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Monday, March 10, 2014

I Was Possessed By Edwin Booth (or, a good excuse for any actor)

On a whirlwind 2 day round trip, from Philadelphia to Columbus, Georgia and back again this past weekend, I became possessed by the spirit of Edwin Booth. At least that's the rationalization I came up with for breaking into a spontaneous rendition of Hamlet's famous To Be Or Not To Be soliloquy to an almost empty house at the State Theatre of Georgia Springer Opera House. My daughter knew better. She brought me there suspecting what I might do. She was in the process of giving mom and dad a personal tour of what lately has, seemingly, become her second home. More on that later.

The 700 seat Springer Opera House opened in 1871. And it just happens to be one of the  places Edwin chose to make a re-appearance in his formerly celebrated role as Hamlet on Feb. 15, 1876. He actually quit the theatre for a while after the infamous 'performance' of his brother, John Wilkes at another historic theatre in Washington, D.C.--we all know that story. Anyway, it is said that the Springer Opera House is one of the ten most haunted places in America, and guess who is the most famous Ghost in Residence? Need I say it-- the most celebrated Hamlet of his time, the Edwin Thomas Booth. Here he is as Hamlet:


The fortuitous opportunity for spontaneous hamming on my part occurred because my daughter is currently appearing at Springer Opera House as Fantine in their fantastic production of  
                          Les Miserables, running through March,
as Fantine
after recently completing a First National Tour of   
 The Marvelous Wonderettes for Springer--that's her at the microphone in the pink dress--

as Cindy Lou
a production which landed, finally, on the hallowed stage where Edwin once trod, adjacent to where most of the cast lives in the labyrinth-like set of rooms behind, around, and above the performance platform of this wonderful place. Proud of my little girl, I am. Quite the chameleon, she is. Just what an actor should be. By the way, in the Historical-Shakespearean Spirit of the Springer, and in tribute to Edwin Booth (it's said that one of the reasons he haunts the place is that they've strayed from doing so much Shakespeare over the years), here she is as Pucke in A Midsommer Nights Dreame:

as Pucke

She has also played Helena in the same play. (I said she was a chameleon). Okay, enough bragging. If you're interested in more of what this amazing young lady is doing, simply click this link: www.carlyjmooney.com

What a place to do theatre is The Springer Opera House ! They built theatres 'right' back then. I mean, look at this place. You walk into history as you approach the building itself.

Upon entering, the ornate lobbies--yes I meant the plural--seem to go on forever as you stroll past theatrical portraits and artifacts from bygone eras. Among the many pictures of renowned actors, the halls boast this close to life-size portrait of Edwin Booth:

And there is an original autographed photo of him in one of the many glass cases adorning the hallways.
The cavalcade of actors (many famous for their Shakespeare) who have appeared at the Springer since its opening is stunning: The following list enumerates but a few notables:

Evelyn Nesbit (teenage heart throb of another famous Hamlet, John Barrymore); Jeanette MacDonald; Sydney Greenstreet; Oscar Wilde; Mrs. John (Louisa) Drew, who came to America in support of Junius Brutus Booth, Edwin's father, acted with him in several productions and later ran the Arch St. Theatre in Philadelphia. She was the maternal grandmother of such theatrical personages as John, Ethel, and Lionel Barrymore. (And everyone knows "Drew" Barrymore, John's grand daughter);  Lily Langtry; Agnes DeMille, famed choreographer of the original productions of Oklahoma, Carousel, and Brigadoon, among many others ; Otis Skinner, noted for his Shylock,; Robert Bruce Mantell, fiery Scottish actor, famous for his Macbeth; Ethel Barrymore; Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew (Sidney, uncle of John Barrymore); Will Rogers; Mme. Helena Modjeska; Marie Dressler; Gertrude"Ma" Rainey; Ann Sothern; Mary Martin; Tyrone Power; Hal Holbrook...the list goes on.

But perhaps the most famous, maybe because of what seems to be the very strong belief among many that he hasn't quite made his "final exit" into the stage right wing yet, is Edwin Booth.  

Perhaps that's why, as I entered onto the empty stage--last stop on our tour-- from that same SR wing and stopped at the most powerful spot on the stage--USR--I was, shall we say, 'inspired by something' to imagine just where on the stage, way back in 1876, Edwin began what is, arguably, the most famous speech in the English language. Well, of course, thought I...position "A", exactly where I happened to be standing. And then, from memory, it just emerged, start to finish, ringing off the walls and finishing down stage center. No mics needed, folks. Edwin's Hamlet didn't need one.  Just project and pay attention to the rhythms. The acoustics in this theatre are amazing. As I said before, they built them 'right' back then.

..."Soft you now, the fair Ophelia?"...finishing, I turned to look USR, and there she was, a perfect Ophelia if ever I saw one. I hope she does it some day. I'll travel far and wide to see her in that as well.

I don't know if Edwin heard me. I hope so. He was certainly occupying my sub-conscious thoughts enough during the speech, I'm sure. I did it for him--and for my "Ophelia". If he was sitting out there somewhere, he had the courtesy not to stop me. Always the gentleman, they say. Or maybe it was because, as I found out later, his ghost is partial to appearing to those of the female persuasion.  Couldn't be bothered with me, huh Edwin?

Maybe next time I'll try Thisbie's dying speech.

1 comment:

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