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Musical Theatre

in Athens, Georgia: 1865 - 1888

by Ethel Tison Chaffin

 

[Reprinted with permission from Professional Theatrical Entertainment in Athens, Georgia: 1865 - 1888. University of Georgia masters thesis, 1981.]

Comic opera was a hybrid dramatic form imported from Europe and England in the nineteenth century. It was followed in the 1870s by the operetta, a type of light opera. Both achieved popularity and in many ways mirrored the culture from which they emerged.

Originating as simple song and dance parodies inserted between or following the acts of dramatic musical works, they were immensely popular. They soon developed a distinct form at first consisting of two acts held together by loosely linked plot.

A distinguishing characteristic of this genre was the use of some spoken dialogue.  The  inclusion  of  dance,  usually  of  a  national character, related loosely to the plot.

In England this form of comedy was sometimes called “ballad opera” and was closely related to melodrama and burlesque. Taking the form of a simple situation comedy with a happy ending, in France it attained a high degree of sophistication where it was called opera bouffe. Musical burlesque and opera bouffe were at times adapted in America for greater relevance to the national character.

The foremost exponent of opera bouffe was Jacques Offenbach, who wrote over 100 works for the theater. He created the opérette, a form of witty and frivolous burlesque. The tradition of light musical satire was continued in  the operettas composed by the Frenchman, Charles  Lecocq,  and  other   composers  on  the  continent.  These productions reached England and greatly influenced the popular works of William Schwenk Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan.

There were four, possibly five, opera companies which performed in Athens during this period. They were Mrs. James Oates Comic Opera Company, the Holman English Opera Company, John Templeton’s Star Alliance Company, and the Adah Richmond Opera Company. These companies presented two of Offenbach’s opera bouffes, two by Lecocq, and two of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas.1

The first to arrive was Mrs. James Oates Comic Opera Company, which performed for three successive nights at Deupree Hall in March 1872. Deupree Hall, Athens’ first true theatrical facility, was built in 1870 by Colonel Lewis J. Deupree, a wealthy citizen of Lexington. It was located at the northwest corner of Broad and Thomas Streets, across from  the  Franklin  House.  In  1873  it  was  renovated  and remodeled, becoming Athens’ first opera house. On the first night the company presented Offenbach’s “Prima Donna of a Night,” followed by the musical burletta “Lizette,” with Mrs. Oates appearing in the leading roles. On the second evening the company presented John Buckstone’s musical play “The Daughter of the Regiment,” followed by “introductions from various popular operas and favorite composers.” The  third  night’s  program  was   Planché’s  “operatic  burlesque extravaganza,” “Fair One with the Blonde Wig,” starring Mrs. Oates as Princess Graceful.2

The Savannah Republican of the previous month stated:

"Mrs. Oates – So much has been said about her that nothing remains to be said. We saw her last evening for the first time. ... It left us speechless ... . Mrs. Oates is deservedly popular, and we are gratified to know that her popularity is not confined to the stage, but that her private life duly reflects the true woman."

An Atlanta newspaper was as complimentary as that of Savannah:

"Mrs. Oates and her famous comic opera company intheir debut at DeGive’s Opera House ... took Atlanta by storm. A larger and finer audience has never been gathered in that temple of the Muses.

Mrs. Oates is irresistible, both in the elegance of her acting, the sweetness of her finely schooled voice, and her charms of person. She is certainly entitled to all the high encomiums that have been awarded her by ... the people of the South. Messrs. Allen and Drew have fine voices and are actors of fine taste. Mr. Crane is an exceedingly enjoyable character ... the entire cast is one of more than usual merit. ...The Ladder Dance of Mr. Maflin was truly excellent."3

The following statement in the Atlanta Constitution shows the public’s taste for sensational news:

Mrs. Oates

"This   charming   little   actress   finds   her   name prominently brought forward by some of our southern exchanges just now. They state ... that she is to be married soon to Mr. Tracy, her business manager ... say she is already married ... state that she is suffering with consumption and will retire from the stage. We will tell you what we know about this little lady. At this time she  is  with her Comic Opera Troupe at DeBar’s Opera House in St. Louis, where they play “Fortunio” for  several  nights.  Her  engagement at DeBar’s closes ... with “The Flower Girl of Paris.”"4

The editor of the Southern Banner did not believe that the stage accommodations were adequate for a troupe of Mrs. Oates’s quality. With the support of well-filled halls and appreciative audiences for her company’s   three appearances  at  Deupree  Hall,  he  asked  that “appropriate scenery” be installed, stating that “first class companies will not often afford us dramatic amusement with the present miserable facilities for putting their pieces on the stage. ... We have met during the last year, a number of managers in our larger cities who expressed a desire to come to Athens if our Hall were properly fitted up.”5

Her intimate style of acting, so popular in the Midwest and the South, did not particularly appeal to a reviewer from the New York Sun:

"The New York Sun ... shines hotly on the head of Mrs. James A. Oates ... the lively little lady so well known “down South” ... now playing an engagement in New York. ... Mrs. J. A. Oates impersonated Mrs. James A. Oates under a different name  last  evening at  the Olympic Theatre. On this occasion she called herself the “Grand Duchesse.” This name was about the only resemblance   which she bore to  the  heroine  of Offenbach’s most popular opera bouffe. She appears to be ignorant of any kind of art, is intemperate in the use of a rather hard, sharp voice, in a certain unvarying series of bodily motions and the means of showing self-consciousness.  She   seems   inclined to   hold intimate relations with her auditors, and generally talks to, looks and smiles at them, instead of  addressing herself to the personages who help her in the attempted representation.  This representation  is sometimes funny; at least that given last night was so, but not in the way that Offenbach intended. The dresses were bright enough  and  so  was  the  scenery;  and  a moderately large audience was present."6

Athenians have long enjoyed and appreciated all types of musical performance. It was with a keen sense of pleasure that they anticipated the  first  appearance  of  the  Holman  English  Opera  Company  in November  1874.  During  the  visit  of  the  troupe  to  the  city  25 applications for admission to the company were made by young men of the city, principally by students of Franklin College.8  Whether their motives were for furthering their musical talents, avoiding their books, or for pursuing the rites of spring, it is impossible to determine.

What a Stranger Thought

"... The reception given the Holman troupe this evening by the young men over on the College grounds, as the omnibus arrived at the hotel, bangs anything I have ever seen or heard ...

Why, we thought Athens was noted for its high order of civilization and refinement. ... Mr. Editor, if this company, which ... [is] an exceedingly decent and orderly   one,   had   suddenly   landed   among   the Hottentots, their reception could not have been more uncivilized ... . Does the Faculty of the College and your City authorities permit this sort of conduct ... in the most public part of the city ...? This is ... well calculated to injure the fair fame and reputation which... has been ascribed to Athens."9

Offenbach’s  “Bohemian  Girl”  was  presented  the  first  night, followed by an unnamed afterpiece. “One of the largest and most appreciative audiences we have seen assembled in Athens ... was highly entertained. On the second night’s performance, in spite of forbidding weather, the hall was crowded to capacity and enjoyed Offenbach’s ‘Celebrated Opera of the “Grand Duchess.”’ It was followed by the afterpiece “A Kiss in the Dark,” which brought down the house.” Also given special mention was the troupe’s renditions of the Sabre Song and the Marseilles Hymn.10

With flashing posters ornamenting the street corners and stores, the Holmans made a two-night return engagement to Athens the following year in December. At this time they presented two of Lecocq’s operas, “Girofle, Girofla” and “Madame Angot’s Child,” both at their peak of popularity. They were assured of full houses and of even more in the way of hospitality. Two members of the opera troupe went out hunting while they were in town!11

