DAVENPORT – THE STORIES – Part III
I’m going to wind up my collection of stories about E.L. Davenport this week with a collection of tales that focus on the legacy he left for future generations of performers. Unlike high-strung William Macready, who, although passionately devoted to his craft, tended to intimidate or alienate his co-workers, Davenport transferred some of his own bravery to the young actors who looked upon him as a mentor. John McCullough, who would become one of the leading tragedians of the end of the century in the U.S., remembered how the older actor inspired him to become more courageous on stage;
On the Monday following this first appearance, Mr. E. L. Davenport appeared at “the Arch,” in “The Wife,” and it became young McCullough’s duty to hold him in his arms while he died on the stage. The young man was, as he now remembers, much more “shaky” in the scene than the dying man, and at one time was in great danger of dropping him. Davenport was exceedingly kind to him, however, encouraged him to do his best, and gave him many little hints which were of great service. So he continued for a time playing small parts, till at last he rose to the dignity of assuming the character of the Lieutenant of the Tower, in “Richard III.” For his rendering of this part he was complimented by Davenport; and a few weeks later, “Julius Caesar” being put on the stage for a “run,” McCullough was cast to play Servius; Davenport was Brutus, Wheatley the Marc Antony, and John Dolman, a popular actor at that time, the Cassius. During the last rehearsal of the piece, Davenport went to McCullough, and, patting him on the shoulder, said,
“Now, John, to-night, I want you to be careful above all things to look like a Roman.”
This encouraged the young man to do his best; and he now recalls with much amusement the fact that, in order to follow as closely as might be Mr. Davenport’s wish, he spent the last twenty-five cents he had in the world to have his hair curled, that his Roman appearance might be improved. That evening he was rewarded by a round of applause, which again awoke in him the ambition to play more important roles.1
Of course, Davenport was capable of becoming exasperated with the young actors under his charge during his time as an actor/manager as this anecdote with the Barron brothers illustrates;
Charles Barron told an amusing incident the other day. It happened when he was supporting E.L. Davenport and they were playing in the south, Baltimore, if I remember. Davenport came to him one day and told him that he had engaged his brother to play Lucullus.
“What brother?” said Barron.
“Why, your brother,” was Davenport’s emphatic reply.
“Well, what for?”
“Why, to act.”
“I haven’t got any brother that can act,” replied Barron, who, up to that time, did not know that his brother had seriously followed in his own footsteps.
“See here,” said Davenport, “have you got a brother Bill or haven’t you? Well, I have engaged him for Lucullus.”
“Well, he can’t play it,” was the reply. “He isn’t old enough.”
It happened that Bill was some three or four years the senior of Charles, but that was a detail that didn’t count. He was new to the stage. Nevertheless, the deal was made and Bill was to play Lucullus, to his own great delight, for he had heard that one night his brother Charles, while playing the same part had been taken in front of the curtain by the “governor,” as Davenport was called.
Well, the night came. The scene came – that is the great scene where Lucullus trying to save Damon’s life, has killed the steed that is to take the statesman back to Syracuse in time to save Pythias and keep his word. There was Bill on the stage, and there in the wings was his brother Charles clutching the book in both hands and ready to give the word if the novice missed it. The scene began; it approached the climax – and this was in Davenport’s prime, when he was, many still contend, the best Damon the stage ever saw. He reached the lines:
I am standing to see if the great gods
Will, with their lightning, execute my prayer
Upon thee. But thy punishment be mine.
I’ll tear thee to pieces.
