June 20, 2008
An Actor's Tale: Joseph Jefferson, Part Two
Joseph Jefferson Arrives in Chicago
IN the year 1838 the new town of Chicago had just turned from an Indian village into a thriving little place, and my uncle had written to my father urging him to join in the management of the new theater which was then being built there. As each fresh venture presented itself, my father's hopeful nature predicted immediate and successful results.
He had scarcely finished the letter when he declared that our fortunes were made, so we turned our faces towards the setting sun. In those days a journey from Albany to Chicago was no small undertaking for a large family in straitened circumstances; certain cherished articles had to be parted with to procure necessary comforts for the trip. I really do not know how, but we got from Albany to Schenectady, where we acted for a few nights with a company that was playing there. Several of the actors, who had received no salary for some time, decided to accompany my father and seek their fortunes in the West.
As I remember it, our journey was long, but not tedious. We traveled part of the way in a fast-sailing packet-boat on the Erie Canal, the only smoke issuing from the caboose stove-pipe. I can remember our party admiring this craft with the same enthusiasm that we now express in looking at a fine ocean steamer. She was painted white and green and enlivened with blue window blinds and a broad red stripe running from bow to stern. Her name was the Pioneer, which was to us most suggestive, as our little band was among the early dramatic emigrants to the far West. The boat resembled a Noah's ark with a flat roof, and my father, like the patriarch of old, took his entire family on board, with this difference, however: he was required to pay his passage, it being understood between him and the captain that he should stop a night in Utica and one in Syracuse, give a theatrical entertainment in each place, and hand over the receipts in payment of our fare.
We acted in Utica for one night, and the receipts were quite good. My father and mother were in high spirits, and there is no doubt that the captain had hopes that the next night's entertainment in Syracuse would liquidate our liabilities, for there was a visible improvement in the coffee at breakfast, and an extra piece of pie all around for dinner. The next night, unfortunately, the elements were against us; it rained in torrents and the attendance was light, so that we were short of our passage money about ten dollars.
The captain, being a strict member of the Church, could not attend either of the performances, and as he was in his heart most anxious to see what acting was like, he proposed that if the company would "cut up" for him and give him a private show in the cabin he would call it "square." Our actors, being highly legitimate, declined; but my mother, ever anxious to show off the histrionic qualities of her son, proposed that I should sing some comic songs for the captain, and so ransom
the rest of the actors. The captain turned it over in his mind, being, I am afraid, a little suspicious of my genius, but after due consideration consented. So he prepared himself for the entertainment, the cook and my mother comprising the rest of the audience. The actors had wisely retired to the upper deck, as they had been afflicted on former occasions. I now began a dismal comic song called "The Devil and Little Mike." It consisted of some twenty-five stanzas, each one containing two
lines with a large margin of "whack fol de riddle." It was never clear whether the captain enjoyed this entertainment or not. My mother said he did, for, though the religious turn of his mind would naturally suppress any impulse to applaud, he said even before I had half finished that he was quite satisfied.
On our arrival in Buffalo we found another pioneer company, under the management of
Dean and McKenney. Here we stayed over two or three days, waiting for the steamer to
take us up the lakes. Marble was starring there; he was one of the first and best of the Yankee comedians. In those days the stage New Englander was acted and dressed in a most extravagant manner. I remember seeing Marble play, and his costume was much
after the present caricature of Uncle Sam,minus the stars but glorying in the stripes.
In a few days we steamed up the beautiful lakes of Erie, Huron and Michigan. The boat would stop sometimes for hours at one of the stations to take in wood, or a stray passenger, and then the Indians would paddle out to us in their canoes, offering their beadwork and moccasins for sale. Sometimes we would go ashore and walk on the beach, gathering pebbles, carnelians, and agates. I thought them of immense value, and kept my treasures for years afterwards. What a lovely trip it
was as I remember it! Lake Huron at sunset is before me now a purple sky melting into a golden horizon; rich green foliage on the banks; yellow sand with many-colored pebbles making the beach of the lake; the clear and glassy water; groups of Indians lolling on the banks, smoking their pipes and making baskets; the hills dotted with their little villages of tents made of skins and painted canvas; blue
smoke curling slowly up in the calm summer air; and all the bright colors reflected in the lake. I stood there as a boy, skimming flat stones over the surface of the water, and now as I write in the autumn of my life these once quiet shores are covered with busy cities; the furnaces glow with melted iron, the locomotive screams and whistles along the road where once the ox-teams used to carry the mail, and corner lots and real-estate agents "fill the air." When we think that all these wonderful changes have taken place within the last fifty years, it is startling to speculate upon what the next half-century may bring about.
