Thursday, October 4, 2007

1920s Playwright Believed in Herself - and Triumphed!

Posted by Bruce Miller

We’re excited about our wonderful production of The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers, playing through October 28 at Barksdale Willow Lawn. If you haven’t seen it, please come. We’re proud that it is the latest production in Barksdale’s ongoing Women’s Theatre Project.
In celebration, I’ve been researching the four remarkable women playwrights whose work made it onto Barksdale’s stage during our first decade (1953–1962). In past weeks I have profiled Nancy Mitford (see Barksdale’s First Woman Playwright – Nancy Mitford, Sept 6), Vera Caspary (see Femme Fatale / Femme Fantastique, Sept 10), and Mary Hayley Bell (see Foregoing Fame for Family, Sept 21).

Today I post the final entry in this series, as we re-discover the life and work of …

ANNE NICHOLS (1891 – 1966)

Anne Nichols was a one hit wonder. But what a hit it was. On May 23, 1922, the Broadway lights came up on Abie’s Irish Rose at the Fulton Theatre. Abie's is a whimsical family comedy about the tumult that arises among the in-laws when a stalwart Jewish American soldier and a lovely Irish American (Catholic) nurse meet and marry in France during WWI. It earned mixed reviews from the leading theatre critics of the time (Alexander Woollcott found it charming; Haywood Broun found it abominable). The public, however, seemed to be of one mind. They loved it. And I do mean LOVED it.

Abie’s Irish Rose ran on Broadway for 2,327 performances before closing on October 1, 1927, and remained the longest running play in Broadway history until its record was broken eleven years later by Tobacco Road. Today, Abie's is still the third longest running play, following Tobacco Road and Life with Father. Lorenz Hart immortalized the popularity of the show (and some sophisticates’ displeasure with that popularity) in this lyric from I’ll Take Manhattan:

“We’ll take our babies
To go see Abie’s
Irish Rose
We hope they’ll live to see
It close.”
The Broadway hit launched 16 road companies that toured the U. S. The play was produced successfully around the world, including a musical version in Newfoundland (pictured above) and a hit production in Berlin, where it was closed only by the rising popularity of Adolf Hitler and his rabid anti-Semitism.

Abie’s was first filmed in the silent era (1928) directed by Victor Fleming (a character in our upcoming comedy about the making of Gone with the Wind - Moonlight and Magnolias), and filmed again as a talkie in 1946. It became a smash hit radio serial that ran for 2 ½ years on NBC in the pre-war 1940s, playing in over five million homes coast to coast each week. It was often referenced in the 50s and 60s by the Jewish/Irish, husband/wife comedy team of Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara. It provided the premise for the hit 1972 TV series Bridget Loves Bernie, starring Meredith Baxter and David Birney. Despite consistently placing in the Top Five in the Neilson ratings, Bridget Loves Bernie was cancelled in response to public protest over the subject matter of inter-faith marriage. Reality soon showed just how ludicrous the protest was. The Irish and Jewish actors, Baxter and Birney, married in real life soon after their TV show was cancelled.

Long before she was dubbed by Time Magazine as "the most successful business woman in the U. S.," Anne Nichols was born into a strict Baptist family of mixed ethnic heritage (Irish and Russian) in Dales Mill, Georgia in 1891. At age 16, she ran away to Philadelphia where she found work as a singer and writer for the theatre. In 1915 she married Henry Duffey, an Irish Catholic actor and producer, and later converted to Catholicism. She never changed her name, which was highly unusual for the time.

By the early 1920s, Nichols had written several successful plays and vaudeville sketches. Abie’s Irish Rose, she later recalled, took her “three hours” or “three days” to write, depending on which article you reference. It opened in San Francisco and then Los Angeles, and proved immensely popular. Eager to bring the show east to NYC, Nichols could not find a producer willing to back the play. Her California producer, Oliver Morosco, thought the play was not sophisticated enough for New York. New York producers didn’t believe there was an audience for so far-fetched a concept as an Irish-Jewish marriage.

Refusing to accept “no” for an answer, Nichols filed suit to take control of her play away from Morosco. She moved to New York, mortgaged her house to raise $5,000, and produced the Broadway production of the play herself. She even hired herself as director, and women directors were unheard of on Broadway in the 1920s.

