CHARLES FROHMAN: MANAGER AND MAN
ISAAC F. MARCOSSON and DANIEL FROHMAN
With an Appreciation by James M. Barrie
Illustrated with Portraits
New York and London Harper & Brothers M.C.M.X.V.I
Charles Frohman: Manager and Man Copyright, 1916, by Harper & Brothers Copyright, 1915, 1916, by International Magazine Company (Cosmopolitan Magazine) Printed in the United States of America Published October, 1916
That Charles Frohman
Loved and Served_
Nought I did in hate but all in honor!
CHARLES FROHMAN: AN APPRECIATION
I. A CHILD AMID THE THEATER
II. EARLY HARDSHIPS ON THE ROAD
III. PICTURESQUE DAYS AS MINSTREL MANAGER
IV. IN THE NEW YORK THEATRICAL WHIRLPOOL
V. BOOKING-AGENT AND BROADWAY PRODUCER
VI. "SHENANDOAH" AND THE FIRST STOCK COMPANY
VII. JOHN DREW AND THE EMPIRE THEATER
VIII. MAUDE ADAMS AS STAR
IX. THE BIRTH OF THE SYNDICATE
X. THE RISE OF ETHEL BARRYMORE
XI. THE CONQUEST OF THE LONDON STAGE
XII. BARRIE AND THE ENGLISH FRIENDSHIPS
XIII. A GALAXY OF STARS
XIV. STAR-MAKING AND AUDIENCES
XV. PLAYS AND PLAYERS
XVI. "C. F." AT REHEARSALS
XVII. HUMOR AND ANECDOTE
XVIII. THE MAN FROHMAN
XIX. "WHY FEAR DEATH?"
APPENDIX A—THE LETTERS OF CHARLES
APPENDIX B—COMPLETE CHRONOLOGICAL LIST OF THE FROHMAN PRODUCTIONS
HENRY ARTHUR JONES
WILLIAM H. CRANE
SIR ARTHUR WING PINERO
E. H. SOTHERN
JAMES M. BARRIE
CHARLES FROHMAN AND DAVID BELASCO
CHARLES FROHMAN'S OFFICE IN THE EMPIRE THEATER
CHARLES FROHMAN ON BOARD SHIP
Charles Frohman: an Appreciation
By James M. Barrie
The man who never broke his word. There was a great deal more to him, but every one in any land who has had dealings with Charles Frohman will sign that.
I would rather say a word of the qualities that to his friends were his great adornment than about his colossal enterprises or the energy with which he heaved them into being; his energy that was like a force of nature, so that if he had ever "retired" from the work he loved (a thing incredible) companies might have been formed, in the land so skilful at turning energy to practical account, for exploiting the vitality of this Niagara of a man. They could have lit a city with it.
He loved his schemes. They were a succession of many-colored romances to him, and were issued to the world not without the accompaniment of the drum, but you would never find him saying anything of himself. He pushed them in front of him, always taking care that they were big enough to hide him. When they were able to stand alone he stole out in the dark to have a look at them, and then if unobserved his bosom swelled. I have never known any one more modest and no one quite so shy. Many actors have played for him for years and never spoken to him, have perhaps seen him dart up a side street because they were approaching. They may not have known that it was sheer shyness, but it was. I have seen him ordered out of his own theater by subordinates who did not know him, and he went cheerfully away. "Good men, these; they know their business," was all his comment. Afterward he was shy of going back lest they should apologize.
At one time he had several theaters here and was renting others, the while he had I know not how many in America; he was not always sure how many himself. Latterly the great competition at home left him no time to look after more than one in London. But only one anywhere seemed a little absurd to him. He once contemplated having a few theaters in Paris, but on discovering that French law forbids your having more than one he gave up the scheme in disgust.
A sense of humor sat with him through every vicissitude like a faithful consort.
"How is it going?" a French author cabled to him on the first night of a new play.
"It has gone," he genially cabled back.
Of a Scotch play of my own that he was about to produce in New York, I asked him what the Scotch would be like.
"You wouldn't know it was Scotch," he replied, "but the American public will know."
He was very dogged. I had only one quarrel with him, but it lasted all the sixteen years I knew him. He wanted me to be a playwright and I wanted to be a novelist. All those years I fought him on that. He always won, but not because of his doggedness; only because he was so lovable that one had to do as he wanted. He also threatened, if I stopped, to reproduce the old plays and print my name in large electric letters over the entrance of the theater.
* * *
A very distinguished actress under his management wanted to produce a play of mine of which he had no high opinion. He was in despair, as he had something much better for her. She was obdurate. He came to me for help, said nothing could move her unless I could. Would not I tell her what a bad play it was and how poor her part was and how much better the other parts were and how absolutely it fell to pieces after the first act? Of course I did as I was bid, and I argued with the woman for hours, and finally got her round, the while he sat cross-legged, after his fashion, on a deep chair and implored me with his eyes to do my worst. It happened long ago, and I was so obsessed with the desire to please him that the humor of the situation strikes me only now.
For money he did not care at all; it was to him but pieces of paper with which he could make practical the enterprises that teemed in his brain. They were all enterprises of the theater. Having once seen a theater, he never afterward saw anything else except sites for theaters. This passion began when he was a poor boy staring wistfully at portals out of which he was kept by the want of a few pence. I think when he first saw a theater he clapped his hand to his heart, and certainly he was true to his first love. Up to the end it was still the same treat to him to go in; he still thrilled when the band struck up, as if that boy had hold of his hand.
* * *
In a sense he had no illusions about the theater, knew its tawdriness as he knew the nails on his stages (he is said to have known every one). He would watch the performance of a play in some language of which he did not know a word and at the end tell you not only the whole story, but what the characters had been saying to one another; indeed, he could usually tell what was to happen in any act as soon as he saw the arrangement of the furniture. But this did not make him blase—a strange word, indeed, to apply to one who seemed to be born afresh each morning. It was not so much that all the world was a stage to him as that his stage was a world, a world of the "artistic temperament"—that is to say, a very childish world of which he was occasionally the stern but usually indulgent father.
His innumerable companies were as children to him; he chided them as children, soothed them, forgave them, and certainly loved them as children. He exulted in those who became great names in that world and gave them beautiful toys to play with; but, great as was their devotion to him, it is not they who will miss him most, but rather the far greater number who never "made a hit," but set off like the rest to do it and fell by the way. He was of so sympathetic a nature, he understood so well the dismalness to them of being "failures," that he saw them as children with their knuckles to their eyes, and then he sat back cross-legged on his chair with his knuckles, as it were, to his eyes, and life had lost its flavor for him until he invented a scheme for giving them another chance.
* * *
Authors of to-day sometimes discuss with one another what great writer of the past they would like most to spend an evening with if the shades were willing to respond, and I believe (and hope) that the choice most often falls on Johnson or Charles Lamb. Lamb was fond of the theater, and I think, of all those connected with it that I have known, Mr. Frohman is the one with whom he would most have liked to spend an evening. Not because of Mr. Frohman's ability, though he had the biggest brain I have met with on the stage, but because of his humor and charity and gentle chivalry and his most romantic mind. One can conceive him as often, sitting at ease, far back in his chair, cross-legged, occasionally ringing for another ice, for he was so partial to sweets that he could never get them sweet enough, and sometimes he mixed two in the hope that this would make them sweeter.
I hear him telling stories of the stage as only he could tell them, rising now and roaming the floor as he shows how the lady of the play receives the declaration, and perhaps forgetting that you are the author of the play and telling you the whole story of it with superb gesture and gleaming eyes. Then back again cross-legged to the chair. What an essay Elia might have made of that night, none of it about the stories told, all about the man in the chair, the humorous, gentle, roughly educated, very fine American gentleman in the chair!
J. M. BARRIE.
A CHILD AMID THE THEATER
One evening, toward the close of the 'sixties, a plump, rosy-cheeked lad in his eighth year stood enthralled in the gallery of the old Niblo's Garden down on lower Broadway in New York. Far below him on the stage "The Black Crook"—the extravaganza that held all New York—unfolded itself in fascinating glitter and feminine loveliness. Deaf to his brother's entreaties to leave, and risking a parental scolding and worse, the boy remained transfixed until the final curtain. When he reached home he was not in the least disturbed by the uproar his absence had caused. Quite the contrary. His face beamed, his eyes shone. All he could say was:
"I have seen a play. It's wonderful!"
The boy was Charles Frohman, and such was his first actual experience in the theater—the institution that he was to dominate in later years with far-flung authority.
* * *
To write of the beginnings of his life is to become almost immediately the historian of some phase of amusement. He came from a family in whom the love of mimic art was as innate as the desire for sustenance.
About his parents was the glamour of a romance as tender as any he disclosed to delighted audiences in the world of make-believe. His father, Henry Frohman, was both idealist and dreamer. Born on the pleasant countryside that encircles the town of Darmstadt in Germany, he grew up amid an appreciation of the best in German literature. He was a buoyant and imaginative boy who preferred reading plays to poring over tiresome school-books.
One day he went for a walk in the woods. He passed a young girl of rare and appealing beauty. Their eyes met; they paused a moment, irresistibly drawn to each other. Then they went their separate ways. He inquired her name and found that she was Barbara Strauss and lived not far away. He sought an introduction, but before it could be brought about he left home to make his fortune in the New World.