So day by day passes, till one night a light is espied in the distance, then another, and then many more dance and reflect themselves in the water. It is too late to go ashore, so we drop anchor. At sunrise we are all on deck looking at the haven of our destination, and there in the morning light, on the shores of Lake Michigan, stands the little town of Chicago, containing two thousand inhabitants.
Aunt, uncle, and their children come to meet and welcome us. Then there is such a shaking of hands and a kiss all around, and "Why, how well you are looking!" and "Is that Charlie? How he has grown!" "Why, that's not Joe! Dear me, who'd have believed it?" And then we all laugh again and have another kiss.
The captain said he had enjoyed a splendid trip such fun, such music and singing and
dancing. "Well, good-bye all!" "Good luck!" and off we go ashore and walk through
the busy little town, busy even then, people hurrying to and fro, frame buildings going up, board sidewalks going down, new hotels, new churches, new theaters, everything new. Saw and hammer saw! saw! bang! bang! look out for the drays! bright and muddy streets, gaudy-colored calicos, blue and red flannels and striped ticking hanging outside the drygoods stores, barrooms, real-estate offices, attorneys-at-law, oceans of them!
And now for the new theater! Newly painted canvas, tack-hammer at work on stuffed seats in the dress circle, planing boards in the pit, new drop curtain let down for
inspection, "beautiful!" a medallion of Shakespere, suffering from a severe pain in his stomach, over the center, with "One touch of nature makes the whole world kin" written under him, and a large, painted, brick-red drapery looped up by Justice, with sword and scales, showing an arena with a large number of gladiators hacking away at one another in the distance to a delightful Roman public; though what Justice had to do with keeping these gladiators on exhibition was never clearly
explained by the artist. There were two private boxes with little white-and-gold balustrades and turkey-red curtains; over one box a portrait of Beethoven and over the other a portrait of Handel upon unfriendly terms,glaring at each other. The dome was pale blue, with pink-and-white clouds, on which reposed four ungraceful ballet girls representing the seasons, and apparently dropping flowers, snow and grapes into the pit. Over each season there floated four fat little cherubim "in various stages of spinal curvature."
My father, being a scenic artist himself, was naturally disposed to be critical, and when the painter asked his opinion of the dome, he replied:
"Well, since you asked me, don't you think that your angels are a little stiff in their attitudes?"
"No, sir; not for angels. When I deal with mythological subjects I never put my figures in natural attitudes; it would be inharmonious. A natural angel would be out of keeping with the rest of the work."
To which my father replied that it was quite likely that such would be the case. "But why have you made Handel and Beethoven frown at each other? They are not mythological subjects."
"No, no," said the painter. "But they are musicians, you know; and great musicians
always quarrel, eh? Ha ha!"
"Yes," said my father; "but as Handel died before Beethoven was born, I don't see
how any coolness could have existed between them."
The foregoing dialogue, while it may not be verbatim, is at least in the spirit of the original. I could not possibly remember the exact words of the different conversations that will naturally occur through these chapters; but I have placed
them in their present form, as I believe it is the clearest and most effective way to tell the story. Many of the conversations and incidents are traditional in my family; I have good reason to take them for granted, and I must ask the reader to share my confidence.
The greenroom was a perfect gem, with a three-foot wavy mirror and cushioned seats
around the wall traps under the stage so convenient that Ophelia could walk from her grave to her dressing-room with perfect ease.
With what delight the actors looked forward to the opening of a new theater in a new town, where dramatic entertainments were still unknown repairing their wardrobes, studying their new parts, and speculating on the laurels that were to be won!
