Nostalgia Scandals

Miss Bennett Wears A Tux, Scandalizes NYC

The King of Melodrama

Before I ever knew about Cecil, and how spirited and fiery she was, I always knew about her husband: my great-great grandfather Charles. He wrote such fantastically over-the-top sappy, dramatic or slapstick plays that he earned the nickname “The King of Melodrama” in the New York theater world. Though, I once also saw him refer to himself as “The Napoleon of Farce Plays” but I don’t even know what to make of that, so I’ll leave it alone! (who compares themselves to Napoleon?!) 😉 I do distinctly remember seeing a few of his play posters growing up or copies of the plays printed into little novelettes that were kind of naughty and not really for display like “Child Slaves of New York,” “Kidnapped for Revenge” and “A Wife in Pawn.”

Recently I’ve been gathering all of our old family photos to digitize and restore them. I thought I might as well look for some of Charles’ posters to add to the collection as well…and I found quite a few. I mean, it seems like the man commissioned about 20 different posters for every play he wrote and produced. The Library of Congress has only a few of the plays’ posters but I thought I’d post a couple of them up here. This post is dedicated to “A Female Drummer.”

The Female Drummer

A farce-like comedy, written by Charles for Christmastime consumption it opened on the 26th of December in 1898, and was apparently quite a success. The premise involved a female corset-drummer who takes her male customers out for a night on the town only to turn around and blackmail them into buying up all her stock. [A drummer in this sense meant a salesperson. Apparently, they used to bang a drum around to let housewives know they were coming. By the 1920’s they had settled into the less noise-disturbing door-to-door salesman.] It starred Johnstone Bennett in the lead and became one of her best known performances.

An over-the-top musical operetta in three acts, I think the best part are some of the character’s names: Pinkie Ribbons, Mr. Stiff, Miss Pettie Coat, Wood B. Smooth, Super Stitious and Finas Silk.

Miss Bennett Prefers A Tux

The star of the play, Johnstone Bennett, was born in Havre, France. Her mother died in childbirth and she was adopted by a Mary Bennett. At some time, Miss Bennett had spun the tail that her mother and father were aboard a ship bound for America. It crashed along New Jersey and she washed up ashore with her mother and father’s bodies, herself a small child perfectly intact. That wasn’t quite true but it made good enough copy that it was often repeated in the papers.

When Mary Bennett died, Miss Bennett was again adopted. This time by an actress named Sybil Johnstone. Thus her eventual name: Johnstone Bennett. She become really well-known for wearing men’s clothing, preferring tailored suits above corsets. Most of her stage roles were actually male impersonations. Eventually she was able to hire a valet to dress her instead of a maid, who was much better suited for her wardrobe of suits and tuxes on stage (she wore as much “manish” clothes in real life as the law permitted). Still, having a male attend to her caused quite the scandal and sensation and received a good few inches in the newspaper entertainment columns until the newspapers chose to instead find it eccentric and funny and everyone seemed to get over it. While most other actors and actresses employed press agents, Johnstone’s “gentlemanly” ways kept her in the limelight enough that she never needed one.

Two years before starring in “A Female Drummer,” Johnstone made headlines for threatening to become a nun. I think the article in the Chicago Tribune is a little too good (look where she is while she makes her declaration!) so I’m just going to reproduce some of it here exactly:

Johnstone Bennet is to enter a convent – that is, if she does not change her mind. “I am so tired of everything,” she said, as she leaned her head wearily upon her hand in her dressing-room at Proctor’s Pleasure Palace today. “What does this theatrical life amount to? Had it not been for my contract with Mr. Kent I would have staid[sic] in France this year and entered the convent, but Mr. Kent gave up many thing to enter the vaudeville ranks with me, and I felt I could not, in justice to him, alter my plans.”

“No I am not a Catholic. I have no particular religion, and am free thinker enough to believe all creeds are good.”

In 1904 she contracted tuberculosis and her health slowly deteriorated. The New York Times reported that she had taken up the “onion treatment” (eating two raw onions a day…apparently this does actually help) which improved her health for a week only and then she gave it up. She died in 1906.

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