Lyman Twins of Altamonte, famous Vaudeville stage actors
The comedians settled in Seminole County after retiring from a 15-year career, thrilling audiences around the country.
It’s not every day that genuine celebrities move to town! The citizens of tiny Altamonte Springs were delighted when the famous “Lyman Twins” decided to retire a mile west of their fern-cultivating village in 1911.
During the height of the Vaudeville era, Howard and Herbert Lyman were headliners that packed theaters for up to a dozen performances in some large cities. Their gags became legendary and inspired many that came after them, including the Marx Brothers.
Howard and Herbert were originally from Michigan and started performing locally in Grand Haven at 17 years old in 1895. Two years later they got their first break and started touring with the Holden Comedy Team.
At that point, the twins were unknowns and not featured on the billboard. The obscurity allowed them to invent the “broken mirror” bit. They mimicked each other’s every wild movement in front of (what appeared to be) a floor-length mirror. The audience was clueless that they were actually looking at a simple wood frame — no mirror. They roared with laughter when the gag was finally revealed after the twins finally went out of sync.
This concept was adapted many times by other famous comedians, including Charlie Chaplin. The most famous usage of the “broken mirror” scene was Groucho and Harpo in the 1933 movie “Duck Soup,” which was later reprised with Lucille Ball on an “I Love Lucy” episode in the 1950s.
After their success with the Holdens, the Lyman brothers started headlining on their own with their first original show “A Merry Chase” in 1899. For the next 13 years, they toured the country and drew increasingly larger crowds, as their fame spread. Their on-the-road enterprise expanded to include dozens of actors, musicians, chorus girls, and crew.
Howard was the business mind; he managed the promotion, bookings, and staffing for the Lyman Brothers Company. Herbert was the more creative mind and focused his attention on the production elements, as well as writing most of the troupe’s prolific number of plays and routines.
Even offstage they loved to perform real-life skits. Routinely upon visiting a new city they would pull the “Barber Shop Gag.” In some variation, Herbert would sit down for a haircut and a shave. At the end of the job, the barber would head to the backroom to fetch supplies. Howard — wearing the same clothes but unshorn — would quickly swap places in the chair. Upon returning, the barber was perplexed at his customer’s apparent rapid regrown of hair!
Over their 15-year career, they earned significant celebrity and wealth. The world was changing, however, and the Lymans could see the writing on the wall. Moving pictures — then of the silent type — started to gain prominence. Films were much cheaper than traveling ensembles of Vaudevillians, and it started cannibalizing ticket sales of live actors.
Rather than slowly fade out into obscurity, the Lyman Twins decided to step out of the limelight at the height of their career. Having seen the country coast-to-coast, it was Florida that had taken their heart. After touring much of Central Florida for an ideal plot, they settled just outside of Altamonte Springs in (what would become) western Seminole County.
They purchased an abandoned lakefront orange grove in Forest City during the spring of 1911 and immediately began turning it into a large homestead. After performing one more full season of tours in early 1912 (the first one where they lost money), they retired from show business and quickly adapted to the rural life of farmers.
Popular local legend insists that the brothers were first lured to the area by Charles Delemere Haines. The former Congressman had a huge estate and fernery along the north and west shores of Lake Orienta. He hosted lavish events with celebrities, loved Vaudeville, and later opened the Jasmine Theater (which still exists as a private home on Orange Drive).
However, this author believes the facts belie that oral tradition to myth status. Haines did not move from New York to Altamonte Springs until January of 1912. By that point, the Lymans had already cultivated their Forest City land and become popular locals on their regular shopping trips to Sanford.
Herbert was joined in the new farm life with his wife Louisa Scott. She was better known by her stage name, Patti Rosa, and was a celebrity in her own right. She joined the Lyman group early on and married Herbert in 1904. Scott was of English descent and was the third generation of stage performers in her family. She was actually the second “Patti Rosa,” taking on the stage name of her mother who died in 1894 after an illustrious career on the circuit.
A couple of years later the new agriculturalists were joined by another talented woman. Famous singer Emma Abbott, who joined the Lyman tour during the 1911 season, married Howard in December 1914. Similar to Patti, Abbott followed in the footsteps of her famous aunt (who she was named after), who also died at the height of her Vaudeville career.
This was Howard’s second marriage. He previously had a child (Shirley) with his first wife, Ethel Van Brocklin. Ethel was also an actress that toured with the company. The two amicably divorced in 1910. In fact, Ethel continued to tour with them, even after their separation made national news.
The Lyman-Abbott wedding was hosted at the Lyman ranch in Forest City, known locally as “Lymandale.” The ceremony was officiated by Dr. J. W. Stagg, followed by a private yet elaborate reception. The newlyweds returned to farm life in Forest City after their honeymoon.
The precise location of the Lymandale farm is unknown, but they built a fine home that overlooked a lake. The four Lymans, with the help of hired hands, brought the abandoned grove back to bearing fruit.
After the initial success, they continued to purchase additional groves and ranch around them. Eventually, Lymandale spanned over 150 acres. They also raised chickens, a well-regarded brood of large Duroc Jersey hogs, grew their own hay, and added many acres for truck farming (especially corn).
After a few years of successful cultivation, the brothers started to sell of pieces of their property. Ten acres of the Lyman Groves were sold off in 1919, which funded Herbert and Patti’s move to Winter Haven. He worked as a manager there for the Virginia Carolina Chemical Company, leveraging his agricultural experience to be a great fertilizer salesman to local growers.