He was eighteen when he stepped down the gang-plank of a steamer in New York in 1845. He had mastered no trade; he was practically without friends, so he took to the task which so many of his co-religionists had found profitable. He invested his modest financial nest-egg in a supply of dry goods and notions and, shouldering a pack, started up the Hudson Valley to peddle his wares.
Henry Frohman had a magnetic and fascinating personality. A ready story was always on his lips; a smile shone constantly on his face. It was said of him that he could hypnotize the most unresponsive housewife into buying articles she never needed. Up and down the highways he trudged, unmindful of wind, rain, or hardship.
New York was his headquarters. There was his home and there he replenished his stocks. He made friends quickly. With them he often went to the German theater. On one of these occasions he heard of a family named Strauss that had just arrived from Germany. They had been shipwrecked near the Azores, had endured many trials, and had lost everything but their lives.
"Have they a daughter named Barbara?" asked Frohman.
"Yes," was the reply.
Henry Frohman's heart gave a leap. There came back to his mind the picture of that day in the German woods.
"Where do they come from?" he continued, eagerly.
On being told that it was Darmstadt, he cried, "I must meet her."
He gave his friend no peace until that end had been brought about. He found her the same lovely girl who had thrilled him at first sight; he wooed her with ardor and they were betrothed.
He now yearned for a stable business that would enable him to marry. Meanwhile his affairs had grown. The peddler's pack expanded to the proportion of a wagon-load. Then, as always, the great West held a lure for the youthful. In some indescribable way he got the idea that Kentucky was the Promised Land of business. Telling his fiancee that he would send for her as soon as he had settled somewhere, he set out.
But Kentucky did not prove to be the golden country. He was advised to go to Ohio, and it was while driving across the country with his line of goods that he came upon Sandusky. The little town on the shores of a smiling lake appealed to him strongly. It reminded him of the home country, and he remained there.
He found himself at once in a congenial place. There was a considerable German population; his ready wit and engaging manner made him welcome everywhere. The road lost its charm; he turned about for an occupation that was permanent. Having picked up a knowledge of cigar-making, he established a small factory which was successful from the start.
This fact assured, his next act was to send to New York for Miss Strauss, who joined him at once, and they were married. These were the forebears of Charles Frohman—the exuberant, optimistic, pleasure-loving father; the serene, gentle-eyed, and spacious-hearted woman who was to have such a strong influence in the shaping of his character.
The Frohmans settled in a little frame house on Lawrence Street that stood apart from the dusty road. It did not even have a porch. Unpretentious as it was, it became a center of artistic life in Sandusky.
Henry Frohman had always aspired to be an actor. One of the first things he did after settling in Sandusky was to organize an amateur theatrical company, composed entirely of people of German birth or descent. The performances were given in the Turner Hall, in the German tongue, on a makeshift stage with improvised scenery. Frohman became the directing force in the production of Schiller's and other classic German plays, comic as well as tragic.
Nor was he half-hearted in his histrionic work. One night he died so realistically on the stage that his eldest son, who sat in the audience, became so terrified that he screamed out in terror, and would not be pacified until his parent appeared smilingly before the curtain and assured him that he was still very much alive.
* * *
Frohman's business prospered. He began to build up trade in the adjoining country. With a load of samples strapped behind his buggy, he traveled about. He usually took one of his older sons along. While he drove, the boy often held a prompt-book and the father would rehearse his parts. Out across those quiet Ohio fields would come the thrilling words of "The Robbers," "Ingomar," "Love and Intrigue," or any of the many plays that the amateur company performed in Sandusky.
He even mixed the drama with business. Frequently after selling a bill of goods he would be requested by a customer, who knew of his ability, to recite or declaim a speech from one of the well-known German plays.
It was on his return from one of these expeditions that Henry Frohman was greeted with the tidings that a third son had come to bear his name. When he entered that little frame house the infantile Charles had made his first entrance on the stage of life. It was June 17, 1860, a time fateful in the history of the country, for already the storm-clouds of the Civil War were brooding. It was pregnant with meaning for the American theater, too, because this lusty baby was to become its Napoleon.
Almost before Charles was able to walk his wise and far-seeing mother, with a pride and responsibility that maintained the best traditions of the mothers in Israel, began to realize the restrictions and limitations of the Sandusky life.
"These boys of ours," she said to the husband, "have no future here. They must be educated in New York. Their careers lie there."
Strong-willed and resolute, she sent the two older sons, one at a time, on to the great city to be educated and make their way. The eldest, Daniel, went first, soon followed by Gustave. In 1864, and largely due to her insistent urging, the remainder of the family, which included the youthful Charles, packed up their belongings and, with the proceeds of the sale of the cigar factory, started on their eventful journey to New York.
They first settled in one of the original tenement houses of New York, on Rivington Street, subsequently moving to Eighth Street and Avenue D. Before long they moved over to Third Street, while their fourth residence was almost within the shadow of some of the best-known city theaters.
Henry Frohman had, as was later developed in his son Charles, a peculiar disregard of money values. Generous to a fault, his resources were constantly at the call of the needy. His first business venture in New York—a small soap factory on East Broadway—failed. Later he became part owner of a distillery near Hoboken, which was destroyed by fire. With the usual Frohman financial heedlessness, he had failed to renew all his insurance policies, and the result was that he was left with but a small surplus. Adversity, however, seemed to trickle from him like water. Serene and smiling, he emerged from his misfortune.
The only business he knew was the cigar business. With the assistance of a few friends he was able to start a retail cigar-store at what was then 708 Broadway. It was below Eighth Street and, whether by accident or design, was located in the very heart of the famous theatrical district which gave the American stage some of its greatest traditions.
To the north, and facing on Union Square, was the Rialto of the day, hedged in by the old Academy of Music and the Union Square Theater. Down Broadway, and commencing at Thirteenth Street with Wallack's Theater, was a succession of more or less historic playhouses. At Eighth Street was the Old New York Theater; a few doors away was Lina Edwins's; almost flanking the cigar-store and ranging toward the south were the Olympic, Niblo's Garden, and the San Francisco Minstrel Hall. Farther down was the Broadway Theater, while over on the Bowery Tony Pastor held forth.
Thus the little store stood in an atmosphere that thought, breathed, and talked of the theater. It became the rendezvous of the well-known theatrical figures of the period. The influence of the playhouses extended even to the shop next door, which happened to be the original book-store founded by August Brentano. It was the only clearing-house in New York for foreign theatrical papers, and to it came Augustin Daly, William Winter, Nym Crinkle, and all the other important managers and critics to get the news of the foreign stage.
It was amid an environment touching the theater at every point that Charles Frohman's boyhood was spent. He was an impulsive, erratic, restless child. His mother had great difficulty in keeping him at school. His whole instinct was for action.
Gustave, who had dabbled in the theatrical business almost before he was in his teens, naturally became his mentor. To Charles, Gustave was invested with a rare fascination because he had begun to sell books of the opera in the old Academy of Music on Fourteenth Street, the forerunner of the gilded Metropolitan Opera House. Every night the chubby Charles saw him forge forth with a mysterious bundle, and return with money jingling in his pocket. One night, just before Gustave started out, the lad said to him:
"Gus, how can I make money like you?"
"I'll show you some night if you can slip away from mother," was the brother's reply.
Unrest immediately filled the heart of Charles. Gustave had no peace until he made good his promise. A week later he stole away after supper with his little brother. They walked to the Academy, where the old Italian opera, "The Masked Ball," was being sung. With wondering eyes and beating heart Charles saw Gustave hawk his books in the lobby, and actually sell a few. From the inside came the strains of music, and through the door a glimpse of a fashionable audience. But it was a forbidden land that he could not enter.
Fearful of the maternal scolding that he knew was in store, Gustave hurried his brother home, even indulging in the unwonted luxury of riding on the street-car, where he found a five-dollar bill. The mother was up and awake, and immediately began to upbraid him for taking out his baby brother at night, whereupon Gustave quieted the outburst by permitting Charles to hand over the five-dollar bill as a peace offering.
From that hour life had a new meaning for Charles Frohman. He had seen his brother earn money in the theater; he wanted to go and do likewise. The opportunity was denied, and he chafed under the restraint.
In the afternoon, when he was through with the school that he hated, the boy went down to his father's store and took his turn behind the counter. Irksome as was this work, it was not without a thrilling compensation, because into the shop came many of the theatrical personages of the time to buy their cigars. They included Tony Pastor, whose name was then a household word, McKee Rankin, J. K. Mortimer, a popular Augustin Daly leading man, and the comedians and character actors of the near-by theaters.
Here the magnetic personality of the boy asserted itself. His ready smile and his quick tongue made him a favorite with the customers. More than one actor, on entering the shop, asked the question: "Where is Charley? I want him to wait on me."
In those days much of the theatrical advertising was done by posters displayed in shop-windows. To get these posters in the most conspicuous places passes were given to the shopkeepers, a custom which still holds. The Frohman store had a large window, and it was constantly plastered with play-bills, which meant that the family was abundantly supplied with free admission to most of the theaters in the district. The whole family shared in this dispensation, none more so than Henry Frohman himself, who could now gratify his desire for contact with the theater and its people to an almost unlimited extent. His greatest delight was to distribute these passes among his boys. They were offered as rewards for good conduct. Charles frequently accompanied his father to matinees at Tony Pastor's and the other theaters. Pastor and the elder Frohman were great pals. They called each other by their first names, and the famous old music-hall proprietor was a frequent visitor at the shop.
