The Chicago Chorus Girl
…It was the tiny, outspoken songbird, Mary Bridwell, who had the most professional success, although her career was short. All of these artists were in their 20s and Chicago was electric with their energy. This collection offers a glimpse…
Video slide presentation: https://youtu.be/Dq3fxzjV_88
Slide 1: Title Screen
Slide 2: A triptych of photos of Mary Bridwell in theatrical costumes and an undated news clipping from an unknown source announces Bridwell’s appearance in an amateur production of a comic opera called Yub-Yub. A stack of scores, some bound in scrapbooks, and other ephemera belonging to Bridwell, all in the author’s collection, prompted this research.
Slide 3: A slip of paper from the back of the photos states, “Mary L. Bridwell about 1900 costumed for “Yum-Yum,” exposing the rosy glow of family memory that effortlessly changed the name of the musical to reflect a familiar character in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, rather than the actual title clearly stated in the news clipping.
Slide 4: Additional family lore placed Bridwell on the professional stage in NYC. Yet the review, which includes a photo in profile of Bridwell, compares two upcoming Chicago performances, one of professional opera, and the other, this amateur production. –quote- “Miss Bridwell, a Woodlawn society girl, will be singing the prima donna role of Zaldee in “Yub Yub,” the Woodlawn Tennis Club’s comic opera at Music Hall, in the Fine Arts Building.” -end quote-
Slide 5: The collection of scores includes a piano reduction of Yub Yub. It is a comic opera in 3 acts written in 1903.
Slide 6: with Book and Lyrics by Will Hough, Don Crane, and Frank Adams, and music by Frank Tobey. Hough & Adams became a moderately well-known writing team with careers writing for stage and film through the 1930s. Since their names were not included in the news item and knowing that Yub Yub was an amateur production, I wondered if this attribution was a bit of fancy rather than authentic.
Slide 7: Newspaper references verified the names of the writers. The Inter Ocean reports, -quote- “The Woodlawn Tennis club is to produce a work entitled Yub-Yub, which is billed, so far as the book and lyrics go, as emanating from the brains of Mssrs D. P. Crane, Will M. Hough, and Frank R. Adams.” –end quote-
Slide 8: A year later Hough & Adams teamed up with the already successful composer Joseph E. Howard to create many popular musicals in Chicago and New York City. Their earliest known collaboration occurred in 1904, just one year after Yub-Yub, with a work called His Highness the Bey.
Slide 9: An interesting footnote: the other writer on Yub-Yub was Don Crane, referred to as D.P. Crane in The Inter Ocean news clipping. Recent contact with his granddaughter confirms this is the same Donn P. Crane who became a successful and prolific book illustrator. Here we see one of his earlier illustrations for the sheet music of his colleagues’ most recent offering, His Highness the Bey.
Slide 10: There are eleven references to Yub-Yub dated between April 4 and June 13 of 1903, appearing primarily in The Inter Ocean and Chicago Tribune, comprised of announcements and one short review.
Slide 11: Two articles include photos of the performers, including the same photo of Mary Bridwell seen in the undated source. A short review in the Chicago Tribune deems the performance a success, attended by almost a 1000 people.
Slide 12: The other figure in this group is composer, Frank Hamilton Tobey. His first music writing credit for a comic opera occurs in 1899 with a work called Maggie from Paris. Extraordinarily, his first writing partner is George Ade, who was already quite well-known in Chicago as a newspaper columnist and book author. Maggie from Paris may have been also Ade’s first foray into musical theater, a field Ade will soon dominate.
Slide: 13: While census records show that Tobey listed his occupation as sporting goods manager, he continued writing and directing comic operas, including The Other Jones in 1899 and The Kidnappers a year later. This brings us back around to Yub-Yub and Mary Bridwell.
Slide 14: From the ages of 8 through 16, Bridwell’s name appears at least 15 time in social columns. She sang and danced in many community performances where it was remarked that she had a –quote- “sweet and sympathetic voice” end quote.
