Mose the Fireboy: Glance at New York’s opening night, two views

New York’s Olympic Theatre, where “Glance at New York” debuted.

On July 23, 1902, a man named William Cauldwell wrote to the New York Times, thinking back on his experience with the original production of “Glance at New York.” He wrote:

The production to which I refer was Benjamin Baker’s “A Glance at New York,” in which Frank Chanfrau made so great a hit as “Mose.” The piece has been well noticed by the press, but its production was attended with much fear and trembling; for the reason that two or three days previously a “scare” letter had been sent to the manager of the theatre advising him that a somewhat rough crowd of “rowdies” connected with Engine Company No. 29, then located on Laight Street, near Canal, claiming for an excuse to be indignant at the much-talked-about caricature of New York firemen about to be presented on the stage in the New Piece, had determined to “gut the theatre” on the evening of its production, and advising the management to prepare for the arranged fracas.

Mitchell, the manager, got very nervous over the intelligence received, and held a council of war with Ben Baker, who was also much “shaken up,” and with Chanfrau, who was to take the part of Mose, who had studied the part with great earnestness, and who was a little afraid that his personation of “Mose” Humphrey (perhaps the best-known volunteer fireman in the city and an eccentric chap of the then “b’hoy” stripe) might not be permissible as a permissible interpretation of a peculiar character, but rather as an attempt on his part to degrade the individuality and social standing of the volunteer firemen, whom the community at large greatly admired and appreciated. It was a peculiarly trying occasion to all parties interested, particularly when, on the opening night on the opening night of the piece, the theatre was jammed, and among the crowd was a number of rather rough-looking chaps, ready for a “muss.”

When Chafrau went on the stage the first time in his red shirt (he afterward confessed) he trembled like an aspen leaf, and the crowded audience looked at him with a cold stare. They looked daggers, and looked in wonder and amazement, and without the slightest kindly emotion. All the first part of the piece fell flat as a flounder, and the only thing that saved the production was a little bit of business in which Mose found a saved a baby from the flames, and did the pathetic.

That touched the crowd; that convinced them that Chanfrau was not burlesquing the fire laddies, or gibing them. So they gave him a round of applause for the first time, and then the piece went along well enough. Baker had been all this time standing by the wings, looking on with one eye, yet with the other eye on the stage door, ready to get out at any movement if the “boys” in the pit had made up their minds to “go” for the house. His name was on the bills as “author,” and if the indignant fire laddies had gone for anybody, they would have gone for him first.

But as soon as the baby took, Ben smiled one of his most Bakerish smiles. The agony was over. It was the baby that saved the play. The joke of the thing was that the baby business was not in the original piece, as Baker first wrote it at all. It was an idea that came with the solicitation of the manager, and he added it to the piece the day before it was played. All this goes to show how ticklish and uncertain a thing is the success of a piece at any theatre. As Baker told me, after the piece had captured the house, “it was for half an hour the toss up of a copper whether ‘Mose’ would have ‘a run’ on the stage. Whether ‘Mose’ wouldn’t have to run for his life off the stage. 

This description is substantially similar to how playwright Brown himself described the opening night of the play, and Cauldwell is likely a credible witness. He had been publisher of the New York Sunday Mercury and had been a member of the New York Senate from 1868 to 1871.

Nonetheless, theater critic T. Allston Brown’s wasn’t entirely satisfied with Cauldwell’s depiction, and wrote a response letter to the New York Times, dated August 3, 1902. I have mentioned this letter before, and I shall reproduce much of it here:

CHANFRAU AND MITCHELL’S OLYMPIC.

To the editors of the New York Times:

In last Sunday’s TIMES was a very readable article on Mitchell’s Olympic and the first performance of “A Glance at New York.” There are some statements made therein that I may take objection to. In the first place, the sending of a “scare” letter to Mitchell is something that I never heard of before, and in a talk only this week one of the cast on that occasion says that he never heard of it before. Th fact that, “When Chanfrau came on the stage, the audience looked at him with a cold stare,” was not because he was “supposed” to be burlesquing one of the firemen, but because the disguise was so great that they did not know him. The first part of the sketch did not “fall flat as a flounder.” In those days managers gave their actors only one week’s notice of the date, for their benefit. The name of the principal character–Mose–was not given to it until the last rehearsal. Mose Humphrey was a popular Centre Market lad, as was a member of Martha Washington engine Company. Only a few weeks previous to the production of this sketch Mitchell rebuked Humphrey from the stage for his demonstrativeness.