But Charles became quite discriminating. Every Saturday night he went down to the old Theatre Comique, where Harrigan and Hart were serving their apprenticeship for the career which made them the most famous Irish team of their time. The next morning at breakfast he kept the family roaring with laughter with his imitations of what he had seen and heard. Curiously enough, Tony Hart later became the first star to be presented by Charles Frohman.
All the while the boy's burning desire was to earn money in the theater. He nagged at Gustave to give him a chance. One day Gustave saw some handsome souvenir books of "The Black Crook," which was then having its sensational run at Niblo's Garden. He found that he could buy them for thirty-three cents by the half-dozen, so he made a small investment, hoping to sell them for fifty cents in the lobby of the theater. That evening he showed his new purchases to Charles.
Immediately the boy's eyes sparkled. "Let me see if I can sell one of them!"
"All right," replied Gustave; "I will take you down to Niblo's to-night and give you a chance."
The boy could scarcely eat his supper, so eager was he to be off. Promptly at seven o'clock the two lads (Charles was only eight) took their stand in the lobby, but despite their eager cries each was able to sell only a single copy. Gustave consoled himself with the fact that the price was too high, while Charles, with an optimism that never forsook him, answered, "Well, we have each sold one, anyhow, and that is something."
Charles's profit on this venture was precisely seventeen cents, which may be regarded as the first money he ever earned out of the theater.
But this night promised a sensation even greater. As the crowd in the lobby thinned, the strains of the overture crashed out. Through the open door the little boy saw the curtain rise on a scene that to him represented the glitter and the glory of fairyland. Beautiful ladies danced and sang and the light flashed on brilliant costumes. With their unsold books in their hands, the two boys gazed wistfully inside. Charles, always the aggressor, fixed the doorkeeper with one of his winning smiles, and the doorkeeper succumbed. "You boys can slip in," he said, "but you've got to go up in the balcony." Up they rushed, and there Charles stood delighted, his eyes sparkling and his whole face transfigured.
During the middle of the second act Gustave tugged at his sleeve, saying: "We'll have to go now. You follow me down."
With this he disappeared and hurried home. When he arrived he found the home in an uproar because Charles had not come back. Gustave ran to the theater, but the play was over, the crowd had dispersed, and the building was deserted. With beating heart and fearful of disaster to his charge, he rushed back to see Charles, all animation and excitement, in the midst of the family group, regaling them with the story of his first play. He had remained to the end.
That thrilling night at "The Black Crook," his daily contact with the actors who came into the store, his frequent visits to the adjoining playhouses, fed the fire of his theatrical interest. The theater got into his very blood.
A great event was impending. Almost within stone's-throw of the little cigar-store where he sold stogies to Tony Pastor was the Old New York Theater, which, after the fashion of that time, had undergone the evolution of many names, beginning with the Athenaeum, and continuing until it had come under the control of the three famous Worrell sisters, who tacked their name to it. Shortly after the New Year of 1869 they produced the extravaganza "The Field of the Cloth of Gold," in which two of them, Sophie and Jane, together with Pauline Markham, one of the classic beauties of the time, appeared. Charles had witnessed part of this extravaganza one afternoon. It kindled his memories of "The Black Crook," for it was full of sparkle and color. Charles and Gustave had made the acquaintance of Owen, the doorkeeper. One afternoon they walked over to the theater and stood in the lobby listening to a rehearsal.
Owen, who knew the boys' intense love of the theater, spoke up, saying: "We need an extra page to-night. How would you like to go on?"
Both youngsters stood expectant. They loved each other dearly, yet here was one moment where self-interest must prevail. Charles fixed the doorkeeper with his hypnotic smile, and he was chosen. Almost without hearing the injunction to report at seven o'clock, Charles ran back to the store, well-nigh breathless with expectancy over the coming event. With that family feeling which has marked the Frohmans throughout their whole life, Gustave hurried down-town to notify their eldest brother to be on hand for the grand occasion.
Charles ate no supper, and was at the stage-door long before seven. Rigged up in a faded costume, he carried a banner during the performance. His two elder brothers sat in the gallery. All they saw in the entire brilliant spectacle was the little Charles and his faded flag.
Charles got twenty-five cents for his evening's work, and brought it home bubbling with pride. To his great consternation he received a rebuke from his mother and the strong injunction never to appear on the stage again.
This was Charles Frohman's first and only appearance on any stage. In the years to come, although he controlled and directed hundreds of productions, gave employment to thousands of actors in this country, England, and France, and ruled the destinies of scores of theaters, he never appeared in a single performance. Nor had he a desire to appear.
* * *
It will be recalled that in one way or another a great many passes for the theater found their way into the hands of the elder Frohman, who, in his great generosity of heart, frequently took many of the neighboring children along. He was the type of man who loves to bestow pleasure. But this made no difference with Charles. He was usually able to wring an extra pass from the bill-poster or some of the actors who frequented the store. Hence came about his first contract, and in this fashion: At that time Gustave Frohman was a famous cyclist. He was the first man to keep a wheel stationary, and he won prizes for doing so. He had purchased his bicycle with savings out of the theatrical earnings, and his bicycle and his riding became a source of great envy to Charles, who asked him one night if he would teach him how to ride.
"Yes," replied Gustave, "I'll teach you if you will make a contract with me to provide five dollars' worth of passes in return."
"Good!" said Charles, and the deal was closed.
Gustave kept his word, and down in Washington Place, in front of the residence of old Commodore Vanderbilt, Charles learned to ride. He kept his part of the contract, too, and delivered five dollars' worth of passes ahead of schedule time.
One of Gustave's cycling companions was the son of George Vandenhoff, the famous reader. Through him he met the father, who engaged him to post his placards for his series of lectures on Dickens. Charles accompanied Gustave on these expeditions, and got his first contact with theatrical advertising. Frequently he held the ladder while Gustave climbed up to hang a placard. Charles often employed his arts to induce an obdurate shopkeeper to permit a placard in his window. These cards were not as attractive as those of the regular theaters and it took much persuasion to secure their display. Charles sometimes sat in the box-office of Association Hall, where the Vandenhoff lectures were given and where Gustave sold tickets. It was here that Charles got his introduction to the finance of the theater.
These days in the early 'seventies were picturesque and carefree for Charles. The boy was growing up in an atmosphere that, unconsciously, was shaping his whole future life. In the afternoon he continued his service behind the counter, hearing the actors tell stories of their triumphs and hardships. Often he slipped next door to Brentano's, where he was a welcome visitor and where he pored over the illustrations in the theatrical journals.
Life at the store was not without incident. Among those who came in to buy cigars were the Guy brothers, famous minstrels of their time. They were particular chums of Gustave, and they likewise became great admirers of the little Charles. At the boys' request they would step into the little reception-room behind the store and practise their latest steps to a small but appreciative audience. This was Charles Frohman's first contact with minstrelsy, in which he was to have such an active part later on.
Strangely enough, music and moving color always fascinated Charles Frohman. At that time, for it was scarcely more than a decade after the Civil War, there were many parades in New York, and all of them passed the little Broadway cigar-store. To get a better view, Charles frequently climbed up on the roof and there beheld the marching hosts with all their tumult and blare. Here it was, as he often later admitted, that he got his first impressions of street-display and brass-band effects that he used to such good advantage.
A picturesque friendship of those early days was with the clock-painter Washburn, perhaps the foremost worker of that kind in this country. He painted the faces of all the clocks that hung in front of the jewelers' shops in the big city. He always painted the time at 8.17-1/2 o'clock, and it became the precedent which most clock-painters have followed ever since.
Charles watched Washburn at work. One reason for his interest was that it dealt with gilt. The old painter took such a fancy to the lad that he wanted him to become his apprentice and succeed him as the first clock-face painter of his time. But this work seemed too slow for the future magnate.
* * *
Now came the first business contact of a Frohman with the theater, and here one encounters an example of that team-work among the Frohman brothers by which one of them invariably assisted another whenever opportunity arose. Frequently they created this opportunity themselves. To Gustave came the distinction of being the first in the business, and also the privilege of bringing into it both of his brothers. Having hovered so faithfully and persistently about the edges of theatricals, Gustave now landed inside.
It was at the time of the high-tide of minstrelsy in this country—1870 to 1880. Dozens of minstrel companies, ranging from bands of real negroes recruited in the South to aggregations of white men who blacked their faces, traveled about the country. The minstrel was the direct product of the slave-time singer and entertainer. His fame was recognized the world over. The best audiences at home, and royalty abroad, paid tribute to his talents. Out of the minstrel ranks of those days emerged some of the best known of our modern stars—men like Francis Wilson, Nat Goodwin, Henry E. Dixey, Montgomery and Stone, William H. Crane, and scores of others.
One of the most famous organizations of the time was Charles Callender's Original Georgia Minstrels, hailing from Macon, Georgia, composed entirely of negroes and headed by the famous Billy Kersands. Ahead of this show was a mulatto advance-agent, Charles Hicks. He did very well in the North, but when he got down South he faced the inevitable prejudice against doing business with a negro. Callender needed some one to succeed him. A man whom Gustave Frohman had once befriended, knowing of his intense desire to enter the profession, recommended him for the position, and he got it.
All was excitement in the Frohman family. At last the fortunes of one member were definitely committed to the theater, and although it was a negro minstrel show, it meant a definite connection with public entertainment.
No one, not even Gustave himself, felt the enthusiasm so keenly as did little Charles, then twelve years old. He buzzed about the fortunate brother.