Slide 15: Bridwell next appears at the age of 18 in the Indianapolis News where it is announced –quote– “Miss Mary Bridwell, formerly of this city, and recently of Chicago, whose voice gave promise of high quality for operatic music, has accepted a position with the Castle Square Company for the summer season.” – end quote. We don’t learn what she performed in or whether she remained with the Castle Square Company until almost a year later where she is included in an article in the Chicago Tribune. Mary Bridwell, who was a diminutive 4 feet 10 inches, –quote– the “littlest girl” in The Sultan of Sulu, thought a union would be fine.” –end quote– We’ll turn to The Sultan of Sulu first, with more on the union later.
Slide 16: The Sultan of Sulu, was the breakout hit for George Ade, who was no longer collaborating with Tobey. It began as an amateur production, but moved to the professional stage in Chicago.
Slide 17: and ultimately to New York City where it ran for 200 performances. Bridwell may have been just a chorus girl, but she had landed in one of the biggest hits of the season.
Slide 18: The quote where she is referred to as the “littlest girl” comes from an article in the Chicago Tribune. Chorus girls approached union leader Samuel Gompers about organizing to establish better working conditions.
Slide 19: While many performers interviewed from The Sultan of Sulu had no interest in joining a union, Bridwell was of another mind. –quote– “I believe I would like to join one,” she said. “Of course, it would have to be well managed. Is Mr. Gompers a good manager? If he is he might do. Most of us girls don’t know much about unions, so we would have to have a pretty good manager.” –end quote – This quote amplifies the tone of the article that characterizes the chorus girls as charming yet somewhat naive.
Slide 20: Whether it is an accurate quote or not, several days later, Bridwell takes a decidedly more assertive tone, which complements her knew position. –quote– “Mary Bridwell, the leader in the movement, in explanation says: “There is nothing to do but work in the business now, and the purpose of the organization is to have something to say about hours of rehearsal, dressing rooms and hotels.” –end quote –
Slide 21: The final figure in this group of young Chicago artists is Charles Walter Warren. Warren was also working with Frank Tobey on a comic opera, called A Trip to the Tropics, while Tobey was presumably in rehearsals for the production of Yub-Yub. A Trip to the Tropics had previous incarnations under different titles and so the working relationship may have been going on for more than a year. Warren may have had other motives for this collaboration. It gave him an excuse to hang around Yub-Yub rehearsals, where he must have been courting Miss Bridwell, for they married a year later in Manhattan.
Slide 22: There is no documentation that A Trip to the Tropics was ever performed, but Tobey and Warren had hopes that this work would launch their careers. A paragraph in Billboard reads, –quote– “Two bright young men from Chicago were in this city this week to read the latest opera from their pens to a prominent manager of this city. Charles Walter Warren, the writer of the lyrics, and Frank Hamilton Tobey, the composer of the music of the new opera, A Trip to the Tropics, have a vehicle that should make a hit, as it is bright, tuneful and novel in treatment. They read the opera and had the melodies played for Frank Daniels in New York the other day, and he was delighted with it and is now negotiating for its use for next season.” –end quote– Frank Daniels was a well-known comic figure on the New York stage and later in silent movies. After collaborations with George Ade, Hough and Adams, and writing a vehicle for Sultan of Sulu chorine, had Tobey’s big break finally arrived through writing with novice Warren? Sadly, no. That was the last we ever hear of this work or indeed this writing team.
Slide 23: George Ade, Will Hough, Frank Adams, and Donn Crane: it’s remarkable how many successful careers grew out of first-time attempts at writing musical theatre. Between Bridwell, Tobey, and Warren, it was the tiny, outspoken, songbird, Mary Bridwell who had the most professional success, although her career was short. Excluding George Ade, all of these artists were in their 20s: Chicago was electric with their energy. This collection of primary sources offers a glimpse of the flurry of activity occurring in turn-of-the-century Chicago, where the very real possibility of a quick rise to fame enticed so many to try their hand at musical theatre.
Slide 24: Bibliography and Closing