Days Past: Operetta in territorial Prescott, Part I
It was Christmas Eve, 1879, and at the Prescott Theater a rowdy mix of miners, merchants, lawyers, judges, soldiers, saloonkeepers, and refined ladies were packed shoulder-to-shoulder as conductor Fr. Heydenrich raised his baton and Fort Whipple's 12th Infantry Band struck up the opening strains of the overture.
"H.M.S. Pinafore" was about to take Prescott by storm, and the audience must have erupted into cheers when the sensational Pauline Markham stepped out on stage as Josephine, the lass who loved a sailor.
Prescottonians were used to local productions of melodramas and farces by Fort Whipple and Prescott amateurs, but never (no, never) had they experienced the thrill of Gilbert & Sullivan's sublimely silly operetta and the presence of a renowned burlesque star in their midst.
Nearly every one of Prescott's some 2,000 inhabitants must have attended at least one of the dozen or more performances between Dec. 24, 1879, and Feb. 20, 1880. An additional incentive was the chorus of sailors and the bevy of beauties who made up the sisters and the cousins and the aunts of the Right Honorable Joseph Porter - all of them local singers whom Miss Markham had recruited and trained to support her little traveling company.
Apparently having originated in San Francisco, this production of "Pinafore" came to Prescott via Tombstone and Tucson, where it had been a big hit. The cast included New York-born actor Joseph Dauphin as Admiral Joseph Porter and high baritone Harry Carpenter as Josephine's father Captain Corcoran, who wishes to marry off his daughter to the Admiral, a ridiculous social snob who has risen from office boy to Ruler of the Queen's Navy by sitting at a desk and doing nothing. Tenor Frank Roraback played Josephine's beloved sailor Ralph Rackstraw, who languishes for love above his station. Carpenter's wife Emma was Poor Little Buttercup, who nurses a secret love for Captain Corcoran, and Mrs. Snedicker was Cousin Hebe. Charles Burton played the comic villain Dick Deadeye, and "our young friend H. Campbell" (a local actor) played the Boatswain.
It was a cooperative professional and amateur event in which the citizenry could take enormous pride. Pauline Markham already had a nationwide reputation as a burlesque songstress, most recently appearing in San Francisco with Lydia Thompson's British Blondes. She often appeared on stage and in racy publicity photos wearing a corset and pink tights: shocking attire for the 1870s. Her extraordinary talent and singular beauty, not to mention her notorious love life, made her a genuine celebrity. She had even published her autobiography and a book of her most famous songs. While in Prescott she disappeared mysteriously, arousing speculation of foul play. In fact, she was hiding from her husband - Col. McMahon, who had been arrested in May 1879 in Chicago for embezzlement - with Prescott's beloved Dr. Ainsworth, with whom she was having an affair.
Pauline Markham had other short operettas in her repertoire. She treated local audiences to lively performances of "The Rose of Auvergne" by Offenbach, "The Dr. of Alcantara" by Julius Eichberg (the founder of the Boston Conservatory of Music), and "Jenny Lind at Last" by Angus P. Reach. She also appeared in J.R. Planche's musical vaudeville, "The Loan of a Lover," and Thomas Haynes Bayly's musical burletta, "The Swiss Cottage." Prescott fell so in love with her that she and her little troupe stayed for nearly six months, performing with local amateurs in one-act farces. Between plays, she warbled some of her greatest hits. When her tenor left the company for another engagement, Pauline herself donned bell-bottomed trousers and assumed his role as Ralph Rackstraw in "Pinafore." She recruited two sopranos - Annie Carpenter (the niece of Prescott's amateur leading lady, Anna Fitch) and Carrie Wilkins (the ward of Charles Beach, editor of the Arizona Weekly Miner) - to replace her as Josephine on Jan. 15 and Feb. 20, respectively. It must have involved some transposing of the tenor's music to suit Miss Markham's range. When she finally left for New York in June 1880, her costars Joe Dauphin and Harry Carpenter decided to take up residence in Prescott and make themselves rich in the mining business. Prescott welcomed them with open arms.
