Tuesday, December 27, 2011

ScrantonHistory.com feature

ScrantonHistory.com
December 27, 2011

New Book on Scranton's Theater History

by Cheryl Kashuba

If You Can Play Scranton: A Theatrical History 1871-2010 by Nancy McDonald

Tribute Books

$12.95

“If you can play Scranton, you can play anywhere.” That well-known saying arose during the hey-day of vaudeville, when performers made their living by traveling the country’s cities and entertaining the crowds. Scranton audiences had a reputation as a tough lot who had little patience for stale material, were suspicious of anything new, and demanded to be entertained for their hard-earned money.

The saying gave Nancy McDonald the title for her book on Scranton’s theater history. Published this year by Tribute Books, If You Can Play Scranton is more than 250 pages of factual information, anecdotes, photographs, humor, and charm.

Washington House was the first building in the city of Scranton to call itself a theater. The first vaudeville house, it opened in 1870. It was small, dirty, and shunned by the “better classes.” Other theaters soon sprung up, and before long, Scranton was on the road to earning its reputation. “Mediocrity was never excused,” Ms. McDonald writes, “but at the same time, Scrantonians were quick to spot new talent and to applaud superb acting and fine production techniques.”

Of course, there were elegant establishments, too. The Academy of Music opened in 1877 at 225 Wyoming Avenue. Considered one of the finest theaters in the country, it had a world-class stage, dress boxes, an orchestra circle, and balcony and gallery seating for 1,500, and it featured first-class acting and operatic troupes.

But there were also some real characters, and Ms. McDonald’s book paints some terrific pictures of them. Arthur Frothingham stands out as one example. He opened his theater at 213-215 Wyoming Avenue on March 26, 1894. The elaborate Moorish-style structure stood out among its surrounding buildings. It became popular, “the perfect, lavish setting for a new type musical just coming into vogue.” But it attracted attention for another reason, too. Frothingham rigged trombones to go off three times a day – at 7:00 in the morning, 1:00 in the afternoon, and 6:00 in evening. The neighboring Westminster Hotel, whose guests were quite put out at the disruption, got a court injunction to stop it.

This book pulls you back to other eras. Names like Frothingham might be little known to most of us, but others are familiar. Mae West, Will Rogers, and Groucho Marx. Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen. Lillian Russell and Lionel Barrymore. “During the week of January 1, 1912, there was a newcomer at the Poli in the cast of a musical spectacular called California. He was a shy, simple-looking man with a funny grin, weather-beaten skin and straight hair falling to bangs, who spun figure eights and jumped through hoops while keeping up a running line of chatter.” That man was Will Rogers. Starting with the line “All I know is what I read in the papers,” he delivered a line of jokes garnered from local additions of the morning papers.

If You Can Play Scranton covers more than the early theater scene – a lot more: musical greats from the Big Band era and the concert stage, comedians, movies stars. If they played Scranton, chances are they’re in this book. Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Allan Jones, Enrico Caruso, Paul Robseon, Vladimir Horowitz, Marian Anderson. Acting greats Helen Hayes, and Dennis O’Keefe, From gun-slinging sharpshooter Annie Oakley to Scranton’s own Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and actor Jason Miller, this book has it all. It’s a must-read for anyone who loves performance history and an enjoyable read for anyone.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Nancy McDonald's interview on WVIA-FM's ArtScene with Erika Funke

WVIA-FM
December 21, 2011

ArtScene
interview conducted by Erika Funke



Click the play button below to listen to Nancy's interview on WVIA-FM's ArtScene with Erika Funke.

The Abington Journal features "If You Can Play Scranton"

The Abington Journal
December 21, 2011

One of the best audiences around
Dunmore based author's new book explores the history of theater in the area.

by Don McGlynn

Local author Nancy McDonald takes a look back at the impact Scranton audiences had in the arts in her new book “If You Can Play Scranton-A Theatrical History, 1871-2010.”