"Do you think you can get me a job as programmer with your show?" he asked.
"No," answered the new advance-agent. "Don't start in the business until you can be an agent or manager."
On August 2, 1872, Gustave Frohman started to Buffalo to go ahead of the Callender Minstrels. Charles followed his brother's career with eager interest, and he longed for the time when he would have some connection with the business that held such thrall for him.
Life now lagged more than ever for Charles. He chafed at the service in the store; he detested school; his one great desire was to earn money and share in the support of the family. His father urged him to prepare for the law.
"No," he said, "I won't be a lawyer. I want to deal with lots of people."
Charles frequently referred to Tony Pastor. "He's a big man," he would often say. "I would like to do what he is doing."
A seething but unformed aspiration seemed to stir his youthful breast. Once he heard his eldest brother recite some stanzas of Alexander Pope, in which the following line occurs:
The whole, the boundless continent is ours.
This line impressed the lad immensely. It became his favorite motto; he wrote it in his sister's autograph-album; he spouted it on every occasion; it is still to be found in his first scrap-book framed in round, boyish hand.
Now the singular thing about this sentiment is that he never quoted it correctly. It was a life-long failing. His version—and it was strangely prophetic of his coming career—was:
The whole—the boundless earth—is mine.
Meanwhile, Daniel Frohman had gone from The Tribune to work in the office of The New York Graphic, down in Park Place near Church Street. The Graphic was the aristocrat of newspapers—the first illustrated daily ever published anywhere. With the usual family team-work, Daniel got Charles a position with him in 1874. He was put in the circulation department at a salary of ten dollars a week, his first regular wage. It was a position with which personality had much to do, for one of the boy's chief tasks was to select a high type of newsboy equipped to sell a five-cent daily. His genial manner won the boys to him and they became his loyal co-workers.
With amazing facility he mastered his task. Among other things, he had to count newspapers. It was before the day of the machine enumerator, and the work had to be done by hand. Charles developed such extraordinary swiftness that patrons in the office often stopped to watch him. In throwing papers over the counter it was necessary to be accurate and positive, and here came the first manifestation of his dogged determination. He never lost his cunning in counting papers, and sometimes, when he was rich and famous, he would take a bundle of newspapers, to help a newsboy in the street, and run through them with all his old skill and speed.
* * *
Though his fingers were in the newspapers, his heart yearned for the theater. This ambition was heightened by the fact that his brother Daniel, having heeded the lure of Gustave, joined the Callender Minstrels as advance-agent, while Gustave remained back with the show. Slowly but surely the theater was annexing the Frohman boys. In the summer of 1874 Charles was drawn into its charmed circle, and in a picturesque fashion.
It was the custom for minstrel companies and other theatrical combinations to rent theaters outright during the dull summer months. The playhouses were glad to get the rental, and the organizations could remain intact during what would otherwise be a period of disorganization and loss. Gustave, therefore, took Hooley's Theater in Brooklyn for summer minstrel headquarters, and on a memorable morning in July Charles was electrified to receive the following letter from him:
You can begin your theatrical career in the box-office of Hooley's Theater in Brooklyn. Take a ferry and look at the theater. Hooley is going to rent it to us for the summer. Your work will begin as ticket-seller. You will have to sell 25, 50, and 75 cent tickets, and they will all be hard tickets, that is, no reserved seats. Get some pasteboard slips or a pack of cards and practise handling them. Your success will lie in the swiftness with which you can hand them out. With these rehearsals you will be able to do your work well and look like a professional.
Charles immediately bought a pack of the thickest playing-cards he could find and began to practise with them. Soon he became an expert shuffler. Often he used his father's cigar counter for a make-believe box-office sill, and across it he handed out the pasteboards to imaginary patrons. A dozen times he went over to Brooklyn and gazed with eager expectancy at the old theater, destined, by reason of his association with it, to be a historic landmark in the annals of American amusement.
He wrote Gustave almost immediately:
I will be ready when the time comes.
That great moment arrived the first Monday in August, 1874. Charles could scarcely contain his impatience. So well had the publicity work for the performance been done by the new advance-agent that when the boy (he was just fourteen) raised the window of the box-office at seven o'clock there was a long line waiting to buy tickets. The final word of injunction from Gustave was:
"Remember, Charley, you must be careful, because you will be personally responsible for any shortage in cash when you balance up."
The house was sold out. When Gustave asked him, after the count-up, if he was short, the eager-faced lad replied:
"I am not short—I am fifty cents over!"
"Then you can keep that as a reward for your good work," said Gustave.
Callender was on hand the opening night. He watched the boy in the box-office with, an amused and lively interest. When Charles had finished selling tickets, Callender stepped up to him with a smile on his face and said:
"Young fellow, I like your looks and your ways. You and I will be doing business some day."
During this engagement, and with the customary spirit of family co-operation, Gustave said to Charles:
"You can give your sister Rachel all the pennies that come in at the Wednesday matinee." At this engagement very little was expected in the way of receipts at a midweek matinee.
But Gustave did not reckon with Charles. With an almost uncanny sense of exploitation which afterward enabled him to attract millions of theater-goers, the boy kept the brass-band playing outside the theater half an hour longer than usual. This drew many children just home from school, and they paid their way in pennies. The receipts, therefore, were unexpectedly large. When sister Rachel came over that day her beaming brother filled her bag with coppers.
The summer of 1874 was a strenuous one for Charles Frohman. By day he worked in The Graphic office, only getting off for the matinees; at night he was in the box-office at Hooley's in Brooklyn, his smiling face beaming like a moon through the window. He was in his element at last and supremely happy. When the season ended the Callender Minstrels resumed their tour on the road and Charles went back to the routine of The Graphic undisturbed by the thrill of the theater.
He was developing rapidly. Daily he became more efficient. The following year he was put in charge of a branch office established by The Graphic in Philadelphia. Now came his second business contact with the theater. Callender's Minstrels played an engagement at Wood's Museum, and Daniel came on ahead to bill the show. Charles immediately offered his services. His advice about the location of favorite "stands" was of great service in getting posters displayed to the best advantage. It was the initial expression of what later amounted to a positive genius in the art of well-directed bill-board posting.
While prowling around Philadelphia in search of amusement novelty—a desire that remained with him all his life—Charles encountered a unique form of public entertainment which had considerable vogue. It was Pepper's "Ghost Show," and was being shown in a small hall in Chestnut Street.
The "Ghost Show" was an illusion. The actors seemed to be on the stage. In reality, they were under the stage, and their reflection was sent up by refracting mirrors. This enabled them (in the sight of the audience) to appear and disappear in the most extraordinary fashion. People apparently walked through one another, had their heads cut off, were shown with daggers plunged in their breasts. The whole effect was weird and thrilling.
This show impressed Charles greatly, as the unusual invariably did. It gave him an idea. When Charles Callender joined his minstrel show at Philadelphia, young Frohman went to him with this proposition:
"I believe," he said with great earnestness, "that there is money in the 'Ghost Show.' The trouble with it now is that it is not being properly advertised. If you will let me have a hundred dollars, I will take charge of it and I think we can make some money out of it. It won't interfere with my work with The Graphic."
Charles, who seldom left anything to chance, had already made an arrangement with the manager of the show to become his advertising agent.
Callender, who liked the boy immensely, readily consented and gave him the required money, thus embarking Charles on his first venture with any sort of capital.
Unfortunately, the show failed. Charles maintained that the Philadelphians lacked imagination, but with his usual optimism he was certain that it would succeed on the road. When he approached Callender again and offered to take it out on the road the minstrel magnate slapped him on the shoulder and said:
"All right, my boy. If you say so, I believe you. You can take the show out and I'll back you."
Charles counseled with Gustave, who continued as his theatrical monitor. Eagerly he said:
"I've got a great chance. Callender is going to back me on the road with the 'Ghost Show.'"
"No," said Gustave, firmly, "your time has not come. Wait, as I told you before, until you can go out ahead of a show as agent."
Bitter as was the ordeal, Charles took his brother's advice, and the "Ghost Show" was abandoned to its fate.
EARLY HARDSHIPS ON THE ROAD
The Christmas of 1876 was not a particularly merry one for Charles Frohman. The ardent boy, whose brief experience in Hooley's box-office had fastened the germ of the theater in his system, chafed at the restraint that kept him at a routine task. But his deliverance was at hand.
Shortly before the close of the old year Gustave quit the Callender Minstrels. With a capital of fifty-seven dollars he remained in Chicago, waiting for something to turn up. One day as he sat in the lobby of the old Sherman House he was accosted by J. H. Wallick, an actor-manager who had just landed in town with a theatrical combination headed by John Dillon, a well-known Western comedian of the time. They were stranded and looking for a backer.
"Will you take charge of the company?" asked Wallick.
"I've only got fifty-seven dollars," said Gustave, "but I'll take a chance."
Between them they raised a little capital and started on a tour of the Middle West that was destined to play a significant part in shaping the career of Charles. In the company besides John Dillon were his wife, Louise Dillon (afterward the ingenue of Daniel Frohman's Lyceum Company); George W. Stoddart, brother of J. H. Stoddart of A. M. Palmer's Company, his wife and his daughter, Polly Stoddart, who married Neil Burgess; John F. Germon; Mrs. E. M. Post, and Wesley Sisson. Their repertory consisted of two well-worn but always amusing plays, "Our Boys" and "Married Life."