It didn't take Joe Dauphin long to become the guiding light of the local amateur theater. In March 1881, he revived "The Rose of Auvergne; or, Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth," with a new amateur soprano, Miss Jessie Stevens, sister-in-law of the architect of the Prescott Theater. Jessie played Fleurette, the lovely young landlady of a French tavern, who is trying to decide which suitor she should marry: Alphonse the shoemaker (Joe Dauphin) or Pierre the blacksmith (Harry Carpenter). While each has his charms, Pierre proves to be insanely possessive and, in a fit of jealous rage, smashes Fleurette's dinnerware, flings the chairs around the dining room, and storms out of the tavern. That does it! Fleurette chooses the milder-mannered Alphonse. Pierre returns shortly to apologize for his rough behavior, replaces the dinnerware, and promises to be the godfather of the couple's first child. Offenbach decorated this scraggly little Christmas tree of a plot with bright ornamental arias, duets and trios.
In January 1882, Dauphin revived "H.M.S. Pinafore" with Jessie Stevens as Josephine, "the fairest flower that ever blossomed on ancestral timber," and newcomer John Edward (Baldy) Brown as Ralph. A New Yorker by birth, Brown had served in the military since age 12 and was a Civil War veteran. One of General Crook's trusted scouts, he fought in campaigns against the Apaches. While at Fort Whipple he performed with the Whipple Amateurs, drawing praise for his rendering of the character song "Pussy Ebenezer" in November 1872. He worked with Sam Hill in Prescott at the tinner's trade and was an active firefighter with the Dude Hose Co. No. 2. As an amateur actor, he first appeared in the Prescott Dramatic Club's production of "Damon and Pythias" in 1880. Joe and Harry Carpenter played their old roles of Porter and Corcoran, while Miss E.W. Irish sang the role of Little Buttercup, the foster mother who mixed up Ralph Rackstraw and Captain Corcoran when they were infants. She now reveals that the true aristocrat is Ralph the sailor, while the Captain is in fact a commoner, sweeping away the impediment to Josephine and Ralph's marriage. Fred C. Clarence made his singing debut as Dick Deadeye. Brown was suffering from a severe cold and so did not do justice to his role, but Jessie Stevens was in good form and "entranced the audience by her pathetic rendition of the more affecting parts."
Just a few months later, Dauphin revived "The Rose of Auvergne," along with Frank Walker's "Penelope; or, The Milkman's Bride," at the Prescott Theater (March 1882). Walker's operetta, published in New York and Chicago in 1878, is a sort of musical hybrid: a pastiche of arias, duets, and trios purloined from such varied composers as Mozart, Offenbach, Flotow, Martini, Balfe, Glover, Pinsuti, MacFarren, and Freeman, capped off by a Quintette Finale from Herve's operetta "Chilperic." Walker simply wrote new lyrics to fit his original plot, which bears a remarkable resemblance to that of "The Rose of Auvergne." In this case, Penelope (Jessie Stevens), the kitchen wench and cook, is being courted by not two but three different suitors: Chalks the milkman (Harry Carpenter), Pitcher the policeman (Joe Dauphin), and Tosser the grenadier (Fred C. Clarence).
The local critics raved. "Jessie Stephens more than astonished her most ardent admirers in her roles of Fleurette and Penelope. Nothing like her sweet warbling was ever before heard by an Arizonan audience. Her acting, strategic maneuvers, everything, were natural, and, of course, graceful. We would not trade her for any professional star now in the operatic firmament." As Mrs. Croaker in "Penelope" (the mezzo role), Miss Irish "was of the first order. In her Prescott has another musical treasure." As for Harry Carpenter, "we never, until last night, received a correct assay of the vocal treasures that have never yet failed to come from what may be termed his artesian well of soul enchanting music. His fine voice, his earnestness, his plaintive notes would charm the heart of an Indian Agent." And Joe Dauphin, "always a ledge of goodies, sweets and comicalities, filled his Obill' to perfection" (Miner, Mar. 18, 1882). "Penelope" was such a hit that the singers revived it on April 11, 1882.
Tomas P. Collins is a volunteer at Sharlot Hall Museum and author of the newly release book "Star-Struck Settlers in the Sun-Kissed Land: The Amateur Theatre in Territorial Prescott, 1868-1903," which can be purchased in the Sharlot Hall Museum Store in the historic Bashford House.