19th Century Playwright Joseph Arthur, a Pelham Manor Resident Who Built the Sun Dial Lodge
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Joseph Arthur was a popular 19th century playwright whom I have mentioned a number of times in articles over the years, but about whom I have never written in depth. He was an American playwright known for melodramas performed principally during the late 1880s and the 1890s. Arthur's melodramas were late in the history of that genre and never attracted critical acclaim. Yet, they were popular and Arthur became famous following the success of his plays. His popular plays made him a wealthy man. He chose Pelham Manor as his home for much of his life until his death on February 20, 1906.
Joseph Arthur's Early Years
Though known as Joseph Arthur, that was a name he adopted. He was born as Arthur Hill Smith in Centreville, Indiana in 1848. He was the third child of John C. Smith and Margaret Hill Smith. His father was a Methodist minister. As a very young man in Indiana, he tried life as a newspaper reporter -- an effort that clearly influenced him as he evolved into a popular New York playwright. While working as a reporter, he traveled extensively. According to his obituary, he "traveled in Japan, India, and China. Later he went to Afghanistan with the British Army."
Clearly, young Arthur Hill Smith felt the lure of the stage. He reportedly left college and failed as a circus performer. He tried his hand at acting and even reportedly managed an opera troupe in Japan. By the 1870s, during his twenties, Arthur made his way to New York, where he spent the rest of his life. In about 1875, he married Charlotte Cobb.
Joseph Arthur's First Major Hit: "The Still Alarm"
In the mid-1880s, Arthur made his debut as a playwright, producing a melodrama at the Olympic Theatre in New York City. Shortly afterward, in 1887, he managed an opera entitled "Big Pony" at the Bijou Theatre. Later the same season, Joseph Arthur earned his big break. A melodrama he wrote named "The Still Alarm," opened at the Fourteenth Street Theatre in New York City on August 30, 1887. Joseph Arthur and his partner, J. Wesley Rosenquest, produced the show. Eventually, the popular show was taken to London where it repeated its success. The melodrama also was played by road companies for more than twenty years after if first opened. The entertaining melodrama was adapted to silent films released in 1911, 1918, and 1926. According to one source:
"The play debuted at the Fourteenth Street Theatre in New York City on August 30, 1887. Harry Lacy played the lead role of Jack Manley.
Though it ran only a few weeks in its initial engagement, the play returned in March 1888 and ran for over 100 more performances. Its popularity was then well-secured. In September 1889, it re-appeared at the Grand Opera House. It ran again at the Fourteenth for two weeks in 1891, and returned to the Grand Opera House in 1892.
The play was also successful in England, and ran for 100 nights at the Princess's Theatre in London in 1888."
Source: "The Still Alarm" in Wikipedia - The Free Encyclopedia (visited Apr. 20, 2016).
The plot of the show was that of a classic melodrama. There were two business partners. One was virtuous. The other was evil. Their business struggled and, while on the verge of bankruptcy, the evil partner committed a crime, set it up to appear as though his partner was involved, and absconded. Police became involved, but were unable to solve the crime, considering it a great mystery. As years passed, the virtuous former partner became successful and wealthy. His villainous former partner, however, sank even deeper into the depths of evil and a life of crime. The virtuous former partner had a daughter who grew into young adulthood and fell in love with a handsome, strapping, and virtuous young firefighter. Her father embraced his future firefighter son-in-law and brought him into his business.
In the midst of these happy circumstances, the evil former partner returned and threatened his former partner saying he would contact the police and assert that the virtuous man was a fraud who had committed the unsolved crime years before. As the "price" to buy his silence, the villain demanded the hand of the virtuous man's beautiful daughter in marriage. Fearing that his and his daughter's lives and reputations would be ruined, the father agreed. He fired his daughter's firefighter boyfriend and renounced him as a future son-in-law. The devastated firefighter returned to his firefighting duties.
Unbeknownst to the virtuous former partner, his evil former colleague had decided to kill him to get him out of the way. The villain conned his way into the local firehouse pretending to be a newspaper man. He covertly cut the wires so that no alarms could be transmitted. At about the same time a mysterious fire broke out at the mansion in which the virtuous former partner and his daughter lived. Word of the fire was delivered to the fire station. The young firefighter raced to the scene of the raging fire that was burning out of control. There he saved the lives of his true love and her father.