Gustave was to remain with the company until they reached Clinton, Iowa. After that he was to go ahead while Wallick was to remain with the company. When Gustave was about to leave, the company protested. He had won their confidence, and they threatened to strike. What to do with Wallick was the problem.
"Why not make him stage-manager?" suggested Dillon.
"All right," said Gustave, "but who is to go ahead of the show?"
The company was gathered on the stage of the Davis Opera House. Gustave scratched his head. Then he turned quickly on the group of stage folk and said:
"I've got some one for you. I'll wire my brother Charles to come on and be advance-agent."
Thus it came about that from a little Iowa town there flashed back to New York on a memorable morning in January, 1877, the following telegram from Gustave to Charles Frohman:
Your time has come at last. Am wiring money for ticket to St. Paul, where you begin as agent for John Dillon. Will meet you 2 A.M. at Winona, where you change cars and where I will instruct.
Charles happened to be at home when this telegram came. It was the first he had ever received. With trembling hands he tore it open, his rosy face broke into a seraphic smile, and the tears came into his eyes. He rushed to his mother, threw his arms around her, and gasped:
"At last I'm in the business!"
He lost no time in starting. With a single grip-sack, which contained his modest wardrobe, the eager boy started on his first railroad journey of any length into the great West. It was the initial step of what, from this time on, was to be a continuous march of ever-widening importance.
Begrimed but radiant, the boy stepped from a day-coach at two o'clock in the morning at Winona. No scene could have been more desolate. Save for the station-master and a solitary brakeman there was only one other person on hand, and that individual was the faithful Gustave, who advanced swiftly through the gloom and greeted his brother enthusiastically.
Charles was all excitement. He had not slept a wink. It was perhaps the longest and most irksome journey he ever took. He was bubbling with the desire to get to work.
The two brothers went to a hotel where Gustave had a room, and there they sat for four hours. It is a picture well worth keeping in mind: the pleased older boy, eager to get his brother started right; the younger lad all ears, and his eyes big with wonder and anticipation. There was no thought of food or rest. Gustave was enthusiastic about the company. He said to his brother:
"Why, Charley, we've got real New York actors, and our leading lady, Louise Dillon, has a genuine sealskin coat. That coat will get us out of any town. You've got no 'Ghost Show' amateurs to handle now, but real actors and actresses."
Then came an announcement that startled the boy, for Gustave continued:
"Your salary is to be twenty-five dollars a week and hotel bills, but you must not spend more than one dollar and a half a day for meals and room."
In this dingy room of an obscure hotel in a country town Charles Frohman got his first instructions in practical theatrical work. Perhaps the most important of this related to bill-posting. In those days it was a tradition in theatrical advertising that whoever did the most effective bill-posting in a town got the audience. Most of the publicity was done with posters. An advance-agent had to be a practical bill-poster himself. To get the most conspicuous sites for bills and to keep those bills up until the attraction played became the chief task of the advance-agent. The provincial bill-posters were fickle and easily swayed. The agent with the most persuasive personality, sometimes with the greatest drinking capacity, won the day.
All this advice, and much more, was poured by Gustave into the willing ears of the youthful Charles. No injunction laid on that keen-eyed boy in the gray dawn of that historic morning back in the 'seventies was more significant than these words from his elder brother:
"Your success in handling the bill-poster does not lie through a barroom door. Give him all the passes he wants, but never buy him a drink."
That those words sank deeply into Charles Frohman is shown by the fact that he seldom drank liquor. His chief tipple through all the coming crowded years was never stronger than sarsaparilla, soda-water, or lemonade.
The task ahead of Charles would have staggered any but the most dauntless enthusiasm. Among other things, as Gustave discovered, there was no route for the company after St. Paul, which was to be played the following week.
"You must discover new towns and bill them," he said. "Get what printing you want. The printers have been instructed to fill orders from you."
The hours sped on. Charles asked a thousand questions, and Gustave filled him with facts as dawn broke and day came. It was nearly seven o'clock, time for his train for St. Paul to leave. Charles would not hear of having breakfast. He was too full of desire to get to work.
Among other things, Charles carried a letter from Gustave to Wallick, who was temporarily ahead of the show, which said:
This is my brother Charles, who will take the advance in your place.
The first word that came from the young advance-agent announced action, for he wired:
All right with Wallick. Have discovered River Falls.
River Falls, it happened, had been "discovered" before and abandoned, but Charles thought he was making route history.
Charles immediately set to work with the extraordinary energy that always characterized him. The chief bill-poster in St. Paul was named Haines. Charles captured him with his engaging smile, and he became a willing slave. It was Haines who taught him how to post bills. Later on when Gustave arrived with the show, he spoke of the boy with intense pride. He said:
"I have taught your brother Charley how to post bills. He took to it like a duck to water. He didn't mind how much paste he spattered over himself. His one desire was to know how to do the job thoroughly. I am going to make him the greatest theatrical agent in the world."
Curiously enough, Haines lived to be a very old man, and in the later years of his life he was able to stick up the twenty-eight-sheet stands that bore in large type the name of the little chubby protege he had introduced to the art of bill-posting back in the long ago.
At St. Paul Charles had opposition—a big musical event at Ingersoll Hall—and this immediately tested his resource. He got his printing posted in the best places, went around to the newspaper offices and got such good notices that John Dillon was inspired to remark that he had never had such efficient advance work. It is interesting to remember that at this time Charles Frohman was not yet eighteen years old.
Now came the first evidence of that initiative which was such a conspicuous trait in the young man. He had come back to see the performances of his company, and had watched them with swelling pride. Several times he said, and with pardonable importance:
"What we need is a new play. We must have something fresh to advertise."
The net result of this suggestion was that his brother obtained the manuscript of "Lemons," a comedy that, under the title of "Wedlock for Seven," had been first produced at Augustin Daly's New Fifth Avenue Theater in New York. A copy of the play was sent on to Charles to enable him to prepare the presswork for it, and it was the first play manuscript he ever read. "Lemons" vindicated Charles's suggestion, because it added to the strength of the repertory and brought considerable new business.
Charles took an infinite pride in his work. He was eager for suggestions, he worked early and late, and when the season closed at the end of June he was a full-fledged and experienced advance-agent. With his brother he reached Chicago July 4th. In the lobby of Hooley's Theater he was introduced to R. M. Hooley, who, after various hardships, again controlled the theater which bore his name, now Powers' Theater. Out of that chance meeting came a long friendship and a connection that helped in later years to give Charles Frohman his first spectacular success, for it was Mr. Hooley who helped to back "Shenandoah."
On July 5th, six months after he had left the East for his first start, Charles appeared at his mother's home in New York, none the worse for his first experience on the road.
* * *
Charles was soon eager for the next season. Gustave had signed a contract with John Dillon to take him out again, this time as part owner of the company. He and George Stoddart agreed to put up two hundred and fifty dollars each to launch the tour of the Stoddart Comedy Company with John Dillon as star. Charles was to continue as advance-agent.
It was a long summer for the boy. When August arrived and the time came to start west there was a financial council of war. Gustave counted on getting his capital from members of the family, but no money was forthcoming. Daniel had received no salary from Callender, and the great road project seemed on the verge of failure. Charles was disconsolate. But the mother of the boys, ever mindful of their interest, said, in her serene way:
"I can get enough money to send you to Chicago and I will put up some lunches for you."
Charles was eagerly impatient to start. He nagged at his brother:
"Gus, when do we start for Chicago? Do we walk?"
He was sent down-town to find out the cheapest route, and he returned in great excitement, saying:
"The cheapest way is over the Baltimore & Ohio, second class, but it is the longest ride. We can ride in the day-coach, and even if we have no place to wash we will get to Chicago, and that is the main thing."
When they reached Chicago the first of the long chain of disasters that was to attend them on this enterprise developed.
Stoddart was penniless. The two hundred and fifty dollars that he expected to contribute to the capital of the new combination was swept away in the failure of the Fidelity Bank. He had looked forward to Gustave for help, and all the while Gustave, on that long, toilsome journey west, was hoping that his partner would provide the first railroad fares. So they sat down and pooled their woes, wondering how they could start their tour, with Charles as an interested listener.
Every now and then he would chirp up with the question:
"How do I get out of town?"
Finally Gustave, always resourceful, said:
"You don't need any money, Charley. I've got railroad passes for you, and you can give the hotels orders on me for your board and lodging."
It was a custom in those days for advance-agents to give orders for their obligations—hotel, rent of hall, bill-posting, and baggage—upon the company that followed. Hotels in particular were willing to accept orders on the treasurer of a theatrical company about to play a date, because, in the event of complete failure, there was always baggage to seize and hold.
So, armed with passes and with the optimism of youth and anticipation, Charles set forth on what became in many respects the most memorable road experience in his life. The first town he billed was Streator, Illinois. Then he hurried on to Ottawa and Peoria, where they were to play during fair week, which was the big week of the year. Misfortune descended at Streator, for despite the lavish display of posters and the ample advance notice that Charles lured the local editors into publishing, the total receipts on the first night were seventy-seven dollars. This, and more, had already been pledged before the curtain went up, and Gustave was not even able to pay John Dillon his seven dollars and seventy cents, which represented his ten per cent, of the gross receipts.
By "traveling on their baggage," which was one of the expedients of the time and a custom which has not entirely passed out of use, the company got to Ottawa, where Charles joined them. Here, in a comic circumstance, he first developed the amazing influence that he was able to exert on people.
