Saturday, December 5, 2009

December 4: Lillian Russell, Master of the Comic Opera

She was known as one of the most beautiful of American women, had a tremendous personality that ruled the stage she played on, and was a flamboyant master of the popular comic opera stage plays that played in theaters throughout the nation. She dominated the American theater in the late 19th century.

Helen Louise Leonard was the fifth daughter of newspaper publisher Charles E. Leonard and his wife Cynthia Rowland Leonard. Both parents would exert an extensive influence on their daughter – her father through his background in reading and understanding of news and events, and her mother through her feminist views. Helen was born on December 4, 1861, in Clinton, Iowa, but would move to and grow up in Chicago, Illinois, where the family moved in 1864.

She would be remembered to history not as Helen Louise Leonard, but as Lillian Russell.

Lillian would receive her education from the age of seven to fifteen the Convent of the Sacred Heart, and the Park Institute, both in Chicago. It was during these years that she learned to play the tambourine and to dance, showing a natural talent in the school plays that foretold of her stage career. While in school she studied music under Miss. Scheremburg and was an active participant in the school choir. Her first stage appearance was in December 1877, when she was a participant in an amateur production of Time Tries All at Chickering Hall in Chicago.

In 1879, Mrs. Leonard left her husband and moved to New York with the children.

In New York Lillian studied singing under a German émigré, composer, and orchestra conductor – Leopold Damrosch. Her dreams were to have an operatic career. In 1879 she joined the chorus of a Brooklyn theatrical company that was presenting the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera, HMS Pinafore. Two weeks after joining the troupe, she married the orchestra leader, Harry Braham. She had a baby boy by Braham, but he died in a tragic accident while still an infant.

The official transformation of Helen Leonard into Lillian Russell would take place on November 22, 1880, when she made her first appearance on Broadway at Tony Pastor’s Theater. She was billed as Lillian Russell, the English Ballad Singer, and would tour with Pastor’s company through the summer of 1881. Pastor paid her $40 a week and gave her the stage name Lillian Russell.

In June 1883, Lillian left her husband and went to England with composer Edward Solomon. Solomon, an English émigré who was the musical director of Pastor’s theater, would write Lillian into several of his compositions, including Billee Taylor, Polly, and Pocahontas. Lillian sailed with Solomon for England and a series of theatrical engagements. There two major personal events occurred: she became pregnant, giving birth to Lillian Dorothy on May 10, 1884; and the scandal of Lillian leaving her husband behind and living with Solomon “as his wife” reached the press – and turned theater managers against her. In 1885 they returned to the United States – and were informally boycotted by theater managers. Work finally appeared, and Lillian’s ability in comedic operettas and her singing voice carried the day. She began a comeback.

She worked hard to pacify the press and to keep scandals out of the press. When her husband won his divorce case, the newspapers were not informed for a week and a half – and by then Lillian had formally married Solomon. Soon, however, more scandal erupted. Lily Gray, a London actress, claimed that Solomon had married her in 1873 – and never divorced. Eventually, Lillian divorced Solomon. By the time she was twenty-five, Lillian had had two husbands, two children, and had performed on hundreds of stages in the United States and England.

By 1891 Lillian had overcome the earlier public disapproval of her life, and had made a comeback in the theater. She organized the Lillian Russell Opera Company, opening at the Garden Theater in New York. In 1894 she married a third time, to John Haly Augustin Chatterton – a tenor in her opera company. The separated in six months, and were divorced in 1898.

Lillian’s talent, singing voice, and stage success continued – and her popularity continue to rise as well. It was her voice that was first heard during the first long-distance telephone call on Alexander Graham Bell’s invention when she sang from New York, and was heard in Washington, D.C. and in Boston. The song was The Sabre Song.

In June 1912, Lillian – now fifty years old – married for the fourth and final time. Her husband was the publisher of the Pittsburgh Leader, Alexander P. Moore. That same year she made her last appearance on Broadway in a play titled Hokey Pokey. In 1915 she would appear in a motion picture with Lionel Barrymore which was titled Wildfire, and she would occasionally sing in vaudeville until 1919 when ill health made it necessary for her to stop.

Lillian would remain active – and in the public eye. She wrote newspaper columns, gave lectures, supported women’s suffrage, helped recruit for the Marines in World War I, and in 1921 was sent by President Warren G. Harding on a fact-finding tour of Europe to help formulate a new immigration policy in the United States. She came out in favor of restricting immigration and isolationism. Shortly after she submitted her report, she injured herself in a fall, and died ten days later – June 6, 1922 - of complications associated with the fall. She was interred in the Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Perhaps Lillian’s own words provide the best memorial of her life and tell why she strove to be successful in the theater:
“I only want to play the roles allotted to me in comic opera better than anyone else who ever sang them, or better than anyone who was in the line with me.”
New York Times Obituary
University of Rochester


Russell advertisement (color), Library of Congress, ncdeaa D0005-14
Russell in Costume, 1882, University of Rochester
Playbill, Library of Congress,
Russell in Costume, Library of Congress, ncdeaa D0040
Russell and husband, Alexander Moore, Library of Congress, ichicdn n074416
Russell at her desk, 1922, Library of Congress, ichicdn n074414


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