Monday, December 28, 2009

A Comedy Team Commits Suicide

The New York Hippodrome dwarfed neighboring theaters when it opened on Broadway in 1905. The theater, with a seating capacity of 5,200, was twelve times larger than the next largest Broadway theater. Elmer S. Dundy and Frederic Thompson, who were the builders and operators of Coney Island's Luna Park, invested $4 million to make the Hippodrome the most magnificent theater in the world. It was, to all who saw it, an architectural wonder. The stage was capable of holding as many as 1,000 performers at a time. Stages could be raised and lowered by hydraulics. The stage included a 8,000-gallon water tank occupied by boats and adorned with a waterfall. Ken Bloom, Broadway historian, wrote, "Over 25,000 light bulbs were used to illuminate the theater and stage. Nine thousand of these were used for the stage, and another 5,000 were arranged in a stunning starburst pattern in the auditorium."

It was only right that the largest and most expensive theater in the world present the biggest show in the world. The idea was to create a theatrical show that would incorporate a full-sized circus. The producers needed a world-famous clown for the show. They hired Marceline, the resident clown of the London Hippodrome. Marceline claimed that, at age three, he crawled beneath a circus tent and was rescued from a lion by an old clown, who came to adopt him and train him in the art of clowning. Marceline, a bewildered-looking clown in an ill-fitting tuxedo, was always tripping and dropping things. Chaplin later acknowledged Marceline as his greatest influence.

The Hippodrome's premiere production was A Yankee Circus on Mars. Bloom wrote, "The star was one of Broadway's favorites, Bessie McCoy, who made her entrance in a gold chariot driven by two white horses. A thirty-foot airship landed on the stage and disgorged a Martian who asked the Americans to bring a circus to their planet." Marceline came out repeatedly to disrupt the circus acts. The ringmaster got angry when Marceline came along during the trapeze act. The clown got tangled up with the net, causing it to drop on top of the ringmaster.

The Hippodrome's second production, A Society Circus, was designed to be an even greater spectacle than the first. The first show had one star clown and, now, the new show was to have two star clowns. The producers decided to partner the short and stocky Marceline with the tall and thin Frank "Slivers" Oakley. Oakley, the most popular clown of the Barnum & Bailey circus, was excellent at both acrobatics and pantomime. He could thrill an audience by jumping on a springboard and vaulting over four elephants. He could get an audience laughing by performing a one-man baseball game, using his pantomime skills to act out every position on both teams.

A Society Circus involved a rich society woman who falls in love with a circus manager and invests considerable money to put his stranded circus back in business. A cad who intends to marry the society woman for her money orders his servant to kidnap the circus manager and abandon him in the remote wilds of a tropical jungle. Aided by her own servant, the society woman goes into the jungle to rescue her lover. The comic servant roles - kidnapper and rescuer - were specifically written for Marceline and Oakley. The clowns got to team up for comic business in the jungle. At first, the pair performed a burlesque of a prizefight. Later, Oakley hunted duck while Marceline was pursued by a boa constrictor. In a circus scene, Oakley garnered attention for riding around a track on top of two giant lobsters. The show, which was praised by the New York Times for its "vastness, glitter, breadth of conception, and lavish expenditure," was an enormous success.

Marceline played the Hippodrome for nine consecutive seasons. He was always the main comic relief in these spectacles. Pioneer Days (1906) showed an attack on a stagecoach by hundreds of Indians on horseback. For Sporting Day (1908), the producers staged a baseball game in center stage and featured a rowing match in the theater's great pool. The hydraulics beneath the stage were used to create tremors for The Earthquake (1910). Under Man Flags (1912) centered on a group of tourists riding a blimp around the world. Oakley reunited with Marceline for another Hippodrome extravaganza in 1910.

In 1913, Oakley's estranged wife died and he was left alone to raise their daughter Ruth. The same year, Oakley fell in love with a young vaudeville actress named Viola Stoll. The two had met in Utica, New York, after Stoll had been stranded by her theatrical company. Oakley claimed that, at first, he simply felt sorry for the young woman and offered her a job taking care of his home and looking after his daughter. It soon became obvious, though, that Oakley had developed an attraction towards the actress. The difference in their ages made the situation awkward for Stoll - Oakley was 42 years old and she was only 16. While Oakley was out of town, Stoll disappeared with $4,000 worth of jewelry that had belonged to Oakley's wife. Oakley filed a complaint with the police and, a month later, Stoll was arrested at the home of her stepfather in St. Louis. At the end of her trial, Stoll was sentenced to three years in prison. Oakley remained infatuated with the young woman even after she went to prison and he pleaded with law enforcement officials to parole her.