The Adah Richmond Comic Opera Company was promised for the 1878-79 season, but there is no record that it came. As advertised, it did perform in October the following season. A full house was expected, the paper stating that “they were the best Opera Company now in the country.”12

“John Templeton’s Star Alliance Troupe will play every night and, in the day, the trotting and running races, together with the balloon ascensions will make things lively in our city” during the week of the Oconee County  Fair, 1879. The program is not given, but as the company was called the “Best Pinafore Company in the South,” we can assume that the performances were well attended.13

A review follows from the Savannah News of a recent performance given  there  of  “H.M.S.  Pinafore”  by  Athens’  “old  friend  John Templeton and his excellent company”:

"The stage setting was first-class, the large company in excellent voice, and the opera went off with ... flash and  imagination. Little  Buttercup  was  exquisitely given by  Alice Vane. ... Fay Templeton makes a magnificent Ralph Rackstraw ... Miss Cora Crane as Cousin Hebe, Isabell Fuller as the Ancient Aunt, Miss Mamie Johnson as the Young Cousin and Miss Inez Sexton as Josephine, all sang and acted with marked sprightliness and happy effect."14

The 1879 Templeton engagement in Athens did not open with “H.M.S. Pinafore,” but if the company was in Athens every night during the Oconee Fair week, it probably was presented. The opening piece was “Prince Napoleon, or the Fatal Field of Zululand,” ... an operatic military pageant full of delightful music and marches.”15

The final operetta Athenians enjoyed in the Deupree Opera House was “The Mikado,” by Gilbert and Sullivan. There is no record of the name of the company presenting it, but it must have been a well-known company because the paper devoted much of page one with news of the performance. Despite  inclement weather, the performance attracted persons from the surrounding communities, for “there were numbers of strangers at ‘The Mikado’ ... Monday night.”16

Yum Yum

"The opera house was crowded on Monday night to see “Mikado.” ... If anyone went away dissatisfied it was because nothing could satisfy them. There were 27 actors and actresses, and, if there was a bad one in the 27, we failed to observe it. The local hits were good, the singing was good, and ... the show was the best of the season."17

Noting that “our Jewish citizens are the liberal patrons of the opera house” and that “there is never an entertainment there ... [in which] they are [not] largely represented,” the editor waxed eloquent over the “Yum Yum” song which had been taken up all over town by the whistlers.18

Such were the sentiments expressed.

And the following is an expression of privilege:

The Luxury of a Telephone

Visitors to the opera house at the opera on Friday, were very curious to know what was the meaning of that transmitter fastened to the side of the stage with a wire running through the audience.

“I  wonder where it  goes to,”  was  the  expression indulged in all over the house.

It was finally whispered that Mr. W.B. Thomas had it put in for the convenience of his wife, whose health would not permit her visiting the opera house and who was desirous of hearing “The Mikado.” The necessity of a telephone has already been established. This new use of the little wonder in Athens has made it a luxury indeed.19

According to the records, first-rate comic opera companies came to Athens regularly and gave excellent performances, which were attended by full houses.

Notes

1. Southern Watchman, Feb. 28, 1872, p. 2; Nov. 25, 1874, p. 3; Athens Georgian, Dec. 7, 1875, p. 2; Southern Banner, Sept. 23, 1879, p. 3; Oct. 7, 1879, p. 3; Banner Watchman, Jan. 26, 1886, p. 1.

2. Southern Watchman, Feb. 28, 1872, p. 2. Alice Oates was the first English comic opera actress to star in her own company, which she headed for 15 years.  Her  organization  was  one  of  the  leading  training  grounds  for comedians, actors and actresses of the late 19th century. She first appeared in burlesque in this country as Darnley [a breeches part] in “The Field of the Cloth of Gold” in February 1869 at Crosby’s Opera House, Chicago. From there she toured the West with her company under the management of her husband.  [Leavitt,  Maurice  B.  Fifty  Years  in  Theatrical  Management: Broadway Publishing Co.,  1912, p. 312.] W.H. Crane, later a leading burlesque star and an actor in serious drama, was a member of her company when she came to Athens; see Hutton, pp. 192, 200, for mention of some of his roles.

