30 December 2015

Kate Claxton - She Didn't Start the Fire...

On December 5, 1876, actress Kate Claxton was thrust into her most terrifying role. It was on that day that the Somerville, NJ native and still-rising star rushed to the front of the stage at the Brooklyn Theater and attempted to prevent a panic in the audience as flames danced all around her and the building filled with smoke. More than 275 people perished as the roof collapsed in what is still one of the most devastating fires in New York history. This was the first of two killer fires involving Miss Claxton that season.


Brooklyn Theater, December 5, 1876. Kate Claxton  at the front of the stage,
trying to prevent a panic as the fire rages.
Born Kate Elizabeth Cone on August 24, 1848 to Spencer Wallace Cone and Josephine Martinez, young Kate was intent on entering show business - against her parents' wishes. It is not known how they felt about her marriage at the age of sixteen to New York businessman Isadore Lyon.


Cabinet Card photo of popular 19th century actress Kate Claxton.

After her marriage ended in divorce, she made her stage debut in Chicago in 1869, then had minor roles for the next three years in New York with the Fifth Avenue Theater Company. The general public did not begin to notice her until she joined the Union Square Theater in 1873.

Kate Claxton in costume for one of the many productions in which she was featured.
The next year saw Miss Claxton take on what would become her signature role, that of the blind girl Louise in "The Two Orphans", a part later played by Dorothy Gish in D.W, Griffith's silent screen adaptation "Orphans of the Storm". The role was highly emotional - and this type of acting became her trademark. Audiences loved it. She returned to the character again and again throughout her long career. By 1876 she had already started her own production company, and later purchased exclusive rights to "The Two Orphans" - touring with it off and on across the country right up until her retirement from the stage in 1903. What a testament to her talent that, already somewhat old for the role when she began playing it at the age of 26, she was still playing it convincingly for her fans at the age of 55!

Kate Claxton in her signature role as Louise in The Two Orphans

It was during a production of "The Two Orphans" that the fire broke out at the Brooklyn Theater. Miss Claxton was onstage at the time and noticed the fire in the wings - as did the other actors - but continued in character thinking that the flames would be extinguished quickly. There was no water available on stage, and attempts to beat out the fire only caused it to spread.

The actors pleaded with the audience to remain calm and proceed in an orderly fashion to the exits. This worked for a few minutes - but when the patrons in the balconies discovered they could not make it past the smoke-filled stairways, it was total chaos. It was reported that Kate Claxton was one of the last to flee the building, narrowly escaping with her life.

This Thomas Nast cartoon, which appeared in a June 1877 issue of Harper's Weekly, 
did much to rehabilitate Kate Claxton's reputation.
While on tour in St. Louis in April of the next year, the young actress was awakened by the Southern Hotel fire alarm at 2 am. She was able to escape the fire that claimed the lives of 40 hotel guests by wrapping herself in wet towels and rolling down the stairs. That second fire was all it took for the sensationalist press of the time to brand her as a token of "bad luck". Miss Claxton herself observed people taking extra precautions each time she checked into a hotel. Cartoonist Thomas Nast came to her defense with a drawing for Harper's Weekly portraying the press as torch-bearing donkeys, ready to destroy Kate Claxton's career for the sake of newspaper sales.

In fact, the publicity occasioned by the fires, the mudslinging, and Miss Claxton's pleas for restraint and fairness, generated a great amount of sympathy, only helping her career.

After a second marriage in 1878 to actor Charles Stephenson - which ended in a bizarre 1901 annulment - and the death by suicide of their son Harold in 1904, Kate Claxton retired to New York City, where she died in 1924.

15 December 2015

A Humble House in a Small World


When a reporter for South Florida's Sun-Sentinel newspaper visited the apartment of Roswell Gilbert in December of 1993 to interview the convicted mercy-killer three years after his 25-year prison sentence was commuted to the five-and-a-half years he had already served, she noticed the many oil paintings hung throughout the home. The paintings were done by Gilbert's mother, the artist Martha Gilbert Skougor. Perhaps the reporter spotted Skougor's most widely known work, "Humble House", conceived and completed while the artist lived in the home depicted in Hillsborough Township, New Jersey.

Hillsborough's "Humble House",
from the cover of the February 13, 1932 Literary Digest.
Soon after Ms. Skougor purchased the little house on the hill overlooking the South Branch of the Raritan River, it became an inspiration to her. About 1930, she added a studio wing where she could paint and develop her craft. With her children grown, she indulged her passions by travelling to South America, where she did many portraits of people in native dress. Landscapes. Portraits. In a 1933 review of one of her gallery showings, the New York Evening Post commented that, "apparently everything else she looks on interests her".

Margaret Sullavan and husband Leland Hayward
In November 1936, Ms. Skougor sold Humble House to Hollywood film star Margaret Sullavan, who had just married Broadway agent/producer Leland Hayward. The Haywards fell in love with the house and intended to use it as a summer retreat. Alas, Sullavan, best known for her 1930s film roles starring opposite James Stewart, was too busy working to spend any time in the home, and they sold it two years later having never spent a single night there!

Margaret Sullavan and Robert Young in The Mortal Storm

Another of Margaret Sullavan's favorite costars was Robert Young - later of "Father Knows Best" and "Marcus Welby" fame. She appeared with him in two films of the late 1930s - "The Three Comrades", concerning World War I, and "The Mortal Storm", set during the beginning of the second World War.. In each film, Robert Young plays a German soldier. But his most controversial role was yet to come.

Ad for the 1987 TV movie Mercy or Murder

Near the end of his career - eleven years after the final episode of "Marcus Welby, MD" - Robert Young returned to television to play the real life role of Roswell Gilbert in a made-for-TV-movie of the 1985 mercy killing that gripped a nation. Suffering from dementia, osteoporosis, and other painful ailments that made her life unbearable, Gilbert's wife pleaded with him to do something to help her. Although she never asked him specifically to end her life, Gilbert could see no other way - and killed her by putting two bullets in her head while she lay unawares on the couch in their apartment, surrounded by the portraits and landscapes inspired by Hillsborough's Humble House.

12 December 2015

Choose and Cut Your Memories - 2015 Update

Here's a 2015 update to a post I first wrote in 2008 about our annual trip to Shadow Hill Farm.

One of the nice things about having the Christmas tree in the family room - in the corner between the fireplace and the T.V. - instead of the living room where we used to put it, is that we are able to enjoy it more. And not just during the commercials!

As I have been sitting here looking at the tree, it occurs to me that in the last several years, we've never had a bad one. I can't remember one scrawny, needle dropping, flimsy-limbed fir in at least the last ten years. [almost 20 years now!]

The reason must be that we always choose and cut our tree at Shadow Hill Farm on Grandview Road in Skillman. I can only think of maybe two years since the mid 90s when we purchased a tree elsewhere - and in at least one of those years I believe it was because the farm didn't open!

The setting - at the top a hill at the edge of the Sourlands - is gorgeous and serene, the proprietors are friendly and helpful, and the trees are top-notch!

But, of course, as I sit here and look at the tree - all trimmed out, and tricked out, with ornaments and lights - I don't really see the Christmas tree at all.


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