Howard joined Herbert in the chemical and fertilizer business, and both became trusted advisors to local agriculturalists. Herbert, who continued to live in the Forest City area, was the manager of the local Armour Fertilizer franchise. The business boomed and, in 1921, moved from a small downtown Orlando office to a newly constructed warehouse at 430 West Robinson Avenue along the Seaboard Air Line Railroad tracks.
Herbert decided to join up with his brother in the Armour enterprise, and he and Patti moved back to the area in 1924. They built a home in Lake Eola Heights that still stands today. The couple lived there on Amelia Avenue for the rest of their lives.
The brothers sold most of the rest of their groves to Judge Charles O. Andrews in 1922. Andrews later became a senator and a prominent grower in the industry, that helped propel the Forest City area into one of the top citrus-growing regions in the country.
Herbert continued to represent Virginia Carolina Chemical Company in the Polk County district while managing Orlando district and warehouse for Armour. He traveled throughout Central Florida during the Land Boom, tapping into his vast knowledge of local soil and climate to advise new investors in the budding citrus industry how to kickstart their groves.
He was also a director of the Orange County Citrus Sub-Exchange, along with prominent citrus men L. W. Tilden of Tildenville (near Winter Garden and Oakland) and W. C. Temple of Winter Park. This was a farmer's co-op that helped local growers collectively get their produce to a larger market.
As if that didn’t keep him busy enough, Herbert opened a storefront called the Farm & Home Machinery Company in 1928. It was located at 430 West Robinson Avenue, three blocks to the north of the Amway Center today. He sold the latest in equipment and machinery, and that business continued to operate up until the 1970s. Later in life, Herbert sold the business and started work as the local representative for Trueman Fertilizer.
Howard and Emma Lyman never left the Forest City/Altamonte Springs area. They were key local figures in the incorporation of the Altamonte in 1920, both of their names appearing on the petition to found the city.
Howard was the area’s representative on the Seminole County Board of Trade. He also was elected to the county school board and was active in all interests of the city locally and at conventions. He was a prominent member of the Elks Lodge and other charitable organizations.
Howard and Emma had two sons, who were (confusingly to a researcher) also named Howard and Herbert, both raised to adulthood in Altamonte Springs. Howard was born in 1917 and Herbert in 1919.
The family vacationed at Pass-a-Grille Beach, near St. Petersburg, to enjoy the waves over the July 4th holiday in 1924. While Emma and the boys played nearby, Howard swam out and dove from a six-foot diving board into the shallow waves below. He did not re-emerge on his own. His neck was broken and, sadly, he died on the beach with his family watching in horror.
The communities mourned the loss of one of its patriarchs, lost in the prime of his life. Dignitaries throughout the Central Florida region and many Vaudevillians traveled to Altamonte for the funeral.
Howard, newly elected to the Seminole County School Board, had been integral in lobbying for the opening new school to serve the Altamonte and Longwood communities. The bond measure to fund its construction passed just weeks after his death. The new school opened in the fall of 1924 and was dubbed Lyman Memorial School in his honor.
Though it has moved to a new location about a mile north in Longwood, Lyman High School still bears his legacy. The original campus is still active, now called Milwee Middle School. Howard and Emma’s two sons (also named Howard and Herbert) graduated from their father’s namesake school.
Emma Abbott Lyman was beautiful and beloved by all that knew her. In many ways, her impact surpassed that of her husband. During the 1920s and 1930s, she was often considered the de-facto mayor of Altamonte Springs, running the city’s business whenever Mayor Maltbie or others went out of town.
Emma was chairwoman of the town’s board of alderman, managed the local “Community House” civic center, maintained community gardens at Lyman and Rosenwald Schools, hosted picnics, and political rallies. She founded the civic organization that sponsored much of the early civic development of Altamonte kept the city’s finances afloat during the Great Depression.
As if that weren’t enough, Lyman was also the area’s favorite performer as a regular host and performer on WDBO (Orlando’s first radio station). Emma played the piano, taught music twice a week at Lyman School, directed most any musical events and fundraisers in town, and regularly blessed everyone with her large, angelic range at community and church events.
Howard (junior) served in the Navy and was stationed at the Naval Station Great Lakes, just north of Chicago, in 1943. His mother, Emma, rode with Sanford resident Mary Strong to visit him in August of that year.
The two women were halfway into the trip when they passed through Chattanooga. Heading north on the Dixie Highway, they approached Dodds Avenue in downtown Chattanooga. At this point, the road heads down a hill before turning to the northwest. The car’s brakes failed and they soared through the intersection and crashed violently into the James Cafe.
Strong, the driver, broke her arm and a rib. Emma was more badly injured, breaking both legs, an arm, and suffering internal injuries. Her two sons, Herbert (brother-in-law) and Patti Lyman all rushed to Tennessee to visit her in the hospital and spent several days with her. But, tragically, she died from the incident a week later. The 61-year-old actress was buried at Greenwood Cemetery in Orlando, next to her husband.
Over the next decade, Patti and Herbert continued to perform in local fundraisers and charitable events, especially at the Orlando Country Club in College Park, where they were members. Patti Louise Lyman died after a short illness in 1952. Herbert quickly remarried but died a year later in 1953.
After graduating from Lyman High and Rollins College, Howard and Emma’s two sons left the area. Howard’s child from the first marriage (Shirley) stayed with her mother (Ethel) and never lived locally. Herbert and Patti did not have any children. Because their local legacy only stretched a single generation, it’s easy to forget the Lymans’ impact, but they should be remembered among the early leaders that helped shape Forest City and Altamonte Springs.