Saturday, June 25, 2016

Henry Lee's "Great Men, Past and Present"

Henry Lee as Shakespeare
Two months ago, I wrote an article about the various actors who amused vaudeville audiences with impersonations of U. S. Presidents.  I am sorry to say that I overlooked one of the leading impersonators, Henry Lee. 

Lee had a long and illustrious career.  His career began in 1876, at which time a 16-year-old Lee made his debut at Wood's Museum in New York.  Theatre historian Robert Grau wrote, "[H]ere he played two performances daily, interpreting a different role every week, and often a half dozen widely different characters in the same period."

Following his apprenticeship at Wood's Museum, he appeared as Guildenstern in "Hamlet" at New York's Lyceum Theatre.  This was the first of several brushes that the actor had with The Melancholy Dane. 

Lee moved around a lot during this period.  In 1877, he became a member of the stock company of McVicker's Theatre in Chicago.  In 1878, he moved to Philadelphia to become a member of Chestnut Street Theatre Company.  Lee got to star in "Hamlet" while at the Chestnut.

In 1879, Lee acted in the stock company of Wallack's Theatre in New York City.  He made his first appearance at Wallack's in "Spellbound" on February 24, 1879.  He went on to appear in the company's "Miss Gwilt" (June 5, 1879) and "Woolfert's Roost, or a Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (August 18, 1879).

In 1883, legendary theatrical producer Charles Frohman cast Lee in the lead role of a 7-act crime melodrama, "The Stranglers of Paris."  Grau wrote, "It was in 'The Stranglers of Paris' that Lee first scored to an extent that stellar honors were accorded to him."  Issac F. Marcosson and Daniel Frohman wrote (in "Charles Frohman: Manager and Man"), "'The Stranglers of Paris' made quite a sensation.  The scenic effects were highly praised, and especially the ship scene, which showed convicts in their cages, their revolt, the sinking of the vessel, Jason's struggle in the water, his escape from death, and his dramatic appeal to Heaven."  

Lee became in demand for dashing leading man roles.  In March, 1884, he played leading man to acclaimed actress Sara Jewett in "That Man" at the Baldwin Theatre in San Francisco.  In November, 1884, he played leading man to acclaimed actress Fanny Davenport in the Haverly's Theatre production of "Fedora."

Sara Jewett
Lee secured the rights to "Human Nature," a social drama that debuted at London's Drury Lane Theatre in 1885.  He tried hard for the next two years to secure the play's production in the United States.  At one point, he appealed to John Lester Wallack to produce the play at Wallack's Chicago theatre, which had come to specialize in importing plays from France and England, but Wallack failed to see potential in the play.  It certainly did not help Lee's solicitation that the play had received a tepid response during its time in London.  In 1890, the U.S. rights to the play were picked up by Eugene Tompkins, who produced the play at the Boston Theatre under the new title "Soudan."  The lead role, which Lee had so desperately wanted to play, went to Henry Neville.  The play proved to be one of the biggest successes of the year, running for a total of 169 performances.

Lee co-wrote the play "Angela," which premiered on October 18, 1887, at the Madison Square Theatre.

In the Spring of 1888, Lee had a successful run in "Mystery of a Hansom Cab" at the Academy Theatre in New York.

Lee procured the rights to "The Cavalier" in April, 1888.  He premiered the play at The People's Theatre in New York City on June 8, 1888, and traveled with the play through major cities of the country.  As of April 15, 1889, the play began a successful run at McVicker's Theatre in Chicago.  Not everyone was entirely won over by his performance.  This became evident when the play took up residence at San Francisco's Alcazar Theatre on June 16, 1889.  The San Francisco Chronicle had this to say: "[Lee] is an actor of no deep dramatic power; he has a good voice and reads sometimes with great effect.  But he is staged and throughout theatrical.  His enunciation is not distinct and his declamation faulty.  Still his theatrical manner is well adapted to some of the strong scenes of the play. . ."

