News From Terre Haute, Indiana

January 20, 2013

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: Metamorphosis of Sis Hopkins curing Gay Nineties

Mike McCormick
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — The four daughters of the Rev. Jacob Smock and his wife Caroline were attractive and very talented.

Josephine was the oldest, born in 1857. Ida was born in 1861 and Maud in 1863. Rosa was the youngest. The four girls had three older brothers, all born in Parke County.

Josephine was the first to aspire to perform on stage before footlights. On May 5, 1880, she married Pearl F. White and, using “Pearl Melville” as a stage name, joined a theater touring company.

Ida and Maud also were attracted by theater. By 1886, the three oldest sisters were touring the Midwest as the Melville Sisters Stock Company. On April 1, Josephine, having divorced White, wed actor-producer Walter Smith Baldwin and, on Jan. 2, 1889, she gave birth to Walter S. Baldwin, Jr. in Lima, Ohio.

Maud was the first to retire while Ida helped Walter and Josephine organize the Walter S. Baldwin Stock Company.

Born Jan. 30, 1867, Rosa had little interest in theater. While her older sisters toured the country, she was busy attending St. Mary-of-the-Woods and Franklin College.

During the summer of 1889, Rosa visited her sisters in Zanesville. Ohio, and was asked to stand in for an ill male actor in “Queen’s Evidence.” Stage-smitten by the experience, Rosa did not return to college and, by season’s end, had mastered 16 roles. Her stage name: Rose Melville.  

Ida and Rose Melville left the Walter Baldwin Stock Co. in 1891 to form their own comedy team. Meanwhile, Ida wed Samuel M. Young, Jr., an aspiring Terre Haute playwright who acquired the St. Clair House, a hotel in the 200 block on Wabash Ave. Many years later he renamed it The Indois Hotel.

Among Young’s productions was “Zeb, the Clodhopper” a comedy centered around Hoosier hillbillies. The role of Sis Hopkins was created by Young for his wife Ida. Rose initially was cast as Christina Sanders, “the heiress.”

During November 1892 — about 120 years ago — Terre Haute’s Naylor Opera House booked the Baldwin-Melville Combination “under the personal direction of Walter S. Baldwin” from Monday, Nov. 21 to Friday, Nov. 25, excluding Wednesday. The main star of all four plays was Pearl Melville, “The Charming and Versatile Artiste.”

Ironically, the first night feature was “Queen’s Evidence,” the play Pearl introduced to Rose, her youngest sister, at Zanesville. On Nov. 21, two-year-old Walter S. Baldwin, Jr. appeared on the Naylor Opera House stage as Little Arthur Sydney. It may have been his stage debut.

In “The Black Flag,” an English melodrama presented on Tuesday and Thursday nights, Walter S. Baldwin, Sr. shared the spotlight. During intermissions, Rose Melville and cast member Theodore Stark “introduced specialties from their repertoire.”

George Hanna played the title role in “Uncle Daniel,” a New England comedy centered around a murder, presented on Nov. 24 as the sole matinee.

“The Wages of Sin,” another melodrama, ended Baldwin-Melville Combination’s  stint Friday night. Besides Stark, Hanna, Pearl and both Walter Baldwins, the company included W.H. Murdoch, James E. Nelson, James A. Hester, Charles Porter, William Delmar, Jere Conklin, B.F. Runyan, Agnes Carlton and Millie and Nellie Willard.

Young Baldwin went on to a long and spectacular career in theatre (”Of Mice and Men,” “Grand Hotel,” “The Front Page”), motion pictures (”The Lost Weekend,” “Cry of the City,” “Rosemary’s Baby”) and  television (”Green Acres,” “Petticoat Junction,” “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “The Andy Griffith Show”). He died Jan. 27, 1977.

His mother was less fortunate. She was seriously injured in an accident in November 1916 and died in Minneapolis on Feb. 6, 1917. Some newspapers asserted that she was severely burned during a gasoline explosion at her home. Other newspapers claim she was injured in a railroad accident.

She is interred as Pearl Baldwin at Woodlawn Cemetery in Terre Haute.

On Saturday, Nov. 26, two performances of “Sam M. Young’s World Fair Comedy Success, ‘Zeb’” were presented at the opera house. Ida Melville was cast as Sis Hopkins while Christina Sanders was played by Miss Rose Adelle.

Zeb Featherlike, “The Clodhopper,” was played by actor Frank Buoman, who later married Miss Adelle. Other cast members were Irvin T. Bush, W.L. Woodson, Robert W. Bowers, Bert Winters, Irvin T. Bush Jr., Frank Watson, W.J. Corns, Cool Winters, Elmer Grimes, Little Loveall and Maxie Molyneaux.

The Irvin T. Bush collection of theatrical ephemera is housed at the Charles E. Young Research Library at UCLA. Bush performed in vaudeville on both coasts and managed the Club Theatre in Los Angeles.  

Buoman, Winters, Grimm and Corns made up the Clodhopper Quartette, which sang several of Buoman’s comic compositions including “Don’t Quite Cut It That Time.”

In 1892, “Sis Hopkins,” the character Rose Melville nurtured to perfection during 5,000-plus productions before more than 5 million people, was in a very early stage of development.

The play returned to the Naylor Opera House on Dec. 26, 1892, exactly one month later, offering a matinee at 2:30 p.m. and an evening performance at 8 p.m..

There was only one change in the cast: Harry R. Vickers replaced W.L. Woodson as Deacon Jeremiah Eldridge. According to Young, several tweaks were made between the two Terre Haute performances. Though he was not listed in the program, it was noted that Terre Haute actor George Mahare had joined the Young company.       

Playwright Edward Everett Rice added “Siseretta” Hopkins to other scripts and booked the two comedic Melville sisters as “The Two Jays from Indiana.” Ida retired from touring in 1895 and returned to Terre Haute. The Youngs eventually sold all rights to the characters in “Zeb,” including Sis’s new soulmate Obidiah Odium, to Rose.

In 1899, playwright Carroll Flemming wrote “Sis Hopkins’ Visit,” a vaudeville skit so successful it was expanded to three acts. ”Sis Hopkins,” transformed by Rice, Flemming and Rose Melville, was essential American theater for two decades.

Rose also appeared as Sis Hopkins in 21 silent film shorts, all released in 1916.