Although an admirable actor with a large following and the most delightful and companionable of men, John Dillon had one unfortunate failing. He was addicted to drink, and, regardless of consequences, he would periodically succumb to this weakness. At Ottawa, the town crowded with visitors for the annual fair, Dillon fell from grace. The bill for the evening was "Lemons," and there was every indication that the house would be sold out. The receipts were badly needed, too.
Late in the afternoon came the terrifying news that Dillon lay stupefied from liquor in his room. Everybody save Charles was in despair. Dillon had conceived a great fancy for Charles, and he was deputized to take the actor in hand, get him to the theater, and coerce him through the play.
Charles responded nobly. He aroused the star, took him to the theater in a carriage, and stood in the wings throughout the whole performance, coaching and inspiring his intoxicated star. By an amusing circumstance, Dillon was required to play a drunken scene in "Lemons." He performed this part with so much realism that the audience gave him a great ovation. The real savior of that performance was the chubby lad who stood in the wings with beating heart, fearful every moment that Dillon would succumb.
* * *
New and heavier responsibilities now faced Charles Frohman. The company was booked to play a week in Memphis, Tennessee, the longest and most important stand of the tour. In those days the printers who supplied the traveling companies with advertising matter were powers to be reckoned with. When the supply of printing was cut off the company was helpless.
Charles H. McConnell, of the National Printing Company, who supplied the Stoddart Company with paper, was none too confident of the success of that organization. When he heard of the Memphis engagement he insisted that Gustave, who was older and more experienced, be sent ahead to pave the way. Charles was sent back to manage the company, and now came his first attempt at handling actors. He rose to the emergency with all his characteristic ingenuity.
He began at Champaign, Illinois. The first test of his resource came at a one-night stand—Waupaca, Iowa—where "Lemons" was billed as a feature. The prospects for a big house were good. Board and railroad fare seemed assured, when just before supper-time John F. Germon, one of the company, approached Charles in great perturbation.
"We can't play to-night. Mrs. Post is sick."
Mrs. Post played the part of the old woman in the play, and it was a very important role.
Charles Frohman only smiled, as he always did in an emergency. Then he said to Germon:
"You're a member of the well-known Germon family, aren't you? Then live up to its reputation and play the part yourself."
"But how about my mustache?" asked Germon.
"I will pay for having it shaved off," replied Frohman.
The net result was that Germon sacrificed his mustache, played the part acceptably without any one in the audience discovering that he was a man masquerading as an old woman. Charles put Wallick, who was acting as stage-manager, in Germon's part. Thus the house was saved and the company was able to proceed.
With his attractive ways and eternal thoughtfulness Charles captivated the company. He supplied the women with candy and bought peanuts for the men. On that trip he developed his fondness for peanuts that never forsook him. He almost invariably carried a bag in his pocket. When he could not get peanuts he took to candy.
A great friendship struck up between Frohman and Stoddart, who, in a way, was a character. He played the violin, and when business was bad and the company got in the dumps Stoddart added to their misfortunes by playing doleful tunes on his fiddle. But that fiddle had a virtue not to be despised, because it was Stoddart's bank. In its hollow box he secreted his modest savings, and in more than one emergency they were drawn on for company bed and board. When the organization reached Memphis Charles had so completely won the affections of the company that they urged him to stay on with them. But business was business, and he had to go on in advance.
Charles now went ahead to "bill" Texas. The reason for the expedition was this:
In Memphis business was so bad that the manager of the theater there advised Gustave to send the company through Texas, where, he assured them, there would be no opposition, and they would have the state to themselves. This advice proved to be only too true, for the company not only had the state to itself, but the state for a time held the company fast—in the unwilling bonds of financial misfortune.
The plan was to play the best towns in Texas and then go back through the Middle West, where John Dillon had a strong following, and where it was hoped the season could close with full pockets. Up to this time the company had received salaries with some degree of regularity. But from this time on they were to have a constantly diminishing acquaintance with money, for hard luck descended upon them the moment they crossed the frontiers of the Lone Star State.
It was about this time that Charles Callender, at the solicitation of Gustave, purchased an interest in the Stoddart Comedy Company for a hundred-dollar bill. This bill was given to Charles as a "prop." In those days the financial integrity of the legitimate theatrical combination was sometimes questioned by hard-hearted hotel-keepers. The less esthetic "variety" troupes, minstrel shows, and circuses enjoyed a much higher credit. An advance-agent like Charles sometimes found difficulty in persuading the hotel people to accept orders on the company's treasurer.
With characteristic enterprise Charles used the hundred-dollar bill as a symbol of solvency. He flashed it on hotel-keepers and railway agents in the careless way that inspired confidence, and, what was more to the point, credit. He carried this hundred-dollar bill for nearly a month. Often when asked to pay his board bill he would produce the note and ask for change. Before the startled clerk could draw his breath he would add:
"Perhaps it might be best if I gave you an order on the treasurer."
This always served to get him out of town without spending cash for hotel bills.
Texas was still a rough country, and Charles's reckless display of the hundred-dollar bill once gave him a narrow escape from possible death. He had made the usual careless display of wealth at a small hotel in Calvert. The bad man of the town witnessed the performance and immediately began to shadow the young advance-agent. When Charles retired to his room he found, to his dismay, that there was no lock on the door. He had a distinct feeling that a robbery would be attempted, so he quietly left the hotel and spent the night riding back and forth on the train between Calvert and Dallas. This cost him nothing, for he had a pass.
At Galveston occurred an unexpected meeting. Daniel Frohman, who was ahead of Callender's Minstrels, had arrived in town by boat from New Orleans (there being no railway connection then) to book his show for the next week. On arriving at the Tremont Opera House he was surprised to see Charles writing press notices in the box-office.
"What are you doing here?" he asked. "I thought you were in Tennessee."
Charles walked to the window and said, with great pride, "We play here all next week."
"Have you got the whole week?" asked Daniel.
"Yes," was the reply.
"But can't you give me Monday or Tuesday night?" asked Daniel.
"Impossible," replied Charles, haughtily.
"All right," said Daniel, in friendly rivalry, "then I will have to hire Turner Hall and knock you out for two nights with our brass-band parade."
Charles then came out into the lobby and confessed that his company was up against it, and that it meant bread and butter and possibly the whole future of the company if he could only play Galveston.
"We are coming here on our trunks," he said, "and we've got to get some money."
Daniel immediately relented. He arranged with the railroad to delay the train and thus make a connection which would carry his company on through to the interior. He booked Galveston for the second week following. This left the week in question free to Charles, who breathed easier.
Charles now went on and billed Sherman, Houston, and Dallas. At Dallas the hard luck that had gripped the company the moment it left Memphis descended more vigorously than before. Dillon not only fell from grace again, but disappeared. Gustave Frohman had vowed that he would discharge him if he went on another spree, and he kept his word. They were in a real predicament, with star gone, business bad, and practically stranded a thousand miles from home.
Charles, who frequently came back to join the company, was the one bright spot of those precarious days, for he never lost his optimism or his smile.
"What we need," he said at a council of war in Dallas, "is a new play. I have been reading in the New York Clipper about one called 'Pink Dominoes.' I think it is just the thing for us to do. In fact, I have already sent for a copy of it."
The play arrived the next day, and when George Stoddart read it to him the young agent bubbled with laughter and said:
"It's bound to be a big success."
It was decided to put on "Pink Dominoes" at Houston. Charles remained behind and watched the rehearsals, the first of the kind he had ever seen. Contrary to all expectations, Houston was shocked by the play. The audience literally "walked out" and the run of one night ended.
Misfortunes now crowded thick and fast. Salaries had ceased entirely, and it was with the utmost difficulty that the company proceeded on its way. As a crowning hardship, Callender repented of his bargain and withdrew the much-used and treasured hundred-dollar bill.
When Charles met Gustave in Seguin he said: "We're up against a hard proposition. The people want John Dillon. It's hard to book an attraction without a star."
In this statement Charles Frohman expressed a truth that he afterward made one of his theatrical axioms, for he became the leading exponent of the star system, and developed, in fact, into the king of the star-makers.
Charles rose supreme over the hardships that filled his colleagues with gloom. Many a night, in order to save hotel bills, he slept on a train as it shunted back and forth between small towns. He always turned up in the morning smiling and serene, with cheer for his now discouraged and almost disgruntled colleagues.
Louise Dillon's sealskin sack rendered heroic service during these precarious days. It was almost literally worn out as collateral. As Gustave had predicted, it got the company out of town on more than one occasion. A little incident will indicate some of the ordeals of that stage of the tour. At Hempstead a "norther" struck the town and the temperature dropped. Wesley Sisson caught a hard cold and concluded to get what he called "a good sweat." He had scarcely made his preparations and settled himself in bed when he heard a rap at the door and a voice said, "Open up."
"Who's that?" asked Sisson.
"Charley," was the reply. "Let me in. There isn't a spare bed in this house and I am freezing to death."
"All right," said Sisson, "but you don't want to come in here, because I am trying to sweat to death."
"Great Scott!" yelled Frohman, "that's what I want to do."
Sisson let him in and he remained all night.
* * *
Everywhere Charles Frohman drew people to him. The first time he booked Houston he made friends with Colonel McPherson, who owned the Perkins Opera House and the inevitable saloon alongside. The old manager—a rather rough customer who had killed his man—was a great casino-player, and Charles beguiled several hours with him one night at a game while waiting for a train.