The force of the scene began to stagger Bill before that; and as Davenport sprang toward him, he seemed perfectly dumfounded, rooted to the spot, while in the wings, just as dumb, was brother Charles, still clutching the book in both hands, with his mouth half open but quite unable to give the word. Damon finished the scene, quite unimpeded by brother Bill, who allowed himself to be shaken and dragged about without protest. After it was over Davenport said, with some violence: “If he hadn’t been your brother, by Jove, I’d have finished him!” But later he used to say to Charles: “You can’t play Lucullus; that’s Bill’s part.”2
Because the play “Damon and Pythias” is now rarely performed, I suppose I should make it clear that the stage directions call for Damon to lose his temper and manhandle his slave Lucullus at this point because the fellow had killed his only horse at a key moment in the plot and thus imperiled the life of Damon’s friend Pythias. E.L. Davenport didn’t just spontaneously decide to throttle one of the Barron brothers on stage because the young man suddenly forgot all his lines and his off-stage brother, Charles, who had volunteered to prompt Bill, became simultaneously gripped with sympathetic stage fright and was equally dumbfounded and useless…. Although it does seem like Davenport was sorely tempted to exact some sort of revenge upon the Barron siblings for the damage their combined loss of composure was doing to his sanity and career at that particular moment.
One of fin-de-siècle actress and author, Rose Eytinge’s first engagements as a young performer was with the Wallack-Davenport company. She looked on managers James W. Wallack and E.L. Davenport not just as employers, but as father figures, as she describes here;
From that engagement I date my advance as an actress. I remained in Boston a short time after they left, and then, for some reason, I severed my connection with the Boston Theatre and joined the Davenport-Wallack combination with which I travelled. How good both those men were to me! I was a sort of “Nan, the Good-for-Nothing,” and they were my two fathers. When I was petulant, and heedless and impertinent, and in those days I had all those qualities much developed, it was very amusing to see them. Wallack would say to Davenport if he reproved me, “Now, Ned, that’s no way to treat the child. I’ll talk to her quietly; I understand her better than you do.” And then if Wallack was harsh, Davenport would say, “Now, Jim, leave her to me. I’m a father and I know how to handle her better than you do, of course.” I am sure I must have caused the two worthy actors many a bad hour.3
While with the Davenport-Wallack company, Eytinge had her own experience with a sort of stage fright that turned out quite differently than the Barron brothers. She had the female lead in a melodrama titled “The Iron Mask” by George Coleman. Eytinge had never seen that particular drama staged. The rehearsal period was rather rushed. She was focused on her role and paid little attention to anything else. The character of the mysterious figure of “The Mask” was played by James Wallack. Eytinge recalled her co-star’s instructions;
“My dear Miss Eytinge,” he said, “you will come to me from the left, second entrance. You will be speaking off to the person outside. Your back will be turned to me. Do not look round as you come down the stage. You must not see me until you run into me. Then you will start, turn suddenly, and, seeing me, throw up both hands, shriek, and start away from me toward the left. Now, let’s try that, and don’t forget; you do not see me until you touch me.”4
Like a good professional, Eytinge noted her blocking instructions, but thought nothing more of the scene until the night of the performance. Apparently the company did not have time to do a full dress rehearsal of the play, for Wallack’s performance of his role came as a bit of a surprise to the actress — to say the least. She describes her opening night experience of the scene as follows;
Suddenly I heard behind me a spiritless, cold, weird voice, and at that instant something touched me on the back. I turned quickly and saw the most ghastly sight I ever saw in my life. I forgot where I was and who I was. I threw up my hands and the most terror-stricken shriek you ever dreamed of came from my lips, and I ran, and only the proscenium stopped me. The house rose at me, and when the curtain fell, Davenport and Wallack rushed at me, one on one side and one on the other. They hugged what little breath I had quite out of my body and they told me I was the greatest little actress they ever saw. I held my tongue and I took the credit of it. But bless your heart, that was no acting; the suddenness of the apparition and its ghastliness quite overcame me. It makes a cold chill go over me to think of it today.4
Perhaps Davenport’s most attentive and important students were his children. E.L. and his wife Fanny had ten children. Eight of them became performers. Harry Davenport, who played a multitude of roles in classic Hollywood films such as the grandfather in Meet Me in St. Louis and Dr. Meade in Gone With the Wind, kept the first payment he ever received as an actor. It was from his father. Harry was always ready to tell the story of his first paycheck. In the following account, Harry is recounting the tale to famed director Ernst Lubitsch on the set of 1941 romantic comedy That Uncertain Feeling starring Merle Oberon, Melvyn Douglas, and Burgess Meredith;
Slim, white-haired, and blue-eyed, but straight and agile for all his years, Harry Davenport this month is round out 69 successful years as an actor. And he is celebrating the occasion in a big way: by being in two pictures at once – with a part in a third waiting until he is available!
