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
“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.