Still, the wedding between the evil former partner and the young woman was scheduled to proceed. The day of the wedding, the devastated young firefighter feigned illness and induced his former fiance to visit him at his sickbed, knowing the villain plotting to marry her would follow. The face-to-face meeting between the young firefighter and the evil former partner proves to be the undoing of the cad. The firefighter deduced the scheme and turned the villain over to the police. The young lovers were reunited and everyone -- except the villain -- lived happily ever after.
The great fire scene of the melodrama as the young firefighter arrived to save his true love and her father was the highlight of the show. Considered a marvel -- much like the falling chandelier in the West End and Broadway musical Phantom of the Opera 100 years later -- the firefighter's arrival was the highlight of the show. Two live horses galloped onto the stage pulling a steam fire engine manned by the young firefighter to the delight of crowds everywhere. The two horses, named Bucephalus and Pegasus, became famous. They belonged to Joseph Arthur.
The Melodrama "Blue Jeans" and "The Great Saw Mill Scene"
How many thousands of times -- thousands of times -- have each of us seen a pitiful poor victim bound and gagged, lying helplessly in the path of a giant circular buzz saw about to saw the victim in half? We can thank Pelham Manor resident Joseph Arthur for that disturbing -- yet admittedly iconic -- melodramatic plot twist and tension builder. Either its inventor or the one that mastered the twist and vaulted it to its height of fame to the point of cliche, Joseph Arthur built the climactic scene of his next great melodrama, "Blue Jeans," around what came to be known as "The Great Saw Mill Scene."
"Blue Jeans" opened at the Fourteenth Street Theatre in New York City on October 6, 1890. According to one account: "The sensation of the play is a scene where the unconscious hero is placed on a board approaching a huge buzz saw in a sawmill, which became one of the most dramatic imitated scenes (eventually to the point of cliche)." Source: "Blue Jeans (play)" in Wikipedia -- The Free Encyclopedia (visited Apr. 19, 2016). The melodrama ran in New York through March 7, 1891. It then "enjoyed considerable success around the United States and in revivals in the following decades. It debuted in London in 1898." Id. A silent film based on the play was released in December, 1917 and was also a success.
The plot has been described as follows: "Perry Bascom returns home to Rising Sun, Indiana to make a run for Congress, and marry Sue Eudaly. Sue's ex, Ben Boone, is nonplussed at this turn of events, and successfully runs for office against Bascom. Bascom later sours on Sue, and divorces her to marry June. After various twists, Boone corners June and Bascom at Bascom's sawmill. After knocking Bascom out, Boone places him on a board approaching a huge buzz saw. June, locked in an office, escapes just in time to save Bascom from certain death." Id.
Joseph Arthur's Later Years
At about this time, Joseph Arthur and his wife, Charlotte Cobb Arthur, moved to Pelham Manor. They bought property owned by the Secor family and, according to a brief announcement that appeared in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in late 1892:
"Joseph Arthur has built a house at Pelham Manor with a writing room in it. He is now revising "The Corn Cracker."
Source: THEATERS AND MUSIC, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec. 11, 1892, p. 5, cols. 1-3 (Note: Access via this link requires paid subscription).
The home built by the couple couple was described as a "$10,000 cottage" that stood on an acre and a half of land fronting on then-named Secor Avenue (today's Secor Lane) between Wolfs Lane and Ely Avenue. The home still stands at 211 Secor Lane. The home first was known as "The Bungalo," but later came to be known as the "Sun Dial Lodge." The couple were friends of Ezra T. Gilliland and his wife who convinced them to move to Pelham Manor. Like Joseph Arthur, Ezra T. Gilliland was from Indiana and had bought land from the Secor family on which to build his home. The two couples were neighbors. The Arthurs' home faced the Gillilands' home across then-named Secor Avenue.
Joseph Arthur was a celebrity in the little Village of Pelham Manor. Residents recalled that he seemed to revel in harnessing his two famous horses, Bucephalus and Pegasus, and trotting them along the unpaved roads of the village.