Lee starred in two plays in 1890.  He appeared in "The Suspect" at Lyon & Healy's Theatre in Chicago and "The Blue Officer" at the Madison Square Theatre.
Henry Lee
On January 12, 1891, New York's Evening World reported that "Monte Cristo" would "be produced on a big scale of scenic splendor" under Lee's management.  That year, Lee went on to produce "Monte Cristo" and "The Henrietta" at London's Avenue Theatre.  On May 24, 1891, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle explained plainly that Lee had failed in his endeavors as a manager and star in London.

A new development to Lee's London botch arrived in the press on August 2, 1891, at which time the Louisville newspaper the Courier-Journal rehashed the story without the slightest bit of subtly or compassion: "[Lee] has just made a disastrous failure of the production of 'Monte Cristo' and 'The Henrietta.'"  Now, the newspaper reported, the situation was made more scandalous by the fact that Lee's new bride had sued the actor for pawning her jewelry to pay off his creditors. 

Lee remained busy during this period, traveling to New York, Boston and Philadelphia in Walter Sanford's emotionally charged drama "My Jack."

On February 21, 1892, Lee debuted as a blind painter in "The Runaway Wife" at Crawford's Theatre in Kansas City.  This was yet another attempt of Lee to become a theatre impresario.  Lee had paid for the rights of the play from playwright McKee Rankin (great grandfather of stop-motion king Arthur Rankin Jr.).

After completing the run of "The Runaway Wife," Lee looked to star in a play about Aaron Burr, but he was never able to find financing for the project.  Instead, he turned up in a German comedy drama called "Fatherland" at The Union Square Theater.

On August 15, 1892, Lee was introduced as a villainous general in the war drama "The White Squadron."  Critics were pleased to see him in this new type of role.  Lee also garnered good reviews when he opened in "Current Cash" at Niblo's Garden in October, 1892.  The Times noted, "[Lee] assumes a number of clever disguises."  Lee managed in these recent efforts to establish himself as a versatile character actor.

Lee's next play, "A Gilded Fool," opened at Union Square Theatre on November 7, 1892. Nat Goodwin and Lizzie Hudson Collier played the romantic leads.  Lee played Collier's father.  The play remained a viable property for years.  Fox Film Corporation produced a film version in 1915.  The plot had enough romance, tragedy and conflict to appeal to a wide audience.  Chauncey Short is unable to earn enough money to pay for treatment for his sick mother.  After his mother dies, he inherits five million dollars from an uncle who had been traveling abroad during his mother's illness.  Short's bitterness causes him to spend his inheritance extravagantly.  Then, he falls in love with a banker's daughter and has to prove to her that he is not truly an idle and self-indulgent fool.

Lee's name did not make it into the press for the next two years.  It is understood that, during this time, the actor struck it rich by investing in a mining company in the South African Republic.  But money comes and money goes.  Lee lost his great wealth in the Jameson Raid in 1895. 

Lee was determined to recoup his losses and he understood that he could earn more money if he left the legitimate theatre for vaudeville.  He developed a unique vaudeville act, "Great Men, Past and Present," in which he impersonated a variety of famous men.  He introduced himself to the audience wearing evening dress.  He announced, "I shall endeavor to give you an impersonation of great men past and present.  If you do not like them, the fault is either theirs or yours."  Grau wrote, "Lee would save up his vaudeville earnings until he had accumulated a few thousand dollars and then he would embark in some enterprise which would permit him to shine as a dramatic star.  In this manner he was able to produce Cyrano de Bergerac."

On February, 1895, Lee arrived in Philadelphia with "Cyrano de Bergerac."  The Philadelphia Times' dramatic critic (credited only as "Raymond") wrote, "I regard Henry Lee as a great actor, of wonderfully fine qualities and splendid stage sympathies, but I do not think any actor living equal Mansfield.  But in this one part Lee can perhaps excel him."

As of May 2, 1897, Lee was back with his "Great Men" act at the Proctor's Fifth Avenue Theatre.  Grau wrote, "'Great Men' was [always] revived to keep the wolf from the door."  Lee tried to convince vaudeville managers to allow him to perform dramatic playlets, but they were only willing to book him to perform his "Great Men" act.  Grau wrote, "[V]audeville managers frowned on his ambitions. . . 'Great Men,' or nothing, was their ultimatum, and it broke Lee's heart."

