Dramatic Pirates at the Elks Theatre    


The Ethel Tucker Company

 

 

 

With the petite body of a soubrette and the care-worn face of a matronly character actress, Ethel Tucker (1860-1926) lacked the physical qualities of a leading lady; and yet she persistently played romantic leads in the Ethel Tucker Stock Company, which toured the Arizona Territory between 1905 and 1907. From Nov. 27 to Dec. 2, 1905, she delighted Prescott audiences at the Elks Theatre in her formidable repertoire: The Embezzler, Carmen, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Across the Desert, Sapho, Faust, Foxy Grandpa, and The James Boys in Missouri.


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Ethel Tucker in 1892.

 

 

Born in Liverpool, England, Miss Tucker immigrated to America in 1875, where her parents and siblings settled in Chicago. Before long she was acting in stock companies all over the country, and by 1885 she had formed her own touring company. In June 1905 she married her new leading man, Whit Brandon, a shamelessly melodramatic actor. Unlike her husband, Ethel was multi-talented, with a superb sense of stage direction, a keen eye for pictorialization, and an irrepressible personality that endeared her to audiences.

 

Like many stock actors of the day, Ethel advanced her career by ignoring copyright laws and pirating plays. In the summer of 1905 she pirated Augustus Thomas’s enormous success, Arizona, and staged it for a week in Phoenix. The plot of Arizona revolves around a fictitious affair that takes place at Fort Grant between a colonel’s wife and an unscrupulous captain in the 1890s. Since Hollis E. Cooley’s authorized production of Arizona was touring the West in the 1905-1906 season, this was an audacious violation of the 1856 amendment to the copyright law, which granted playwrights exclusive control over production rights. Harry S. Richards, business manager of the 1907-1908 Cooley tour, threatened a lawsuit against Tucker. (Daily Arizona Silver Belt, Nov. 23, 1907).

 

Where Miss Tucker did not blatantly defy the law, she attempted to skirt around it by performing well-known works under different titles. Her opening play at the Elks Theatre in 1905, for example, was advertised as The Embezzler. In reality, the play was Hal Reid’s popular melodrama, La Belle Marie. In this thriller Tucker played the role of Jean Ingleside, an unsophisticated country lass who is victimized by George Leighton (Whit Brandon), an alluring but remorseless and designing upper-cruster. The heroine changes her identity to La Belle Marie, a cold-hearted Parisian adventuress, and wreaks vengeance upon her seducer. While the reviews should have set off alarms to the copyright police, the law lacked instant access to newspapers. It could take months for a piracy to be discovered.

 

Miss Tucker doubtless obtained the script for Lewis Morrison’s famous production of Faust, which had toured America annually between 1888 and 1905, from Whit Brandon. Brandon played Mephisto in the 1904-05 season with the Van Dyke and Eaton Company, which claimed to be “the first to obtain” rights to the play (Paducah Evening Sun, Dec. 1, 1904). But this claim seems dubious, since Morrison himself played Mephisto in Tucson and Bisbee in February 1905. Would Morrison have authorized productions that competed with his own 1904-05 tour?

 

Equally questionable was Tucker’s performance of Clyde Fitch’s version of Daudet’s Sapho, created especially for the British actress Olga Nethersole. Sapho, which opened at Wallack’s Theatre in New York City in 1900 amid a storm of moral controversy, told the story of an ill-fated romance between a notorious courtesan and a naive young man whose life she ruins. For more than ten years Miss Nethersole toured as Sapho, reaching Phoenix and Tucson in December 1909. Just how Tucker obtained the rights to perform the play while Nethersole possessed the unpublished script remains a mystery. Nethersole was also touring at this time in her non-operatic version of Carmen, the famed gypsy seductress. Tucker was so bold as to advertise that she was using Nethersole’s adaptation. Could she have pirated Carmen as well?

 

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde had chilled audiences since 1888 when Richard Mansfield created the dual roles of the play’s title. Still acting in 1905, Mansfield was unlikely to have released his moneymaker to a second-rate actor like Whit Brandon. Salt Lake City’s Goodwin’s Weekly (June 30, 1906) panned Brandon’s Mr. Hyde as “a cross between a facial contortionist and a barn-storming tragedian,” while his Dr. Jekyll “degenerated into a burlesque on the love-sick amateur ‘actor.’” The same critic dismissed Tucker’s “vague attempt” to portray the devoted daughter and despairing sweetheart as a “lost opportunity.”

 

Yet Ethel Tucker won Arizona hearts so completely that she packed houses in virtually every territorial town. The Arizona Republican (Aug. 22, 1905) trumpeted, “In acting she is unexcelled and can be compared favorably with any of the greatest stars.” Miss Tucker’s ethical slip in pirating the play Arizona casts suspicion on the legality of her other productions; but territorial pioneers, hungry for theatrical entertainment, were grateful for the laughter and tears she brought to the sun-kissed land.

 

                                                                     © Michelle Young 2012