In the early stages of this long journey of the Mastodons came an episode that made an indelible impress upon the memory of young Charles. In view of the later history of the two actors in it, it is both picturesque and historic.
It was in Cleveland, and the day was hot. The Mastodons had just finished their parade, and Charles, weary, perspiring, and wearing the abhorred silk hat, entered the box-office of the Opera House on Cleveland Avenue. Sitting in the treasurer's seat at the window he saw a sturdy lad fingering a pile of silver dollars. He slipped them in and out with an amazing dexterity. Hearing a noise, he looked up and beheld young Frohman with the tile tilted back on his head.
The boys' eyes met. Into each came a wistful look.
"I wish I had that silk hat of yours," said the boy at the window.
"I wish I could do what you are doing with that money," was the response from the envied one.
Such was the first meeting between Charles Frohman and A. L. Erlanger.
Here is another episode of those early days that resulted in a life-long and significant friendship. In a Philadelphia newspaper office Charles met a rangy, keen-eyed young man named Alf Hayman, who was advance-agent for Mr. and Mrs. W. J. Florence. When Hayman and Charles had concluded their business they started out for a walk. The Colonnade Hotel, at the corner of Fifteenth and Chestnut streets, was then the fashionable hotel of the city. In the course of this walk the two boys (they were each scarcely twenty) stopped in front of the hostelry, and Charles said:
"Some day I hope to have enough money to stop at the Colonnade."
He never forgot this, and whenever he met Hayman in Philadelphia he would always insist upon walking over to the hotel and recalling the conversation. Hayman afterward became general manager of all the Charles Frohman forces and remained until the end perhaps the closest of all the business associates of the manager.
* * *
Thus passed the years 1878 and 1879. Charles was growing in authority and experience until he was really doing all of "Big Bill" Foote's work and his own. Now came a great and thrilling experience.
Haverly sent the Mastodons on their first trip to England, and Charles naturally went along. It was the first of the many trips he was to make to the country which in time he was to annex to his own amusement kingdom.
In July, 1880, the company sailed on the Canada, and their arrival in London created a sensation. The men, headed by "Big Bill" Foote and Charles Frohman—"The Long and the Short of It," as they were called—marched with their hat-boxes to the old Helvetia Hotel in Soho.
Overnight their printing—the first colored paper ever used on an English bill-board—was posted, and it startled the staid Londoners. It made them realize that a wide-awake aggregation was in town. Charles knew that a real opportunity confronted him, and he rose to the occasion.
The engagement opened on July 30th at Her Majesty's Theater. The sacred precincts that Patti, Neilson, Gerster, and Campanini had adorned now resounded with the jokes and rang with the old-time plantation melodies of the American negro. The debut was an enormous success and the prosperity of the engagement was insured.
Before long came a request from the royal household to make ready the royal box. The fun-loving Prince of Wales, afterward King Edward VII., wanted to see an American minstrel show.
But it was the wide-awake Charles who had started the machinery that led to this royal dictate. He realized soon after his arrival how important a royal visit would be. He got in touch with the right people, and the net result was that on a certain night in December the red canopy and carpet that betoken the royal visit were spread before Her Majesty's Theater.
By virtue of his rank "Big Bill" Foote should have received the royal party on behalf of the company. But Foote fled from the responsibility, and Charles, wearing his much-hated evening clothes and the equally despised silk hat, did the honors. The royal party included Edward, his wife, Alexandra (now the Queen Mother), his brother Clarence (now dead), and a troop of royal children old enough to stay up late at nights.
With his usual foresight Frohman had prepared himself for all the formalities that attended a royal visit to the theater. Among other things he found out that precedent decreed that the entire performance must be directed toward the royal box. With much effort he carefully impressed this fact upon the company. He even had a rehearsal the morning of the royal night and all eyes were ordered to be "dressed" toward the big, canopied box.
But these well-laid plans miscarried, for this is what happened:
The curtain had risen on the assembled fun-makers; their swinging opening chorus had given the show a rousing start, and the interlocutor had said those well-known introductory minstrel words, "Gentlemen, be seated." The royal party was well bestowed in its place and every gleaming eyeball on the stage was centered on the glittering representatives of the reigning house of Britain. Just at that moment a flutter ran through the theater. The only remaining vacant box, and opposite to the one used by the royal family, was suddenly occupied by the most entrancing and radiant feminine vision that these American minstrels had ever seen. It was Lily Langtry, then in the full tide of her marvelous beauty, and wearing an extremely low-cut evening gown.
The Mastodons were only human. They had never beheld such loveliness, to say nothing of a gown cut so low. They forgot all the careful coaching of Frohman and fixed their eyes on the beauty-show in the box.
Charles stood anxiously in the back of the house, fearing that the royal displeasure would be aroused. But his fears were groundless. The hypnotized minstrels on the stage were only part of an admiring host that had for its most distinguished head the Prince of Wales himself.
The "Forty—Count 'Em—Forty" now became the vogue in London. Royalty had set the stamp of its approval, and aristocracy flocked. One night in the momentary absence of the chief usher, Charles, who was always on the job, escorted a distinguished group of nobility to a box. After bowing them in a member of the party slipped a shilling into his hand, which Frohman, of course, refused.
"Take it, you beggar," said the peer, with some irritation, throwing the coin at him.
"Thank you, sir," responded Frohman, picking it up and slipping it into his pocket. He kept it as a lucky-piece for twenty years, often telling the story of how he got it.
On Christmas Day, 1880, came a concrete evidence of the affection in which Charles was held by his minstrel colleagues. They assembled on the stage of Her Majesty's Theater and presented him with a gold watch and chain. The charm was a tiny reproduction of the famous safe that Charles had introduced into the company, and which was his inseparable companion. Charles never carried a watch, and this timepiece, together with many other similar gifts, was put away among his treasures.
One day, accompanied by Robert Filkins, the advance-agent, Charles had occasion to see Col. M. B. Leavitt, who was a notable theatrical figure of the time, with extensive interests in this country and abroad. After Leavitt had regaled the younger men with an account of his varied activities, Charles suddenly exclaimed to him:
"Gee! But you've got London by the neck, haven't you?"
Many years later Leavitt again met Charles Frohman in London. The encounter this time took place on the Strand, in front of the Savoy, where Frohman was installed in his usual luxurious suite. He now controlled half a dozen theaters in the British metropolis and he was a world theatrical figure. Leavitt, whose memory is one of the wonders of the amusement business, clapped the magnate on the shoulder and repeated the words spoken to him so long ago:
"Gee! Frohman, you've got London by the neck, haven't you?"
After a tour of the provinces the company returned home and opened in Brooklyn.
* * *
With the return to America came the first realization of one of Charles Frohman's earlier dreams. "Big Bill" Foote, fascinated by the lure of English life, bought a small hotel near London and settled down. This left the managership of the company vacant. Although Charles had practically done all the work for nearly a year, he was, so far as title was concerned, treasurer.
Immediately there was a scramble for the position of manager. Among those who sought it were Robert Filkins, William S. Strickland, and a number of other mature and experienced men.
But when the company heard that an outsider sought the position to which Charles was entitled there was great indignation. A meeting of protest, instigated by the Gorman brothers and Eddie Quinn, was held on the stage in Brooklyn, and a round-robin, signed by every member of the company, was despatched to Jack Haverly, insisting that Charles Frohman be made the manager.
A little later Charles walked back on the stage after the night's performance and quietly remarked:
"Boys, I am your new manager."
A great shout of delight went up. The rosy, boyish youth (for he had scarcely entered his twenties) was lifted to the shoulders of half a dozen men and to the words of a favorite minstrel song, "Hear Those Bells," a triumphant march was made around the stage. None of the many honors that came to him in his later years touched him quite so deeply as that affectionate demonstration.
It was now 1881, and once more the "Forty—Count 'Em—Forty" set forth to rediscover America, with Charles Frohman as manager. His name now appeared at the head of the bill, and to celebrate the great event Eddy Brooke wrote a "Frohman March," which had a conspicuous place on the program.
Strangely prophetic of the circumstances which brought about his untimely death was an incident which occurred while the company was going by boat from New York to New London. It was a bitter cold night when the aggregation boarded the old John B. Starin. The decks were piled with waste, cord, and jute for the New England mills.
"What a fine night for a fire on board!" remarked Frohman as he led his "soldiers," as he always called the Mastodons, aboard. Everybody retired early. At two o'clock in the morning there was great excitement. Men rushed frantically about; there were calls for hose, and the Mastodons, most of them clad in their night-clothes and trousers, rushed, frightened, on deck. They found a fire raging aft.
Immediately panic reigned. The coolest man aboard was the smallest. Here, there, and everywhere went Charles, urging everybody to be quiet.
"There is no danger," he said. "Let us all go in the cabin and wait."
Under his direction the passengers assembled in the water-soaked saloon and there waited until the flames were subdued. Here was evidence of the equanimity with which he faced disaster and which marked him on that ill-starred day when he was plunged to his death in the Irish Sea.