By this time, Joseph Arthur was successful, famous, and wealthy. He continued to crank out melodramas from his writing room in the Bungalo including:
The Corn Cracker (1893)
The Cherry Pickers (1896)
The Salt of the Earth (1898)
On the Wabash (1899)
Lost River (1900)
In 1900, after writing and producing "Lost River," Joseph Arthur shocked the nation by announcing he was retiring and would not write and produce any further plays. According to a news account quoted in full at the end of today's article, he said that he felt:
"that it would be impossible for him to stand the strain of undergoing the production of any more new plays, and therefore feels, with what he has already done for dramatic art, that he has accomplished enough.
'I will take my family,' said Mr. Arthur last night, 'leave New York forever, except for an occasional visit, and take up my home on a farm which I own on Jupiter Island, Florida. Down there I will have for my neighbor Charles Jefferson, and with other neighbors and my farming duties I will manage to pass away quietly my remaining days.'"
Truth be told, Joseph Arthur was never able to reproduce the success of his two early mega-hits: "The Still Alarm" and "Blue Jeans." Accounts suggest he was an "unyielding taskmaster" at rehearsals and that he micromanaged the casts to ill effect. When Arthur abruptly retired, he reportedly remarked "that his own bad stage management had spoiled his own plays, which might have succeeded if he had left the work to 'some man of ordinary, common or garden intelligence.'"
Joseph Arthur never followed through on his announced plans to leave New York. By 1902, Arthur had leased the old Fourteenth Street Theater in which a number of his plays had run. The theater had fallen on hard times and had been used to show French plays by French authors in the French language. Arthur leased it and began to manage it as a "cheap price" house. It seems that he began to spend winters in Florida and the rest of the year in The Bungalo in Pelham Manor.
Arthur found himself with "enough" money to live comfortably in retirement, but he was not fabulously wealthy. He seemed frustrated with the lack of success of his final string of plays when compared to his early successes. To make matters worse, in 1905, The Bungalo was burglarized. Unknown thieves stole items worth between $1,800 to $2,000 (about $53,000 to $59,000 in 2016 dollars).
In late 1905 he suffered kidney problems while wintering in Florida. His condition worsened and it was decided to move him to New York City for an operation. He nearly died on the way, but made it and endured an operation to correct the trouble. He never recovered. He lingered for several weeks and, on February 20, 1906, he died in the Normandie Hotel in New York City where he was recuperating from the illness and operation.
Joseph Arthur's wife, Charlotte, returned to Pelham Manor where, for many years, she ran the "Sun Dial Lodge" as a "high class house" offering rooms for boarders with and without private baths. Mrs. Arthur marketed the boarding house as offering a "fine table" with excellent home-cooked food, facilities for tennis, and special rates for the winter season and for the month of August. I have written about the Sun Dial Lodge and Mrs. Charlotte Arthur's oversight of the boarding house before. See Wed., Jul. 08, 2015: The Sun Dial Lodge at 211 Secor Lane in Pelham Manor.
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HOME OF JOSEPH ARTHUR
WHERE THE FORMER INDIANAN WRITES HIS PLAYS.
A Description of The Bungalo at Pelham Manor -- How Mr. Arthur Works -- His Wife His Critic.
[Special Correspondence Indianapolis News.]
New York. June 9. -- Joseph Arthur's home, 'The Bungalo,' at Pelham Manor, New York, is somewhat imposing, as one views it from a distance, in its setting of velvety lawn, English hedges and trailing vines over posts guarding the driveway and the low wall before the veranda.
The home is not at all imposing inside. There is a small drawing room to the left of the reception room, which is seldom used, and a sunny dining room to the right, which is most used by the family. Here are low couches and big chairs. Not far off a table, with books, magazines and papers. Be not surprised if the first paper you pick up is the Rising Sun (Ind.) Local. It comes to the house every day, and Mr. Arthur reads it. Several years in India, two years of residence in London, and many short trips through Europe, have given to 'The Bungalo' souvenirs of travel, rare rugs of Oriental make, draperies and bric-a-brac, curious and interesting, with old trees partially screening the homes of the neighborhood.
It is here that Mr. Arthur does all his work and spends most of his time. Around the walls runs a wide frieze of printed pictures of Spanish-American war scenes.