Watching Davenport put pep into one of the scenes in Lubitsch’s “That Certain Feeling,” it wasn’t easy to believe he had been a star when Lubitsch was still in grad school. Or that he had celebrated his stage golden jubilee when Doulas was just getting a start in the theater. Or that he’d been acting nearly 60 years when Miss Oberon and Meredith began their careers.
It so happened this day that Davenport had the proof along with him – in the shape of $2.04. The handful of coins which Lubitsch had expressed the wish to see, was neatly fitted into a faded morocco case. As Davenport explained, it constituted the earnings of his first stage appearance. He was 5 years old then and the producer who started him on his long career was his father, E. L. Davenport.
The collection includes every minted United States coin of the 1871 series – one cent, two cent, nickel, three cent, silver three cent, nickel five cent, and dime, quarter, half dollar, and dollar coins. Along with them is a yellowed card which reads:
“Master Harry Davenport – His salary for three performances of ‘Damon’s Boy,’ November and December, 1871, at the Chestnut Street Theater, Philadelphia. Per E.L. Davenport and Peter S. Abel, treasurer.”5
The tale of a father paying his five-year-old $2 to play his child on stage may not seem very significant. However E.L. Davenport’s son Harry grew up to found the Actor’s Equity Association with fellow performer, Eddie Foy, in 1913. The AEA is a labor union created to insure that all actors are properly paid for their labor and have safe environments in which to work. The performers had to face down strong opposition from theater owners such as David Belasco and the powerful Shubert family in order to get their organization up and running.
At the very end of E.L. Davenport’s career, fortune smiled upon him once more and handed him one last role that found great favor with theater-goers. The actor was a hit as the title character in W.S. Gilbert’s “Dan’l Druce,” a melodrama loosely based on George Eliot’s “Silas Marner.” This time Davenport’s challenge was not a difficult character, dubious critics, or a fickle public. Instead, he faced resistance from his own body as he had to combat increasingly serious rheumatism and painful attacks of gout. H.A. Weaver, a company member, said of these last engagements during Davenport’s period of failing health;
E.L. Davenport was one of the most genial and patient of men. I have seen him during the long run of “Julius Caesar” at Booth’s Theater, when he was suffering so from the rheumatism in one of his hands so that he could not bear anyone to touch it, and yet he would be all life and gayety, with a good word and a pleasant smile for everyone around him. His kind and amiable disposition endeared him to his associates, while his great abilities as an actor won their unbounded admiration. During the engagement in Washington he seemed to be thoroughly restored to health, and when he came to the matinee on Saturday, he said he felt like a boy of 19, and was in exuberant spirits all afternoon. At night he complained of feeling a little tired, but not withstanding the part of Dan’l Druce is an exacting one, neither he nor the company feared any serious results.6
After communicating to the company three times that he would need to cancel his plans to return because of severe illness, Davenport died suddenly at his home in Canton, Pennsylvania less than two weeks later. Arsenic was used in treatments for gout at that time. Some friends and acquaintances blamed an incompetent doctor for the actor’s death.
Instead of closing on this sad note, I will leave you with one final story from an anonymous acquaintance of the actor. He tells of a meeting between Davenport and comedian William Warren. The article was published in 1893 — near the time of Fanny Vining Davenport’s death. Both E.L. Davenport and Warren had been dead for around twenty years by then. The quotes in this story are probably not exact. Frankly, there is a possibility that the entire story might have been concocted for effect. However, the tale does serve as a fitting epitaph the beloved actor. I will let it close out this collection of reminisces of the life of E.L. Davenport without further comment.