On through the summer of 1881 the Mastodons went their way. Charles was now able to watch the minstrel parade from the sidewalk, but he was still the friend, philosopher, and guide of the company to which he was now bound by nearly three years of constant association.
They played Washington during the Garfield inaugural week. Charles realized that here was a great opportunity for spectacular publicity. First of all he took his now famous band down to the Willard Hotel and serenaded the new executive. A vast crowd gathered; the President-elect appeared at the window, smiled and bowed, and then sent for the little manager, to whom he expressed his personal thanks. Then a heaven-born opportunity literally fell into his hands.
To the same hotel came the Massachusetts Phalanx, of Lowell, which had secured a conspicuous place in the inaugural parade. Their arrangement committee had seen the Haverly parade, and the members were so greatly impressed with the band that they asked if its services could be secured.
"Certainly," said Frohman. "You can have not only the band, but the whole company will escort you in the parade."
Thus it came about that the Haverly Mastodon Minstrels headed the third division of the Garfield inaugural parade. Ever mindful and proud of his men, Frohman, at his personal expense, bought a buttonhole bouquet for every member for the occasion and fastened it on their coats himself. On the sidewalk he followed with admiring eye and flushed face the progress of his company.
By a curious coincidence the Haverly Mastodons played Washington during the week of the Garfield funeral, and the band marched in the funeral parade to the station, playing "Nearer, My God, to Thee."
A happier sequel of the inaugural episode came when the minstrels next played Lowell, where they were received by the Phalanx in full uniform, paraded through the town, with Charles marching proudly at the head. The Phalanx was host at a banquet given at the armory after the performance.
The Mastodons were now making their way to the Pacific coast. At the same time Gustave Frohman was in San Francisco with the Number One "Hazel Kirke" Company, direct from the Madison Square Theater in New York, which was playing at the California Theater.
One morning in May, 1881, he received the following telegram from Charles, dated Salt Lake City:
Am stranded here with the "Big Forty." So is Frank Sanger with "A Bunch of Keys." Theater management has failed to send railroad fares. Wire me what you can. Will return amount out of receipts Bush Street Theater.
The manager of the Bush Street Theater, in San Francisco, had agreed to provide railroad transportation for the company from Salt Lake City to San Francisco and had not kept his agreement. The receipts in the former city did not leave a sufficient surplus to negotiate this jump.
Gustave wired the needed cash, and Charles showed up on time in San Francisco. For the second and only other time in his theatrical career Charles was somewhat downcast. Despite his effective services during the preceding years, Haverly had only raised his salary to twenty-five dollars a week. The boy had handled hundreds of thousands of dollars and had helped in no small way to give to the organization its prestige and its esprit de corps. He was now, in the phraseology of his associates, "the whole show." His word was law with the company, and the men adored him.
He met Gustave at the Palace Hotel and said to him, "I suppose the time has come for me to quit Haverly."
"All right," said Gustave, still the good angel. "I'll put you out ahead of our Number Two 'Hazel Kirke' Company at a salary of seventy-five dollars a week. You can start out right away. What do you say?"
Charles thought a moment, and then said: "Well, Gus, it's pretty tough to go ahead of a Number Two company even at seventy-five dollars a week when you have been manager of Haverly's Mastodons. The money doesn't mean anything to me. I like the minstrel boys and they like me."
He still hesitated and walked up and down the room two or three times, as was his habit. Finally he came over to his brother and said, decisively:
"I'll take it."
During this memorable visit to San Francisco occurred another event that had large influence on the whole future life of the young man. One night in a famous ratheskeller on Kearney Street he saw an artistic-looking youth with curly hair and dreamy eyes sitting in the midst of a group of actors. This youth was David Belasco, who had passed from actor to author-stage-manager and whose melodrama, "American Born," was running at the Baldwin Theater. Frohman had seen this play and was much impressed with it. Thrillers had interested him from the start.
Gustave, who was with Belasco, said to him: "There's my brother Charley. You ought to know him."
Simultaneously Belasco was pointed out to Charles. They glanced up at the same time, nodded smilingly across the space between, and later on when they were introduced Charles expressed his great admiration for "American Born." Belasco had just received the offer from Daniel Frohman to come to the Madison Square Theater in New York as stage-manager.
Out of this contact came the association between Charles Frohman and David Belasco that added much to their achievements.
Charles gave Haverly notice, and at Indianapolis he left the Mastodons. He slipped away without farewells, and when his absence became known a gloom settled down on the company. Unconsciously the rosy-cheeked boy had become its inspiration. For weeks the performances lacked their customary zip and enthusiasm.
His minstrel days over, save for two brief intervals, Charles was now about to begin his connection with the Madison Square Theater. It was to mark, because of the men with whom he now became associated and the revolution in theatrical methods which he brought about, the first really significant epoch in his crowded career.
IN THE NEW YORK THEATRICAL WHIRLPOOL
When Charles Frohman went to the Madison Square Theater in 1881 the three Frohman brothers were literally installed for the first time under the same managerial roof. From this hour on the affairs of Charles were bound up in large theatrical conduct.
Since the Madison Square Theater thus becomes the background of his real activities, the shell out of which he emerged as a full-fledged manager, the institution, and its significance in dramatic history, are well worth recording here.
The little Madison Square Theater, located back of the old Fifth Avenue Hotel, on Twenty-fourth Street near Broadway, was established at a time when a new force was hovering over the New York stage. This playhouse, destined to figure so prominently in the fortunes of all the Frohmans, and especially Charles, grew out of the somewhat radical convictions of Steele Mackaye, one of the most brilliant and erratic characters of his time. He was actor, lecturer, and playwright, and he taught the art of acting on lines laid down by Delsarte. Dr. George Mallory, editor of The Churchman, became interested in his views and regarded Mackaye as a man with a distinct mission. He induced his brother, Marshall Mallory, to build the Madison Square Theater.
Steele Mackaye was the first director, and, with the active co-operation of the Mallorys, launched its career. Dr. Mallory believed that the drama needed reform; that the way to reform it was to play reformed drama. So the place was dedicated to healthy plays. "A wholesome place for wholesome amusement" became the slogan. Contracts for plays were made only with American authors. Here were produced the earlier triumphs of Steele Mackaye, Bronson Howard, William Gillette, H. H. Boyessen, and Mrs. Frances Hodgson Burnett. In this house, in "May Blossom," De Wolf Hopper first appeared in a stock company, afterward going into musical comedy. Among the actors seen on its boards during the Frohman regime were Agnes Booth, Viola Allen, Effie Ellsler, Georgia Cayvan, Mrs. Whiffen, Marie Burroughs, Annie Russell, George Clarke, Jeffreys Lewis, C. W. Couldock, Thomas Whiffen, Dominick Murray, and Eben Plympton. Rose Coghlan was also a member of the company, but had no opportunity of playing.
The house had certain unique and attractive qualities. It had been charmingly decorated by Louis C. Tiffany, and one of its principal features was a double stage, which enabled the scenery for one act to be set while another was being played before the audience. Thus long waits were avoided.
The name of Frohman was associated with this theater from the very start, because its first manager was Daniel Frohman. It opened in February, 1880, with Steele Mackaye's play "Hazel Kirke," which was an instantaneous success. The little theater, with its novel stage, intimate atmosphere, admirable company, and a policy that was definite and original, became one of the most popular in America. "Hazel Kirke" ran four hundred and eighty-six nights in New York City without interruption, which was a record run up to that time. In the original cast were Effie Ellsler, Eben Plympton, Mr. and Mrs. Whiffen, and Charles W. Couldock.
* * *
The Madison Square Theater was also an important factor in New York dramatic life and began to rival the prestige of the Wallack, Palmer, and Daly institutions. Its fame, due to the record-breaking "Hazel Kirke" success, became nation-wide.
Now began an activity under its auspices that established a whole new era in the conduct of the theater. It was the dawn of a "big business" development that sent the Madison Square successes throughout the country, and Charles Frohman was one of its sponsors.
Gustave Frohman had been engaged as director of the traveling companies. He engaged Charles as an associate. The work of the Frohmans was carefully mapped out. It was Daniel's business to select the casts, organize and rehearse the companies in New York; Gustave took general charge of the road equipment; while Charles arranged and booked the road tours.
It was after the phenomenal first season's run of "Hazel Kirke" that Charles Frohman hung up his hat in the little "back office" of the Madison Square Theater to begin the work that was to project his name and his talents prominently for the first time. New York sizzled through the hottest summer it had ever known; Garfield lay dying, and the whole country was in a state of unrest. Charles sweltered in his little cubbyhole, but he was enthusiastic and optimistic about his new job.
Gustave and Charles had complete charge of all the traveling companies that developed out of the series of "runs" at the theater. They inaugurated a whole new and brilliant theatrical activity in towns and cities removed from theatrical centers, regarding which the other big managers in New York were ignorant.