3. Southern Banner, March 1, 1872, p. 3. W.H. Crane was principal comedian in the “Young Campbell Minstrels” in the 1860s. [Leavitt, p. 22.] He was apprenticed to Mrs. Holman [Holman Opera Company] when a young boy and was trained as an actor with her company for eight years, singing and dancing  between the acts of little plays, singing in operettas, doing the hardest kind of work and getting the best of training.” He left Holman’s to join Alice Oates’ company as a low comedian. [Grau, Robert. Forty Years Observation of Music and the Drama. New York and Baltimore: Broadway Publishing Co., 1909, pp. 223-24.] Crane worked for a time as a supporting actor to Barry Sullivan, at the Baldwin Theatre in San Francisco, along with David Belasco, Thomas O’Neill, and James Hearne. [Leavitt, p. 409.] In 1882-83,  Crane  starred  as  LeBlanc  in  Edward  Rice’s  burlesque  of “Evangeline”. [Leavitt, pp. 315-16]

4. Southern Watchman, Dec. 4, 1872, p. 1.

5. Southern Banner, March 8, 1872, p. 3.

6. Northeast Georgian, Oct. 25, 1873, p. 3.

7. Southern Watchman, Nov. 25, 1874, p. 3. The Holman English  Opera Company, a Canadian organization, was a family troupe. George Holman, a former tenor and actor at Burton’s Theatre, and his wife, Mrs. Harriet Holman,  trained  their  young  performers  in  a  repertoire  consisting  of comedies, standard plays, opera bouffe, and burlesque. Their daughter, Sallie, was the “prima donna.” Leavitt remembers others in the company as Charlotte  Ward,  Augusta  Renard,  C.  Stewart,  Bennie  Holman,  Kate Chatterton, Alfred Holman, Thomas Dingley [also from Young Campbell’s Minstrels], George Holman, Jr., John Chatterton, and the above mentioned W.H. Crane. [Leavitt, p.  27.] There is no record of when Crane left the Holman Company to join Alice Oates’ Company. Since both companies played principally in the Midwest and the South, it is probable that Crane played, at some point, with both of them.

8. Northeast Georgian, Dec. 2, 1874, p. 3.

9. Ibid., Dec. 9, 1874, p. 3.

10. Southern Watchman, Dec. 2, 1874, p. 3.

11. Athens Georgian, Dec. 7, 1875, pp. 2, 3; Dec. 14, 1875, p. 3.

12. Southern Banner, Oct. 7, 1879, p. 3. Leavitt lists Adah Richmond as one of the actresses who played in his burlesque and comic opera companies, along with Lydia Thompson, Pauline Markham, Liza Weber, Louise Montague, May Tenbroeck [listed elsewhere as a varieties performer], Mabel Santley, Kate Emmett, Daisy Dumont, and others. He also exhibited her picture along with other “world famous burlesque stars who rose to conquest” under his management. [Leavitt, p. 321; also see illustration facing p. 318.] She played as principal boy with Sadie Martinot in the burlesque “Chow Chow” in the John Stetson Howard Athenaeum Company in the 1870s. [Grau, p. 222.]

13. Southern Banner, Aug. 26, 1879, p. 3; Sept. 23, 1879, p. 3; Oct. 7, 1879, p. 3.

14. Southern Banner, Oct 7, 1879, p. 3.

15. Southern Banner, Oct. 7, 1879, p. 3.

16. Banner Watchman, Jan. 26, 1886, p. 1; Jan. 26, 1886, p. 1.

17. Ibid., Jan. 27, 1886, p. 4.

18. Ibid., Jan. 27, 1886, p. 1.

19. Ibid., Feb. 9, 1886, p. 2.

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