Mr. Arthur is generally at his desk by 9 o'clock in the morning; his luncheon is brought to him, and he works on through the afternoon without stopping. He sometimes writes until 10 at night, but never later. He thinks his best work is done in the morning, and he believes in the days of inspiration, in 'the thirst for writing,' holding him at times through long days and then deserting him for a week.
Mrs. Arthur is his only critic. When she was married she gave up a promising career on the stage, but she kept on with her study of dramatic criticism for her husband's benefit. Beyond his works, she takes little active interest in the stage. Before the first presentation of a play, she goes to every rehearsal, and the opening night is likely to find her on the verge of nervous prostration. Mr. Arthur gives her much of the credit for his success.
Pelham Manor is a gay little suburb, and the Arthur home is the center for the semi-Bohemian element. A portrait by Chase hangs on the wall at the hall landing. It is of Mr. Arthur's sister, Mary Browning, whose son, Harry Browning, still lives in Indianapolis when he had a studio over Seaton's hat store. There is a painting by Minnet, some water colors by Donogby and Bonner, and a gem from the Daly collection. The music room, in front of the den, has a frieze like the one in the den, but general in design. The members of the 'village choir' are outlined against the wall in a conspicuous place among stage belles and poster girls. Elsewhere on the walls hang framed pictures of faces and scenes familiar in Mr. Arthur's plays.
'The Bungalo' has entertained many prominent people during the eight years it has belonged to its present owners. Eugene Ysaye, the violinist heard at the last May Festival in Indianapolis, spent three weeks with Mr. Arthur, who was his manager. Seidl and his wife followed in a visit soon after, and a caricature of the violinists, drawn by Mr. Arthur then, has below it a little note of comment by Seidl. Marents, Emil, Sauer, Rivard and Olga Nethersole have been here recently, and Maggie Mitchell -- living now a retired life in New York -- is a frequent visitor. Frederic Remington and Francis Wilson both live at Pelham Manor, and the Arthurs see them often. Bronson Howard is a friend of the Indiana playwright, who gave him a dinner just before Howard left for Europe a short time ago. Charles Jefferson, the son an manager of Joseph Jefferson, runs out to Pelham Manor very often.
Ezra Gilliland, formerly of Indianapolis, lives across the street. At the late election in Pelham Manor the Democrats nominated their man for President on a Republican platform. So Mr. Arthur, whose friends delight to call 'the Republican boss,' pushed the nomination of Mr. Gilliland on the Prohibition ticket, and elected him after a campaign which nearly killed the candidate.
The old Boston post road runs into Pelham Manor ,and the suburb itself rests on Prospect hill, historical through the campaigns of Washington and Lord Howe. 'The Bungalo' faces south, and parallel to it is Long Island Sound. James Secor, a friend and protector, during exile, of Louis Napoleon, still lives at Pelham Manor, in a quaint, old house always pointed out to visitors.
Mr. Arthur's new play, 'Lost River,' to be produced in October by Liebler & Co., takes him frequently into the city. 'Lost River' gets its name from the river in the southern section of Indiana which springs full-sized from the base of one hill, and, after flowing for about six miles, disappears in a cavern under another hill. There is a legend that Lost river reappears in the Mammoth Cave of Kentucky, a hundred miles away, and that persons who are drowned in the river are turned into the eyeless fish of the cave. This legend is used in the play, and the life of the country people is woven into the story in contrast with city life at West Baden, in the same district. Gladys Middleton, a type of adventuress, is an aristocrat who seeks the destruction of a country girl, Ora Jones, and around this situation the plot is constructed. Eugenie Thais Lawton will originate the role of Gladys Middleton. After its New York run, 'Lost River' mamy be taken West, in which case Mr. Arthur will go with it.
He has a second new play, 'Johnny,' which he hopes to have produced later next season. It is something of a burlesque on the society dude who goes to war, especially of the one who went to the Spanish American war. John Kendrick Bangs has been trying to persuade Mr. Arthur to dramatize 'The House Boat on the Styx.' Mr. Arthur told him recently that he had written the opening chorus, and Mr. Bangs invited him to town to dine and to hear the chorus. The playwright delivered it thus:
'When death is on your rorehead,
And his rattle in your throat.
When across your fading vision
Charon looms up in his boat.