The price of admission to the pit was one shilling, but the admission to the dress circle was fifty cents, upper boxes twenty-five cents, private boxes $5, orchestra boxes $3.

There are very few old theatregoers of New York who do not remember the old Olympic, for it was undoubtedly the most popular place of amusement ever known in New York. Weber & Fields’s theatre comes nearer to it than any place since that time, but even Weber & Fields’s place has not the reputation the old Olympic enjoyed. Some of the highest-priced actors–and clever ones, too–were to be seen there. It was situated on the east side of Broadway, 442, between Howard and Grand Streets, and was originally built for Henry Willard and William Rufus Blake. It was opened on Sept. 3rd, 1837, with “Perfection,” “Lady and the Devil,” and “Married Life.” One of the newspapers of the day said, “it was a parlor of elegance and beauty.”

The pit was devoted wholly to males; the first and second tiers of boxes, shut off from the lobby by a series of doors, were for ladies and their escorts; the third tier was for the use of courtesans. There was a bar-room on the second tier, where gin fizz and other liquors were dispensed, also oranges, cakes, and confectionery. The lobby was one of the most peculiar features of the house. Here could be seen the millionaire, sportsman, judges, &c.

… “A Glance at New York in 1948” was written by Benjamin A. Baker, late assistant secretary for the Actor’s Fund. He was the assistant stage manager of the Olympic at the time. He took the sketch to Mitchell, who condemned it at once. It was laid away until Baker wanted something for his benefit, and having no other novelty he put up this. It was rehearsed for two weeks, with Chanfrau as Mose. Within two days of its production Chanfrau was taken quite sick, and Peter Cunningham rehearsed the part of Mose for two days, and intended playing the part. The eventful evening came and both Chanfrau and Cunningham were at the theatre ready to go on. Notwithstanding he was suffering from brain fever, Chafrau enacted the character of Mose. The night was a stormy one, and the house light, but for the next night and for thirteen weeks in drew crowds.

The following is a copy of the cast:

MITCHELL’S OLYMPIC.
The doors will open at half-past six o’clock and the curtain will rise at 7.

BENEFIT OF MR. BAKER
On which occasion will be presented a new local sketch, written expressly for this theatre, entitled a

GLANCE AT NEW YORK IN 1948.
Tuesday evening, February 15, 1948.

Mose, a true specimen of one of the B’hoys … F.S. Chanfrau
Harry Gordon, a Gothamite … George Arnold
George Parsells, a greenhorn … George Clark
Jake, a sharper … William Conover
Mike, a sharper … Sylvester Bleeker
Major Gates, a literary loafer … Le Vivre
Mrs. Morton, President Ladies’ Bowling Saloon … Mrs. Henry
Mary, her daughter … Miss Phillips
Jane, a young girl from the country … Miss Roberts

It was performed for four weeks in five scenes. Mary Taylor was ill at the time, and no character was written for her. Mitchell paid Baker $25 for the sketch and offered him the same amount to rewrite the sketch and introduce a character of “Our Mary,” which was accepted.

After the four weeks’ run, two more scenes were written, and the following characters were introduced:

Lize Stubbins, one of the gals … Mary Taylor
Mr. Morton … Henry
Sam, a young thief … Master Frank Drew
Ben, vendor of news … Willie Seymour
Jenny Bogel … Miss Barber

Mary Taylor as Lize opposite Frank Chanfrau as Mose.

Mitchell used to tell how he went on the stage the first night just before the curtain was rung up, and seeing Chanfrau at the back dressed for his part, was on the point of ordering him off, supposing he was one of the “Centre Market” loafers. When the play opened and Chanfrau made his appearance, there was a dead silence in the house, as Chanfrau was not recognized. He stood there in his red shirt, with his fire coat thrown over his arm, his trousers tucked into his boots, the stove-pipe hat–better-known then as a “plug”–drawn down over one eye, a stump of a cigar pointing up from his lips to his eyes, the “soap locks” plastered flat on his temple, and his jaw protruding with a half beastly, half human expression of contemptuous ferocity. For a moment the audience eyed him in silence; not a hand or foot gave him welcome. Taking the cigar stump from his mouth and turning half way round to spit, he said:

“I ain’t a goin’ to run with dat mercheen  no more!”

Instantly there arose a yell of recognition as had never been heard in the little house. Pit and galleries joined in the outcry. Mose was compelled to stand, shifting his coat from one arm to the other, and bowing and waiting.

