Thursday, November 26, 2020

The Pandemic Performance of 1918

I am always excited when a later performance of The Wizard of Oz is discovered. I am most grateful to musicologist Joseph Rubin for pointing me toward this one. It couldn't be more timely, given these performances were presented over Thanksgiving week in the midst of a pandemic and after a multi-week shutdown of all the theatres. 

Everything old is new again . . .


One hundred and two years ago, on Thanksgiving day of 1918, the United States was in the midst of the Spanish Flu pandemic. In Columbus, Ohio, audiences threw caution to the wind—the wind of a tornado in The Wizard of Oz.

The "cyclonic success" was playing a full week at the Grand Theater, opening Monday, November 25th, and closing after the Sunday night performance on December 1st. They did three matinees, too: Wednesday, Saturday, and Thanksgiving.

The Columbus Sunday Dispatch of November 24, 1918, laid it all out:

Extravaganza in Stock

The Wizard of Oz, a fairy extravaganza that set a new standard for beauty of staging, and was the cornerstone of the enormous reputation achieved by that famous team of comedians, Montgomery and Stone, is to be this week's production at the Grand. The novelty and originality of its characters, strange eccentric figure of the Scarecrow, which Roger Gray has played oftener than anyone except Stone, [untrue, see below] the weird Tin Man, the screamingly funny antics of the cow, named "Imogene," and the paradoxical figure of the Cowardly Lion, together with the appealing little girl Dorothy, and all the other funny and interesting characters of this piece, made it, and still keep it, one of the oddest, most fascinating and alluring of all musical productions. It is not often attempted by stock companies.

With Mr. Harris' usual desire to procure the very best obtainable for the patrons of the Grand, a special engagement for this one week has been made of Phil Dwyer, one of the foremost pantomimists in this country to play two important silent roles of the lion and the cow. Mr. Dwyer is an animal impersonator of great ability, and made sensation in New York some little time ago, as the lion, in the production of Androcles and the Lion, which was produced by Granville Barker at Wallack's theater.

A postcard advertising Phil Dwyer's vaudeville act (note the lion).

The story of The Wizard of Oz is well known to all, it being an adaptation from the well-known fairy stories of Frank Baum, and tells of the adventures of little Dorothy Gale, who is blown away with her pet cow, Imogene, from her Kansas home during a terrific cyclone. They land in the kingdom of Oz, and there she is befriended by a good fairy, who grants her three wishes. In her loneliness, she unthinkingly wishes that the Scarecrow in the field was alive, and immediately he becomes endowed with life, and joins her in her journey to find the Wizard of Oz, a fakir who rules the Emerald City. In their travels they discover a Man of Tin, who also goes along with them to the Emerald City. Through numerous exciting and funny adventures they wend their way, and become implicated in a conspiracy against the Wizard, [sic] which leads to the subsequent imprisonment of the Scarecrow and the Tin Man, and their release by the novel expedient of dismembering the Scarecrow and putting him together again, and finally, through the good offices of their guardian the good fairy, they are enabled to return to the earth.

All of the many beautiful effects incident to the production of this delightful fairy extravaganza have been built and the cyclone, the snowstorm, the wonderful field of poppies, and all the magical effects of Oz will be given as in the original production.

Among the many beautiful numbers that will enhance the score are 'Niccolo's Piccolo,' 'Love is Love,' 'The Man Without Brains,' 'When you Love, Love, Love,' 'The Traveler and the Pie,' 'Reincarnation,' and a host of clever dancing and singing specialty numbers by Roger Gray, Dan Marble and all the other favorites of the company.

Postcard showing Olentangy Park Theatre, Columbus, Ohio.
That was quite a write-up—no wonder audiences flocked to the theatre. The article is wrong about Roger Gray playing the Scarecrow "oftener than anyone except Stone." Both Bert Swor and George Stone played more performances than Roger Gray. But Gray was an important Scarecrow and he was involved in most of the post-Hurtig and Seamon revivals: Minneapolis; St. Louis; Washington, DC; and this one in Columbus.