The production opened at the Fulton Theatre on W 46th Street (pictured to the right, originally built as the Follies Bergere, now known as the Helen Hayes). Standing bravely in the heart of the Broadway theatre district, Abie's opened with everyone except Anne Nichols expecting disaster.

But disaster was not to happen. Abie’s represented classic vaudeville ethnic humor taken to a new level to reflect second and third generation concerns and aspirations of Irish and Jewish America. Abraham Levy (Abie) met Rosemary Murphy in a hospital in France during World War I. She was working at a field hospital as a nurse when he was admitted with wounds suffered while serving as a pilot in the Army Air Corps. Despite their religious differences, they fall in love and get married (by a Baptist minister).

When Abie brings Rosemary home to meet his father Solomon, a very traditional Jew eager to see his son marry within his faith, he introduces her as a “friend” named Rosemary Murpheski. The ruse does not last very long and Solomon eventually discovers the truth. To placate his father (a widower), Abie agrees to have a second wedding ceremony performed by a rabbi. Just as the ceremony is about to take place, Rosemary’s father (also a widower) arrives with Catholic priest (Father Whalen) in tow.

In an earlier era, a scene so fraught with tension and stock ethnic characters would have quickly disintegrated into a melee. (Decades later, such culture clash would result in the "very Richmond" pleasures of O'Briensteins. Remember?) But this was the 1920s and Anne Nichols was aiming her play at a middle-class American audience (Irish, Jewish, or otherwise) that frowned on intolerance. Broadway, in other words, was a long way from the Bowery and the scene is resolved amicably as the rabbi and priest recognize each other from their service in World War I. American patriotism and open mindedness win the day as they recount ministering to soldiers of all faiths.

Shure they all had the same God above them,” observed Father Whalen. “And what with the shells bursting, and the shrapnel flying, with no one knowing just what moment death would come, Catholics, Hebrews and Protestants alike all forgot their prejudice and came to realize that all faiths and creeds have about the same destination after all.”

Even though Father Whalen performs a third wedding ceremony to make matters right in the eyes of the Catholic church, Abie and Rosemary remain at odds with their fathers until a Christmas dinner (with Kosher food for the Levys) at which the couple present their newborn twins – a girl named Rebecca (for Abie’s mother) and a boy named Patrick (for Rosemary’s father).

True to form, Abie’s was a big hit at Barksdale when Pete and Muriel selected it for their 1960 season, starring Joseph Lowenthal as Abie and Sandy Wade as Rosemary. Harold Goldman played Solomon Levy (the father), Bill Rothenberg played the Rabbi, and Louis Steinberg played the neighbor, Mr. Cohen. (Any relation, JB?)

Abie's opened shortly after the real life wedding of Pete Kilgore and Nancy Masters Kilgore, and almost immediately following the opening of Barksdale’s first Workshop Theatre, a tiny performance space carved out of the downstairs of the Annex. And what was the first production in Barksdale's new Workshop Theatre? The Diary of Anne Frank.

Anne Nichols made many millions by betting on herself and on the simple humanity of Abie’s Irish Rose. She died from a heart attack in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, at the age of 75, never again writing anything to equal the mega-hit of her youth.

--Bruce Miller


Thespis' Little Helper said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Thespis' Little Helper said...

This brings so much enlightenment to Sondheim's lyric "I made it through Abie's Irish Rose" in "I'm Still Here"; what an incredible number of performances for that time!

I feel the need to say something like "You go girl!" But it might come across as a bit...

Thespis' Little Helper said...

Sorry about the above removed comment...I had a misspelled a word and needed to fix it.

No controversy here!

JB said...

My Father has a cousin named Louis Steinberg who is a physician in Silver Springs and might have been in Richmond going to med school exactly at that time. I will have to look into this more.

Anonymous said...

The best thing about these four articles is that they show the need for your Women's Theatre Project. Each woman you discuss found a unique way to overcome the obstacles that are always there for anyone who represents a minority in the workforce. Until 50% of all successful playwrights are women, and we're certainly far from achieving equality like that, there will always be value to exploring how women succeeded in this field in the past despite the challenges they faced.

Also, these four women in particular are fascinating. Who knew?

Anonymous said...

It is so nice to see some recognition for my cousin, Anne Nichols. I am very proud of her and have been collecting information and various items for years. If anyone knowswhat happened to her son, Henry Duffy Junior, please inform me.

Robert Westberry