Site hosted by Build your free website today!


Remembering "The Bishop of Broadway"

A Journey Through His Stage Door

DAVID BELASCO was born in San Francisco, California, on July 25, 1853. His parents, Abraham (Humphrey) and Reina Martin Belasco, had come to California from London in the gold rush. Belasco grew up in San Francisco and Victoria, British Columbia. He had some experience as a child actor, and from the early 1870s on worked in a number of San Francisco theatres as everything from call boy and script copier to actor, stage manager, and playwright. He paid further theatrical dues in the time he spent as a "theatrical vagabond" (his term), acting in small theatrical companies trouping through the mining camps and frontier settlements of the Pacific Slope. He recited poetry, sang, danced, clowned, painted and built scenery, and played everything from Hamlet (and Gertrude!) to Fagin in Oliver Twist and Topsy in Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Theatrical manager Daniel Frohman brought Belasco to New York City in 1882, hiring him to work as stage manager for the Madison Square Theatre. A few years later, when Frohman left the Madison Square for the new Lyceum Theatre, he took Belasco along as stage manager and house playwright. While at the Lyceum Belasco cowrote several hit plays--among them The Charity Ball and Lord Chumley--with playwright (and good friend) Henry C. De Mille. In later years Belasco would serve as mentor to De Mille's two sons, playwright William C. and Hollywood legend Cecil B. De Mille. Belasco also taught at the Lyceum's school of acting, a successful and highly regarded enterprise that eventually became the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

In 1895 Belasco had his first smash hit as playwright, director, and independent manager. His Civil War melodrama The Heart of Maryland became a runaway success in New York, in London, and on tour across the U.S. Belasco wrote the play as a showcase for the particular talents of a fledgling actress who would be the first in a long line of "Belasco stars"--a notorious, flame-haired society divorcee named Mrs. Leslie Carter. Working closely with her for several arduous years, Belasco had taught Mrs. Carter everything there was to know about acting. The two of them soon became known as an inseparable theatrical duo. She was America's greatest "emotional actress"--and he was whispered to be her Svengali, dragging her across the floor by her hair to bring out the fire and pathos in her acting. (Both Belasco and Carter would later deny the hair-dragging stories; in the meantime, however, they sold lots of newspapers--and helped fill theatre seats.) In her sixteen years with Belasco, Mrs. Carter starred in such plays as Zaza, DuBarry, and Adrea.

In 1902 Belasco leased the Theatre Republic on 42nd Street from Oscar Hammerstein. Belasco rebuilt and redecorated the theatre as a showcase for his increasingly lavish productions, installing elaborate stage machinery and lighting equipment and renaming the house after himself. In 1906 Belasco realized a long-time dream when ground was broken in 44th Street for a brand-new theatre, the Stuyvesant: a state-of-the-art playhouse built largely to Belasco's own designs. At the time of its gala opening in October 1907, the Stuyvesant was the most technically advanced theatre in New York; it may well have been the most advanced in the world. In 1910 the name of the 42nd Street house reverted to the Republic, and the 44th Street house--with its glorious Tiffany glass and its exuberant murals by Everett Shinn--took the name it has to this day: the Belasco. Belasco's jewelbox 42nd Street house, lovingly restored, also survives today, as the New Victory--cornerstone of the "new" 42nd Street as it once was of the old.

(to be continued . . .)

For Further Reading

Craig Timberlake,The Bishop of Broadway. New York: Library Publishers, 1954. (Excellent basic biography. Well illustrated.)

William Winter, The Life of David Belasco. New York: Moffatt, Yard, 1918. (Two huge volumes; exhaustive detail. Well illustrated.)

Lise-Lone Marker, David Belasco: Naturalism in the American Theatre. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974. (This book's small size belies its great worth: it contains a superb description and evaluation of Belasco's work. Illustrated.)

Louis Hartmann, Theatre Lighting. D. Appleton, 1930. (Hartmann was Belasco's chief electrician for 30 years; together they revolutionized stage lighting. Illustrated.)

David Belasco, The Theatre Through Its Stage Door. New York: Harper & Bros., 1919. (The Wizard's own amusingly orotund pronouncements on such subjects as advice to aspiring actors, the rehearsal process, and working with children. Illustrated.)

Six Plays by David Belasco. Boston: Little, Brown, 1928. (Includes Madame Butterfly, DuBarry, The Darling of the Gods, Adrea, The Girl of the Golden West, and The Return of Peter Grimm.)

The Heart of Maryland and Other Plays by David Belasco. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1941. (Also includes La Belle Russe, The Stranglers of Paris, The Girl I Left Behind Me, and Naughty Anthony.)

The Plays of Henry C. De Mille Written in Collaboration with David Belasco. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1941. (Includes The Wife, Lord Chumley, The Charity Ball, and Men and Women.)

On Film and Video

Giacomo Puccini, Madama Butterfly. A film directed by Frederic Mitterrand, 1995. (Filmed on location. In Italian with English subtitles. Available on video.)

Giacomo Puccini, La fanciulla del West. Metropolitan Opera, 1991. (Taped opera house performance. In Italian with English subtitles. Available on video).

The Girl of the Golden West A silent film directed by Cecil B. De Mille, 1915. (The first and best of the four filmed versions of Belasco's play. Not yet available on video.)

The Lady With Red Hair. 1940. (A film featuring Claude Rains as David Belasco and Miriam Hopkins as Mrs. Leslie Carter. Not yet available on video.)

Twentieth Century. 1934. (In this classic screwball comedy, the meglomaniacal Broadway producer Oscar Jaffe (played brilliantly by John Barrymore) is modeled on Belasco. Available on video.)

A Few Favorite Links

Playbill On-Line
The Metropolitan Opera