Still, as it turned out, Lee left vaudeville for Broadway the next year.  He was featured in the musical burlesque "Hurly Burly" at Weber and Fields' Broadway Music Hall in 1898 and played Simonides in an 1899 Broadway production of "Ben Hur."  He also performed in a Shakespeare company in London.

He must have had to keep the wolves from the door again as he was back with his "Great Men" act in April, 1899.  He was briefly able to convince theatre managers to allow him to combine his impersonation act with third-act highlights from "Cyrano de Bergerac."

On March 3, 1900, Lee filed for bankruptcy.  It was at this point that he devoted his attention entirely to his "Great Men" act.  He was able to expand his performance when theaters booked him as a headline act, enacting fifteen impersonations in thirty minutes.  The Los Angeles Herald noted, "Not the least important factor in his hold upon the public's admiration is the wonderful speed and apparent ease with which he is metamorphosed so swiftly from one character to another."  By 1903, his act featured impersonations of Otto von Bismarck, Pope Leo XIII, Mark Twain, President Theodore Roosevelt, General Ulysses S. Grant, and General Robert E. Lee.

In time, Lee added many other impersonations to his act.  He preferred as his subjects world leaders (Kaiser Wilhelm II and Japanese Emperor Meiji) and business titans (Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockerfeller), but he also found writers to be excellent subjects as he could recite their eloquent literature to the audience.  He dressed up as Shakespeare, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Henrik Ibsen.  Among his other new subjects were Admiral John Paul Jones and Senator Chauncey M. Depew.  A show that he performed in April, 1904, was designed to focus exclusively on "the rulers of the world."  This performance included a novel appearance of Lee made up as Czar Nicolas.

Standing nearby was a valet, who Lee introduced to the audience as "John."  John helped Lee to quickly don coats, trousers, hats, ties and whiskers in his transformations.  The Los Angeles Herald described the dressing and make-up process in meticulous detail.  When it was time for the actor to become King Edward VII, he found John waiting offstage with "black mourning trousers and the coat on which are pinned the decorations that are worn by the king."  The newspaper further described Lee transforming from King Edward VII to Otto von Bismarck and then from King Edward VII to Pope Leo XIII.  Their account went as follows:
Lee is arranging the white wig and white drooping moustache which are needed to complete the "make-up."  Then the brows are made a bit heavier, the lines in the face are furrowed, and with a dash of grease paint on the lower lip to make it a bit stronger, Prince Bismarck is ready to walk on in full view of the audience.  Immediately behind the great chancellor walks Tyrris, the Great Dane dog that is Mr. Lee's constant companion, and which he uses in his Bismarck act.  The dog stands by his master for a few seconds and then makes his exit, Mr. Lee taking up his reading of an extract from one of the Iron Chancellor's great speeches, in which he tells of his standing by the ship of state for so long and now is about to retire.  The presentation is true to life and faithful, and shows the great art of mimicry possessed by Mr. Lee.  The curtain no sooner reaches the bottom of the stage than Mr. Lee dashes into his dressing room and casts off the Bismarck "make up."  He rubs down his eyebrows, removes some of the paint from his cheeks, inserts a wrinkle or two on either cheek and then smiles once or twice in a benign way, while "John" is assisting him to get into the long white cassock that is worn only by a pope.  The skull cap is donned, the great white ring is inserted on the middle finger of the right hand, and buttoning up the cassock you behold the bent figure of the pope of Rome, majestic in his bearing despite the drooping shoulders, the furrowed countenance and the pale, white face, which denotes great age.  Lee's characterization of the pope of Rome is a grand conception, and despite the fact that it takes but ninety seconds for him to transform himself from Bismarck into the pope, the picture is wonderfully made, and there will undoubtedly be crowds of Catholics especially who will go to the Orpheum this week if for no other reason than to see Lee appear made up as the head of the Roman church.
The Los Angeles Herald concluded, "Lee's work is of the highest order.  He is clever in all of his conceptions, he does not approach the vulgar in any of his caricatures and he displays a mimicry that denotes long training on the stage.  The actor who does this high class vaudeville work is a man who has acted with all of the celebrated men and women of the stage for twenty-five years, and although he has changed his stage tactics he is nevertheless put down in stage history as one of the few really great actors of the time."