With the organization of these Madison Square companies the "Number Two Company" idea was born. It was a distinct innovation. A play like "Hazel Kirke," for example, was played by as many as five companies at one time, each company being adjusted financially to the type of town to which it was sent. "Hazel Kirke" appeared simultaneously in New York City at three different theaters, each with a separate and distinct type of audience.
Under the direction of Gustave and Charles, the outside business of the Madison Square Theater spread so rapidly that in a short time fourteen road companies carried the name of the establishment to all parts of the United States. Despite their youth, the three Frohmans had had a very extensive experience over the whole country.
In those days the booking of road attractions was not made through syndicates. Applications for time had to be made individually to every manager direct, even in the case of the most obscure one-night stand. The big New York managers only concerned themselves with the larger cities in which their companies made annual appearances. The smaller towns had to trust to chance to get attractions outside the standard "road shows."
Charles realized this lack of booking facilities, and dedicated his talents and experience to remedying it. His seasons on the road with John Dillon and the Haverly Minstrels had equipped him admirably. He not only displayed remarkable judgment in routing companies, but he was now able to express his genius for publicity. He always believed in the value of big printing.
"Give them pictures," he said.
He urged a liberal policy in this respect, and the Madison Square Theater backed his judgment to the extent of more than one hundred thousand dollars a year for picture posters and elaborate printing of all kinds. The gospel of Madison Square Theater art and its enterprises was thus spread broadcast, not with ordinary cheap-picture advertising, but with artistic lithographs. In fact, here began the whole process of expensive and elaborate bill-posting, and Charles Frohman was really the father of it.
Under his direction the first "flashlights" ever taken of a theatrical company for advertising purposes were made at the Madison Square Theater.
* * *
Charles was now director of nearly a score of agents who traveled about with the various companies. He vitalized them with his enthusiasm. In order to expedite their work, Charles and his brothers rented and furnished a large house on Twenty-fourth Street near the theater. It was in reality a sort of club, for a dining-room was maintained, and there were a number of bedrooms. When the agents came to town they lodged here. Charles, Gustave, and Daniel also had rooms in this house. A dressmaking department was established on the premises where many of the costumes for the road companies were made.
During these days Charles gave frequent evidence of his tact and persuasiveness. Often when matters of policy had to be fixed and discussed, the managers of out-of-town theaters would be called to New York. It was Charles's business to take them in hand and straighten out their troubles. They would leave, feeling that they had got the best "time" for their theaters and that they had made a friend in the optimistic little man who was then giving evidence of that uncanny instinct for road management that stood him in such good stead later on.
With his usual energy Charles was interested in every phase of the Madison Square Theater. Frequently, accompanied by Wesley Sisson, who succeeded Daniel Frohman during the latter's occasional absences from the theater, he would slip into the balcony and watch rehearsals. He sat with one leg curled under him, following the scenes with keenest interest. More than once his sharp, swift criticism helped to smooth away a rough spot.
He impressed his personality and capacity upon all who came in contact with him. It was said of him then, as it was said later on, that he could sit in his little office and make out a forty weeks' tour for a company without recourse to a map. In fact, he carried the whole theatrical map of the country under his hat.
* * *
In the strenuous life of those Madison Square days came some of Charles Frohman's closest and longest friendships.
The first was with Marc Klaw. It grew out of play piracy, the inevitable result of the theater's successes. Throughout the country local managers began to steal the Madison Square plays and put them on with "fly-by-night" companies. Since they were unable to get manuscripts of the play, the pirates sent stenographers to the theater to copy the parts. These stenographers had to sit in the dark and write surreptitiously. In many instances, in order to keep the lines of their notes straight, they stretched strings across their note-books.
Gustave Frohman happened to be in Louisville with the Number One "Hazel Kirke" Company. He was looking about for a lawyer who could investigate and prosecute the piracy of the Madison Square plays. He made inquiry of John T. Macauley, manager of Macauley's Theater, who said:
"There's a young lawyer here named Marc Klaw who is itching to get into the theatrical business. Why don't you give him a chance?"
Frohman immediately engaged Klaw to do some legal work for the Madison Square Theater, and he successfully combated the play pirates in the South. The copyright laws then were inadequate, however, and Klaw was ordered to New York, where, after a short preliminary training, he was sent out as manager of the Number Two "Hazel Kirke" Company of which Charles Frohman was advance-agent. In this way the meeting between the two men, each destined to wield far-flung theatrical authority, came about.
Charles resented going out with a "Number Two" Company, so to placate his pride and to give distinction to the enterprise, Daniel put Georgia Cayvan, leading lady of the Madison Square Theater, at the head of the cast.
There was good business method in putting out Miss Cayvan on this tour, because she was a New-Englander, born at Bath, Maine, and Bath was included in this tour. When Charles reached Bath ahead of the show he rode on the front seat of the stage to the hotel. He told the driver that he was coming with a big New York show, and said:
"I've got a big sensation for Bath."
"What's that?" said the driver.
"We have Miss Cayvan as the leading lady," answered Frohman.
"Miss Who?" asked the driver.
"Miss Cayvan—Miss Georgia Cayvan, leading woman of the Madison Square Theater," answered Frohman, with a great flourish.
"Oh," replied the driver, "you mean our little Georgie. We heard tell that she was acting on the stage, and now I guess some folks will be right smart glad to see her."
Charles was so much interested in Miss Cayvan's appearance in her home town that he came back and joined the company on its arrival and was present at the station when Marc Klaw brought the company in.
Quite a delegation of home people were on hand to meet Miss Cayvan, and she immediately assumed the haughty airs of a prima donna.
Charles was much amused, and decided to "take her down" in an amiable way. So he stepped up to her with great solemnity, removed his hat, and said, after the manner of his old minstrel days:
"Miss Cayvan, we parade at eleven."
Miss Cayvan saw the humor of the situation, took the hint, and got down off her high horse. In the company with Miss Cayvan at that time were Maude Stuart, Charles Wheatleigh, Frank Burbeck, W. H. Crompton, and Mrs. E. L. Davenport, the mother of Fanny Davenport.
* * *
While Charles was impressing his personality and talents at the Madison Square Theater and really finding himself for the first time, Gustave Frohman met Jack Haverly on the street one day. The old magnate said, with emphasis:
"Gus, I've got to have Charles back."
"You can't have him," said Gustave.
"But I must," said Haverly.
"Well, if you pay him one hundred and forty-six dollars a week (one hundred and twenty-five dollars salary and twenty-one dollars for hotel bills) you can have him for a limited time."
"All right," said Haverly.
Charles went back to the Mastodons, where he received a royal welcome. But his heart had become attuned to the real theater—to the hum of its shifting life, to the swift tumult of its tears and laughter. The excitement of the drama, and all the speculation that it involved (and he was a born speculator), were in his blood. He heeded the call and went back to the Madison Square Theater.
But the minstrel field was to claim him again and for the last time. Gustave conceived a plan to send the Callender Minstrels on a spectacular tour across the continent. The nucleus of the old organization, headed by the famous Billy Kersands, was playing in England under the name of Haverly's European Minstrels, Haverly having acquired the company some years before. Charles was sent over to get the pick of the Europeans for the new aggregation. Accompanied by Howard Spear, he sailed on June 7, 1882, on the Wyoming.
He encountered some difficulty in getting the leading members, so with characteristic enterprise he bought the whole company from Haverly and brought it back to the United States, where it was put on the road as Callender's Consolidated Spectacular Colored Minstrels. On all the bills appeared the inscription "Gustave and Charles Frohman, Proprietors." As a matter of fact, Charles had very little to do with the company, although he made a number of its contracts. His financial interest was trivial. Gustave used his name because Charles had been prominently associated with the Mastodons and he had achieved some eminence as a minstrel promoter.
Having launched the Callender aggregation, he went on to Chicago, where Gustave was putting on David Belasco's play "American Born," with the author himself as producer. Charles joined his brother in promoting the enterprise.
Now began the real friendship between Charles Frohman and David Belasco. The chance contact in San Francisco a few years before was now succeeded by a genuine introduction. The men took to each other instinctively and with a profound understanding. They shared the same room and had most of their meals together. Then, as throughout his whole life, Charles consumed large portions of pie (principally apple, lemon meringue, and pumpkin) and drank large quantities of lemonade or sarsaparilla. One day while they were having lunch together Frohman said to Belasco:
"You and I must do things together. I mean to have my own theater in Broadway and you will write the plays for it."
"Very well," replied the ever-ready Belasco. "I will make a contract with you now."
"There will never be need of a contract between us," replied Frohman, who expressed then the conviction that guided him all the rest of his life when he engaged the greatest stars in the world and spent millions on productions without a scrap of paper to show for the negotiation.
Charles worked manfully for "American Born." It was in reality his first intimate connection with a big production. At the outset his ingenuity saved the enterprise from threatened destruction. Harry Petit, a local manager, announced a rival melodrama called "Taken From Life" at McVicker's Theater, and had set his opening date one night before the inaugural of "American Born."
Charles scratched his head and said, "We must beat them to it."
He announced the "American Born" opening for a certain night and then opened three nights earlier, which beat the opposition by one night.