McDonald will sign copies of her book, a theatrical history of America as seen through the famous performers who came to the Scranton area between the years 1871 to 2010, at the Steamtown National Historic Site on Saturday, Dec. 24 at 11 a.m.

“The main purpose I wrote it is that so we don’t lose the history,” said McDonald.

“They spend a lot of time talking about the coal mines and industry, but nobody did the art section until I did. And that’s why I wanted to do it, because I just didn’t think it should be lost.”

A summa cum laude graduate of Marywood University, McDonald started the book as the thesis for her master’s degree. She reworked it into a book and published it in 1981.

The book was well received upon its initial release and, at the urging of a friend, she decided to update it.

“I rewrote some, and added information to the earlier chapters,” said McDonald.

“I added the chapter on ‘That Championship Season’ and the last chapter…goes through the people at Montage.”

The title of the book comes from the old saying- “If you can play Scranton, you can play anywhere,” popular in the turn of the century among performers when Scranton was a must-stop destination for anyone trying out a new play or different act.

“Nowadays, it doesn’t pay; it’s cheaper to open it on Broadway and gamble, but the days of the turn of the century they would try out in different towns,” said McDonald.

“And, Scranton was one of those towns that was sophisticated enough because they had so much theater, and they had so much opera, and so much music, that they knew whether or not the play was going to succeed or if they had to change things.”

During these tryouts, the people involved with the show would have an opportunity to gauge what aspects of the performance worked and which ones didn’t. Scranton audiences became one of the best tools to find this out.

“If they didn’t like you, you knew it,” said McDonald. “In the vaudeville days, they would just start a loud hiss that would go through the whole theater. I don’t know how it sounded, but people who were here described it to me and said once you heard it you never forgot it, and the critics were very severe.”

“If you were not good, they would tell you and it didn’t matter if you were the most important actor in the country. You either made them happy or you knew you were going to be told about it. So, you were pretty sure you were going to get an honest review. And they weren’t, particularly in the old days, quick to give a standing ovation. If they did, you knew you had to be pretty good.”

This level of honesty was appreciated, and, as a result, some of the most popular performers came to the area at the height of their popularity, including Edwin Booth whom McDonald described as the “greatest Shakesperian actor that America every produced.”

The book also includes a wealth of information about performers from the area, the stories of some surprised and fascinated McDonald herself.

“There were people I didn’t know anything about,” said McDonald. “Lillian Raymondi, she was a… girl from South Side that I knew nothing about that became a Metropolitan Opera star, and, a couple other people that I really didn’t know until I went back searching through Dr. (D.E.) Jones’ files for local people.”

Dr. Jones’ files are held at the Lackawanna County Historical Society where McDonald said she did a lot of research for the book.

“One of the great assets to this community is this Historical Society,” said McDonald. “They have a lot of records that people aren’t aware of that they should be aware of.”

“You can come in and speak with the director or the librarian and if they have something, they’re more than happy to help.”

The Historical Society is located at 232 Monroe Ave., Scranton. For more information, call 344.3841.

Published by Tribute Books, “If You Can Play Scranton” is available to purchase on its website, www.tributebooks.com, as well as on Amazon.com, where it can also be downloaded.

The book will also be for sale at McDonald’s signing at the Steamtown National Historic Site at 150 S. Washington Ave., Scranton.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Scranton's Musical Stars - James J. Peck


Mask maker, mask dancer, actor, director and teacher, James J. Peck came originally from Waverly, Pennsylvania. He was the founder and artistic director of Nutshell Masks & Theater. He studied theater at Northwestern University, mime in San Francisco with the Houle-Wibaux mime troupe, masks and mythology at the Del’ Arte School in Blue Lake, California and mask dance and carving in Bali, Indonesia. For 20 years, he had been a professional actor.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Scranton Times-Tribune features "If You Can Play Scranton"

Scranton Times-Tribune
December 18, 2011

Putting on the Ritz
Book gives glimpse of Electric City's vaudevillian past

by Cheryl A. Kashuba

If you can play Scranton, you can play anywhere. That saying was born in a city with a tough reputation. From 1871 into the 1930s, Scranton was a microcosm of American theater where major dramatic performers, headline vaudeville acts, concert musicians and newcomers all proved their mettle.