Several other members of the cast were also Wizard of Oz veterans. Dan Marble had played the Tin Woodman in the 1915 Park Opera Co. performances in St. Louis, and both Della Rose had played Tryxie Tryfle, and Ralph Nichols had played Sir Wiley Gyle at Poli's Theatre in the Washington, DC, performances of April 1918, only two months before arriving in Columbus.

Sheet music for "Re-Incarnation."

You might, too, have noticed an unfamiliar song title listed--that of "Reincarnation." This new interpolation is almost certainly "Re-Incarnation," a song from the Ziegfeld Follies of 1907 with music by E. Ray Goetz and lyrics by Vincent Bryan.

 Bryan actually wrote many songs used in The Wizard of Oz: "Hurrah for Baffin's Bay," "Football," "Down on the Brandywine," "'Twas Enough to Make a Perfect Lady Mad," and quite a few others, including "Budweiser's a Friend of Mine," which was also interpolated from the Follies of 1907

The song explains about reincarnation and suggests how famous people of the era might be reincarnated, such as Teddy Roosevelt coming back as a teddy bear, and William Randolph Hearst coming back as Democrat! No program for this Wizard revival has surfaced, so it's unclear which character performed the song. I'd like to think the Scarecrow and Tin Man sang "Re-Incarnation" after they dismembered and reassembled the Scarecrow.

The stock company performing Wizard was billed as "The Grand Musical Players," but when they had first arrived in Columbus, six months earlier, they had been the "Grau Musical Comedy Co." The story behind the name change and their lengthy stay in Columbus follows below.

The Columbus Dispatch of May 19, 1918, announced that the Grau Musical Comedy Co. (organized by Matt Grau) would open an extended summer season at the outdoor Olentangy Park theater. The company arrived from New York (in a special train car) on May 26th and began rehearsals for Rudolph Friml's The Firefly, which opened on June 3rd.

The company included: prima donna Ferne Rogers, soubrette Berta Donn, character woman Flavio [sic] Acara, juvenile girl Della Rose, small part girl Mary Dunigan, tenor Arthur Burckly, juvenile man George Nathanson, basso Ditmar Poppen, first comedian Roger Gray, second comedian Dan Marble, general utilities: Ralph Nichols, orchestra leader Sid Riley, scenic artist Earnest Rand, costumer Henrietta Hausen, and parts: Rajal Cuttes. There was also a chorus of sixteen girls and at least eight men.

The principal cast in The Columbus Sunday Dispatch, May 26, 1918.  
The company opened their season with The Firefly, followed by: The Red Mill, A Modern Eve, Robin Hood, The Princess Pat, Naught Marietta, The Folly of Columbus, Little Boy Blue, The Only Girl, The Chocolate Soldier, The Red Widow, and The Mikado.

The company was so popular that Will Harris, manager of the Olentangy Park Theater, asked the company to move to the Grand Theatre and stay for the winter. He spent $10,000 refurbishing the theater, which had been serving as a movie house in recent years.

The Grau Musical Comedy Co. opened at the Grand Theater on August 26, 1918. Rebranded as The Grand Musical Players, their first show was Sweethearts, followed by The Candy Shop, The Lilac Domino, A Waltz Dream, and The Three Twins. 

And then the pandemic shut them down.

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In March 1918, a new flu-like illness began appearing in the United States, with more than a hundred soldiers falling ill at Camp Funston in Fort Riley, Kansas. On April 5, 1918, the public health report mentions influenza by name and reports eighteen severe cases and three deaths. In September, a more lethal "second wave" of the flu emerged and Camp Devens (outside Boston) reported over 14,000 influenza cases and 757 deaths. 

Toward the end of the first week in October, many cities began to order the closure of churches, schools, and theatres to lessen the spread of the disease. Columbus issued their close-down order on October 10th.
 

Columbus Evening Dispatch, October 10, 1918.
That evening the Grand Theater closed its doors after the company's performance of The Girl in the Train. 

