Author brings theater history of Old West to life

Book Review: "Arizona on Stage: Playhouses, Plays, and Players in the Territory 1879-1912" by Thomas P. Collins

Thomas Collins's new book, "Arizona on Stage: Playhouses, Plays, and Players in the Territory 1879-1912," is a marvelously researched and passionately written history of a surprisingly lively era for theater-goers during a period that many of think consisted of gunfights, brothels and saloons. I'm sure the book, with its absorbing stories, historical theater posters, newspaper accounts and actors' photos, will be of immense interest to anyone interested in theater, arts or Arizona history - and will thoroughly entertain and inform anyone who picks it up.

Theaters ranged from the notorious Bird Cage Theater in Tombstone, whose "sensational activities" included "gambling, drinking, brawling, girlie shows, and prostitution," to the Patton Grand Opera House in Phoenix. Most theaters, "grand" or not, were legitimate attempts to bring theater arts to the developing towns, including Prescott, of the still rather Wild West of Arizona. And entertainment-starved citizens flocked to these places to see the plays and famous actors. While Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello never made it past the two opera houses in the lower desert to come to Prescott, the Elks Theater here did host plays such as "Soldiers of Fortune," "Marta of the Lowlands," "The Gold King" and many others.

Collins writes of the lives, works and escapades of many of these early actors and he devotes much of his book to three great actresses who wowed audiences in the Arizona Territory: Pauline Markham, the notorious burlesque songstress; (Mary) Jeffreys-Lewis, the scandalous stage beauty who excelled at playing wicked women; and Sarah Bernhardt, renowned as the world's greatest actress and quixotic celebrity. Collins focuses on their sensational off-stage lives and highlights a few of their greatest roles. He will present a colorful PowerPoint slide presentation at the Peregrine Book Company at 2 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 9, which will bring the great dames and much more of the early Arizona stage back to life.

Reviewed by Susan Lang, Peregrine Book Company event coordinator