One of the things I am missing this summer is the theater. From Broadway in the city of New York to Pendragon Theatre in the Adirondacks and everywhere in between, stages have gone dark.
Actors are a lively, irrepressible bunch, and so it’s a testament to the seriousness of the ongoing pandemic that theaters are closed.
During the 1918 influenza pandemic, Broadway did not shut down. A New York Times article this past July titled, “’Gotham Refuses to Get Scared’: In 1918, Theaters Stayed Open” described how, at the height of the flu epidemic, New York’s health commissioner declined to close performance spaces. Instead, he instituted public health measures such as staggering show times, eliminating standing room tickets, and mandating that anyone with a cough or sneeze be removed from theaters immediately.
The Times article described parallels to the current pandemic, and we Saranac Lakers would notice another connection. The lead photo from the 1918 Ziegfeld Follies included actors Will Rogers and Eddie Cantor. Eddie Cantor was one of the famous visitors to Saranac Lake. Although we have no record of Will Rogers ever coming here, his memory lives on in a beautiful local sanatorium named for him.
Eddie Cantor and Will Rogers were guided in their acting careers by one of Saranac Lake’s most famous TB patients and residents, William Morris. He founded the talent agency in 1898 that still carries his name. Morris came to Saranac Lake for his health in 1902, and by the 1920s, he was spending much of his time at his Camp Intermission on nearby Lake Colby. He was one of many theater people, from ticket takers to vaudeville stars, who make up a vibrant part of Saranac Lake history.
While the show went on, TB was a common hazard of the job, and the theater community did not ignore the need for support. Empathy is an essential part of the job description for an actor, so it’s no surprise that many people in the entertainment business engage in helping others.
Impresario and theater owner Edward F. Albee led efforts to provide subsidized care to workers in vaudeville at three different cure cottages in the village. William Morris and his wife Emma established the Saranac Lake Day Nursery to provide childcare and nutrition to children in need. Morris brought to Saranac Lake some of the most famous entertainers of the time to raise funds for many causes. Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, and Harry Lauder performed for fundraisers to support the Day Nursery, the Jewish Community Center, the Methodist Church, and St. Bernard’s Church. Morris brought actress Olga Petrova to Saranac Lake to turn the first shovel of earth for a housing project on Lake Street.
William Morris helped found the National Vaudeville Artists Home in Saranac Lake in 1929. In 1936, following the tragic death of Will Rogers in a plane crash, the facility took the name Will Rogers Memorial Hospital. It was a fitting tribute to the great American humorist, actor and vaudevillian, known throughout America as the country’s “Ambassador of Good Will.” In service today as a beautifully restored retirement community, the building hosts a stage where TB patients once put on performances. The Will Rogers Motion Pictures Pioneers Foundation in Los Angeles continues to support workers from the entertainment industry in need.
During the TB years, Saranac Lake children visited Will Rogers Hospital for holiday concerts. There, they serenaded the patients in the stairwell that wound up around the Will Rogers statue. Today, the tradition continues, when school children sing to elderly residents for the annual winter concert. For now the stage and stairwell are quiet, but actors are irrepressible. We can trust that someday soon, the show will go on.
Photos, from above: Dr. Edgar Mayer, actor Eddie Cantor, possibly Al Jolson, and theatrical agent William Morris courtesy Gail Brill; Advertisement in Moving Picture World, Nov., 1917; and Saranac Lake High School chorus students pose with banner of Will Rogers in the stairwell at Saranac Lake Village at Will Rogers following last year’s winter concert courtesy of Historic Saranac Lake.