Nancy McDonald takes her readers back in time to relive Scranton's entertainment scene in her book "If You Can Play Scranton: A Theatrical History, 1871-2010." With more than 250 pages and an impressive collection of photographs, Ms. McDonald traces the earliest days of Scranton's theater scene up through the heyday of vaudeville, the Big Band era, the movies, concerts and more.

"Theater people regarded Scranton as a tough town to play," she writes. "Mediocrity was never excused, but at the same time, Scrantonians were quick to spot new talent and to applaud superb acting and fine production techniques."

There was plenty of both. Lionel Barrymore came to Scranton on Dec. 8, 1902, in a production of "The Mummy and the Hummingbird" that had closed in New York and begun its tour. "In his youth," Ms. McDonald writes, Mr. Barrymore "was unable to portray a character that was his own age, but did extremely well with mature figures." His part as the elderly organ grinder established his career.

According to Lionel, Ethel Barrymore had secured him a role for which he felt inadequate. But he worked with an Italian-born actor named Ralph Delmore and mastered the dialect of Sicily. Together they hired an organ grinder, and Mr. Barrymore studied his motions. "Reviews," Ms. McDonald writes, "praised Barrymore lavishly for his effectiveness of characterization."

Scranton's tough theater scene "allowed established artists to justify their reputations and made newcomers prove their right to hold the stage." The same year that Mr. Barrymore brought his key role to the city, veteran comedienne Alice Fisher headed "Mrs. Jack." She was "quite capable of luring laughs," according to Ms. McDonald, "but her task was made easier by a young newcomer, Douglas E. Fairbanks, who gave true sparkle to the cad he was portraying."

This treasure of a book is filled with juicy details and stories that bring to life this exciting era of Scranton's past. A revised and greatly expanded edition of a book first published in 1981, the new edition, published by locally owned Tribute Books, is well-researched and documented, with an extensive index and photographs of performers and old theaters.

Miss McDonald has something of a personal connection to Scranton's theater history. Her great uncle, Michael McDonald, was a state senator and lawyer for the colorful character Arthur Frothingham, who built Scranton's Frothingham Theater. Her father, Paul McDonald, worked as a young man in theaters under chief stage electrician Terence Carden. He saw many of the famous performers mentioned in Ms. McDonald's book. In fact, his stories prompted her research.

Ms. McDonald studied history and drama at Marywood University and graduated summa cum laude. She received a Master of Arts in European history from Marywood College and taught at West Scranton Senior High School until retiring in 1999. This writer is proud to identify herself as a former student.

Ms. McDonald's book is filled with interesting tidbits. In October 1914, the country's leading comedienne, Fanny Brice, played a full week to capacity crowds. That same month, the new brother-and-sister dance team of Fred and Adele Astaire appeared. They were the "weakest act on their bill," a surprising fact given Fred Astaire's later fame.

Harry Houdini always accepted challenges from locals. His Scranton act included his escape from a box fastened with 7-pound nails and bound with thick rope - constructed by workers at J.B. Woolsey Co.

Will Rogers, Mae West and Jack Benny. George M. Cohan, Enrico Caruso and Marion Anderson. These and many more all played Scranton, and Ms. McDonald's book tells you all about it.

CHERYL A. KASHUBA is a freelance writer specializing in local history. Visit her at scrantonhistory.com. Contact the writer: localhistory@timesshamrock.com

If you go:

What: Ms. McDonald will be signing copies of her book, "If You Can Play Scranton: A Theatrical History, 1871-2010"

When: Saturday, Dec. 24, at 11 a.m.