Belasco's play was spectacular in character and included, among other things, a realistic fire scene. When the time came for rehearsal the manager of the theater said that it could not be done, because the fire laws would be violated.
"I'll fix that," said Charles.
He went down to the City Hall, had a personal interview with the mayor, and not only got permission for the scene, but a detail of real firemen to act in it.
While in Chicago, Belasco accepted Daniel Frohman's offer to come to New York as stage-manager of the Madison Square Theater. Charles and Belasco came east together, and the intimacy of this trip tightened the bond between them. The train that carried them was speeding each to a great career.
With Belasco installed as stage-manager there began a daily contact between the two. Belasco went to Frohman with all his troubles. In Frohman's bedroom he wrote part of "May Blossom," in which he scored his first original success at the Madison Square. Charles was enormously interested in this play, and after it was finished carried a copy about in his pocket, reading it or having it read wherever he thought it could find a friendly ear.
So great was Belasco's gratitude that he gave Charles a half-interest in it, which was probably the first ownership that Charles Frohman ever had in a play.
During those days at the Madison Square, when both Frohman and Belasco were seeing the vision of coming things, they often went at night to O'Neil's Oyster House on Sixth Avenue near Twenty-second Street. The day's work over, they had a bite of supper, in Frohman's case mostly pie and sarsaparilla, and talked about the things they were going to do.
Charles Frohman's ambition for a New York theater obsessed him. One night as they were walking up Broadway they passed the Fifth Avenue Hotel. A big man in his shirt-sleeves sat tilted back in his chair in front of the hotel. The two young men were just across the street from him. Frohman stopped Belasco, pointed to the man, and said:
"David, there is John Stetson, manager of the Fifth Avenue Theater. Well, some day I am going to be as big a man as he is and have my own theater on Broadway."
* * *
Those were crowded days. Charles not only picked and "routed" the companies, but he kept a watchful eye on them. This meant frequent traveling. For months he lived in a suit-case. At noon he would say to his stenographer, "We leave for Chicago this afternoon," and he was off in a few hours. At that time "Hazel Kirke," "The Professor," "Esmeralda," "Young Mrs. Winthrop," and "May Blossom" were all being played by road companies in various parts of the United States, and it was a tremendous task to keep a watchful eye on them. It was his habit to go to a town where a company was playing and not appear at the theater until the curtain had risen. The company had no warning of his coming, and he could make a good appraisal of their average work.
On one of the many trips that he made about this time he gave evidence of his constant humor.
He went out to Columbus, Ohio, to see a "Hazel Kirke" company. He arrived at the theater just before matinee, and as he started across the stage he was met by a newly appointed stage-manager who was full of authority.
"Where are you going?" asked the man.
"To Mr. Hagan's dressing-room."
"I'll take the message," said the stage-director.
"No, I want to see him personally."
"But you can't. I am in charge behind the curtain."
Frohman left without a word, went out to the box-office and wrote a letter, discharging the stage-director. Then he sat through the performance. Directly the curtain fell the man came to him in a great state of mind.
"Why did you discharge me, Mr. Frohman?"
Frohman smiled and said: "Well, it was the only way that I could get back to see my actors. If you will promise to be good I will re-engage you." And he did.
* * *
It was on a trip of this same kind that Charles had one of his many narrow escapes from death. During the spring of 1883 he went out to Ohio with Daniel to visit some of the road companies. Daniel left him at Cleveland to go over and see a performance of "The Professor" at Newcastle, while Charles went on to join Gustave at Cincinnati.
Charles was accompanied by Frank Guthrie, who was a sort of confidential secretary to all the Frohmans at the theater. Shortly before the train reached Galion, Charles, who sat at the aisle, asked his companion to change places. Ten minutes later the train was wrecked. Guthrie, who sat on the aisle seat, was hurled through the window and instantly killed, while Charles escaped unhurt.
Daniel heard of the wreck, rushed to the scene on a relief train, expecting to find his brother dead, for there had been a report that he was killed. Instead he found Charles bemoaning the death of his secretary.
A month afterward Charles and Marc Klaw were riding in the elevator at the Monongahela House in Pittsburg when the cable broke and the car dropped four stories. It had just been equipped with an air cushion, and the men escaped without a scratch.
* * *
Along toward the middle of 1883 there were signs of a break at the Madison Square Theater. Steele Mackaye had quarreled with the Mallorys and had left, taking Gustave with him to launch the new Lyceum Theater on Fourth Avenue and Twenty-third Street. Daniel was becoming ambitious to strike out for himself, while Charles was chafing under the necessity of being a subordinate. He yearned to be his own master. "I must have a New York production," he said. The wish in his case meant the deed, for he now set about to produce his first play.
Naturally, he turned to Belasco for advice and co-operation. Both were still identified with the Madison Square Theater, which made their negotiations easy.
In San Francisco Charles had seen a vivid melodrama called "The Stranglers of Paris," which Belasco had written from Adolphe Belot's story and produced with some success. Osmond Tearle, then leading man for Lester Wallack and New York's leading matinee idol, had played in the West the part of Jagon, who was physically one of the ugliest characters in the play.
"'The Stranglers of Paris' is the play for me," said Frohman to Belasco.
"All right," said David; "you shall have it."
The original dramatization was a melodrama without a spark of humor. In rewriting it for New York, Belasco injected considerable comedy here and there.
Frohman, whose vision and ideas were always big, said:
"We've got to get a great cast. I will not be satisfied with anybody but Tearle."
To secure Tearle, Frohman went to see Lester Wallack for the first time. Wallack was then the enthroned theatrical king and one of the most inaccessible of men. Frohman finally contrived to see him and made the proposition for the release of Tearle. Ordinarily Wallack would have treated such an offer with scorn. Frohman's convincing manner, however, led him to explain, for he said:
"Mr. Tearle is the handsomest man in New York, and if I loaned him to you to play the ugliest man ever put on the stage he would lose his drawing power for me. I am sorry I can't accommodate you, Mr. Frohman. Come and see me again."
Out of that meeting came a friendship with Lester Wallack that developed large activities for Charles, as will be seen later on.
Unable to get Tearle, Belasco and Frohman secured Henry Lee, a brilliant and dashing leading actor who had succeeded Eben Plympton in the cast of "Hazel Kirke." The leading woman was Agnes Booth, a well-known stage figure. She was the sister-in-law of Edwin Booth, and an actress of splendid quality.
Unfortunately for him, the leading theaters were all occupied. There were only a few playhouses in New York then, a mere handful compared with the enormous number to-day. But a little thing like that did not disturb Charles Frohman.
Up at the northwest corner of Thirty-fifth Street and Broadway was an old barnlike structure that had been successively aquarium, menagerie, and skating-rink. It had a roof and four walls and at one end there was a rude stage.
One night at midnight Charles, accompanied by Belasco, went up to look at the sorry spectacle. As a theater it was about the most unpromising structure in New York.
"This is all I can get, David," said Charles, "and it must do."
"But, Charley, it is not a theater," said Belasco.
"Never mind," said Frohman. "I will have it made into one."
The old building was under the control of Hyde & Behman, who were planning to convert it into a vaudeville house. Frohman went to see them and persuaded them to turn it into a legitimate theater. Just about this time the Booth Theater at Twenty-third Street and Sixth Avenue was about to be torn down. Under Charles's prompting Hyde & Behman bought the inside of that historic structure, proscenium arch, stage, boxes, and all, and transported them to the Thirty-fifth Street barn. What had been a bare hall became the New Park Theater, destined to go down in history as the playhouse that witnessed many important productions, as well as the first that Charles Frohman made on any stage. Years afterward this theater was renamed the Herald Square.
Charles Frohman now had a play, a theater, and a cast. With characteristic lavishness he said to Belasco:
"We must have the finest scenic production ever made in New York."
He had no capital, but he had no trouble in getting credit. Every one seemed willing to help him. He got out handsome printing and advertised extensively. He spared nothing in scenic effects, which were elaborate. He devoted every spare moment to attending rehearsals.
Among the supernumeraries was a fat boy with a comical face. At one of the rehearsals he sat in a boat and reached out for something. In doing this he fell overboard. He fell so comically that Belasco made his fall a part of the regular business. His ability got him a few lines, which were taken from another actor. This fat-faced, comical boy was John Bunny, who became the best-known moving-picture star in the United States, and who to the end of his days never forgot that he appeared in Charles Frohman's first production. He often spoke of it with pride.
The autumn of 1883 was a strenuous one, for Charles had staked a good deal on "The Stranglers of Paris." Yet when the curtain rose on the evening of November 10, 1883, he was the same smiling, eager, but imperturbable boy who years before had uttered the wish that some day he would put on a play himself in the great city. He now saw that dream come true. He was just twenty-three.
"The Stranglers of Paris" made quite a sensation. The scenic effects were highly praised, and especially the ship scene, which showed convicts in their cages, their revolt, the sinking of the vessel, Jagon's struggle in the water, his escape from death, and his dramatic appeal to Heaven. Lee scored a great success and dated his popularity from this appearance.