Just before they screw your coffin lid,
Just before the Styx you cross,
Have your undertaker slip youo
Somme of Blank's tomato sauce.
REBECCA A. INSLEY."
Source: Insley, Rebecca A., THE STAGE -- HOME OF JOSEPH ARTHUR -- WHERE THE FORMER INDIANAN WRITES HIS PLAYS -- A Description of The Bungalo at Pelham Manor -- How Mr. Arthur Works -- His Wife His Critic, The Indianapolis News, Jun. 9, 1900, p. 10, cols. 1-2.
"JOSEPH ARTHUR TO RETIRE.
'Lost River' Closes His Career as a Playwright, He Says.
Joseph Arthur, the playwright and author of the melodrama 'Lost River,' has decided for the future to abandon writing or staging any more plays. Mr. Arthur feels that it would be impossible for him to stand the strain of undergoing the production of any more new plays, and therefore feels, with what he has already done for dramatic art, that he has accomplished enough.
'I will take my family,' said Mr. Arthur last night, 'leave New York forever, except for an occasional visit, and take up my home on a farm which I own on Jupiter Island, Florida. Down there I will have for my neighbor Charles Jefferson, and with other neighbors and my farming duties I will manage to pass away quietly my remaining days.'
Mr. Arthur has been prominent as a playwright for some years, during which time he is responsible for 'The Still Alarm,' 'Blue Jeans,' 'The Corn Cracker,' and 'The Salt of the Earth.'"
Source: JOSEPH ARTHUR TO RETIRE -- "Lost River" Closes His Career as a Playwright, He Says, N.Y. Times, Oct. 6, 1900.
"David Belasco's Methods. . . .
Joseph Arthur, whose two great successes were 'Blue Jeans' and 'The Still Alarm,' is part lessee and manager of the old Fourteenth-street Theater, which has fallen from its once high estate of a house designed for the production of plays by French authors by a French company in the French language into a 'cheap price' house. The French experiment was tried years ago when Fourteenth street was in the very center of things and was an immediate failure."
Source: David Belasco's Methods, The Courier-Journal [Louisville, KY], Oct. 26, 1902, p. 15, col. 2 (Note: Paid subscription required to access via this link).
Arthur Taking His Ease.
Joseph Arthur's career has been full of change and interest. He has practically retired now, living in the beautiful house that 'Blue Jeans built at Pelham Manor, and devoting his time mostly to horses, hens and dogs.
In his early days, Mr. Arthur was a newspaper correspondent and among other things (through a miscarriage of mails) was stranded in Egypt during one of the Soudanese campaigns, and had to foot it through what was practically a desert country for mmmore than 500 miles. He has all the mmoney he wants, although he is not fabulously rich, and he will write no more.
Mrs. Arthur is the aunt of 'Little Tuesday' (who is little no longer) and she is Arthur's constant companion. He has had much to do with her education as an acress and has coached her continually.
When he was actively engaged in management, Mr. Arthur ws known as the most unyielding taskmaster at rehearsals, but he finally gave it up with the remark that his own bad stage management had spoiled his own plays, which might have succeeded if he had left the work to 'some man of ordinary, common or garden intelligence."
Source: Arthur Taking His Ease, The Courier-Journal [Louisville, KY], Oct. 26, 1902, p. 15, cols. 2-3 (Note: Paid subscription required to access via this link).
"Notes of the Stage. . . .
Joseph Arthur reports a recent burglary of his residence at Pelham Manor, the thieves securing booty worth from $1,800 to $2,000."
Source: Notes of the Stage, The Washington Times, Apr. 23, 1905, p. 27, col. 1 (Note: Paid subscription required to access via this link).
"PLAYWRIGHT ARTHUR IS DEAD.
He Wrote 'The Still Alarm' and Other Melodramas, and Died Rich.
Joseph Arthur, the playwright, died yesterday morning at the Hotel Normandie as the result of an operation for kidney trouble which he underwent a few weeks ago.
Mr. Arthur was born in Centreville, Ind., in 1848. He was the son of a Methodist clergyman. At an early age he took up newspaper work, and subsequently traveled in Japan, India, and China. Later he went to Afghanistan with the British Army. He then became an actor, and some of his friends remember him as having played Mercutio. At one time he managed an opera troupe in Japan.