I paid him a visit at Nahant, where he was nursing his gouty limb and getting ready to make a tour under the management of John Stetson in “Dan’l Druce.” I always hated that piece. I believe it was Davenport’s death- knell. He said it was a beautiful story, but a wretched play. But I always thought that was the gout talking. He went out in it. I was with him in Chelsea when he played to about a dozen people. He was in such pain he could barely move, but he never gave a finer performance in his life. Atkins Lawrence will bear me out in this. I remember he was in the bill.
Then he got disgusted, swore he’d play no more, gave his dresses to Horace Lewis, and went home to die. There is no doubt in my mind, judging from the last talk I had with Davenport, that he knew his time had come. We were in the Parker House one evening, when William Warren came in.
“Ah, Warren!” exclaimed Davenport, rising and greeting the comedian with the courtly grace for which he was distinguished, “you’re just in time to join us. What shall it be?”
Mr. Warren took a seat at the table, adjusted his gold eye-glasses, looked quizzically at Davenport, and said: “Ned, I believe you and Forrest were not good friends?”
“No, we were not. Why do you ask?”
“Because this is the anniversary of his death, and I was going to propose a toast in silence.”
“Let it be so, sir,” replied Davenport, catching the sentiment of the comedian.
The glasses were raised, and Mr. Warren said slowly: “Here’s to the memory of a great actor, a grand soul, a good fellow.”
“Amen!” murmured Davenport.
Then Davenport leaned across the table, and, looking Mr. Warren steadily in the face, said, with a tremor in his voice: “My dear sir, you and I are pretty close to the tag. It will not be long before the Great Prompter will ring down the curtain upon our little act. What a life yours has been!”
Mr. Warren looked up and caught Davenport’s eye, in which a tear glistened. “My life?”
“Yes, yours. Beloved of the people of this city, cherished by every man, woman, and child in it, rich in fame, in wealth — what more could the world have possibly done for you, sir?”
A smile passed over the smooth, waxen face of the comedian, as he leaned back in his chair and tipped his high hat on one side of his head in his inimitable fashion. “And with all that, Ned, you have more to be grateful for than I.”
Davenport shook his head wearily.
“When I go,” continued the old comedian, “my name goes with me. I am the last of my race. There are no more Metamoras of my tribe. But you leave your name to the custody of children who will wreathe it with glory.”
Davenport’s eyes were filled with tears. So were Warren’s.
“I often go back,” said Davenport, “to the days when I remember you as a young man, when Forrest was in his prime, when Wyzeman Marshall was young, when Booth was a boy, and when I began my career. ‘How the old time comes o’er me!’ as Claude Melnotte says. Then it seemed impossible that we would grow old. But now it is a painful reality.”
“They were giants in those days,” muttered Warren, abstractedly. “Murdoch, Forrest, the elder Booth, Burton, Brougham, Cushman, Celeste, Couldock; ah, Ned, we shall not look upon their like again.”
As we walked out of the room, loiterers nudged each other and whispered: “That’s old Warren; that’s Ned Davenport.”7
1. Carroll, Howard. Twelve Americans: Their Lives and Times. (Harper and Brothers: New York, 1883.) Page 378
2. “Actors Have Stage Fright: Moments in Which They Completely Lose Their Self-Possession.” Los Angeles Daily Herald. September 22, 1895. Page 8, col 1.
3. “A Chat with Rose Eytinge: She Talks About Her Many Visits to Boston.” Boston Herald. January 13, 1895. Page 30, col 1.
5. Heffernan, Harold. “69 Years an Actor: Harry Davenport.” The Chicago Daily News. Friday, November 29, 1940. Page 34, col. 1.
6. Weaver, H.A. sr. “No. 2 Bullfinch Place: Discomforts of Actors on Their Travels.” Daily Inter Ocean. June 23, 1893. Page 14, col. 1.
7. Edgett, Edwin Francis. Edward Loomis Davenport: A Biography. (The Dunlap Society: New York, 1901.) Page 119-121.