Many of the lines in the piece were widely quoted, one of them in particular. It was in substance, "Money has power to open prison gates, and no questions asked."
It was the time of sensational graft revelations, and theater-goers thought that it fitted the New York situation.
"The Stranglers of Paris" ran at the New Park Theater until December 9, when it was taken on the road. It continued on tour for a considerable period, playing most of the principal cities of the East, but the production was so expensive that it made no money. In fact, Charles lost on the enterprise, but it did not in the least dash his spirits. He was supremely content because at last he had produced a play.
* * *
"The Stranglers of Paris" filled the budding manager with a renewed zeal to be a producer. He was still enthusiastic about the melodrama, so he secured a vivid piece by R. G. Morris, a New York newspaper man, called "The Pulse of New York," which he produced at the Star Theater, Thirteenth Street and Broadway, which had been originally Wallack's Theater.
In the cast was a handsome, painstaking young woman named Viola Allen, whom Charles had singled out because of her admirable work in a play that he had seen, and who was headed for a big place in the annals of the American theater. The youthful manager encouraged her and did much to aid her progress.
Others in the cast were Caroline Hill, A. S. Lipman, Edward S. Coleman, L. F. Massen, Frank Lane, Henry Tarbon, W. L. Denison, George Clarke, H. D. Clifton, Ada Deaves, Max Freeman, Edward Pancoast, Frank Green, Gerald Eyre, Nick Long, Frederick Barry, Oscar Todd, John March, Charles Frew, Richard Fox, James Maxwell, J. C. Arnold, Stanley Macy, Lida Lacy, George Mathews, and William Rose.
"The Pulse of New York" was produced May 10, 1884, but ran only three weeks. Once more Charles faced a loss, but he met this as he met the misfortunes of later years, with smiling equanimity.
Now came a characteristic act. He was still in the employ of the Madison Square Theater and had a guarantee of one hundred dollars a week. Although he had devoted considerable time to his two previous productions, he was an invaluable asset to the establishment. He now felt that the time had come for him to choose between remaining at the Madison Square under a guarantee and striking out for himself on the precarious sea of independent theatrical management. He chose the latter, and launched a third enterprise.
In his wanderings about New York theaters Charles saw a serious-eyed young actress named Minnie Maddern. He said to Daniel:
"I have great confidence in that young woman. Will you help me put her out in a piece?"
"All right," replied his brother.
The net result was Miss Maddern in "Caprice."
In view of subsequent stage history this company was somewhat historic. Miss Maddern's salary was seventy-five dollars a week. Her leading man, who had been a general-utility actor at the Lyceum, and who also received seventy-five dollars a week, was Henry Miller. A handsome young lad named Cyril Scott played a very small part and got fifteen dollars a week. The total week's salary of the company amounted to only six hundred and ninety dollars.
"Caprice" opened at Indianapolis November 6, 1884, and subsequently played Chicago, St. Louis, Evansville, Dayton, and Baltimore, with a week at the Grand Opera House in New York, where its season closed. It made no money, but it did a great deal toward advancing the career of Miss Maddern, who afterward became known to millions of theater-goers as Mrs. Fiske.
Charles had now made three productions on his own hook and began to impress his courage and his personality on the theatrical world. He had definitely committed himself to a career of independent management, and from this time on he went it alone.
Booking-Agent and Broadway Producer
The season of 1883-84 had seen Charles Frohman launched as independent manager. He had at its conclusion cut his managerial teeth on the last of three productions which, while not financially successful, had shown the remarkable quality of his ability. People now began to talk about the nervy, energetic young man who could go from failure to failure with a smile on his face. It is a tradition in theatrical management that successful starts almost invariably mean disastrous finishes. An auspicious beginning usually leads to extravagance and lack of balance. Failure at the outset provokes caution. Charles, therefore, had enough early hard jolts to make him careful.
He always admired big names. Thus it came about that his next venture was associated with a name and a prestige that meant much and, later on, cost much. Just about that time he met a handsome young English actor named E. H. Sothern, who had come to this country with his sister and who had appeared for a short time with John McCullough, the tragedian. Sothern had returned to New York and was looking for an engagement.
In those days actors usually secured engagements by running down rumors of productions that were afloat on the Rialto. In this way Sothern heard that Charles Frohman was about to send out an English play called "Nita's First," which had been produced at Wallack's Theater. Sothern called on Frohman and asked to be engaged.
"What salary do you want?" asked Frohman.
Sothern said he wanted fifty dollars.
"All right," said Frohman. "The part is worth seventy-five dollars, and I'll pay it."
Twenty years later the manager paid this same actor a salary of one hundred thousand dollars for a season of forty weeks in Shakespearian roles.
"Nita's First," however, ran for only two weeks on the road, and Charles ended the engagement. The reason was that he had conceived what he considered a brilliant idea.
Lester Wallack and the Wallack Theater Company almost dominated the New York dramatic situation. The company, headed by Wallack himself, included Rose Coghlan, Osmond Tearle, John Gilbert, and a whole galaxy of brilliant people. The Wallack Theater plays were the talk of the town. Frohman had an inspiration which he communicated one day to Lester Wallack's son, Arthur, whom he knew. To Arthur he said:
"What do you think about my taking the Wallack successes out on the road? It is a shame not to capitalize the popular interest in them while it is hot. Look at what the Madison Square Theater has been doing. Will you speak to your father about it?"
Arthur spoke to his father, who was not averse to the idea, and Charles was bidden to the great presence. He had met Lester Wallack before when he tried to engage Osmond Tearle for "The Stranglers of Paris." Now came the real meeting. After Frohman had stated his case with all his persuasion, he added:
"I am sure I can make you rich. You have overlooked a great chance to make money."
Lester Wallack said, "It is a good idea, Mr. Frohman, but your company must reflect credit upon the theater, and your leading woman must be of the same type as my leading woman, Rose Coghlan."
Charles immediately said, "The company shall be worthy of you and the name it bears."
Lester Wallack agreed to rehearse the company and to permit his name to be used in connection with it. After Charles left, Lester Wallack said to his son:
"Watch that young man, Arthur. He is going to make his mark."
Arthur Wallack was about to take a trip to England, and Charles commissioned him to engage the leading people. He therefore engaged Sophie Eyre, who had been leading woman at the Drury Lane Theater, and W. H. Denny.
Charles himself selected the remaining members of the company, who were Newton Gotthold; C. B. Wells; Charles Wheatleigh; Max Freeman; Rowland Buckstone; Henry Talbot; Sam Dubois; George Clarke; Fred Corbett; Louise Dillon, who had been with him in the precarious Stoddart Comedy days; Kate Denin Wilson; Agnes Elliot; and Grace Wilson.
At the time he engaged the Wallack Theater Company Charles had no office. He was then living at the Coleman House on Broadway, just opposite the then celebrated Gilsey House. Most of the engagements were made as he sat in a big leather chair in the lobby, with one foot thrown over an arm of it.
The principal capital that Charles had for this venture was five thousand dollars put up by Daniel J. Bernstein, who became treasurer of the company. Alf Hayman, whom Frohman had met in Philadelphia, was engaged as advance-agent.
It was a courageous undertaking even for a seasoned and well-financed theatrical veteran. Although Lester Wallack was well known, his theater and its successes were not familiar to the great mass of people outside New York. In those days theatrical publicity was not as widespread as now. No wonder, then, that the daring of a young manager of twenty-five in taking out a company whose weekly salary list was nearly thirteen hundred dollars was commented on.
Charles called his aggregation the Wallack Theater Company. The repertoire consisted mainly of "Victor Durand," a play by Henry Guy Carleton which had been produced at Wallack's on December 13, 1884. Subsequently the company also played "Moths," "Lady Clare," "Diplomacy," and Belasco's "La Belle Russe."
This tour, which was to write itself indelibly on the career of Charles Frohman, began in Chicago and was continued through the South to New Orleans, where a stay of six weeks was made at the St. Charles Theater. Belasco joined them here for a week to put on "The World," which had been produced at Wallack's a short time before.
In New Orleans occurred one of those encounters in Charles Frohman's life that led to life-long friendship. Two years before, while playing a Madison Square company at one of the theaters in St. Louis, he had met a bright young man in the box-office named Augustus Thomas. Thomas was then a newspaper man and was beginning to write plays. He told Charles that he had just made a short play out of Frances Hodgson Burnett's story, "Editha's Burglar."
In New Orleans Charles discovered that young Thomas was playing in his own play at a near-by theater and went over to see him. After the performance he visited him in his dressing-room, renewed his acquaintance, and said to him with the optimism of youth:
"Mr. Thomas, I hope that some day you will write a play for me."
* * *
The company now made a tour of Texas, where the troubles began. Business declined, but Frohman succeeded in landing the company in Chicago after a series of misfortunes. Here Sophie Eyre retired and was succeeded by Louise Dillon as leading woman. Charles, of course, had no money with which to buy costumes, so she pawned her jewels and used the proceeds. Sadie Bigelow took her place as ingenue.