Where: Steamtown National Historic Site museum store, 350 Cliff St., Scranton, PA 18503

Phone: 340-5213

Image:

The Ritz Theater, opened first as the Poli Theater, was a popular theater during the vaudeville days in Scranton. The theater is located on Wyoming Avenue. The marquee on the theater is announcing the performance of Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds and a showing of the 1930 film "See America Thirst."
courtesy of The Sunday Times Archives

Scranton Times-Tribune mentions "If You Can Play Scranton"

Scranton Times-Tribune
December 18, 2011

Read It!
Scranton had big role in showbiz


Los Angeles and New York are undoubtedly the hubs of American show business. But Scranton was no slouch back in the day, as Dunmore resident Nancy McDonald illustrates in her new book, "If You Can Play Scranton: A Theatrical History, 1871-2010."

Published by Archbald-based Tribute Books, the book presents a history of American theater through the lens of the many famous performers who came to Scranton, which at the turn of the 20th century was one of the most well-known try-out towns for legitimate stage productions. Ms. McDonald covers everything from the best-known actors and actresses of the tragic and comic stage to the great vaudevillians to the biggest musical stars.

A former social studies teacher at West Scranton High School, Ms. McDonald will be signing copies of the book on Saturday at 11 a.m. at the Steamtown National Historic Site, 150 S. Washington Ave. For further details, call 340-5200.

The book retails for $12.95 paperback and $2.99 to $4.99 in e-book form. For more information, visit www.IfYouCanPlayScranton.com or www.tribute-books.com.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Scranton's Musical Stars - Bobby Arvon


West Scranton native Bobby Arvon appeared on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, the Merv Griffin Show, the Dinah Shore Show and performed with Mel Tillis. His was best known for his recording of the theme song for the TV series, Happy Days.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Electric City features "If You Can Play Scranton"







Electric City
December 15, 2011

Curtain Call: Scranton's Celebrity Limelight

by Alicia Grega

Scranton, Pennsylvania of 100 years ago was an arguably more vibrant, thriving city than it is today. It earned the nickname The Electric City for boasting the first electric street car system in the U.S. (1886), but Scranton at the turn of the century was equally electrifying for its cultural life. The city was a somewhat notorious stop on the vaudeville circuits though the '20s. Its largely blue-collar, immigrant audience was ethnically diverse and hard to impress. "If you can play Scranton," it was said, "you can play anywhere."

Retired school teacher Nancy McDonald has published a new edition of her research on this heyday in If You Can Play Scranton: A Theatrical History, 1871-2010, in paperback ($12.95) and various e-book formats ($2.99-$4.99) via local publisher Tribute Books (www.tribute-books.com).

"Theater people regarded Scranton as a tough town to play. It allowed established starts to justify their reputations and made newcomers prove their right to hold the stage," McDonald explains. "Mediocrity was never excused, but at the same time, Scrantonians were quick to spot new talent and to applaud superb acting and fine production techniques."

The book is essentially a who's who timeline of Scranton's brushes with fame.

The author's sources include Academy of Music programs, newspaper articles, Lackawanna Historical Society collections, library reference materials, personal collections, and numerous oral accounts from those with first hand experiences and stories.

Following an account of the filming of That Championship Season in Scranton in the '80s, the book offers little more than a list of national concert headliners who've played Montage Mountain. (An earlier chapter covers big stars brought into town by Scranton Community Concerts or the Broadway Theatre League through recent years.) But theatre buffs will want this book for the historical photos alone and anecdotes about actors like Mae Desmond, who was immensely popular in the second decade of the 20th century. Among her triumphs was the role of Madame X, a woman who loses her son after becoming addicted to absinthe and is forced to prostitute herself in order to survive. The actress turned to druggist John Loftus who ran a store popular with performers next to The Academy of Music while researching the part. He introduced the actress to one of the city's infamous "scarlet women," a former drug user.