A little less than twenty years ago he made his debut as a playwright, producing a melodrama at the old Olympic Theatre. In 1887 he managed an opera called 'Big Pony' at the Bijou. Later in the season of the same year he made his first big success, 'The Still Alarm,' which was produced at the Fourteenth Street Theatre.
'The Still Alarm' was written for Harry Lacey, and produced by Mr. Arthur and his partner, J. Wesley Rosenquest. It was a big success, has since been played by many road companies, and is being played to-day. Later, Mr. Arthur took the piece to London, where it repeated its New York success.
'The Still Alarm' was followed by 'Blue Jeans.' This play also was produced at the Fourteenth Street Theatre. Like 'The Still Alarm,' road companies are still playing it in the one-night stands.
Other plays by Mr. Arthur which met with success are 'Lost River,' 'On the Banks of the Wabash,' and 'The Cherry Pickers.' The scenes of 'Lost River' and 'Blue Jeans' are laid in Indiana.
Joseph Arthur was the playwright's stage name, his real name being Arthur Smith. His widow is an actress, 'Charlotte Cobb.' She was with him when he died. Mr. Arthur was a rich man, having invested the proceeds of his plays in real estate."
Source: PLAYWRIGHT ARTHUR IS DEAD -- He Wrote "The Still Alarm" and Other Melodramas, and Died Rich, N.Y. Times, Feb. 21, 1906.
"Author of 'Blue Jeans' Dead.
New York, Feb. 21. -- Joseph Arthur, the well known playwright, is dead. He was a sufferer from kidney disease. He wrote 'The Still Alarm' and 'Blue Jeans' and made a fortune through them. He had a picturesque home at Pelham Manor and left a widow in very comfortable circumstances. Mr. Arthur wrote four or five other plays, but they were not especially successful. He was over fifty years old."
Source: Author of "Blue Jeans" Dead, The Wilkes-Barre Record [Wilkes-Barre, PA], Feb. 22, 1906, p. 2, col. 5 (Note: Paid subscription required to access via this link).
"NOTED PLAYWRIGHT DEAD
Joseph Arthur, Author of 'The Still Alarm,' Passes Away.
New York, Feb. 20. -- Joseph Arthur, playwright, died Tuesday in the Hotel Normandie, Broadway and Thirty-eighth street, after a three months' illness.
He wrote several small comedies that attained considerable popularity, the best known of which were 'The Still Alarm,' 'Blue Jeans,' 'The Cherry Pickers,' and 'On the Wabash.'
The playwright's health began to fail early in the winter, his trouble being an affection of the kidneys. He left his home in Pelham Manor and went to his winter home at Hope Sound, Fla., hoping to regain his health there. He grew worse instead of better, however, and on February 9 started for New York to be operated upon. His condition by this time had become so serious that it was feared he would not reach this city alive.
Two days after his arrival here the operation was performed, but too late to save his life. He failed to rally and gradually sank until the end came.
Mr. Arthur was born in Indiana fifty-five years ago and has been writing plays for over twenty years. He made one of his greatest hits with 'The Still Alarm,' which was brought out in 1887. This comedy was for a time managed jointly by the playwright and Harry Lacy, the latter playing the principal part in the play. Arthur and Lacy finally got into a violent dispute over the management and the playwright went to the courts to have the partnership arrangement annulled. The Supreme Court decided in his favor.
Mr. Arthur also wrote an Indian play entitled 'Seireine,' over which there was some trouble about two years ago. His latest play, a comedy of New York life, entitled 'Smook,' has not yet been produced."
Source: NOTED PLAYWRIGHT DEAD -- Joseph Arthur, Author of 'The Still Alarm,' Passes Away, Daily Arkansas Gazette [Little Rock, AR], Feb. 24, 1906, p. 5, col. 4 (Note: Access via this link requires paid subscription).
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Research Note: The Indiana State Library holds two reels of microfilm that contain copies of four Joseph Arthur plays. Reel 1 contains "Blue Jeans," written in 1890. Reel 2 contains "Still Alarm" written in 1887, "Cherry Pickers" written in 1896, and "Lost River" written in 1900.
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