The October 11th issue of the Columbus Dispatch outlined the situation and a couple exceptions to the local rule:

The order for the closing of the theaters, which went into effect at last midnight, was no great surprise to most Columbus theater managers. Some of them had already held conferences with Dr. Louis Kahn, city health officer, and had told him that if the action was deemed necessary, they would be only too glad to cooperate on the shortest notice.

As the matter now stands the only exceptions made in the order closing all amusements are the national dairy show at the state fair grounds and the Galli-Curci concert to be given in Memorial Hall tonight . . . The [dairy] show was exempted because of it being such an important institution for which people from all over the country are already arriving in town. The [Galli-Curci] concert was put on the exempted list for somewhat similar reasons as visitors are coming from all over southern and central Ohio, and quite a number from adjoining states.

Then, as now, people were balancing health risks against angering the populace, and doubtless many people became infected at the Dairy show and the Galli-Curci concert. For those unfamiliar with Amelita Galli-Curci [1882-1963] she was one of the biggest opera stars of the era and a major recording star for Victor Records. Below is one of my favorite recordings of her--for those curious. Her final note is simply incredible. Click here to listen or on video below:

With most of the country under "lock down" the Grand Musical Players hunkered down. There was no way to travel, no where to obtain new bookings, so they remained in Columbus "continuing their regular rehearsals, though necessarily abandoning performances," reported the November 11, 1918, Columbus Evening Dispatch. "The Musical Players are rehearsing The Spring Maid, which will be put on the first week that the ban is lifted. However, should it be raised October 28, Halloween week, the projected Hallowe'en Follies will be played that week. Mary's Lamb is another Grand production in prospect."

On October 15th the same paper reported the "Closure in Statu Quo . . . Columbus managers [have] received no word from the health authorities looking to an opening of the theaters . . ." The paper also explained that "traveling companies" salaries stop when they are not performing, but that "Manager Harris, however, paid the full salaries to the Musical Players last week. It is estimated that over 300 people have been thrown out of work in Columbus legitimate theaters by the closing orders."

More than a month after closing down, the company finally held a dress rehearsal for The Hallowe'en Follies.

Columbus Evening Dispatch, November 9, 1918
 

On November 11, 1918, the armistice agreement was signed, effectively ending World War I; and the Grand Theater reopened its doors with The Hallowe'en Follies--eleven days after Halloween. The jubilant crowds poured in. The Columbus Evening Dispatch of November 14th announced: 

That Columbus was waiting the Hallowe'en Follies is evident by the capacity audiences of the week. The matinee yesterday afternoon was the largest in the history of the company since its Columbus engagement began, and the evening audiences are equal to those of state fair week.
The next week The Spring Maid opened, and the week after that was The Wizard of Oz, and we're back to where this blog began. The Grand Players were more popular than ever and audiences flocked to the theater to escape the pandemic. The company extended their stay and continued working their way through a lot of the Witmark stock catalog. 

After The Wizard of Oz, they presented Canary Cottage, The Bohemian Girl, Sergeant Kitty, A. Baldwin Sloane's The Gingerbread Man (another favorite vehicle for Roger Gray), Round the World Follies, Martha, HMS Pinafore, The Chimes of Normandy, Her Regiment, High Jinks, Have a Heart, Katinka, Pom Pom, The Pink Lady, You're in Love, Sari, Very Good Eddie, The Man Who Owns Broadway, and The Fortune Teller.

They originally came to Columbus for a summer season in the park. They stayed for fifty weeks, and had hoped to play another summer in the park.

Columbus Evening Dispatch, April 10, 1919
 Sadly, the April 18, 1918, Columbus Evening Dispatch announced:

No More Musical Stock.

There will be no musical comedy at Olentangy Park this summer, due to the fact that the Park Amusement Co., which has succeeded Will D. Harris in control of that institution, believes it too expensive and doubtful a proposition. . . . Mr. Harris will devote most of his time this summer to the management of the Grand, continuing its present picture program.

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It is estimated that 675,000 Americans died in the Spanish Flu pandemic, and 50,000,000 died worldwide. Please stay safe, wear your mask, and social distance.

Happy Thanksgiving, and don't go to the theatre!


Copyright © 2010 David Maxine. All rights reserved.

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