March 6, 2015 by Pamela Nowak
Many later-famous actors got their starts in summer stock theatre. Summer Stock refers to a company with a set of “stock” plays for a single summer season of performance. The Elitch Gardens theatre launched many, including Antoinette Perry. Tony Perry was ten years old when she had her first role, opposite her father. Tony went on to become an actress on Broadway. The Tony Award is named in her honor.
After a few seasons of vaudeville and light opera, Mary Elitch Long made the decision to switch theatre programming to summer stock. She was firm in her belief that the theatre productions at the playhouse be high quality. She secured directors and actors accordingly and visited New York to review shows prior to booking them. An early director, George Edeson insisted all cast members dress well and have considerable experience.
Touring with a summer stock company was not easy. There were often two performances daily and pay was minimal and many company members sought ways to conserve money. Edeson, for example, slept on a cot in a tiny room over the Elitch Gardens entrance building. One night, he was awakened by strange sounds. They occurred again the next night and Edeson, fearing it was an intruder, decided to patrol the grounds for the remainder of the night. Other members of the company teased him about hearing things so he took a shotgun to bed with him. That night, he again heard the noise and saw a head at the window. Striking a match so he could see better, he discovered the intruder was a badger, escaped from Mary’s menagerie, hanging onto the window screen!
Frederick Perry also had a disturbing experience with Mary’s animals. Perry, leading man, was often late for call. One day, rushing to the theatre for a matinee, he sensed someone beside him and attempted to rush around them, only to discover it was Sam, Mary’s favorite black bear. Afraid to step across Sam’s path, Perry veered the other direction. Sam kept pace. Perry was finally located edging his way along a fence (some stories say climbing a fence) at the outskirts of the park.
Douglas Fairbanks’s first stage appearance was at Elitch’s Gardens. His mother read Shakespeare to him as a child and he early developed a fondness for the bard. But the local twelve-year-old lacked money to purchase a ticket. He offered to scrub the stage in return for admission and later became an acting student of Margaret Fealy, who often graced the Elitch’s stage. It didn’t take long before he was appearing on stage himself.
Sarah Bernhardt appeared on the Elitch Gardens stage in 1906. Mary Long and Sarah had an instant bond, spending hours together strolling the gardens. Bernhardt loved flowers and animals and was entranced by a young lioness. Mary later told of how the lioness paced until the actress neared, then allowed her to stroke its head from the tip of its nose to its ears. They left the animal mesmerized, still as a statue, as they walked away from the cage. When Bernhardt discovered the lioness had no name, she asked it to be named for her.
Maude Fealy was a regular at the Elitch Gardens Playhouse each summer during its early years. Fealy, a Denver native, also toured. While in London, still in supporting roles, she cared for a backstage cat, providing daily cream and neck ribbons. Leading man Sir Henry Irving was intrigued by the young actress and monitored her on-stage growth. Impressed, Sir Henry invited her to become his leading lady. The Elitch ensemble honored her with an engraved loving cup after her last Elitch performance, wishing her the best on her career growth.
Elitch’s was more than just a job for the actors appearing there. Most had a comradery and loved the Denver area. Mary Elitch Long wrote about their fun-loving pranks during the 1905 season. Leading man John Mason invited Minnie Maddern Fiske (a renowned and respected actress of the day) and the other company actresses to take a trip to the mountains, an excursion through Clear Creek Canyon to Georgetown. He provided them all with train passes. The ladies, rising very early after a late night at the theatre arrived at the station only to be told the passes were fakes. Mrs. Fiske then arranged a luncheon at the Brown Palace Hotel and invited Mason and all the victims of the joke. She advised the ladies to order without worry about the price, then told the waiter to present the bill to Mason.
The list of famous actors on the Elitch stage during the early decades of the park included many. Among them were Frederick Perry, Tony Perry, Tyrone (Tom) Power, Sr., Cecille B. deMille, and a host of others. Power once said one of his greatest ambitions was to play the Elitch Gardens Theatre and deMille called the Elitch theatre “one of the cradles of American drama.” By tradition, many left autographed photos which were hung on the walls of the theatre lobby. (I’ll discuss later theatre eras in future posts.)
Please join me next week as I explore the history of carousels. Each Friday, I will blog about some aspect of Elitch Gardens, early Denver, or other topics related to my next novel, Escaping Yesterday. In between, I will post small factoids on my Facebook page. You can join me there and I love new friends (https://www.facebook.com/pamela.nowak.142).
Due for release in September 2015, Escaping Yesterday is set in Elitch’s Gardens, in 1905, and follows the story of Lottie Chase. Lottie is willing to take any risk to save her daughter from their abusive uncle. Stranded in Denver, Lottie meets Caleb Hudson, manager at Elitch’s Gardens amusement park, who sees her as a manipulative huckster. Caleb, a veteran suffering from PTSD, craves the tranquility of the park’s gardens. Lottie brings anything but peace as she seeks to convince the owners to add thrill rides so she can collect the sales commission and support her daughter. Neither anticipates their growing passion, common demons, or the dangers they will face as they confront their pasts and free their love.