in Chicago in 1902 and had gone on to star in Babes in Toyland in 1903.

Mona Desmond as Dorothy in Co. No. 1
Barrison began Wizard rehearsals on September 3, 1905. Company No. 1's season premiered the next night, September 4th, with Roberts still in the role. Indeed, a review from the September 9, 1905, Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Telegraph states: "Katherine Roberts, as Dorothy Gale, who has a captivating appearance and manners sings well. She will appear to a better advantage when she has become thoroughly acquainted with her new work." Barrison performed the part for the first time on September 11, 1905, at the Majestic Theatre in Brooklyn, New York.

Barrison only played the Wizard engagements in Brooklyn and Manhattan and did not continue with the show to their next stop, the New National Theatre in Washington, DC, (September 25-30) where Dorothy was played by Netta Vesta. But the deluge of Dorothys continued, and the October 5, 1905, issue of the New York Morning Telegraph announced that Mona Desmond would soon be taking over the part, which she did by mid-October.

By late fall 1905, there was Dorothy trouble in company No. 2. Blanche Powell Todd had left the show, and Dorothy was now being played by Ethel De Marcy.

While Blanche's professional life was skyrocketing, her personal life had recently imploded. Her husband, Frank Todd, had begun an affair with Bessie Holbrook, an actress in Miss Dolly Dollars, in the spring of 1905. I've no evidence exactly when Blanche found out, but on October 5, 1905, Frank married Bessie Holbrook, who was already five months pregnant. I have not been able to find any evidence of a divorce between Blanche and Frank, but I haven't found their marriage record either. I assume all of this chaos is why Blanche withdrew from company No. 2 of The Wizard of Oz.

But in December 1905 company No. 1 needed a new Dorothy. Mona Desmond would be leaving the show when they finished their Christmastime run in Chicago, December 24-January 20. Julian Mitchell offered the job to Blanche.

Blanche Powell Todd, October 1904.
Blanche arrived in Chicago from Milwaukee to begin rehearsals and learn the latest routines in The Wizard of Oz. She quickly made friends with the cast and all was proceeding well when Blanche fell suddenly ill. Her condition worsened and the producers sent for her (former) husband, Frank. The day before she was to have debuted in company No. 1 Blanche Powell Todd died at 5:00 in the morning at Mercy Hospital on January 16, 1906, after an operation for gall stones, Frank Todd at her side. The New York Morning Telegraph reported that "she was being treated, it is said, for one malady, and just before her death it was discovered that she was suffering from another." Blanche was only 25.

Blanche's mother was grief-stricken and asked that Blanche be laid to rest where her life began. She was buried in Greenville, Pennsylvania, on January 19, 1906, in the Shenango Valley cemetery. Her husband, Frank Todd, suffering from "inflammatory rheumatism" resulting from a serious injury to his kneecap, was unable to travel back east to the funeral. I suspect Blanche's family would not have welcomed him either.

The Wizard of Oz chorus sent an arrangement of Easter lilies, and two of her "dear girl friends" sent a beautiful wreath of autumn leaves. Most touching was a large floral tribute of white carnations sent by Fred Stone and his wife, Allene Crater, the Scarecrow and Lady Lunatic in the show, bearing a card inscribed "Sleep well, little Dorothy."

The sudden loss of Blanche left an urgent need of a new Dorothy for company No. 1. The producers selected Reina Davies, sister of actress Marion Davies. The show continued on its tour. Blanche's mother fell into a deep depression and never truly recovered. She died three years later, July 27, 1909.

Frank Todd circa 1906.
A few months after Blanche's death, Bessie Holbrook Todd took Frank to court, charging him with non-support and abandonment. The New York Sun, April 13, 1906, reported Bessie testifying that Frank Todd "lived with her only six weeks after their marriage. Then he went West with his company [The Ham Tree], and when he came back to New York recently took a room at 233 West Twenty-fifth street, refusing to see either herself or the baby. . . . Todd told the Court that he didn't even know he had a baby, never having been notified by his wife of the baby's arrival."

He agreed to pay his wife $10 a week. Adjusted for inflation that's about $290.00 a week. The newspaper report continued: "As he went out of the court he met his wife, who was waiting for him in the hall. They looked at each other for a moment. then tears came into the wife's eyes, and Todd went over and spoke to her. In another minute they had their arms around each other. They kissed and left court together, both apparently very happy."

I've no idea if the couple reunited beyond their exit from the courthouse.

A little over a year later, Frank Todd entered Massachusetts General Hospital on June 29, 1907. He died on July 3rd of Mesenteric Thrombosis and peritonitis due to a burst appendix. He was 31.

*          *          *

One of my goals with this project is to bring these long forgotten people whose lives were touched by The Wizard of Oz back to life, or at least back to memory, for my readers. Blanche was headed toward stardom. But in only a few short months her personal life imploded and she was struck down by disease. She was soon lost to people's memories. She was only 25.

That is the tale of Blanche Powell Todd.

"Sleep well, little Dorothy."

Blanche Powell Todd's grave in Greenville, PA.

Copyright © 2020 David Maxine. All rights reserved.

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