Charles now started his famous tour of the Northwest which rivaled the Stoddart days in hardship and in humor. The Northern Pacific Railroad had just been opened to the coast, and Charles followed the new route. A series of tragic, dramatic, and comic experiences began. The tour was through the heart of the old cow country. One night, when the train was stalled by the wrecking of a bridge near Miles City, Montana, a group of cowboys started to "shoot up" the train. Frohman, with ready resource, singled out the leader and said:
"We've got a theatrical company here and we will give you a performance."
He got Rowland Buckstone to stand out on the prairie and recite "The Smuggler's Life," "The Execution," and "The Sanguinary Pirate" by the light of a big bonfire which was built while the show was going on. This tickled the cowboys and brought salvos of shots and shouts of laughter.
At Miles City occurred what might have been a serious episode. When the company reached the hotel at about eleven in the morning Charles Wheatleigh, the "first old man," asked the hotel-keeper what time breakfast was served. When he replied "Eight-thirty o'clock," Wheatleigh pounded the desk and said:
"That is for farmers. When do artists eat?"
The clerk was a typical Westerner, and thought this was an insult. He made a lunge for Wheatleigh, when Frohman stepped in and settled the difficulty in his usual suave and smiling way.
At Butte came another characteristic example of the Frohman enterprise and resource. It was necessary at all hazards to get an audience. When Charles got there he found that the wife of the leading gambler had died. He expressed so much sympathy for the bereaved man that he was made a pall-bearer, and this act created such an impression on the townspeople that they flocked to the theater at night.
At Missoula, Montana, Charles went out ahead of the show for a week. Approaching the treasurer at the box-office, he said:
"Will you please let me have a hundred dollars on account of the show?"
"I can't," replied the man. "We haven't sold a single seat for any of your performances."
Frohman thought a moment and walked out of the lobby. All afternoon orders for seats began to come in to the box-office. Late in the afternoon, when Frohman got back, the agent smiled and said:
"Mr. Frohman, I can let you have that hundred dollars now. We are beginning to have quite an advance sale."
Frohman had gone down-town and sent in the orders for the seats himself. He used fictitious names.
Now began a summer of hardships. With the utmost difficulty the company got to Portland, Oregon, where Charles established a sort of headquarters. From this point he sent the company on short tours. But business continued to be bad.
He started a series of "farewell" performances, as he did in Texas, and placarded the city with the bills announcing "positively" closing performances. These bills were typical of the publicity talents of Charles Frohman. He headed them "Good-by Engagements," and added the words, "A Long, Lingering Farewell." Under "Favorites' Farewell" he printed the names of the members of the company with the titles or parts in which they were known. "Good-by, Louise Dillon, our Esmeralda"; "Good-by, Kate Denin Wilson, Pretty Lady Dolly"; "Good-by, Charles B. Wells, Faithful Dave Hardy"; "Good-by, Rowland Buckstone, Some Other Man"—were typical illustrations of his attempt to make a strong appeal for business.
Actual money in the company was a novelty. Bernstein's five thousand dollars had long since vanished. When a member of the company wanted some cash it had to be extracted from the treasurer in one-dollar instalments.
Despite the hardships, the utmost good humor and feeling prevailed. Most of the members of the company were young; there was no bickering. They knew that Frohman's struggle was with and for them. They called him "The Governor," and he always referred to them as his "nice little company." All looked forward confidently to better days, and in this belief they were supported and inspired by the cheery philosophy of the manager.
Charles's resource was tested daily. He had booked a near-by town for fair week, which always meant good business. At last he had money in sight. The local manager, however, insisted upon a great display of fancy printing. Charles was in a dilemma because he owed his printer a big bill and he had no more lithographs on hand. A friend who was in advance of William Gillette's play, "The Private Secretary," came along with a lot of his own paper. Charles borrowed a quantity of it and also from the "Whose Baby Are You?" company, covered over these two titles with slips containing the words "Lady Clare," the piece he was going to present. He billed the town with great success and was able to keep going.
During the Portland sojourn Charles sent the company on to Salem, Oregon. While there, six members had their photographs taken with a disconsolate look on their faces and with Buckstone holding a dollar in his hand. They sent the picture to Frohman with the inscription:
"From your nice little company waiting for its salary."
At Portland, Oregon, A. D. Charlton, who was passenger agent of the Northern Pacific Railroad, and who had been of great service to Charles in extricating him from various financial difficulties, said to him one day:
"Frohman, I want you to meet a very promising little actress who is out here with her mother."
Frohman said he would be glad, and, accompanying Charlton to his office, was introduced to Annie Adams, a well-known actress from Salt Lake City, and her wistful-eyed little daughter, Maude. They were both members of the John McGuire Company. This was Charles Frohman's first meeting with Maude Adams.
At Portland Frohman added "Two Orphans" and "Esmeralda" to the company's repertoire. But it barely got them out of town at the really and truly "farewell."
* * *
Now began a return journey from Portland that was even more precarious than the trip out. Baggage had to be sacrificed; there was scarcely any scenery. One "back drop" showing the interior of a cathedral was used for every kind of scene, from a gambling-house to a ball-room. To the financial hardship of the homeward trip was added real physical trial. Frohman showed in towns wherever there was the least prospect of any kind of a house. The company therefore played in skating-rinks, school-houses, even barns. In some places the members of the company had to take the oil-lamps that served as footlights back in the makeshift dressing-rooms while they dressed.
At Bozeman, Montana, occurred an incident which showed both the humor and the precariousness of the situation. Frohman assembled the company in the waiting-room of the station and, stepping up to the ticket-office, laid down one hundred and thirty dollars in cash.
"Where do you want to go?" asked the agent.
Shoving the money at him, Frohman said, "How far will this take us?"
The agent looked out of the window, counted up the company, and said, "To Billings."
Turning to the company, Frohman said, with a smile, "Ladies and gentlemen, we play Billings next."
Just then he received a telegram from Alf Hayman, who was on ahead of the company:
What town shall I bill?
Frohman wired back:
Hayman again wired:
Have no printing and can get no credit. What shall I do?
Frohman's resource came into stead, for he telegraphed:
Notify theaters that we are a high-class company from Wallack's Theater in New York and use no ordinary printing. We employ only newspapers and dodgers.
At Missoula, Montana, on their way back, a member of the company became dissatisfied and stood with his associates at the station where two trains met, one for the east and one for the west. As the train for the east slowed up the actor rushed toward it and, calling to the members of the company, said:
"I am leaving you for good. You'll never get anywhere with Frohman."
The company, however, elected to stay with Frohman. In later years this actor fell into hardship. Frohman singled him out, and from that time on until Frohman's death he had a good engagement every year in a Frohman company.
At Bismarck, North Dakota, the company gave "Moths." In this play the spurned hero, a singer, has a line which reads, "There are many marquises, but very few tenors."
Money had been so scarce for months that this remark was the last straw, so the company burst into laughter, and the performance was nearly broken up. Frohman, who stood in the back of the house, enjoyed it as much as the rest.
Through all these hardships Frohman remained serene and smiling. His unfailing optimism tided over the dark days. The end came at Winona, Minnesota. The company had sacrificed everything it could possibly sacrifice. Frohman borrowed a considerable sum from the railroad agent to go to Chicago, where he obtained six hundred dollars from Frank Sanger. With this he paid the friendly agent and brought the company back to New York.
Even the last lap of this disastrous journey was not without its humor. The men were all assembled in the smoking-car on the way from Albany to New York. Frohman for once sat silent. When somebody asked him why he looked so glum, he said, "I'm thinking of what I have got to face to-morrow."
Up spoke Wheatleigh, whose marital troubles were well known. He slapped Frohman on the back and said:
"Charley, your troubles are slight. Think of me. I've got to face my wife to-morrow."
It was characteristic of Frohman's high sense of integrity that he gave his personal note to each member of the company for back salary in full, and before five years passed had discharged every debt.
* * *
On arriving in New York Charles had less than a dollar in his pocket, his clothes were worn, and he looked generally much the worse for wear. On the street he met Belasco. They pooled their finances and went to "Beefsteak John's," where they had a supper of kidney stew, pie, and tea. They renewed the old experiences at O'Neil's restaurant and talked about what they were going to do.
The next day Frohman was standing speculatively in front of the Coleman House when he met Jack Rickaby, a noted theatrical figure of the time. Rickaby slapped the young man on the back and said:
"Frohman, I am glad you have had a good season. You're going to be a big man in this profession."
He shook Frohman's hand warmly and walked away.
It was the first cheering word that Frohman had heard. The news of his disastrous trip had not become known. Always proud, he was glad of it. After Rickaby had shaken his hand he felt something in it, and on looking he saw that the big-hearted manager had placed a hundred-dollar bill there. Rickaby had known all along the story of the Wallack tour hardships, and it was his way of expressing sympathy. Frohman afterward said it was the most touching moment in his life. Speaking of this once, he said:
"That hundred-dollar bill looked bigger than any sum of money I have ever had since."