"I want to emphasize how highly theater people esteemed Scranton," Desmond is quoted in the book. "The people of Scranton made me feel loved. They made me feel I had found a second home for as long as I wanted to stay. They provided the inspiration that made it possible for all of us to perform."

A native of Dunmore, McDonald native traces her interest in theater through her father, to whom the book is dedicated. Paul McDonald worked as a theatrical electrician before taking a job with PPL and told stories about stars he saw come to town. Although the author herself minored in drama and studied voice, her career focus was history. She taught at West Scranton High School until she retired in 1999. The author will personalize copies of her book at Steamtown National Historic Site on Saturday, Dec. 24 at 11 a.m. Visit http://www.IfYouCanPlayScranton.com for more information.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Scranton's Musical Stars - Rosemary Musoleno


On January 31, 2002, the Teatro Lyrico d’Europa production of Turandot had soprano Rosemary Musoleno as a featured performer. Rosemary grew up in Archbald, Pennsylvania. Since most of her performances were in Europe, this was the first time many members of her family had a chance to watch her perform. However, the cheers that greeted her curtain call were from more than family and friends.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Mention on NEPA Blogs

Thank you, NEPA Blogs, for the following mention on December 7th:

If You Can Play Scranton captures yet another aspect of the rich history of Northeastern Pennsylvania. The book can be purchased directly through the blog (in six different formats!), but the blog also provides a wonderful sampling of what lies within. If you're not familiar with Scranton's long history of theatrical and vaudeville performances, pay a visit to If You Can Play Scranton and see a world you might not believe was once right here in Northeastern Pennsylvania - and still is!

Scranton's Musical Stars - Paul Plishka



Paul Plishka was a leading basso with the Metropolitan Opera since 1967. An Old Forge native, he donated his talents to a benefit concert for the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic on January 26, 1985. When he stepped on stage, he received a tumultuous welcome from many who probably knew him before he even began to sing professionally, or perhaps even sang at all. He responded momentarily, then immediately immersed himself in singing three scenes from Boris Godunov.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Upcoming Book Signing - December 24, 2011

Upcoming Book Signing
for If You Can Play Scranton with Nancy McDonald

Saturday, December 24, 2011
11 a.m.

Steamtown National Historic Site
150 South Washington Avenue
Scranton, PA 18503
(570) 340-5200
click here for more information

Scranton's Musical Stars - Dominic Cossa


Dominic Cossa was born to opera-loving parents who had emigrated from Perugia, Italy. His parents, Mr. and Mrs. Dominick Cossa settled in Jessup, Pennsylvania. As a child, Cossa remembered singing Italian songs and arias on evenings spent around the family piano. However, his vocal training came as a result of a childhood stammer. A speech therapist suggested that his parents sing questions, such as, “Will you have dinner?” and have him sing the reply, “Yes, I will.” According to Cossa, “I soon lost my stammer, but never my love for singing.”

A friend told Cossa that the Metropolitan Opera was holding regional auditions and suggested he try out. At that point, his study had consisted of some work with local voice teacher, Norbet Betti, in Jessup. Cossa entered the contest and placed third. He also attracted the attention of Anthony Marlowe, a Detroit teacher and former Met opera star. After three years with Marlowe, Cossa had unbelievable luck. While attending the New York wedding of a friend, he called the New York City Opera and asked for an audition. At its conclusion, he was offered a contract on the spot.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Scranton's Musical Stars - Lillian Raymondi


On February 3, 1947, South Scranton native Lillian Raymondi appeared in Carmen with the San Carlos Opera Company of New York. She was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Mark Ventimigia, but for the stage, she used her mother’s maiden name. Her father was a singing baker who struggled over a mixing machine and a brick oven to help his talented daughter scale the heights of fame. He had been a baker since the age of 12. In 1947, he was 42. Mr. Ventimigia said, “My father was a miller from Sicily, so you might say I was born in a bakery.” He put in 10 hour days in the bakery and six hours on the road delivering 300 to 400 loaves of bread a day to pay for his daughter’s singing lessons.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Scranton's Musical Stars - Gloria Jean