After a short season in Chicago, with the varying success which in those days always
attended the drama, the company went to Galena for a short season, traveling in open
wagons over the prairie. Our seats were the trunks that contained the wardrobe those old-fashioned hair trunks of a mottled and spotted character made from the skins of defunct circus horses: "To what base uses we may return!" These smooth hair trunks, with geometrical problems in brass tacks ornamenting their surfaces, would have made slippery seats even on a macadamized road, so one may imagine the difficulty we had in holding on while jolting over a rough prairie. Nothing short of a severe pressure on the brass tacks and a convulsive grip on the handles could have kept us in position; and whenever a treacherous handle gave way our company was for the time being just one member short. As we were not an express mail-train, of course we were allowed more than twenty minutes for refreshments. We stopped at farmhouses on the way for this uncertain necessity, and they were far apart.
If the roads were heavy and the horses jaded, those actors who had tender hearts and tough limbs jumped out and walked to ease the poor brutes. Often I have seen my father trudging along ahead of the wagon, smoking his pipe, and I have no doubt thinking of the large fortune he was going to make in the next town, now and then looking back with his light blue eyes, giving my mother a cheerful nod which plainly said: "I'm all right. This is splendid; nothing could be finer." If it rained he was glad it was not snowing; if it snowed he was thankful it was not raining. This con-
tented nature was his only inheritance; but it was better than a fortune made in Galena or anywhere else, for nothing could rob him of it.
We traveled from Galena to Dubuque on the frozen river in sleighs smoother work
than the roughly rutted roads of the prairie; but it was a perilous journey, for a warm spell had set in and made the ice sloppy and unsafe. We would sometimes hear it crack and see it bend under our horses' feet: now a long-drawn breath of relief as we passed some dangerous spot, then a convulsive grasping of our nearest companion as the ice groaned and shook beneath us. Well, the passengers arrived safe, but, horror to relate! the sleigh containing the baggage, private and public, with the
scenery and properties, green curtain and drop,broke through the ice and tumbled into the Mississippi. My poor mother was in tears, but my father was in high spirits at his good luck, as he called it because there was a sandbar where the sleigh went in! So the things were saved at last, though in a forlorn condition. The opening had to be delayed in order to dry the wardrobe and smooth the scenery.
The halls of the hotel were strung with clothes-lines, and the costumes of all nations festooned the doors of the bedrooms, so that when an unsuspicious boarder came out suddenly into the entry he was likely to run his head into a damp "Roman" skirt, or perhaps have the legs of a soaking pair of red tights dangling round his neck. Mildew filled the air. The gilded pasteboard helmets fared the worst. They had succumbed to the softening influences of the Mississippi, and were as battered and out of shape as if they had gone through the pass of Thermopylae. Limp leggins of scale armour hung wet and dejected from the lines; low-spirited cocked hats were piled up in the corner; rough-dried court coats stretched their arms out as if in the agony of drowning, as though they would say, "Help me, Cassius, or I sink."
Theatrical scenery at its best looks pale and shabby in the daytime, but a well-worn set after a six-hours' bath in a river presents the most wobegone appearance that can well be imagined; the sky and water of the marine had so mingled with each other that the horizon line had quite disappeared. My father had painted the scenery, and he was not a little crestfallen as he looked upon the ruins; a wood scene had amalgamated with a Roman street painted on the back of it, and had so run into stains and winding streaks that he said it looked like a large map of South America; and pointing out the Andes with his cane, he humorously traced the Amazon to its source. Of course this mishap on the river delayed the opening for a week. In the
meantime the scenery had to be repainted and the wardrobe put in order; many of the things were ruined, and the helmets defied repair.
After a short and, I think, a good season at Dubuque, we traveled along the river to the different towns just springing up in the West: Burlington, Quincy, Peoria, Pekin and Springfield. In those primitive days, I need scarcely say, we were often put to severe shifts for a theater.
In Quincy the courthouse was fitted up, and it answered admirably. In one town a
large warehouse was utilized, but in Pekin we were reduced to the dire necessity of acting in a pork-house. This establishment was a large frame building, stilted up on piles about two feet from the ground, and situated in the open prairie just at the edge of the town. The pigs were banished from their comfortable quarters, and left to browse about on the common during the day, taking shelter under their former abode in the evening. After undergoing some slight repairs in the roof, and submitting to a thorough scouring and whitewashing, the building presented quite a
respectable appearance. The opening play was "Clari, the Maid of Milan." This drama
was written by John Howard Payne, and his song of "Home, Sweet Home" belongs to the
play. My mother, on this occasion, played the part of Cari and sang the touching ballad.