The reviews of Lee's act were generally enthusiastic.  In August, 1904, the New York Clipper reported on the actor's performance at Keith's Theatre.  The newspaper said, "Henry Lee, in his masterful impersonations of great men, past and present, holds the head position on the bill, and right worthily, too, as he has no peer in his line of endeavor.  Each of his portrayals received hearty approval for their fidelity to the character impersonated."  The Philadelphia Times wrote, "[Henry Lee] may be called the human phonograph-biograph, for he is a living picture of the personages represented, and, in addition, furnishes the voice in some well-known speech of the distinguished men who is being represented."

People had a great curiosity to see how Lee changed from one character to another.  This inspired him to change his act.  In October, 1906, the Courier-Journal of Louisville reported, "Interest is added from the fact that all of his making up is done in full view of the audience." 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle expressed enthusiasm in regards to news that Lee had embarked on an international tour with "his famous transformation act."  Variety later noted, "[H]e travelled to nearly every civilized country in the world."

Variety columnist J. C. Nugent remembered meeting Lee at the Navarre Hotel in New York City.  He was sitting at a table with a distinguished group of actors, including Sam Bernard, Dave Montgomery, Maurice Barrymore, Lew Fields, and Bert Coote.  Nugent wrote, "He wore a clerical collar and spoke in the grand manner." 

The impersonators of this period were committed to being respectful of their subjects, which was a point that I made in my earlier article.  It was far different than today.  Consider the recent controversy over Will Ferrell's intention to mock President Ronald Reagan's struggle with Alzheimer's disease in a major studio film.  Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis called the project "cruel" and Farrell "heartless."

In his normal course of business, Lee acted neither cruel nor heartless in his portrayal of President Roosevelt.  The Omaha Daily Bee described the actor's impersonations as "artistic and pleasant."  The New York Times noted, "[Lee] delivers an eloquent and highly praiseworthy sentiment[al] characteristic of each [subject]."  In other words, he provided a tender rendering designed to elicit love, pity, or nostalgia.  But the protean actor did demonstrate a brief lapse in pleasantness and tenderness when he showed up at the Keith's Theatre in November, 1904.  The New York Times observed, "The managerial rule that bars politics from the theatre for fear of hurting partisan feelings is being shattered this week at Keith's, in nothing less than a caricature of the President of these United States."  The newspaper said that Lee took to "pounding hard at [Roosevelt's philosophies of] imperialism and strenuosity, to say nothing of various foibles of [his] personal character."

The audience reaction was mixed and, as it turned out, Lee suffered a backlash for his actions.  The New York Times concluded with the following defense of the actor: "It is certainly strange and regrettable that a nation as political as our['s] should be intolerant of politics on the stage."

In May, 1908, Variety reported, "Everything is in readiness for the commencement in Chicago Sunday of a unique experiment.  George Kleine, the big American importer of foreign independent films, George Lederer and Henry Lee, the impersonator, have entered into a partnership to give a novel moving picture show in the Auditorium, Chicago, the big show house which played 'Advanced Vaudeville' for a time last season."  Lee promised theatregoers "a combination of music, poetry, drama and a pictorial display."

More information on project was forthcoming.  Lee engaged the services of other impersonators to stage a show called "The Mimic World" at Chicago's 4,000-seat Orpheum Theatre.  The show, which was coordinated by dozens of theatre personnel, was a ninety-minute multimedia experience, featuring films, slides, prerecorded sound effects, a choir, and musical accompaniment. 

