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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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