News From Terre Haute, Indiana

September 23, 2012

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: Friganza and Suratt at Grand Opera House in same week

Mike McCormick
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — During the early 20th Century, Trixie Friganza, Valeska Suratt and Eva Tanguay were advanced as vaudeville’s three biggest female stars.

Members of the trio were alike in many ways. They were close to the same age and each nurtured supplemental careers in legitimate theater and motion pictures.

Every major city in the country sought their services. Producers and promoters realized the magic drawing power of their names.

When the Grand Opera House at the southeast corner of Seventh and Cherry streets successfully booked two of the three during December 1911, it was quite a feat.

The week opened Sunday night with the original 70-member New York cast of “The Girl of My Dreams,” including stars John Hyams and Leila McIntyre and its 18-piece New York orchestra. The play was identified by esteemed theater critic Mique O’Brien as “one of the best pieces of theatrical property on the road this season.”

It was followed Monday night, Dec. 4, by the comedy, “Seven Days,” with the New York cast that had a long and prosperous stay at the Astor Theater.

On Wednesday, the All Star Russian Imperial Ballet with Mikhail Mordkin as artistic director, accompanied by a full symphony orchestra under the direction of Vittorio Podesti of the Metropolitan Opera House, presented the opera, “Coppelia.”

Julia Sedowa, prima ballerina; Alexander Volinine, premier danseur; Mlle. Lydia Lopoukowa; and Mlle. Bronlslawa Pajitzkaia, Mordkin’s wife, were other stars.

Suratt, a Terre Haute girl, was the star of the risque musical comedy, “The Red Rose,” on Thursday night, accompanied by the complete Broadway cast.

Beatrix Doane, who was raised by her uncle Elva Wallace on South Fifth Street in Terre Haute, was the lead chorus girl and the play’s scenic and costume design director. “Baby Mine,” a comedy by Margaret Mayo which enjoyed long stints in New York, London and Chicago, was booked at Terre Haute’s only opera house on Friday and Saturday of the same week.

On Dec, 10, Friganza was featured in “The Sweetest Girl in Paris.” Promotions lauded “the return of the singing sensation” who is “just what Terre Haute wants.”

The Grand was not the only local theater offering live entertainment that week.

The Varieties Theater at the southwest corner of Eighth and Wabash offered E. Bert Kenney, I.R. Nobody & E. Booth Platt, character musicians who ensnared critics while appearing at the Grand Theater in Indianapolis; Arthur LaVine & Co. in the comedy ballet, “The Flying Dreadnought;” Mathews & Ashley in “Held Up,” another farce; and Seibini & Grovini in “Fun at an Automobile Picnic,” an acrobatic comedy.

Mathews & Ashley allegedly created “the first Hebrew act in vaudeville. Patrons of the Varieties also were treated by “Monsieur Herbert, the musical waiter.”

Madame Adelaide Herrmann, widow of legendary magician Alexander Herrmann, or “Herrmann the Great,” was added to the fare during the last half of the week. After Herrmann the Great’s death, “fakirs” surfaced. O’Brien’s column in the Terre Haute Tribune noted that Madame Herrmann added many new magic feats to her presentation.

Roxy LaRocco, an Italian harp player; the Four Campbells, a circus novelty act; and Brinkman and the Steel Sisters also were added.

The Gem Theater, at 817-819 Wabash Ave. (the current site of Morris Plan), presented the comedy sketch team, Elliott & Elliott; Myers & Trout, blackface comedians; and ventriloquist Jack LeVere, who later became a popular circus personality.

 The Two Bees in “The Changeable Wife,” the singing and dancing Be Bout Duo and vocalist Ermine Whittle were featured on the Gem’s stage beginning Thursday. The weekly vaudeville fare at the Savoy Theater, 323 Wabash Ave., included Mlle. Caretta, “The Human Doll;” Halliana and Cosby, rag-time singers; and Hoba-Hoba, “The Fire Eater;” in addition to two motion pictures.

The Park Theater, managed by Joseph Barnes, who owned the Coliseum Theater with Elias E. Peabody before it was destroyed by fire in 1909, offered the return of the Monte Carlo Girls, including the Oriental siren, La NEA, “The Original Girl in Bed.”

From all accounts, the week was a success. O’Brien raved about “The Girl of My Dreams,” singling out Hyams (“a graceful dancer and singer who hits the spot”), McIntyre (she “completely captivated her audience”; “encores without number were responded to”), Harry Forbes as “the bell boy Pigeon Williams,” and Irving Brooke, as “Count von Schnigglefits.”

He also effervesced about the chorus, “the best collection of ensemble singers we have seen this season.”

Many acts received gushy reviews but Suratt and Friganza stole the spotlight.

“This is the happiest night of my life,” Valeska said tearfully during her curtain call at the end of “The Red Rose.” It was her first appearance before a Terre Haute crowd.

“The applause she received was the most spontaneous and enthusiastic any theatrical star at the Grand has received in my recollection,” O’Brien wrote after he confirmed from members of the company that her tears were real.

Valeska insisted that her sister Leah Jahries, her principal assistant Alexander Carr and Miss Doane, the chorus girl, join her for several of the many curtain calls.

The pleasingly plump Friganza was a genuine talent. Moreover, “The Sweetest Girl in Paris” was the most popular musical comedy ever produced at Chicago’s LaSalle Opera House.

Born in Grenola, Kan. and raised in Cincinnati, Trixie’s real name was Delia O’Callaghan. Friganza was her mother’s maiden name. She left home at age 19 in 1889 to become a chorus girl, a profession her mother detested.

Friganza spent the first 18 years of her career in legitimate stage, using her extraordinary voice to star in comic operas. In 1905, she gradually transformed to vaudeville, performing many comedy acts which revolved around her chunky figure: “a perfect 46.”

Her skits, often titled “My Little Ol’ Bag of Trix,” were catchy. Between 1923 and 1937 she also appeared as the star in about 30 motion pictures. And she wrote articles and poems to newspapers, including those in Terre Haute.

In 1940, Trixie retired and gave her assets to the Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy in California, where she lived and worked until her death at age 84 on Feb. 27, 1955.