Syksey, although not in the original, was in the reconstructed version and was played by James Cunningham. Porgy Joe of Catherine Market was later created by Jack Winans at the Chatham Theatre in “New York As It Is,” on March 17, 1848. Chanfrau appeared nightly at both houses–the Olympic and Chatham–as Mose. During a portion of the double run Chanfrau even added Newark, N.J., to his list, and for one week did he each night play this role in two New York theatres and in Newark. Chanfrau used to drive the nine miles with a horse and buggy, and reach Newark in time to close the performance.

“Mysteries and Miseries of New York,” by Harry Grattan, was done at the Chatham on Sept 4., 1848. Chanfrau, who was lessee of the house, appeared as Mose. There were two Lizes–Emily Mestayer and Mrs. McLean. Baker was the author of “Mose in China,” another of the Mose series. Frank Chanfrau had been a Bowery boy. He lived near Essex Market with his parents, and daily dropped in at a Broadway house, corner of Grand street, to get a sixpenny plate of corned beef. One day a fellow with a red shirt and open collar came in and sat down near him. The swagger, the ‘soap locks,’ the projected chin, &c., formed a strong typical figure. Calling to one of the waiters, he said: ‘Look heah! Give me a sixpenny plate ev pork and beans and don’t stop to count them beans, d’ye heah?’ This was Mose Humphreys, one of the fireboys, and a printer employed on Beach’s Sun. Chanfrau died in Jersey City, N.J., on Oct. 1, 1884.

It’s hard to read this without imagining Brown crying out, “No, senator, you’re wrong, and I have the playbills to prove it,” but thank goodness he did, as what a wealth of information, some of which I shall be returning to. As an example, there was the author of “Mysteries and Miseries of New York,” a play that included the Mose character. Here he is credited as Harry Grattan, an English actor, but it is either based on or inspired a book of the same title by Ned Buntline, and we will be looking at both the play and the book soon.

One of the most significant things about Brown’s letter is that he describes Mose as he appeared onstage, and I’d like to take just a moment to address this. Brown’s description is entirely in keeping with contemporary images of the performer in character, such as this one:

Apparently Mose is just on a little break here.

There’s the black stovepipe hat, the rolled up pants, the boots, and the fireman’s jacket. He’s also got the soap locks, and what the heck are those? There’s a description of soap locks that shows up frequently, such as Wikipedia: that the hair is plastered to the scalp with soap. But this seems either inaccurate or incomplete. Mose doesn’t seem to have plastered-down hair in the above photo; instead, he appears to have huge, bushy sideburns. And here’s a print by a man named Nicolino Calyo of some Bowery Boys, titled “The Soap Locks”:

There are those side-burn things again.

Here’s a description of soap locks from 1868, from a book titled “Chambers Journal of Popular Literature”, with italics added by me to provide emphasis:

“Both of the young men–they were neither of them over twenty—-had somewhat repulsive countenances, and their hair was plastered own over their ears, in what was termed, in those days, ‘soap-locks,’ from the fact of the class to which they belonged lying under the imputation of using soap, rather than any of the usual appliances of the toilet, for the purpose of imparting smoothness to the hair.”

It sounds like “soap locks” was actually a term of derision; Helen Campbell, in her 1896 book “Darkness and Daylight,” describes Bowery Boys costumes just like Mose, and mentions soap-locks, but adds “it would have been injurious to apply this term to him in his hearing.” Maria Ward Brown wrote a 1901 epic poem about the Irish-American circum impresiario and clown Dan Rice, which I shall discuss in a later post and was called “The Life of Dan Rice,” where she describes “Soap locks limbered like wet rags.”

A description for the creation of soap-locks is found the the Supplement to the Courant, published in 1840, so it probably gives us the best sense of what is meant by the term. The piece offers the recipe for creating soap locks:

A new composition has recently been invented in this place for soap locks. The following is the recipe: take half a pound of rosin soap, a half pint of molasses, and two ounces of beeswax–boil it together for half an hour. It can be scented to suit the taste or smell, with otto roses, bergamot, or lavender. Apply it while it is warm. It will make the hair stick on, and shine like a varnish brand.

So soap locks aren’t so much about gluing hair down with soap (the first description suggest they were typically created with commercial toiletries) as they are about creating shiny, sticky hair; in the case of the Bowery boys, it’s clear that part of their look was to emphasize their sideburns, which, after all, hadn’t gotten that name yet, having been named after Civil War general Ambrose Burnside. In the image of Mose, he seems to actually have treated the hair of his head into a wavy swirl that extends down to his jawline, a sort of a dandified version of the sidelocks preferred by Hasidic Jews, and I very much think this is what is being refereed to when the word “soap locks” is mentioned.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.