During the recent Super Bowl frenzy, Seattle showered itself with congratulations over the 12th man—the Seahawks fans who set the Guinness world-record for crowd-generated decibels. Well, noise demands little from a crowd—go to the stadium, drink beer and shout yourself hoarse.
In contrast, back in 1933, Seattle produced a 12th man (and woman) that was spectacular—an event where the spectators sacrificed nearly as much as the players. I'm citing all this from Alexander Woollcott's narrative in Long, Long Ago. However, I omit Woollcott's pontifical English. He titled the event "Miss Kitty Takes to the Road."
To Millennial readers, the name Katharine Cornell may not register, but in 1933, Miss Kitty was our leading actress, the toast of Broadway. And in '33, she launched a nationwide tour of three plays—Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Bernard Shaw's Candida, and The Barretts of Wimpole Street by Rudolph Besier. On tour, she and her company of sixty visited seventy-seven cities on a train trip of 17,000 miles. They played to over half a million people. The youngest human cast member was Orson Welles. Woollcott had sent him to Miss Cornell.
Summary of The Barretts of Wimpole Street (From Wikipedia)
The play is based on the real story of the Barrett family who lived on Wimpole Street in London. The play opens with Elizabeth, the oldest child of a large and loving family. Their father is widowed and has become embittered and determined that none of his children would ever marry, lest they become slaves to the "brutal tyranny of passion" and "the lowest urge of the body." As the play progresses, his smothering concern for his family and particularly for Elizabeth, who is an invalid, takes on a sinister character.
Poet Robert Browning has read some of Elizabeth's poetry and comes to meet her, and they immediately find an attraction for each other. When he leaves, Elizabeth struggles to her feet to watch him disappear down the lane. Elizabeth and Robert later elope, against her father's strict orders, and when he finds that she has married without his permission or knowledge, he orders that her beloved dog, Flush, be put to death. However, her sister had taken care to see that her cocker spaniel joined them in their escape.
Katharine's husband and director, Guthrie McClintic, was a Seattle native, and she was scheduled to play the role of Elizabeth Barrett Browning at Seattle's Metropolitan Theater on the evening of December 25, 1933, the first of eight performances.
As the troupe rode the final leg of the Great Northern trip from St. Paul on Christmas Sunday, ominous telegraph reports arrived. December rains were making the trip through the state of Washington slow and perilous—with rain over the past twenty-three days and nights. At best, the train would be delayed in reaching Seattle.
As the train passed Spokane, it became doubtful whether it would get to Seattle at all. At every stop, telegrams were exchanged with the latest woeful news. The Christmas evening performance was sold out. Would the train arrive in time for the show? At one point, the train halted while railroad workers finished a new trestle. The train crept over this new bridge as passengers at the windows stared at the wreckage of the old trestle washed out by the flood.
But at seven p.m. curtain time, the train was still inching through rain-drenched darkness far from Seattle. Another telegram asked if the train's delayed arrival would make it worthwhile to hold the audience. Seven o'clock, eight o'clock and nine o'clock passed. By this time, the company had given up hope. There could be no performance, and their next paychecks would be one-eighth lighter. So, it was a gloomy, weary bunch of thespians who rode the final stretch into town.
They arrived on the Seattle platform at 11:15 p.m. Still collecting their wits and baggage, they heard amazing news. The manager of the Metropolitan Theatre came to Katharine and told her that the audience was still waiting. Guthrie asked, "how many?" "The entire house," was the reply. "Twelve hundred people." Cornell was shocked and asked, "Do you mean they want a performance at this hour?" "They're expecting it," the manager replied.
A fleet of trucks was at the station to carry the scenery and costume trunks. A hundred umbrellas protected them as the scenery was loaded and rushed to the theater, where more umbrellas protected their unloading.
A line of cars was waiting to carry the company to the stage door. At the theater or in the lobby of the Olympic Hotel across Third Avenue, the audience of 1,200 was still present. Most were in evening dress. They had waited so long. Would Miss Cornell still play for them? Would she?
Stimulated by audience enthusiasm, Miss Kitty and the company readily agreed to perform. But the company needed time to unpack the trunks, do make-up and get into the crinolines and pantaloons of 1855. They promised to do it in record time.
Katharine made an unprecedented decision. The audience must be entertained while the stage was being set. So, she ordered the curtain raised immediately, and the Seattle audience at midnight Christmas evening saw the stage being set and lighted—usually a six-hour task.
The walls of the Victorian home swing into place—the prison in which Mr. Barrett, the tyrant father, kept his frail and gifted poetess daughter. Each feat of the stagehands received rounds of applause. As the windowed-wall of Elizabeth's room was secured, the windows were hung with rich portieres and valances, and the enthusiasm mounted.
It grew further as the trunks, in full view of the audience, were opened and the wardrobe mistress doled out the costumes.
There was a great round of applause for the one member of the cast already in complete costume—Flush, the engaging cocker spaniel who had never missed a performance of Barretts since it opened in Detroit years before.
But the greatest interest attached to the intricate process of stage lighting—a carefully calculated cross-play of beams which bathes some parts of the stage in radiance and leaves others in shadow. The focal point of The Barretts is the couch from which Robert Browning rescues the sleeping princess. As Elizabeth Barrett, Miss Cornell spent the first act—probably the longest in dramatic literature—lying on that couch. The lights playing on that couch were adjusted to the fraction of an inch.
To accomplish this, the stage manager, Jimmy Vincent, lay on the couch and assumed every one of the positions which Miss Kitty would assume during the play. As stout Mr. Vincent did so (think Danny DiVito) he threw his arms and head into various languorous postures. As a result, the gap between his trousers and waistcoat widened with each new pose. The effect was stupefying and hilarious.
At last the warning bell rang, the lights dimmed and the curtain fell--and rose again. The stage disclosed Miss Cornell at her post on the couch. The play began. The time was 1:05 a.m.
The excitement, the heady compliment paid by the waiting audience, acted like wine on the spirits of the troupe, and they gave the kind of performance one hopes for on great occasions and seldom gets.
But at the end of that long first act, Miss Cornell suffered delayed fatigue. She needed something, anything, if she was to go on with the rest of the play. To her husband, Guthrie, she croaked, "Get me an egg," and rushed to her dressing room.
McClintic ran into the dark Seattle streets at three a.m. Only three sites showed lights: the Olympic Hotel, a drug store, and a lunch wagon. However, the audience had eaten every morsel of food on Third Avenue. In desperation, McClintic began calling friends from high school—people he had known twenty years earlier. Finally one call aroused a sleepy voice. Who's calling at such an hour? "You remember Guthrie, who was in your class in high school?" "Yes, so?" "Well, could you let me have an egg?" She could and she did.
It was a quarter past four in the morning when the final curtain fell. And that blessed audience stayed to give more curtain calls than the exhausted troupe had ever received before.
As the narrator, Alexander Woollcott failed to give the conclusion to this story, but I like to think that the evening ended with the entire company of sixty people going to the footlights and giving the audience a standing ovation.
Purpose of this blog is to compile several books for my grandchildren to read in 25 years.
Copyright © 2014 by Jack Towe
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