- William Shakespeare, As You Like It
It is a proven fact that whenever a large family gathers for even a modest length of time, some child or other will proudly announce that there will be a play and then proceed to dragoon all and sundry into the cast. The audience, no less captive than the actors, is eventually treated to the hastily rehearsed, largely improvised and unremittingly comic performance of the director's vision.
I've been on the giving and receiving end of such extravaganzas on numerous occasions. Over Christmas my daughter Emily attempted to cast her grandmother as a wicked witch, and on the theory that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, I played the part instead with a Pythonesque falsetto. Emily made an excellent straight man, and there was a dramatic duel with wrapping paper tubes up and down the stairs which ended when Elias unraveled my cardboard blade. After the finale she announced:"that was the best play ever!" A girl after my own heart.
How we amateurs love a stage! A look into the archives confirms that our family has had more than its share of Thespians, grandiose orators and lovers of costume over the years, but I suspect that there were certain periods in American history when such pursuits and amusements were more common than at present with all our virtual, electronic diversions. The program of Historical Tableaux at the head of this post, for instance, was presented by the D.A.R. in Elizabeth, NJ, and featured several of my ancestors in period costume - or what they imagined that to be. That is my great grandmother at left, Madge (Olmsted Ogden), photographed in 1898 in powdered periwig and masquerading as some 18th-century dame or other, perhaps Marie Antoinette. There are piles of old photographs of this family in costume, either for various "ethnic" dances or for amateur theatricals at the Elizabeth Country Club. Not having reason for or interest in membership in such organizations myself, I nonetheless suspect that there is little call today for dressing up in anything more outlandish than polo shirts and tennis whites, but back then they surely enjoyed dressing up: the more outlandishly the better.
There is evidence that an even earlier generation took part in such performances. This image from June, 1868, depicts two collateral relations (Margaret "Tippie" Gracie and Harriet Mayo) striking poses in their roles from a production entitled "Popping the Question." Just who proposed two whom in unclear, but from the expressions on their faces it is reasonably to guess that the relationship between these characters may have been that of mother-in-law and daughter-in-law to be. Fashions being what they were in this period, I am grateful to whomever penciled the explanatory details on the back of this photograph; otherwise one might have assume this was their everyday attire and read more into their glowering looks than circumstances merit.
The only legitimate professional actress in our family was Eva G Barker, my Gr-gr-great aunt, whose carte de visite identifies her as an "elocutionist", a profession somewhat more seemly for a woman of her time than actress. Elocutionists taught the art of oratory, proper diction and public speaking, which even so was not usual for women in the 1870s. The back of the card provides more details, however, and reveals that Aunt Eva herself graced the stage with one of the most notable actresses and foremost woman performing Shakespeare in her age: Helena Modjeska. In addition to Shakespeare, Modjeska was the first to produce Ibsen's A Doll's House in America, so this was highbrow stuff for my ancestor - none of your vaudeville fripperies for Miss Barker - and therefore a more respectable vocation for her in the eyes of her Midwestern family and the public than otherwise.
Performances by children were popular in the Olmsted family as far back as the 1880s, when this playbill was printed. Uncle Ned Olmsted (then age 8) appears as Ole King Cole, a role he reprised in subsequent productions. A cousin, Emma Florance, appears as one of the extras in the "Ding Dong Dell" segment, as does Archie Ogden, my Gr-grandfather, who would marry his childhood sweetheart Madge Olmsted nearly a quarter century later. The Olmsted sisters Madge and Kate were also enthusiastic performers, adopting roles as varied as Little Bo Peep (depicted by Kate Olmsted), "Miss Pole, purveyor of Cranford gossip" (again by Kate), and "Miss Betty Barker, retired milliner and proud owner of a cow" (Madge Olmsted).
Not only the stage but the boardwalk attractions of the photographer's booth tempted my ancestors into outlandish costume. Here Madge Olmsted and an unidentified reveler celebrate the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago by adopting traditional German attire and hoisting a festive stein for the camera.
I know these people from long ago, hamming for the camera in their frocks and feathers, strutting timelessly across their stage in life's rich pageant. I see the same twinkle in my daughter's eyes, and puckish smile in my own.