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.