The story had been in the press for months before Stoll finally gave her side of the story. "I was down and out when I met Slivers," she said. "He went with me to several managers, thinking his influence would get me a position, but it was the end of the season. Then, he said I could stay at his house. I was desperate and went. I had known him only two or three months and wasn't dazzled by his fame because I didn't know how great he was. I was only 16 and hadn't been in the business long. I didn't steal. I didn't like being with him and said so after two weeks. He wouldn't let me go, but while he was in Baltimore, I ran away, pawned one of the rings and went to my friends in St. Louis." She admitted that Oakley tried to help her after her arrest but the efforts that he made on her behalf did not satisfy her. "He didn't stick to me," she said. "After two months he said he had been thinking it over and didn't care enough about me to disgrace his little girl anymore."

By 1916, Oakley was drinking heavily and he was unable to find work. He heard that Marcelline, who was also having trouble finding work, had opened up a restaurant. He went to Marcelline's restaurant to talk about the two of them putting together an act. Marceline, who found Oakley to be pompous and overbearing, rejected the proposal.

Oakley became distraught when his rent fell past-due and his landlady threatened to have him evicted. Nine months earlier, police had removed him from a boarding house in Detroit for unpaid rent. In the midst of this turmoil, Oakley heard that Stoll was about to be released from prison and went to see her in prison to propose marriage. He told her that he was expecting to get a job with Barnum & Bailey to perform on the west coast. She explained that the conditions of her parole presented her from leaving the state and she was looking to lead a quiet, normal life when she got out of prison. She no longer had an interest in the theater and certainly had no interest in marrying an old traveling clown. Oakley was crushed when Stoll rejected his proposal. Stoll asked prison officials to bar Oakley from further visits and make sure he did not get her forwarding address after her release. The superintendent of the prison wrote a letter to Oakley to notify him of Stoll's wishes.

The following day, on March 8, 1916, police officers were called to Oakley's apartment to evict him. The officers smelled gas as they got to the top of the stairs. A chair had been placed against the door to barricade it and it took the officers a half hour to pry open the door with a crowbar. Oakley was discovered dead on the floor of his apartment. The officers found that Oakley had plugged up drafts from the windows and doors before he turned on the gas jets. The coroner ruled that he had died from gas asphyxiation. It was reported in the New York Times, "The bed and trunk were overturned, and the curtains torn from the windows. Letters and many photographs of the clown in his stage clothes were scattered all over the floor." He had not gone gently into that good night.

In 1918, Chaplin visited the Ringling Brothers circus to see Marceline perform. He later wrote, "I expected that he would be featured, but I was shocked to find him just one of many clowns that ran around the enormous ring — a great artist lost in the vulgar extravaganza of a three-ring circus." Marceline's routines were old and outdated and the public had lost interest in him. Whatever money Marceline had managed to save was lost by the failure of his restaurant and bad real estate investments. As more time passed, he was only able to get work at business men's dinners. He became distressed when he found himself out of money and the rent past-due. He decided late one night to kill himself. He put on the record "Moonlight and Roses." He then knelt down beside his bed and spread out publicity photos of himself across the mattress. He had a pistol in his hand. He must have been trembling hard when he raised the pistol as his first shot missed and hit the wall.

The next afternoon, a maid came into the room and saw Marceline kneeling beside the bed. She assumed that he was praying and left quietly. The maid grew suspicious about what she had seen and returned later with the manager and a police officer. It was later reported in Time magazine, "A man was kneeling by the bed, his hands stiffly and desperately twisted together, his head pushed down against his arms. He did not say anything when the three people came into the room. The policeman touched him, shook him a little, then saw the smear of blood that ran down his cheek from a hole in his temple." Some of the photos that Marcelline had laid upon the bed had slipped onto the floor. The details of the death scene, including the publicity photos scattered across the floor, made this eerily similar to the tableau left behind by Oakley's suicide.

Marceline and Oakley will be forever linked by their sensational partnership at the Hippodrome and the fact that their lives came to similar and equally tragic ends.

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