In one of the company's darkest hours he said to Stoddart:
"I've got an idea. Let's play Houston."
"But we've just been there," said Stoddart.
"Never mind," said Charles. "I'll fix it."
The next day he turned up at Houston and went to Colonel McPherson.
"What, you here again?" he asked.
"We've come back," replied Charles with ready resource, "to play a special benefit for your School Teachers' Association."
The old man chuckled. "Well, if you can get 'em in the house you are all right."
Charles was already planning a series of benefits for volunteer firemen and widows and orphans in future towns. It was a case of "anything to get a crowd." He hesitated a moment, then faced the old man with his winning smile and said:
"Colonel, I wish you would let me have fifty dollars to send back to the company."
"All right, my boy; there's the safe. Help yourself. Hurry up. Let us have a game of casino."
Charles wired the much-needed money to his brother, then came back and dutifully played the game. But neither trumped-up benefits for the most worthy of causes nor the unfailing good-humor of the boyish advance-agent could stem the tide of adversity. Things went from bad to worse. Louise Dillon, all hope of salary gone, gave her little remaining capital to Gustave, saving only enough for her railway fare, and went back to her home in Cincinnati. Stoddart now played more dolefully than ever on his violin, ransacked its recesses, and turned over his last cent for the common good.
"We've got to get back North," said Gustave.
With the utmost effort, and by pawning jewelry and clothes, the company gladly saw the last trace of Texas disappear over the horizon.
It was a hard journey back. At Pine Bluff, Arkansas, Charles had to wait for the company because he did not have enough cash to go on ahead. Here the whole company was stranded until several of the members succeeded in getting enough money from home by wire to send them on.
Memphis proved to be a life-saver. Here the company took a steamboat down the Arkansas. It is notable because thus early Charles showed that eagerness to take a chance which eventually caused his death, for, on this trip, as on the Lusitania, he had been warned not to sail.
The river was low and the pilot was reckless. Whenever the boat groaned over a bar Charles would say, "That's great," although the other members of the company shivered with apprehension.
By using every device and resource known to the traveling company of those days, the Stoddart Comedy Company finally reached Richmond, Kentucky. It had left a trail of baggage behind; there was not a watch in the whole aggregation. Charles went on ahead to Cincinnati to book and bill the adjacent towns.
At Richmond Gustave had an inspiration. Then, as always, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was the great life-saver of the harassed and needy theatrical organization. The play was always accessible and it almost invariably drew an audience.
"Why not have a real negro play Uncle Tom?" said Gustave.
So he wired Charles as follows:
Get me an Eva and send her down with Sam Lucas. Be sure to tell Sam to bring his diamonds.
Sam Lucas was a famous negro minstrel who had been with the Callender company. He sported a collection of diamonds that made him the envy and admiration of his colleagues. Gustave knew that these jewels, like Louise Dillon's sealskin sack, meant a meal ticket for the company and transportation in an emergency.
Charles engaged Sallie Cohen (now Mrs. John C. Rice), and sent her down with Lucas, who, by the way, provided the money for the trip. Charles then proceeded to cover his "Lemons" posters with "Uncle Tom's Cabin" printing which he hastily acquired, and awaited results.
"Uncle Tom's Cabin" was played to a packed house at Richmond, and the company was able to get out of Kentucky. Gustave now had visions of big business in Ohio, and especially at Wilmington, which was Sam Lucas's home town. But the result was the usual experience with home patronage of home talent, and only a handful of people came to see the play. Sallie Cohen, despairing of getting her salary, had quit the company, and on this night Polly Stoddart, who was a tall, well-developed woman, had to play Little Eva. When she sat on the lap of Wesley Sisson, who played her father, she not only hid him from sight, but almost crushed him to earth.
Wilmington proved to be the last despairing gasp of the Stoddart Comedy Company, for the trouble-studded tour now ended. Some of Lucas's diamonds were pawned to get the company back to Cincinnati.
The sad news was telegraphed to Charles, who was billing Newport, Kentucky, which is just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. He received the message while standing on a step-ladder with a paste-brush in his hand. Now came an early evidence of his humor and equanimity. He calmly went on posting the bill for the show that he knew would never appear. Afterward in reciting the incident he made this explanation:
"I didn't want to tell the bill-poster that the company was closed, because he had just made a fresh bucket of paste and I didn't want him to waste it. Besides, he had become enthusiastic at the prospect of seeing a real negro Uncle Tom, and I had just given him some passes for the show. I didn't want all his disappointments to come at one time."
After all the hardships of the previous months, and with salaries unpaid, the company now found itself stranded in the spring of 1878 at the Walnut Street Hotel in Cincinnati. Gustave's problem was to get his people home. Fortunately, most of them lived in the Middle West. By pawning some of his clothes and making other sacrifices he was able to get them off. Only Frank Hartwell and Charles were left behind.
Gustave got a pass to Baltimore, where he borrowed enough money from Callender, then in his decline, to take care of Hartwell. Charles was left behind as security for the whole Frohman bill at the Walnut Street Hotel. Although Charles was amiable and smiling, the hotel thought that his cheerful demeanor was an unsatisfactory return for board and lodging, so he was asked to vacate his room after a few days. He now spent his time walking about the streets and eating one meal a day. At night he sat in the summer-gardens "across the Rhine," listening to the music, and then seeking out a place where he could get a bed for a quarter.
By giving an I O U to the same Pennsylvania ticket-agent who had staked Gustave, and with five dollars telegraphed by the indefatigable brother back in New York, he got as far as Philadelphia. He landed there without a cent in his pocket.
"I must get home," he said.
He got on a day-coach of a New York train without the vestige of a ticket and still penniless. In those days the cars were heated by stoves, and near each stove was a large coal-box.
When Charles heard the conductor's cry, "Tickets, please!" he hid himself in the coal-box and remained there until the awful personage passed by. Being small, he could pull the lid of the box down and be completely hidden from sight. After the conductor passed, he scrambled out and resumed his seat. He had to repeat this performance several times on the trip. Afterward in speaking of it he said:
"I wasn't a bit frightened for myself. I knew I would suffer no harm. My chief concern was for a kind-hearted old man who sat in the seat next to the coal-box. He was much more agitated than I was."
On a bright May afternoon Charles turned up, sooty but smiling, at 250 East Seventy-eighth Street, where the Frohman family then lived. He had walked all the way up-town from the ferry. His first greeting to Gustave was:
"Well, when do we start again?"
PICTURESQUE DAYS AS MINSTREL MANAGER
Instead of discouraging him, Charles Frohman's baptism of hardship with the John Dillon companies only filled him with a renewed ardor for the theatrical business. The hunger for the road was strong in him. Again it was Gustave who proved to be the good angel, and who now led him to a picturesque experience.
During the summer of 1878 J. H. (Jack) Haverly acquired the Callender Original Georgia Minstrels, and Gustave, who had an important hand in the negotiation, was retained as manager. He started for the Pacific coast with his dusky aggregation, and in Chicago fell in with his new employer.
Haverly was then at the high tide of his extraordinary career. He was in many respects the amusement dictator of his time. Beginning as owner of a small variety theater in Toledo, Ohio, he had risen to be the manager of half a dozen important theaters in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Not less than ten traveling companies bore his name.
By instinct a plunger, his daring deals became the theatrical talk of the country. He was a dashing and conspicuous figure; his spacious shirt-front shone with diamonds, and he wore a large flat-crowned stiff hat in which he carried all his correspondence and private papers.
Haverly specialized in minstrels, for he was a genius at capitalizing the enthusiasm of the theater-going public. Just at this time he was launching the greatest of all his traveling enterprises. To meet the competition of the newly formed Barlow, Wilson, Primrose and West minstrels he decided to merge all his white minstrel companies into the Haverly Mastodons. It was to include forty star performers, more than had ever before been assembled in a minstrel organization. So proud was Haverly of this total that the advertising slogan of the company, which was echoed from coast to coast, and which became a popular theatrical phrase everywhere, was "Forty—Count 'Em—Forty."
Gustave found Haverly in the throes of Mastodon-making. Always solicitous of the family interest, he asked him if he had engaged a treasurer. When Haverly replied that he had not, Gustave immediately spoke up:
"Why don't you hire my brother Charley? He has had experience on the road."
"All right, Gus," he replied. "I've got two Frohmans with me now. If Charley is as good as they are, he is all right."
Thus it came about that for the first time the three Frohman brothers were associated under the same employer.
Gustave wired the good news and transportation to the eager and impatient Charles, who had irked under the inactivity of a hot summer in New York. Gustave added ten dollars and instructed his brother to buy a new suit, for the Frohman family funds were in a more or less sad way.
Henry Frohman's generosity and his absolute inability to press the payment of debts due him had brought the father to a state of financial embarrassment, and the burden of the family support fell upon the sons.
In a few days Charles showed up smiling in Chicago, but he had suffered disaster on the way. The ten-dollar "hand-me-down" suit had faded overnight, and when Charles appeared it was a sad sight.
"You can't meet Jack Haverly in that suit," said Gustave.
"All right," said Charley, "I will go to a tailor and have it fixed in some way."
The tailor, apparently, worked a miracle with the clothes, for Charles became presentable and was introduced to the great man, who, like most other people, readily succumbed to the boy's winning manner.
"You and I will work the public, all right," he said to Charles. What was more important, Haverly informed him that he was to act as treasurer of the Mastodons at a salary of ten dollars a week, with an allowance of one dollar and a half a day for board and lodging.