Now it is a pretty well established fact in theatrical history that if an infant has been smuggled into the theater under the shawl of its fond mother, however dormant it may have been during the unimportant scenes of the play, no sooner is an interesting point arrived at, where the most perfect stillness is required, than the "dear little innocent" will break forth into lamentation loud and deep. On this
occasion no youthful humanity disturbed the peace, but the "animal kingdom," in the shape of the banished pigs, asserted its right to a public hearing. As soon as the song of "Home, Sweet Home" commenced they began by bumping their backs up against the beams, keeping anything but good time to the music; and as my mother plaintively chanted the theme "Sweet, Sweet Home," realizing their own cruel exile, the pigs squealed most dismally.
Of course the song was ruined, and my mother was in tears at the failure. My father, however, consoled her by saying that though the grunting was not quite in harmony with the music, it was in perfect sympathy with the sentiment.
Springfield being the capital of Illinois, it was determined to devote the entire season to the entertainment of the members of the legislature. Having made money for several weeks previous to our arrival here, the management resolved to hire a lot and build a theater. This sounds like a large undertaking, and perhaps with their limited means it was a rash step. I fancy that my father rather shrunk from this bold enterprise, but the senior partner (McKenzie) was made of sterner stuff, and, his energy being quite equal to his ambition, the ground was broken and the temple erected.
The building of a theater in those days did not require the amount of capital that it does now. Folding opera-chairs were unknown. Gas was an occult mystery, not yet acknowleged as a fact by the unscientific world in the West; a second-class quality of sperm-oil was the height of any manager's ambition. The footlights of the best theaters in the western country were composed of lamps set in a "float" with the counter-weights. When a dark stage was required, or the lamps needed trimming or refilling, this mechanical contrivance was made to sink under the stage. I believe if the theater, or "Devil's workshop," as it was sometimes called, had suddenly been
illuminated with the same material now in use, its enemies would have declared that the light was furnished from the "Old Boy's" private gasometer.
The new theater, when completed, was about ninety feet deep and forty feet wide.
No attempt was made at ornamentation; and as it was unpainted, the simple lines of
architecture upon which it was constructed gave it the appearance of a large dry-goods box with a roof. I do not think my father, or McKenzie, ever owned anything with a roof until now, so they were naturally proud of their possession.
In the midst of our rising fortunes a heavy blow fell upon us. A religious revival was in progress at the time, and the fathers of the church not only launched forth against us in their sermons, but by some political manoeuvre got the city to pass a new law enjoining a heavy license against our "unholy" calling; I forget the amount, but it was large enough to be prohibitory. Here was a terrible condition of affairs: all our available funds invested, the legislature in session, the town full of people, and we by a heavy license denied the privilege of opening the new theater!
In the midst of our trouble a young lawyer called on the managers. He had heard of the injustice, and offered, if they would place the matter in his hands, to have the license taken off, declaring that he only desired to see fair play, and he would accept no fee whether he failed or succeeded. The case was brought up before the council. The young lawyer began his harangue. He handled the subject with tact, skill and humor, tracing the history of the drama from the time when Thespis acted in a cart to the stage of to-day. He illustrated his speech with a number of anecdotes, and kept the council in a roar of laughter; his good-humor prevailed, and the exorbitant tax was taken off.
This young lawyer was very popular in Springfield, and was honored and beloved by all who knew him, and after the time of which I write he held rather an important position in the government of the United States. He now lies buried near Springfield, under a monument commemorating his greatness and his virtues and his name was Abraham Lincoln!
From: Reminiscences of Chicago During the Forties and Fifties by Mabel McIlvaine, (1913) [Reprinted from "The Autobiography of Joseph Jefferson," by permission of The Century Co.]
The Autobiography of Joseph Jefferson (1889)
The Actor Who Got Lincoln Shot By Evan J. Albright
Life and art of Joseph Jefferson, together with some account of his ancestry and of the Jefferson family of actors by William Winter (1894)