On August 23, 1939, booming cannon, tooting whistles and cheers of welcome greeted the arrival of Gloria Jean Schoonover. The 11-year-old Scranton songbird came to premier her first motion picture, The Under Pup. A surge of humanity shattered police lines and upset barricades in one of the most enthusiastic welcomes in city history. Movie critics from all over the country said, “Gloria Jean is a new Deanna Durbin who could make people laugh uproariously and cry unashamedly.” To a man, they predicted that the child would go on to become one of Hollywood’s brightest stars.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Scranton's Musical Stars - Winifred Murray


In 1936, Winifred Murray was a 15-year-old sophomore at Technical High School when she signed for a role in the Roberts and Hart musical Babes in Arms. At the time, she was a coloratura soprano student of Professor Pennington at the Scranton Conservatory of Music.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Scranton's Musical Stars - Thomas L. Thomas


In March 1937, Thomas bested 57 contestants to become one of the youngest singers to receive a Metropolitan Opera contract. Speaking of the audition, he said, “Always in the past I’ve tried to live up to my training to keep calm in facing my audiences. While in the dressing room prior to the broadcast, I had no feeling of apprehension. Even when the time for my appearance finally arrived and I stepped on stage and saw the vast audience gathered in the studio, the greatest personalities in the Metropolitan Opera Company and of the music world, I still felt I was true to my training. But, when I faced the microphone and realized my family back home and all the friends who had given me so much encouragement were waiting expectantly at their radio sets to hear the outcome of this broadcast, I can assure you I felt an emotion that I had never experienced before and to describe it is beyond my accomplishment.”

Monday, December 5, 2011

Scranton's Musical Stars - Allan Jones


On April 3, 1938, Jones along with his wife, Irene Hervey, and son, Teddy, visited his parents. An hour before his arrival, thousands descended upon the train station creating a problem for police and railroad employees.

When the train pulled to a stop, Jones leaped from the last car and ran briskly up the tracks. With the assistance of two policemen, he commandeered a car and was driven to the Hotel Casey. It was the city police that requested he skirt the railroad crowd to get to his hotel because they were afraid someone might be injured by a moving train. The crowd trailed along to the hotel accompanied by Jones’ parents, as well as Thomas L. Thomas and Jeanne Madden.

The former soloist at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church – now a highly paid MGM star – was on a six week personal appearance tour. At 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., Jones dropped into the Comerford Theater to sing “The Donkey Serenade” from his film The Firefly with Jeanette MacDonald.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Academy of Music


Following the fire, Scranton was without a theater until the Academy of Music opened on January 2, 1877. The new theater was located on Wyoming Avenue, across from St. Luke’s church, on land that had belonged to James T. Blair, the head of a stock company, which financed its construction at a cost of $40,000. It adhered to Victorian standards of elegance with plush velvet chairs and a hand painted drop curtain with bold battlements, winding river, luxuriant forest, and deep blue sky.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Theater on the back cover - The Frothingham


The Frothingham was the perfect, lavish setting for a new type musical just coming into vogue. While integration of music, lyric, dance and dialogue advance the modern musical to a logical climax, in the 1890s terpsichore and melody intermingled freely in a thin-of-plot drama designed to display the specific talent of a featured artist.

The Frothingham was designed and constructed by its owner, Arthur Frothingham, based on a Moorish theme. Onion-shaped minarets flanked the entrance to a shop-filled Arcade that led from Wyoming Avenue to a courtyard where the theater was located. The interior was an imitation of Spain’s Alhambra Palace. Delicate fret work circled the proscenium arch and boxes. Rich terra cotta colored velvet drapes enclosed the boxes which were supplied, for comfort, with large parlor-type chairs. On March 22, 1894, they were auctioned off. The first went to George B. Smith of Dunmore for $50. Frothingham, himself, took only a modest loge.