* * *
It was late in 1885 when Charles returned from the disastrous Wallack's Theater tour, bankrupt in finance but almost over-capitalized in courage and plans for the future. Up to that time he had no regular office. Like many of the managers of the day, his office was in his hat. Now, for the first time, he set up an establishment of his own. It required no capital to embark in the booking business in those days. Nerve and resiliency were the two principal requisites.
The first Frohman offices were at 1215 Broadway, in the same building that housed Daly's Theater. In two small rooms on the second floor Charles Frohman laid the corner-stone of what in later years became a chain of offices and interests that reached wherever the English language was spoken on the stage. The interesting contrast here was that while Augustin Daly, then in the heyday of his great success, was creating theatrical history on the stage below him, Charles Frohman was beginning his real managerial career up-stairs.
Frohman's first associate was W. W. Randall, a San Francisco newspaper man whom he had met in the Haverly's Minstrel days, in the mean time manager of "The Private Secretary" and several of the Madison Square companies on the road. He was alert and aggressive and knew the technique of the theatrical business.
Charles Frohman's policy was always pretentious, so he set up two distinct firms. One was the "Randall's Theatrical Bureau, Charles Frohman and W. W. Randall, Managers," which was under Randall's direction and which booked attractions for theaters throughout the country on a fee basis. The other was called "Frohman & Randall, General Theatrical Managers." Its function was to produce plays and was directly under Charles's supervision. The two firm names were emblazoned on the door and business was started. Their first employee was Julius Cahn.
These offices have an historic interest aside from the fact that they were the first to be occupied by Charles Frohman. Out of them grew really the whole modern system of booking attractions. Up to that era theatrical booking methods were different from those of the present time; there were no great centralized agencies to book attractions for strings of theaters covering the entire country. Union Square was the Rialto, the heart and center of the booking business. The out-of-town manager came there to fill his time for the season. Much of the booking was done in a haphazard way on the sidewalk, and whole seasons were booked on the curb, merely noted in pocket note-books. Two methods of booking were then in vogue: one by the manager of a company who wrote from New York to the towns for time; the other through an agent of out-of-town house managers located in New York. It was this latter system that Frohman and Randall began to develop in a scientific fashion. Charles's extensive experience on the road and his knowledge of the theatrical status of the different towns made him a valuable agent.
Frohman and Randall at that time practically had the field to themselves. Brooks & Dickson, an older firm which included the well-known Joseph Brooks of later managerial fame, had conducted the first booking-office of any consequence, but had now retired. H. S. Taylor had just established on Fourteenth Street Taylor's Theatrical Exchange, destined to figure in theatrical history as the forerunner of the Klaw & Erlanger business.
Despite the high-sounding titles on the door, the Frohman offices were unpretentious. Frohman and Randall had a desk apiece, and there was a second-hand iron safe in the corner. When Frohman was asked, one day soon after the shingle had been hung out, what the safe was for, he replied, with his characteristic humor:
"We keep the coal-scuttle in it."
As a matter of fact there was more truth than poetry in this remark, because the office assets were so low that during the winter the firm had to burn gas all day to keep warm. When asked the reason for this, Frohman said, jocularly:
"We can get more credit if we use gas, because the gas bill has to be paid only once a month. Coal is cash."
Indeed, the office was so cold during that season that it came to be known in the profession as the "Cave of the Winds," and this title was no reflection on the vocal qualities of the proprietors.
It was during those early and precarious days when Frohman was still saddled with the debts of the Wallack's tour that one of the most amusing incidents of his life happened. One morning he was served with the notice of a supplementary proceeding which had been instituted against him. He was always afraid of the courts, and he was much alarmed. He rushed across the street to the Gilsey House and consulted Henry E. Dixey, the actor, who was living there. Dixey's advice was to get a lawyer. Together they returned to the Daly's Theater Building, where Frohman knew a lawyer was installed on the top floor. They found the lawyer blacking that portion of his white socks that appeared through the holes in his shoes.
Frohman stated his case, which the lawyer accepted. He then demanded a two-dollar fee. Frohman had only one dollar in his pocket and borrowed the other dollar from Dixey.
"This money," said the lawyer, "is to be paid into the court. How about my fee?"
Frohman fumbled in his pocket and produced a ten-cent piece. He handed it to the lawyer, saying: "I will pay you later on. Here is your car-fare. Be sure to get to court before it opens."
Frohman and Dixey left. Frohman was much agitated. They walked around the block several times. When he heard the clock strike ten he said to Dixey:
"Now the lawyer is in the court-room and the matter is being settled." In his expansive relief he said: "I have credit at Browne's Chop House. Let us go over and have breakfast."
At the restaurant they ordered a modest meal. As Frohman looked up from his table he saw a man sitting directly opposite whose face was hid behind a newspaper. In front of him was a pile of wheat-cakes about a foot high.
"Gee whiz!" said Frohman. "I wish I had enough money to buy a stack of wheat-cakes that high."
As he said this to Dixey the man opposite happened to lower his paper and revealed himself to be the lawyer Frohman had just engaged. He was having a breakfast spree himself with the two dollars extracted from his two recent clients.
* * *
Business began to pick up with the new year. The first, and what afterward proved to be the most profitable, clients of the booking-office were the Baldwin and California theaters in San Francisco. They were dominated by Al Hayman, brother of Alf, a man who now came intimately into Charles Frohman's life and remained so until the end. He was a Philadelphian who had conducted various traveling theatrical enterprises in Australia and had met Frohman for the first time in London when the latter went over with the Haverly Mastodons. Hayman admired Frohman very much and soon made him general Eastern representative of all his extensive Pacific coast interests.
Hayman was developing into a magnate of importance. With his assistance Charles was able to book a company all the way from New York to San Francisco. Charles made himself responsible for the time between New York and Kansas City, while Hayman would guarantee the company's time from Kansas City or Omaha to the coast.
Frohman and Randall made a good team, and they soon acquired a chain of more than three hundred theaters, ranging from music-halls in small towns that booked the ten-twenty-thirty-cent dramas up to the palatial houses like Hooley's in Chicago, the Hollis in Boston, and the Baldwin in San Francisco.
It was a happy-go-lucky time. If Frohman had ten dollars in his pocket to spare he considered himself rich. Money then, as always, meant very little to him. It came and went easily.
* * *
While the booking business waxed in volume the production end of the establishment did not fare so well. Charles had this activity of the office as his particular domain, and with the instinct of the plunger now began to put on plays right and left.
Just before the association with Randall, Frohman had become manager of Neil Burgess, the actor, and had booked him for a tour in a play called "Vim." A disagreement followed, and Frohman turned him over to George W. Lederer, who took the play out to the coast.
A year after this episode came the first of the many opportunities for fortune that Charles Frohman turned down in the course of his eventful life. This is the way it happened:
Burgess, who was quite an inventive person, had patented the treadmill mechanism to represent horse-racing on the stage, a device which was afterward used with such great effect in "Ben-Hur." He was so much impressed with it that he had a play written around it called "The County Fair."
Burgess, who liked Frohman immensely, tried to get him to take charge of this piece, but Frohman would not listen to the proposition about the mechanical device. He was unhappy over his experience about "Vim," and whenever Burgess tried to talk "The County Fair" and its machine Frohman would put him off.
Burgess finally went elsewhere, and, as most people know, "The County Fair" almost rivaled "The Old Homestead" in money-making ability. The horse-racing scene became the most-talked-of episode on the stage at the time, and Burgess cleared more than a quarter of a million dollars out of the enterprise. Charles Frohman afterward admitted that his prejudice against Burgess and his machine had cost his office at least one hundred thousand dollars.
* * *
Frohman and Randall now launched an important venture. McKee Rankin, who was one of the best-known players of the time, induced them to become his managers in a piece called "The Golden Giant," by Clay M. Greene. Charles, however, agreed to the proposition on the condition that Rankin would put his wife, Kitty Blanchard, in the cast. They had been estranged, and Frohman, with his natural shrewdness, believed that the stage reunion of Mr. and Mrs. McKee Rankin would be a great drawing-card for the play. Rankin made the arrangements, and the Fifth Avenue Theater was booked for two weeks, commencing Easter Monday, 1886.
The theater was then under the management of John Stetson, of Boston, and both Frohman and Rankin looked forward to doing a great business. In this cast Robert Hilliard, who had been a clever amateur actor in Brooklyn, made his first professional appearance. Charles supervised the rehearsals and had rosy visions of a big success. At four o'clock, however, on the afternoon of the opening night, Charles went to the box-office and discovered the advance sale had been only one hundred dollars.
"I tell you what to do, Randall," quickly thought out Frohman, "if Stetson will stand for it we will paper the house to the doors. We must open to a capacity audience."
