Book Reviews

McKee Rankin and the Heyday of
the North American Theatre


MCKEE RANKIN burst upon the theatre world in the l860s. By the age of twenty-one, Rankin, a Canadian by birth, had become leading man at the Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia, considered to be the best theatre in the country. A matinee idol and a superb character actor, he formed one of the first combination companies to tour America. He wrote successful Western dramas, in which he and his wife, the famous Kitty Blanchard, created unforgettable characters. He built a theatre in New York City and one in San Francisco where, in the 1880s, he created a nationally famous repertory theatre. Persevering, intelligent, and dedicated, his passion for the theatre brought him into conflict with the commercial attitudes of managers. Throughout his ups and downs, from riches to poverty, from handsome man to obese alcoholic, he continued to create great roles. When Rankin died in 1914 the brilliant innovations of this actor-manager, playwright and director had changed theatre forever.

This thoroughly documented biography is also a lively story of one of the most important but least known periods of American theatre, encompassing a wealth of information about great but forgotten actors, a fascinating account of the relationship between the stage and its audience, and several rediscovered, once famous plays. Students of acting, historians of the theatre and those interested in the cultural development of a continent will find the book invaluable. All readers will be entranced by a world from which today's entertainment emerged.

Excerpt of Interview with David Beasley

Interviewer: How did you chance upon this obscure actor who turns out to have been such a dynamic force in the theatre?
David Beasley: It was after I finished my book on the first Canadian novelist, John Richardson. I had come across a duel between Richardson's brother and Colonel Rankin, who had two sons in the early theatre. I decided to investigate. An obituary by a major theatre critic, calling Colonel Rankin's son McKee the unsung genius of the stage, far superior to anyone in his day, set me to digging. The more I dug, the more incredible finds I uncovered. I soon realized that through McKee's life, I could tell the story of the theatre in the nineteenth century, including the coming of film.

Interviewer: What is unusual about your book? You said "that the nineteenth-century theatre had not been adequately written about."
David Beasley: The detail is unusual. After years of research, I can give a complete picture, yet keep the story interesting. The energy of Rankin fires the engine. And this huge, comprehensive machine grabs readers and rolls on with them, filling them with inside and outside information about the theatre. And no doubt many readers will be enticed to read the endnotes, which give plots of forgotten plays and fascinating facts that elucidate the period. Before and after Rankin's years on stage, the theatre was elitist. But in his time, the actors, the action, in all the small towns of North America, were as one with the audiences.

Interviewer: Do you think theatre people will benefit from reading this book?
David Beasley: Very much. They will empathize with someone who loved and developed the craft through riches and poverty, through disappointment and success, and they will eat with relish from the feast of facts placed before them.

Interviewer: Finally, was Rankin the first Canadian actor?
David Beasley: There were others before him. For instance, Simcoe Lee was acting professionally in Toronto when Rankin was in amateur theatre there. But Rankin was the first truly great actor to come from Canada. He had to go to the States to become great, however.

Actor's biography provides a snapshot of 19th century theatre.

As the summer theatre season in Niagara is celebrated, there comes a well-documented biography of one of the few Canadian actors to enjoy success in the North American theatre during the last decades of the 19th century.

Simcoe author David Beasley has produced a fascinating account of the halcyon days of American theatre as exemplified through the career of McKee Rankin, dedicated actor, manager, writer, director and theatre owner. From his early days as an actor, when he ran away from school at 16 to join the Metropolitan Theater in Rochester, to his death in 1914, Rankin ran the whole gamut from critical acclaim and financial security to empty theatres, the breakup of his marriages and debt-driven poverty. Through the marriage of one of his daughters, he was connected to the great Barrymore family, but his name has not survived with the same resonance.

McKee Rankin and the Heyday of the North American Theatre is a detailed survey of Rankin's tangled, fervent life, paralleled by the changes that took place in entertainment from 1860 to 1910. Important changes that, spurred by social and economic conditions, continued apace as motion pictures and home entertainment almost supplanted the live theatre. Beasley writes with extreme thoroughness; this is not a book you will read quickly, or at even three or four sittings, but it has a momentum and interest that will call you back; almost like reading another instalment of a serial. More than 400 pages of the day-to-day business of being an actor and an actor-manager are followed by 60 pages of extensive notes. Of primary interest to theatre people, it will be read as an extensive cultural, social and personal document.

Born near Windsor in l844, Rankin was the son of Colonel Arthur Rankin, a military man, politician and independently minded entrepreneur, and Mary McKee, whose great-grandmother was a Shawnee woman. Rankin was proud of his native heritage, and used it to create realistic roles that rose above the stereotypical.

He was educated partly in England and later at Upper Canada College, where it was noted he was not a good student. Rankin's first foray into the theatre was cut short when his parents demanded his return home. For a short while he worked unhappily as a civil servant in Quebec City before applying for a commission in the Union Army. When his intended regiment was decimated in the Second Battle of Bull Run, this removed his parent's final opposition to the theatre and Rankin headed to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he began what was to blossom into an extraordinary career, as a "walking gentleman" at $10 a week.

These were the days when actors and companies criss-crossed the states with exhausting regularity; when "on the road" was experienced more often than "on stage." One week they might be in New York, the next in Kentucky, the following week San Francisco. Frequently actors moved between theatres in the same city. Burlesque followed drama, to be succeeded by opera, which gave way to vaudeville or sensational melodrama. It was a time when 13 nights was considered a long run, when rehearsals were infrequent and actors had two or three days to prepare a new role. Rankin learned on his feet, studying established actors, refining their styles and creating his own, to become a superb character actor. Totally committed to the theatre, but always looking to new developments, he directed a motion picture version of The Danites, one of his biggest successes, and was negotiating another movie project the year before he died.