Grau later wrote in "The Theatre of Science," "Lee was an artist to his finger tips, but of business he knew absolutely nothing, and before I could exert my influence to check his wild enthusiasm, he became hopelessly involved financially. . . I advised Lee to preserve his vaudeville status and not sacrifice the $500 a week that was his for the asking to finance a project wholly uncertain as to the outcome.  But Lee, the dreamer, was not to be influenced."

Lee became preoccupied with the project.  Grau wrote, "At Lee's request, I journeyed to Chicago to witness the production. . . The spectacle of an auditorium of about 300 persons in the vast Chicago auditorium seating 6,000 was alone uninspiring enough to cast a gloom. . ."  Journalist Arthur Edwin Krows wrote in 1938, "My recollection is that the primary trouble was too much mixing of the media."  Grau wrote, "Unfortunately, [Lee] was a very poor business man.  His procedure, as a rule, was decidedly ill advised."

The fact that he was so closely identified with his unique specialty act came to be a handicap for the actor.  Grau wrote, "To the writer Lee had always expressed himself as deploring the vogue which this effort brought him.  I have been with him when he would send a message to some manager offering to cancel all his vaudeville engagements, which at the time brought him a weekly provision of $500, if he could get one-fifth of this sum to originate some new role on Broadway.  But it was not to be.  In the last two years the vicissitudes and experiences which Lee had gone through were simply unbearable to a man of his make-up."

It was bad enough that Lee had fallen into a rut, but the audiences at the major vaudeville houses had become bored with his act.  Grau wrote, "His position was truly desperate.  Finally this fine artist was forced to make a tour of second rate vaudeville theaters at a reduced salary, and this was the last engagement of his long and remarkable career."

A Variety critic saw Lee perform what may have been his last "Great Man" performance at the Plaza Theatre in May, 1909.  He wrote, "Henry Lee returns to his original offering, 'Great Men Past and Present,' making only a few changes in his subjects, but keeping the familiar arrangement of the presentation.  The new ones are Emperor William II, Hon. Joseph Cannon and Oscar Hammerstein.  All three were handled with the rare and skill in make-up that characterizes Mr. Lee's work.  Mr. Lee seems to be the only impersonator who realizes the ex-President is not a rough rider any more.  He dresses Mr. Roosevelt in civilian riding costume instead of the khaki uniform that has become a stage trade mark of Theodore."

Soon after his Plaza Theatre appearance, Lee introduced a new spectacle at the White City Amusement Park in Chicago.  The show, called "The Destruction of Messina," employed dozens of stage hands, electricians and pyrotechnic specialists to create the effect of a volcano destroying a city.  The disaster show made use of several effects machines, including a wind machine, a flame machine, sound effects machines and various electric lamps.  The big space, big cast and big machines employed by the show had, at the outcome, a big cost.  The high costs caused the park to shut down the attraction at the end of the season.

Lee died while undergoing surgery on November 10, 1911.  He was 51 years old.  Grau wrote, "Henry Lee had a heart so big that the tears would come to his eyes at the mention of distress of a friend.  He gave away his money in hard times as readily as in his palmy days.  To those who knew him well the struggle Lee made to keep up his outward appearance and to stave off the gradually evident signs of adversity was simply heartrending.  He was not without his faults, but from these he alone suffered.  With his demise the stage has lost a great actor - far greater than, perhaps, posterity will record."

After his death, counterfeit versions of his act turned up on the vaudeville circuits.  Acts billed exactly like Lee's act, "Great Men, Past and Present," were performed by several actors, including Joseph Callahan, Emil Merkle, and The Great Westin.

Grau sadly noted:
The death of Henry Lee was not accorded the prominence in the public press that would have been meted out to him a generation ago.  Perhaps this due to the fact that his achievements were little known to modern writers, but for all that the news came as a shock in the circles in which he was once a conspicuous figure.  The greatest misfortune that ever befell Lee was the success which he achieved in London in the music halls in the speciality which ever after he was enabled to conjure with.  "Great Men, Past and Present" was his undoing.  Lee tried hard, too, to regain the place he had made for himself on the legitimate stage, but he was regarded as a vaudevillian, and this is one instance where vaudeville really did retard a career.

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