February 21, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler

I first began posting these columns in June of 2016, and over time I’ve been asked where I get my ideas from. In thinking it over, it certainly begins with an idea, but more often than not, things then morph into something born out of inspiration. I wake up in the morning, have a cup of coffee, and start to free associate on what hits me about either some history of the day’s date in question, or something that’s on my mind that I think might be worth sharing having to do with the world of the theatre.

This morning was no different than any other. Coffee in hand, I began poking around for an idea and settled on today being the first opening night of the John Golden Theatre on 45th Street, one of Broadway’s most sought after and intimate houses, with a capacity of only 805 seats (for contrast, the average capacity of the forty-one theatres hovers at the 1,448 mark). I was struck that the very first production back in 1927 was entitled Puppets of Passion. A funny title, sure. But what’s funnier is that the Golden’s longest running tenant in its 90-year history has been Avenue Q. Talk about your puppets of passion coming back to rule the roost!

In looking up the cast of Puppets of Passion, I recognized only two names. One was Eduardo Ciannelli, a character actor with a number of Broadway credits in the first quarter of the century, who once talkies began, moved west where he became well-known from such films as 1939's Gunga Din and 1940's Kitty Foyle, for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. But being Italian (he was an immigrant who landed in America in 1919), he was relegated to playing thugs and gangsters for the better part of his career. When work dried up for him in Hollywood, he tried changing his name from Eduardo to Edward, but it didn’t help. So in his sixties, he went back to Italy to make a few forgettable films. Then, after a nearly thirty year absence, he returned to Broadway in Dore Shary’s The Devil’s Advocate and received a Tony nomination. He died in Rome in 1969 at the age of eighty.

Eduardo Ciannelli (circa 1945)

The male lead in Puppets of Passion was the great Frank Morgan, forever immortalized as the title character in The Wizard of Oz. Morgan made his Broadway debut in 1914 and instantly became an in-demand actor, the proof of that being Puppets was his sixteenth Broadway show in thirteen years. And it wasn’t only Broadway that held him in high esteem: by 1927, he had already made just as many films— all silent — and all in New York. But naturally, Hollywood beckoned and after 1932 Morgan never returned to Broadway. He was, in fact, awarded a lifetime contract by MGM… if such a thing can be believed. He died suddenly in 1949 of a heart attack at age fifty-nine while filming his role as Buffalo Bill in Annie Get Your Gun, which would have pushed the final tally of his motion picture output to more than 100 films.

Frank Morgan (circa 1940)

That was it for the names I recognized from the Puppets of Passion company, until one more caught my eye: Rose Hobart. I suppose it’s because it so closely resembles the name Rose Hovick, who for anyone who has ever seen Gypsy knows, is the real name of Gypsy Rose Lee’s notorious mother, the infamous Madame Rose (never called Mama Rose in Arthur Laurents’s libretto for the musical, in spite of that misnomer).

Rose Hobart in a Universal Studios publicity shot from the 1930s.

On investigation, Rose Hobart turns out to have had one hell of a story. A stunning beauty, she was born Rose Kefer May 1, 1906 to artistic parents. Her father, Paul was a cellist with the New York Symphony Orchestra and her mother, Marguerite was an opera singer. Hobart’s Broadway debut as an actress was at the age of seventeen in The Lullaby as “The Young Girl,” which starred — wait for it — Frank Morgan.

She became a founding member of Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Company, which even after close to a hundred years is still considered a high water mark of the American theatre. At age twenty, Hobart co-starred opposite such heavyweights as Le Gallienne in Henrik Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman and Helen Hayes in What Every Woman Knows. In a bit of irony, Hayes was the actress to whom Hobart lost her role in The Lullaby when the play was filmed a few years later as The Sin of Madelon Claudet — which won Hayes a Best Actress Oscar.

Hobart’s biggest stage hit was in 1929 in the original production of Death Takes a Holiday, an adaptation of the German novel by Alberto Casella that became a staple of summer stock. Although she didn’t repeat her performance in the successful 1934 film, the Broadway production was responsible for her being offered a Hollywood contract. Over the next twenty years, she appeared in more than forty films and developed a reputation as a no-nonsense, hard working actress. Her two most famous roles were as Julie in Frank Borzage’s Liliom (1930), and as Muriel in Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932), opposite Fredric March. She was also a union activist and helped to form the Screen Actors Guild, alongside its first president Ralph Morgan (older brother of … yes, Frank Morgan).

“On my first three pictures, they worked me 18 hours a day and then complained because I was losing so much weight that they had to put stuff in my evening dress,” Hobart recalled. “When I did East of Borneo … they started at 6 o’clock at night and finished at 5 in the morning. For two solid weeks, I was working with alligators, jaguars and pythons out on the back lot. I thought, ‘This is acting?’ It was ridiculous. We were militant about the working conditions. We wanted an eight-hour day like everybody else.”

Thus was born a union activist. It was actors like Hobart who ended the studio’s reign of unlimited and unenforced labor. And how was she repaid for her years of service? In 1949, and while still on the board of the Screen Actors Guild, Hobart was informed that she had been blacklisted. “I was livid,” she recalled. “I also knew I had done it to myself. I had spoken out against what I considered unfair treatment of people in Hollywood.”

Hobart kept company with some of the most politically-minded actors on the west coast and was a participant in the Actors Lab, a theatre company and acting school founded just before the outbreak of World War II whose members were a “Who’s Who” of the blacklist. According to her Los Angeles Times obituary, “Even though Hobart had signed a paper stating that she was not and never had been a Communist, and even though she knew her purported signatures on Communist slogans brandished by the committee were bogus, Hobart was labeled. ‘My career just stopped right there… The word went out from the studios. There was a blacklist. There really was.’ Never bitter, Hobart always believed that she was blacklisted not because of any legitimate Communist connections but because of her agitation for better working conditions for actors.”

Although she made a few television appearances in the late 1960s (including a recurring role on Peyton Place), she retired from acting in 1971 and lived her final years at the Motion Picture Home, where she died from natural causes in 2000 at the age of 94.

And so that’s how one of these columns is constructed. I set out to write about the John Golden Theatre, and instead wrote about Rose Hobart, who I have a feeling turned out to be a lot more interesting (no offense to Mr. Golden’s playhouse).

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available for pre-order exclusively from Griffith Moon Publishing.

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