FORTY-FIVE YEARS OF THE STAGE
Poverty Bay Herald, Volume XXXIV, Issue 10878, 23 January 1907, Page 5
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FORTY-FIVE YEARS OF THE STAGE
MR. J. C. WILLIAMSON'S CAREER,
The last issue of the Bou-kfelloAv (Sydney) contains an interview with Mr J. C. Williamson, Australia's veteran actormanager. The story is especially interesting, apart from the personal features of Mr Williamson's long career, for the reason that it foretells of his retirement from active life m "the very near future." • - . "And iioav," said Mr Williamson m the interview, "it is nearly time to take m sail. The burden of theatrical direction is heavy; the pressure is unceasing— -and I am no longer young. After 45 strenuous years m the service of the public I feel that I owe a little to myself, a great deal to my wife.* and children. At 60 a man may fairly rest from active labor. It is not easy to give up Avhen one feels so well and strong ; but my desire is to relinquish management m the very near futre.' Then he went on with his life story, from Avhich Aye take the following extracts :— "I was born at Mercer, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., on August 26, 1845. Mercer is a county toAvn Avhere my father Avas a doctor. Both my father and mother Avere Americans.: He was of Irish descent, she of Scottish. Of course I look upoq America as my native country. Sometimes people have said to me, 'ion. fortune is bound up m Australia iioav; why don't you get naturalised?' T don't see that. Australia is. my country, too, and I expect to spend the rest of my days here, but I think a man should never deny his mother country, "JIMMY" WAS THE BLOODHOUND. "I used to act m amateiir theatricals, and when I was 16 I got aii engagement with a company at the Mil Avaukee theatre. I remember I even painted some of the scenery for a performance of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." . .I ..knew nothing about about scene-painting, : but I did the icescene—with the blocks of. ice made out of .candle boxes-rand Avhen Eliza and her child -were escaping across the ... ice 1 shouted and waved the red fire, and lookafter the barking of the bloodhound. 1 Avas the bloodhound. 7 - "Well, one of; the company arranged to go to Canada, and asked me to come aloiig. That was m 1862. I went to my uncle—^who Was my guardian, my fathei being dead— and told him about it. I suppose they saAy there was no stopping me; but he said, 'Remember, if you go, you go for good ; there must be no coining back - unless you give up the stage altogether. You can't do a little of this and a little of something else.' He Avanted hie to go to Harvard or Yale and study for a profession. 'All right' ! I said,. arid off 1 Aventj and from that clay to this I' have; been connected Avith the stage, and I can say truly that I have made- my oAvn Avay and never had help from anybody to the extent: of .a shilling that I didn't, earn. "P had an idea I could do better, so -one"day I went and saw the elder Mr Wallack. Wallack's Theatre at that time Avas the. leading theatl-e of America, aud there never has been a better company on the English-speaking* stage than Wallack's company Ayas then. There were no stars^ -but nearly every performer Avas an artist -Avorthy -of being starred; and if the same company could be brought together at the present tiffie under the existing conditions of theatrical affairs there would not be a theatre m New York which would hold money enough at' regular prices to jiay the salaries they could command. That is because salaries were comparatively very low hi those days. The most 'I ever' dreAV at Wallack's was 50 dollars a Aveek. They used to stage the old comedies like Sheridan's, and n^wer onSplike Robert-, son's. I remember Charles MatheAVs Avas the light cdlriedian one season, and Charles. Wyndairi (iioAv Sir Charles) vas* another.' . TAKEN ON AT WALLACK'S. ,r Wheri I. was shown into the old gentleman's room I told .; him I wanted an engagement to fill a vacancy : there Avould be iii his company the next season.' He put his hand on a. pile of papers that seemed about two feet high, and he said, 'Do you see that, my boy? TAVo-thirds of those letters are from people who Avant the 'little engagement you are asking for.'. Then Aye talked, arid he asked me to call again. I called, and found he had gone to the seaside. W hen he came back I called again, and he told hie was was going to: give me the part. So I came on at VVallack's. "I ma^e my first big NeAV York sue-, cess as Dick.SAvivellerin 'The '»■ .* Curiosity Shop,' with 'Lotta'— America's most popular star comedienne— during a summer season at Wallack's. A TREBLE RECALL— AND A WAITING'STAR.' "Altogether I stayed with Wallack's for seven years, playing all kinds of parts, and gradually improving my position. Generally I Avas cast for dialect parts. I took all dialects— -French, Dutch, Irish, Chinese, Negro, Yorkshire, Somei^etshire— anything that came along.; Perhaps the -great success, of my young days was gained one night that I Avas playing 'Sim' m O'Ke'efe s play of 'Wild Oats.' I had a scene with Lester Wallack, who was a great actor. Now, Wallack's theatre m those days was a regular home of stage tradition, so far as the. old comedies Avere concerned. The prompt books contained all the business that had been sej> doAvu for the ie gulay parts m all the plays, often going back many years and commencing with the business ' directed by the authors. The -books were regarded as a kind of stage Bible, and any departure from theni Avas simply not to be thought of "Well, m this scene with Lester Wallack, betAveen Rover and Sim, I seemed to feel thc part much better m my oavii Avay than m the Avay it was set doAvn foi me by the prompt nook. I told that.tr. the stage manager— Mr John Gilbert— and he Avas properly shocked. 