Many plays presented in the North American Theatre of the time were adaptations of European successes. Some plays, now sunk into oblivion, had titles such as Everybody's Friend, Black-eyed Susan, Peep O'Day and The Runaway Wife. Rankin also presented and acted in Shakespeare, Restoration comedies and plays by Dion Boucicault. He appeared in Canada in Toronto, Montreal and Hamilton early in his career and between 1900 and 1905 toured Australasia and South Africa, often keeping just one step ahead of his creditors.

Described as "tall and manly with a natural grace of movement and a musical flexible voice," it was little wonder he was often romantically involved with his stage ladies. Rankin married twice, both times to actresses, apparently committing bigamy.

Beasley obviously enjoys his research, often digging up obscure facts, which flourish under his keen attention, and, in this book, keep the reader's attention. Born in Hamilton, Beasley is descended from the city's first settler. He has written novels, non-fiction, travel and biographies. One of the latter includes a biography of Major John Richardson, Canada's first major novelist.

Joanna Manning. - From the Welland Tribune and the St Catharines Standard

"This book's strength is its recounting of America's theater history during a time of extraordinary change. Through the lens of Rankin's career, which included minstrel shows, various forms of melodrama, the Shakespearian revival, vaudeville, and motion pictures, Beasley demonstrates shifts in popular taste, how the theater responded to the audience's needs, how actors got their training, what an actor's life was like, and the economics of late 19th-century theater."

Library Journal Review


David Beasley. McKee Rankin and the Heyday of the North American Theatre. Wilfrid Laurier University Press. xvii, 520.

To be a prominent man-of-the-theatre in America between the Civil War and the First World War was to be at both the heart and the margins of a burgeoning public culture. The life of Canadian-born McKee Rankin, matinee idol, character actor, director, playwright, entrepreneur, provides a fascinating model of this duality. Born in 1844 on a border, near Windsor, Ontario, facing Detroit, while his father was in England promoting a Wild West show, Rankin straddled geographical, national, and ethnic borders as well as tuming points in social and political history. Part Shawnee, Rankin played not only ethnic roles (Native, Irish, Arab, Jewish, Chinese) in burlesque houses and vaudeville but also romantic leads in Westerns such as his principal vehicle, The Danites. Rankin turned to theatre instead of enlisting in the Union Army in 1863. Three years later he ran into the actor John Wilkes Booth shortly before Booth assassinated President Lincoln in a theatre. After the murder Rankin became possessed of Booth's wardrobe.

David Beasley's biography presents the intense, if self-sabotaging, Rankin in copiously detailed terms. Yet despite lists of nearly every performance, and legal and financial imbroglio, and speculations about a wide range of personal experiences, Rankin himself remains a curiously elusive figure. Beasley is consistently sympathetic to, if not apologetic for, his subject though he provides both flattering and unflattering accounts of Rankin's character. But Rankin was embroiled in one court case after another, one financial disaster (or scam) after another. 'I have met many deadbeats in the world,' said one of his business partners, but Rankin is the biggest of the lot.'

Rankin's life with women was similarly fraught. Though it was often unclear when he was married or to whom, he and his wife and fellow-actor Kitty Blanchard 'would come to symbolize to Americans the ideal married couple in the theater.' That Rankin would come to be such a symbol was especially ironic given that, as the critic Amy Leslie wrote in 1914, 'He was constantly in trouble with one woman or another. Not that he ever ... let any of them worry him in the least, but he seemed to have a faculty of making grief and mouming and misery for them.' The fourth chapter of the book is devoted to Rankin's protegee Nance O'Neil, to whom he was, many contemporaries claimed, a Svengali. Together they toured not just the United States but also Australia, New Zealand, South Africa during the Boer War, Egypt, and the East African Coast, where they played not only La dame aux camélias but also Hedda Gabler. The nature and reasons for Rankin's hold over O'Neil are murky. And though the chapter is titled 'The Reign of Nance O'Neil' with melodramatic subtitles, such as 'Star Rising,' it is also unclear just how great O'Neil's stardom was or to what degree she was handicapped by Rankin's possessiveness.

What kind of actor was Rankin? Beasley acknowledges that Rankin was 'not a great actor.' Yet, he says, Rankin 'initiated the quiet, restrained quality of acting on the American stage, which soon took over the New York theaters,' a claim that is later contradicted, for Rankin was commonly said to have played 'in the old demonstrative style.' The trouble is that it is difficult for a reader to steer through the evidence to form an accurate assessment of various aspects of Rankin's life and work. Indeed, it is hard to tell just what audience this book is intended for. Academics will not find it a work of sophisticated historiography, but the causal reader will not find in the book a clear and compelling narrative. Oddly, the most authoritative voice on Rankin to emerge from these pages is that of Amy Leslie, who is given the book's last word. The value of Beasley's work is that it is a mine of information about an extraordinary person. Rankin was connected with most of the major names of American popular culture of his day, working with Forrest, Boucicault, Jefferson, Daly. He was especially intimate with the Barrymores (his daughter married Lionel) and embroiled with Belasco and the Shuberts, with whom he feuded financially. D.W. Griffith, who began as a young actor in Rankin's company, made one movie from a play, Judith of Bethulia, that he saw staged by Rankin, who was expert in directing crowd scenes. Rankin's plays were attended by the likes of Brigham Young (surrounded by forty of his children). And Rankin performed around the globe for cosmopolitan audiences and audiences who brought their guns into the theatre. The book never explicitly justifies its title The Heyday of the Americar Theater, which appears again only in the book's epigraph, but McKee Rankin justified it in his life. A hard-living huckster, who made his living by the force of his personality in a historical moment when actors had to face their audiences, he died in 1914 with the dawn of motion pictures.

Alan Ackerman


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