Charles Frohman

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Charles Frohman

An American theatrical producer, Charles Frohman (1860-1915) saw the theater make its transition from stock companies to the star system. Primarily a pillar of "show business" rather than an artistic theatrical innovator, Frohman illuminated the theater with a bright gallery of stars under his personal management.

Charles Frohman was born on June 17, 1860 in Sandusky, Ohio, the son of a traveling peddlar. Frohman loved the theater from boyhood, when as an eight-year-old he hawked souvenir programs for a local production of The Black Crook, America's first musical show. From there he worked his way up through virtually every level of press agentry and theatrical management.

Leaving Ohio at age 12, he went to New York City and worked successively for two newspapers, the Tribune and the Daily Graphic. His love for the theater brought him to night work selling tickets at Hooley's Theater in Brooklyn. By 1877 he was an advance man for traveling shows, most notably Haverly's Minstrels. Frohman's sharp business sense and the support of his brothers, Daniel and Gustave, enabled the three of them to take on the management of Steele MacKaye's Madison Square Theater. There Frohman devised a touring company system that changed the American theater. Frohman hit upon the idea of sending out full companies to present road versions of plays that were hits in New York.

In 1888 Frohman was an agent for playwright Bronson Howard. The playwright's latest drama, Shenandoah, had only managed a limited run in Boston, but Frohman saw greater possibilities in it. He borrowed money from a few theatrical colleagues and produced the play in New York, achieving a great success. To clinch his recognition as the fastest rising theatrical entrepreneur on Broadway, he signed an exclusive contract with actor-turned-playwright William Gillette to produce all of that successful author's works. Gillette would become famous for plays such as Sherlock Holmes (1893) and Secret Service (1896).

Frohman wanted as much control over his theatrical enterprises as possible, and in 1890 he took over Proctor's Theater and began his own stock company there. Three years later Frohman built his own theater, the Empire. With his brothers he became a leading theatrical impresario. By the turn of the century he was the most prominent producer in New York and London. In his transatlantic career Frohman was most successful in launching plays by English dramatists J.M. Barrie and Arthur Wing Pinero, Oscar Wilde, and Somerset Maugham. But his London theater ventures would ultimately cost him his life.

In 1895 Frohman, along with Al Hayman, Mark Klaw, Abe Erlanger, Sam Nixon, and Fred Zimmerman, formed the Theatrical Syndicate, also known as the Trust. This organization dominated the American theater from 1896 through World War I. Its alleged reason for being was to systematize haphazard theatrical booking networks across the United States, but it actually ended up exerting near total control over every aspect of theatrical production in the country. The syndicate had a majority interest in virtually every important theater in the country. Producers or performers who crossed the Trust found themselves unable to put on their plays.

The extent to which Frohman's personal influence shaped the development of the Theatrical Syndicate is disputed. His supporters maintain that he endured the high-handedness of his partners in order to present quality productions; Frohman's detractors charge him with having only a concern for projecting his own image as the "artistic" manager.

Many considered him a ruthless businessman who looked out only for himself, but this belies the fact that he died nearly penniless and that numerous actors and actresses were loyal to him and his management throughout their entire careers. Annie Russell, Margaret Anglin, Julia Marlowe, Otis Skinner, and Billie Burke were among the stars under his control. Maude Adams, the most popular actress of the turn of the century, literally owed her career to him (the role of Peter Pan was created for her) and went into eclipse after Frohman's death.

Even though Frohman was responsible for the proliferation of the star system, late in his career he realized that it had done much to destroy artistry in the theater. Frohman believed his great achievement had been to bring the best British plays to New York. Nonetheless, his theatrical acuity caused him to recognize that the reliance on stars made the script merely a dramatic property that was almost irrelevant because stars such as John Drew, Maude Adams, or Ada Rehan would attract crowds no matter what the play. Frohman's career lasted long enough to see later generations of his "family" succeed; for example, John Drew's young niece, Ethel Barrymore, emerged as a star (in the American playwright Clyde Fitch's Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines) in 1901.

Frohman exerted a tremendous influence on the commercial theater in the United States. He emphasized the production of new plays even though he was criticized for giving short shrift to the classics. He actively developed new stars, creating images for them and tenderly shepherding their careers. He constantly sought out untried playwrights and gave them encouragement. The financial cushion provided by the Trust enabled Frohman to profitably manipulate his theatrical system for over two decades. He created stars who created audiences for the works of Frohman's own playwrights. The controversy about his motivations and methods aside, it cannot be denied that Frohman's theatrical taste was respected and his concern for the theater as an institution revered.

Eager to free himself from what he considered to be prosaic origins, Frohman later in life adopted the code of behavior of an English gentleman of stiffest upper lip. His courtliness and reserve contrasted with his squat body and squinting countenance.

In 1915 his favorite playwright, J.M. Barrie, implored him to come to London to help out a faltering production. Frohman ignored warnings and sailed on the Lusitania. Calmly puffing a cigar as the ship was torpedoed on May 7, 1915, Frohman met his end as bravely as any stage hero, coolly intoning: "Why fear death, it's the greatest adventure of all." For his epitaph Frohman asked that he be remembered as "The man who gave Peter Pan to the world and Chantecler to America."

Further Reading

A sympathetic biography of Frohman, Charles Frohman: Manager and Man, was written in 1916 by Isaac F. Marcosson and Daniel Frohman. Daniel Frohman left two volumes of memoirs, Memoirs of a Manager (1911) and Daniel Frohman Presents (1935). These have scattered references to his brother. Brooks Atkinson's Broadway (1970) contains an affectionate portrait of Frohman. Contemporary theater periodicals such as Theatre, Green Book, and Dramatic Mirror frequently featured articles about Frohman. □

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Charles Frohman

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