When Frohman put the matter before Stetson he said he did not believe in "second-hand reconciliations," but assented to the plan. Frohman gave Randall six hundred seats, and the latter put them into good hands. The premiere of "The Golden Giant," to all intents and purposes, took place before a crowded and paying house. In reality there was exactly two hundred and eighty-eight dollars in the box-office. Business picked up, however, and the two weeks' engagement proved prosperous. The play failed on the road, however, and the Frohman offices lost over five thousand dollars on the venture. Rankin had agreed to pay Frohman forty per cent. of the losses. That agreement remained in force all his life, for it was never paid.
In Charles's next venture he launched his first star. Curiously enough, the star was Tony Hart, a member of the famous Irish team of Harrigan and Hart, who had delighted the boyhood of Frohman when he used to slip away on Saturday nights and revel in a show.
Tony Hart, during the interim, had separated from Harrigan, and in some way Charles obtained the manuscript of a farce-comedy by William Gill called "A Toy Pistol."
Charles had never lost his admiration for Hart, and when he saw that the leading character had to impersonate an Italian, a young Hebrew, an Irishwoman, and a Chinaman, Frohman said, "Tony Hart is the very person."
Accordingly, he engaged Hart and a company which included J. B. Mackey, F. R. Jackson, T. J. Cronin, D. G. Longworth, Annie Adams, Annie Alliston, Mattie Ferguson, Bertie Amberg, Eva Grenville, Vera Wilson, Minnie Williams, and Lena Merville.
This production had an influence on Charles Frohman's life far greater than the association with his first star, for Annie Adams now began a more or less continuous connection with Charles Frohman's companies. Her daughter, the little girl whom Charles had met casually years before, was now about to make her first New York appearance as member of a traveling company in "The Paymaster." Already the energetic mother was importuning Charles to engage the daughter. His answer was, "I'll give her a chance as soon as I can." He little dreamed that this wisp of a girl was to become in later years his most profitable and best-known star.
Charles was, of course, keenly interested in "A Toy Pistol." He conducted the rehearsals, and on February 20, 1886, produced it at what was then called the New York Comedy Theater. It failed, however. The New York Comedy Theater was originally a large billiard-hall in the Gilsey Building, on Broadway between Twenty-eighth and Twenty-ninth streets, and had been first named the San Francisco Minstrel Hall. It became successively Haverly's Comedy Theater and the New York Comedy Theater. Subsequently, it was known as Hermann's Theater, and was the scene of many of the earlier Charles Frohman productions.
* * *
Charles now became immersed in productions. About this time Archibald Clavering Gunter, who had scored a sensational success with his books, especially "Mr. Barnes of New York," had written a play called "A Wall Street Bandit," which had been produced with great success in San Francisco. Frohman booked it for four weeks at the old Standard Theater, afterward the Manhattan, on a very generous royalty basis, and plunged in his usual lavish style. He got together a magnificent cast, which included Georgia Cayvan, W. J. Ferguson, Robert McWade, Charles Bowser, Charles Wheatleigh, and Sadie Bigelow. The play opened to capacity and the indications were that the engagement would be a success; but it suddenly fizzled out. On Sunday morning, when Charles read the papers with their reviews of the week, he said to Randall, with his usual philosophy:
"We've got a magnificent frost, but it was worth doing."
This production cost the youthful manager ten thousand dollars.
* * *
Frohman still had control of "time" at the Standard, so he now put on a play, translated by Henri Rochefort, called "A Daughter of Ireland," in which Georgia Cayvan had the title role. Here he scored another failure, but his ardor remained undampened and he went on to what looked at that moment to be the biggest thing he had yet tried.
Dion Boucicault was one of the great stage figures of his period. He was both actor and author, and wrote or adapted several hundred plays, including such phenomenal successes as "Colleen Bawn," "Shaughraun," which ran for a year simultaneously in London, New York, and Melbourne, and "London Assurance." There was much talk of his latest comedy, "The Jilt." Frohman, who always wanted to be associated with big names, now arranged by cable to produce this play at the Standard. Once more he plunged on an expensive company which included, among others, Fritz Williams, Louise Thorndyke, and Helen Bancroft.
For four weeks he cleared a thousand a week. Then he put the company on the road, where it did absolutely nothing. Charles, who had an uncanny sense of analysis of play failures, now declared that the reason for the failure was that theater-goers resented Boucicault's treatment of his first wife, Agnes Robertson. Boucicault had declared that he was not the father of her child, and when she sued him in England the courts gave her the verdict. Meanwhile Boucicault married, and in the eyes of the world he was a bigamist. This experience, it is interesting to add, taught Charles Frohman never to engage stars on whom there was the slightest smirch of scandal or disrepute.
At Montreal Boucicault refused to continue the tour, and this engagement, like so many of its predecessors, left Charles in a financial hole. Despite all these reverses he was able to make a livelihood out of the booking end of the office, which thrived and grew with each month. Nor was he without his sense of humor in those days.
One day he met a certain manager who had lost a great deal of money in comic opera. Frohman said to him that he heard that there was much money in the comic-opera end of the business.
"So there is," replied the manager.
"You ought to know," responded Frohman, "for you have put enough into it."
This remark, often attributed to others, is said to have originated here.
* * *
Frohman was now an established producer, and although the tide of fortune had not gone altogether happily with him, he had a Micawber-like conviction that the big thing would eventually turn up. Now came his first contact with Bronson Howard, who, a few years later, was to be the first mile-stone in his journey to fame and fortune.
Howard's name was one to conjure with. He had produced "Young Mrs. Winthrop," "The Banker's Daughter," "Saratoga," and other great successes. Charles Frohman, yielding, as usual, to the lure of big names, now put on Howard's play, "Baron Rudolph," for which George Knight had paid the author three thousand dollars to rewrite. Knight gave Frohman a free hand in the matter of casting the production, and it was put on at the Fourteenth Street Theater in an elaborate fashion. The company included various people who later on were to become widely known. Among them were George Knight and his wife, George Fawcett, Charles Bowser, and a very prepossessing young man named Henry Woodruff.
"Baron Rudolph" proved to be a failure, and it broke Knight's heart, for shortly afterward he was committed to an insane asylum from which he never emerged alive. It was found that while the play was well written there was no sympathy for a ragged tramp.
Whether he thought it would change his luck or not, Charles now turned to a different sort of enterprise. He had read in the newspapers about the astonishing mind-reading feats in England of Washington Irving Bishop. Always on the lookout for something novel, he started a correspondence with Bishop which ended in a contract by which he agreed to present Bishop in the United States in 1887.
Bishop came over and Frohman sponsored his first appearance in New York on February 27, 1887, at Wallack's Theater. With his genius for publicity, Frohman got an extraordinary amount of advertising out of this engagement. Among other things he got Bishop to drive around New York blindfolded. He invited well-known men to come and witness his marvelous gift in private. All of which attracted a great deal of attention, but very little money to the box-office. Frohman and Bishop differed about the conduct of the tour that was to follow, and M. B. Leavitt assumed the management.
While at 1215 Broadway Charles Frohman established another of his many innovations by getting out what was probably the first stylographic press sheet. This sheet, which contained news of the various attractions that Frohman booked, was sent to the leading newspapers throughout the country and was the forerunner of the avalanche of press matter that to-day is hurled at dramatic editors everywhere.
* * *
The booking business had now grown so extensively that the office force was increased. First came Julius Cahn, who assisted Randall with the booking. Al Hayman took a desk in Frohman's office, which, because of Hayman's extensive California enterprises, had a virtual monopoly on all Western booking.
Now developed a curious episode. Charles, with his devotion to big names, used the words "Daly's Theater Building" on his letter-heads. This so infuriated Daly that he sent a peremptory message to the landlord insisting that Frohman vacate the building. Frohman and Randall thereupon moved their offices up the block to 1267 Broadway.
Charles Frohman made every possible capitalization of this change. Among other things he issued a broadside, announcing the removal to new offices, and making the following characteristic statement:
Our agency, we are pleased to state, has been an established success from the very start. We now represent every important theater in the United States and Canada, as an inspection of our list will show, and we will always keep up the high standard of attractions that have been booked through this office, and we want the business of no others. Mr. E. E. Rice, the well-known manager and author, will have adjoining offices with us, and his attractions will be booked through our offices. We transact a general theatrical business (excepting that pertaining to a dramatic or actor's agency), and are in competition with no other exchange, booking agency, or dramatic concern. Neither do we have any desk-room to let, reserving all the space of our office for our own use.
Attached to this announcement was a list of theaters that he represented, which was a foot long. He was also representing Archibald Clavering Gunter, who had followed up "A Wall Street Bandit" with "Prince Karl," and Robert Buchanan, author of "Lady Clare" and "Alone in London."
Frohman and Randall stayed at 1267 Broadway for a year. Shortly before the next change Randall, who had become extensively interested in outside enterprises, retired from the firm. His successor as close associate with Charles Frohman was Harry Rockwood, ablest of the early Frohman lieutenants.
Rockwood was a distinguished-looking man and a tireless worker. The way he came to be associated with Charles Frohman was interesting. His real name was H. Rockwood Hewitt, and he was related to ex-Mayor Abram S. Hewitt of New York. He had had some experience in Wall Street, but became infected with the theatrical virus.