A serious complication now faced the boy. It was in the middle of July; the company was not to start until August, and he could draw no salary until the engagement began. With the assistance of Gustave he rented a two-dollar-a-week room and existed on a meal-ticket good for twenty-two fifteen-cent meals that he had bought for three dollars.
Charles sat at rehearsals with Haverly. He had a genius for stage effects and made many practical suggestions. The big brass-band, an all-important adjunct of the minstrel show, fascinated him. When the season opened with a flourish the receipts amazed him.
For the first time he came in contact with real money. The gross income of the Dillon company had never exceeded a thousand dollars a week; now he was handling more than that sum every night.
After a brief engagement at the Adelphi Theater in Chicago, which Haverly owned, the "Forty—Count 'Em—Forty" started on their long tour which rounded out the amusement apprenticeship of Charles Frohman.
* * *
Charles now made his first real appearance before the public, and in spectacular fashion. It was the custom of a minstrel company to parade each day. With their record-breaking organization the Mastodons gave this feature of minstrelsy perhaps its greatest traditions. Wearing shining silk hats, frock-coats, and lavender trousers, and headed by "the world's greatest minstrel band," the "Forty—Count 'Em—Forty" swayed the heart and moved the imagination of admiring multitudes wherever they went.
Charles, who to the end of his days despised a silk hat, now wore one for the first time, but under protest. However, he manfully took his place in the front set of fours with the ranking officers of the organization, and marched many a weary mile. So great was his dislike for a silk hat even then that he invariably carried a cap in his pocket and the moment the parade was over the abhorred headpiece was removed.
The first stop of the Mastodons was at Toledo, Ohio. A great crowd assembled around the theater, and the treasurer, a weak little man, seemed afraid to raise the window. "They'll run over me," he whined.
"All right," said Charles. "I'll take the window and sell the tickets."
Up to this time his only box-office experience had been as a mere lad at Hooley's Theater in Brooklyn, but he handled that big crowd with such skill and speed that even "Big Bill" Foote, who was the manager of the company, patted him on the back and said a kind word.
Foote, who was Charles's superior officer on this trip, was a type of the big, loud, blustering theatrical man of the time. He was six feet tall, and he towered over his youthful assistant, who was his exact opposite in manner and speech. Yet between these two men of strange contrast there developed a close kinship. The little, plump, rosy-cheeked treasurer could handle the big, bluff, noisy manager at will. Such was Charles Frohman's experience with men always.
The first tour was replete with stirring incident. When the company reached Bradford, Pennsylvania, they found the town in the throes of oil excitement. Oil was on everybody's tongue and ankle-deep in some of the streets. A great multitude collected at the theater. After the first part of the show the gallery, which was full of people, creaked and settled a few inches, creating a near panic. While this was being subdued an oil-warehouse on the outskirts of the town burst into flames. Most of the volunteer firemen were in the theater watching the minstrels. When an agitated individual out on the sidewalk yelled "Fire!" a real panic started inside the theater and there was a mad rush for the door.
Charles had just finished taking the tickets and stood with the ticket-box in his hand, trying to calm the crowd, but he was as a straw in the wind. The maddened people ran over him. When the excitement cleared away he was found almost buried in mud, mire, and oil outside, his clothes torn to shreds, but he still grasped the precious box in his hand.
Now began a comradeship that was unique in the history of theatricals. The Mastodons, destined for long and continuous association, became a sort of traveling club. It was really a fine group of men, and the favorite of the organization was the rosy little treasurer who day by day fastened himself more firmly in the hearts of his colleagues.
Nor was this due to the fact that he was "Haverly's pocket-book," as the men affectionately called him, and their first aid in all financial need. He was the friend, confidant, and repository of all their troubles. With characteristic humor he gave each member of the company a day on which he could relate his hardships. He had a willing ear and an open hand.
When he could not give them the relief they sought he invariably said with that constant smile, "Well, I sympathize with you, anyhow."
Frohman was custodian of the company funds. One day in Denver four members of the company found themselves without a cent. Charles had tided them over so many difficulties that they hesitated to ask him again. As they talked their troubles over they saw him coming down the street. Instantly all four went down on their knees and held up their hands in supplication. When Charles saw them he said, "How much do you want?" And they got it.
He was always playing some practical joke. With half a dozen members of the company he formed a little club which often had supper after the play. This club was the fountain-head of a thousand jests and pranks. On one occasion Charles suggested that for the sake of the novelty of the thing every member of the club have his head shaved. The group went to a barber-shop. Only one chair was vacant, however, and Charles Cushman got that chair. While his dome was being shorn of every vestige of hair Charles nudged the others and they crept away. When Cushman emerged, bald as a babe, he found himself alone. The joke was on him.
In his joke Charles was usually aided and abetted by Johnnie Rice, one of the many famous minstrels of that name. Rice could never resist the temptation to stroke long whiskers. Whenever the house was unusually big Charles took Rice out of the company for the first part and got him to assist him with the ticket-taking. Any spectator with a long facial hirsute growth was sure to have it caressed to the accompaniment of "Ticket, please."
Sometimes the men in the company, knowing of Rice's eccentricity, often watched the gallery for such a performance, and it invariably made them laugh. Once while the Mastodons were playing an engagement at the Olympic in St. Louis they were surprised to find Rice sitting in a front orchestra seat, wearing a long pair of Dundreary whiskers. He looked so solemn that every one on the stage burst into laughter. It almost broke up the performance. Charles had provided the whiskers.
* * *
It was on this minstrel tour that Charles Frohman gave the first real expression to his talents for publicity. Everything about a minstrel company was showy and flashy. So Charles originated a unique idea of establishing a reputation for solvency. He bought a small iron safe about three feet high. On it were painted in large gilt letters, "Treasurer, Haverly's Mastodon Minstrels."
In reality there was very little need for this safe, because "Jack" Haverly's constant and insistent demands for cash kept the company coffers stripped of surplus.
Charles saw in this safe a spectacular means of advertising. It was put conspicuously on the top of the first load of baggage that went to the hotel. He always engaged at least four men to unload it from the truck. It was then placed in a conspicuous position in the hotel lobby and invariably drew a comment like this:
"Gee whiz! That Haverly show has got so much money that it is carrying a safe to hold it."
This was precisely the response that Charles desired. No sooner was the safe unloaded in the lobby than Charles approached it with great ceremony, holding a bunch of one-dollar bills in his hand. This immediately attracted a crowd. With an admiring gallery, he would stow away the money. Just as soon as the crowd dispersed he would be back on the job removing this "prop" capital to where it was needed.
He was always alert to publicity possibilities. Among other things he organized a drum corps composed of volunteers who were only too glad to serve him. He inspired this corps to such proficiency that its marching and counter-marching became a feature of the parades. By diverting the drum corps to one part of the town and the parade to another, having them unite later on, he was able to attract two big street crowds and then bring them together at a common point.
All the while the boy was growing in responsibility. Without a murmur he assumed practically all the duties of manager. He arranged the parades, visited the newspaper offices, devised new numbers for the company, handled the money, and always remained serene, undisturbed, smiling, and optimistic.
Now came evidence of his initiative. While his first desire was to build up the attractiveness of his bill, he combined with it a genuine desire to develop his associates. Frequently he would say to men like the three Gorman brothers—George, James, and John—who were among his prime pals in the company:
"Why don't you rehearse some new steps? I'll go on and watch you at rehearsals and we can put it in the bill."
Out of such incidents as this came a dozen new features.
* * *
During this tour Charles displayed on many occasions what amounted to a reckless disregard of danger. He had proved on the Dillon tour that he was always willing to take a chance.
Once while climbing a steep incline on the way to Grass Valley in California their special train stopped. When he asked what the trouble was he was told that they would have to wait on a switch while another train came down the single track. He was afraid he would miss the evening's performance, so he asked the engineer if he could beat the down train to the double track. On being told that there was a chance, he said:
"Take it and go as fast as you can." He made his town in time.
Again in Colorado his train was stopped by a slight fire on a bridge. He urged the conductor to go across, and was so insistent that the man yielded, and the train got over just before the flames leaped up and the structure began to crackle.
What would have been an ordinary theatrical season waned. A minstrel company, however, seldom closed for the summer, so the tour continued. For the first time Charles Frohman crossed the continent. Despite its high-sounding name and the glitter and splash that marked its spectacular progress from place to place, the long trip of the Mastodons was not without its hardships, for business was often bad. Nor did it lack interesting episodes.
Once while making an over-Sunday jump from St. Paul to Omaha the train broke down somewhere in Iowa, and at seven o'clock the company was four hours from its destination. The house had been sold out. Charles immediately began to send optimistic and encouraging telegrams.
"Hold the crowd," he wired. "We are on the way. Tell them we will give them a double show."
From every station he sent on some cheering message. When the train was half an hour from Omaha he sought out Sam Devere, the prize banjoist of the company and a great fun-maker.
"Go into the baggage-car and black up," he said to Sam. "I want to rush you on to the theater as soon as we get to town."
They reached Omaha at eleven-fifteen o'clock. Charles hustled Devere up to the opera-house in a hack. The comedian went before the curtain and entertained the audience until midnight. When the company arrived not twenty people had left. The final curtain dropped at two-thirty o'clock before a delighted but weary crowd. The telegrams from the treasurer which were read to the audience had saved the day—and the receipts.