'My boy,' he said, 'it's not to be thought of !' But when I got on the stage I felt as if I must take the part my oavu way after all, anjl I did. When my scene Svas over I vvent back to the dressing room, and after a bit (it seemed quite a good while) a call boy came along and said, 'Mr Williamson, you^re wanted !' I came out, Avondering Avhat Avas _up, and thinking the old gentleman was going to take rtie to task for altering the business.. To my surprise I Avas told to go on m front: the audience had called for me-ra remarkable thing m the middle of a scene. I went on, and they applauded furiously. Then I went off, aud wias called back for more applause. Then I went off again, but the public Avould not let Mr Wallack go on Avith the scene, aud a third time I was called back, and we had to do the end of the scene over again be fore they would let us go. "WHERE'S JIMMY WILLIAMSON?" "One night old Mr Wallack canie to me and said that, owing to the illness of John Brougham, I must play the part of Sir Lucius O'Trigger m 'The Rivals' on the folloAving night. It is a very long part, and there Avere only a feAv hours to get it up m. 'Jimmy,' he said, 'you've got to do it!' 'Well,' I said, 'I'll try.' And so after the play that night I Avent home and .wrote- out the part, Avhich took me till about 2 o'clock, and! studied it. Then I Avent to bed for two or three hoUrs, Avoke tip, had some strong coffee, and at it again. At night I played the part letter perfect. That Avas my idea, ahvays to be ready for ariythitig, and never miss a chance of getting ou. The consequence Avas that, m the last years of my time at Wallack's, Avhonever there was anything out of the Avay to (hi, they said, 'Where's Jimmy Williamson''' HOW BOUCICAULT DISHED THE REPORTERS. "While I Avas m San Francisco Dion Boucicault, senr., father of Dot 8011--cicault, came over to play a season, and I'll tell you lioav ho dished the 'Frisco reporters. They thought theinsclA-es smart men, as indeed they were, and Avhen Boucicault's season avus announced they all sharpened their pencils, and it >yas hinted that Dion was going to have j a/ warm time. "Well, of course, he heard all about ! it, and this is Avhat he did. On his first night he introduced a sketch called Boucicault m California.' In this he appeared at home m the Occidental Hotel, just arriving. I Avas Murphy, his servant, - with remarks on all and sundry; Barton Hi)J came to tell him about the pieces he was going to" play; then canie man actress to play the part ol a debutante with a San Jose reputation (Avhich is as if. a debutante Avith a Parramatta reputation came to play at Sydney)— and so on. Then came m the reporters, especially W. A. Mestayer, us Bogus Push, of the Weekly Pill— and Boucicault talked lo the reporters. He told them his opinion of everything, especially Californi — and left the genuine reporters Avit.hont a leg to stand on. He simply said on the .stage everything they had to say m the paper-?, ancl.J.vft them nothing at all to write. That ahvays struck me as a particularly happy instance of turning the tables. *
"After three years of San Francisco | I determined to try a trip to Australia. Horace Greeley's advice, 'Go West, young man! go West!' Avas a popular saying m America about that time, and Aye determined to go still further Avest. Well, Aye came to Australia and landed m Melbourne m 1874, and opened at the Theatre Royal with 'Struck Oil.' I suppose there's no better-knoAvn piece m this country. I've met hundreds of people Avho date their acquaintance with the theatre back to that piece. Men meet mo and say, 'Look here, Mr Williamson, I knoAv you well ! I remember Avhen I. was -a boy my father took me to see 'Struck Oil.' THE HISTORY OF 'STRUCK OIL-.'-"The history of the piece is rather interesting. While I was at the California I Avas told that an old miner named Sam Smith' had Avritten some plays, and was anxious to sell them. 1 Avas looking round for some things to take to Australia, so when a friend asked me of I would go and hear him read one I said 'Certainly.' The piece the old man Avanted "to show me was called 'The Blue and the Grey,' but Isaw there Avas not much m that. . 'Well,' he said', '1 have another piece if you'll let me' read it. It's called 'The Deed; or, Five years aAvay.' So he read that, and it contained the basis of 'Struck Oil.' I: saw there was a good deal m it, and a. great deal that would have to be cut. j out and altered. So I, .bought it right out, giving the old fellow a hundred dollars more than he asked for it; and; got a friend of mine— Clay Greene— to re-Avrite it. A little later, I Avent starring to Salt Lake City, and I thought I'd try this piece. We rehearsed it, and I saAv the last act Avouldn't do. So one Sunday morning I started upon it and wrote and ro- wrote until I had made it suit my own notion,, giving out the parts tp the company as I Avent along. We. played it the next night, and it went very well, so we took it back to San Francisco aud played it there, and I brought it. along, to. Australia. ; "Qne of my mends, Mr 'Williaih Hbs- • kins (so well known m Australia), said! to me m San Francisco, 'What have you got to take out there?' 'Well,' I said, 'I've got so and so, and so and so'— and I mentioned 'Struck Oil.' He*said, 'Don't give them that m Australia on any account; it will be an utter failure. There -are no Germans out there, and they won't understand it.' Then, coming over m the ship,, l used to have a look at it now and again, and read a bit here and there. .The captain stopped • one day to hear me, and he said, 'Now, if you'll take my advice, you'll keep that m your box. A thing like that Avon't go doAvn m Australia.' i "Well, I suppose 1 ought to have been discouraged, but I Avasn't, and I'll tell you hbAv I came to play it on our opening night m Melbourne. The night before Aye opened I had gone to the Opera house, and Richard SteAvart , Avas there playing Prince Cassimir iii the 'Princess qf Trebizond.' About the. only German he used was *Mein Gott m Himmel !' and that seemed to go down so well with the audience that I said, 'We'll have 'Struck Oil,' And of course you knoAv how it caught on."