Originally Published: November 1, 2015 6 a.m.
One of the great "firsts" in the history of the performing arts in Prescott was the visit of Nellie Boyd, queen of melodrama and the first legitimate dramatic actress to grace the boards of the Prescott Theatre on Alarcon Street. The Nellie Boyd Company, having traveled 140 miles by stage from Phoenix, opened on Christmas Eve 1880 with Fanchon the Cricket and stayed almost through the second week of January 1881. They gave seven performances per week, packing the house with both worshipful enthusiasts and disrespectful rowdies.
A stage-struck Chicago girl, born in 1848, Nellie Boyd claimed that she was educated in a convent and left it for the stage, "and never for a moment have I regretted the step." She began as a soubrette (a comic character), and dancing was her "specialty." By 1869, Nellie had graduated to leading roles. Ten years later, she formed her own company, touring the Midwest and adding a tour of the western frontier in 1880-1881. She braved the wilds of Arizona with a supporting company of six men, four women, a child and a small brass band.
Knowing how the American public paradoxically worshipped actors yet held them in disrepute, Nellie insisted on upright moral behavior within her troupe. She even brought a chaperone for herself, Miss Maggie Boyd, a character actress and Nellie's aunt. Those who violated Nellie's moral code were fired.
Nellie's repertoire included over 20 melodramas and comedies, performed with minimal scenery. Often the lack of appropriate stage settings marred her productions. She had to rely on a few stock settings and probably played many scenes in front of a curtain instead of painted scenery. The costumed actor was perforce the focus of her shows.
The second Prescott performance (Christmas Day 1880) was East Lynne; or, The Elopement, starring Miss Boyd. The Miner found the play "highly interesting and affecting." Miss Boyd "acquitted herself admirably, and the performance was highly satisfactory in every particular, save the disturbance between acts committed by some of the nice young men who seem to forget themselves entirely. However, this is not likely to occur again, as the Sheriff of the County has been asked to be present and preserve order."
Two of Nellie's biggest hits were melodramas set during the French Revolution: The Two Orphans and A Celebrated Case. There was surely a method in her madness, for she could utilize one set of costumes for both plays, reducing the amount of luggage she had to transport.
The role of Louise, the blind girl in The Two Orphans, afforded Nellie Boyd the chance to chew some scenery. Her depiction of Louise's agonies was described in the Tombstone Daily Nugget as "wonderfully and painfully realistic," and the Arizona Daily Star commended her acting as "so natural and true and to bring tears to the eyes of many of the fair as well as of the sterner sex."
In some instances, Nellie Boyd (perhaps without permission) retitled plays to make them sound more sensational. A case in point was Bartley Campbell's Fate; or, a True Woman, played by Nellie's company as A Case for Divorce.
On Jan. 11 the company offered the dramatic hit of the century, Uncle Tom's Cabin. With such a small acting company-six men, five women, and one child-and little scenery, they could scarcely have done the epic drama full justice. Boyd would have presented a scaled-down version of the play, each actor playing multiple roles. The same would have been true for their presentation of The Octoroon.
The daily business of the ongoing 11th territorial legislature, outlined in exhaustive detail, preempted proper newspaper coverage of Nellie's plays in January. But more significant than the repertoire was Nellie's acting style, variously described as "natural," "easy and unconstrained," and "true to life." This contrasted sharply with the larger-than-life, unrestrained emotionalism of most actresses in melodramas of the time.
Nellie Boyd was sorely missed when her company departed by stagecoach for Tip Top and Phoenix. Whatever the weaknesses of her acting company and her productions, Nellie satisfied the cravings of Prescott's citizenry for the niceties of Atlantic Coast culture. Her plays provided both moral instruction and thrilling entertainment. She retired from acting to care for her aging mother in Fresno, California, and died in 1909, remembered fondly for her nurturing of theater on the western frontier.
Tom Collins, professor emeritus of theater, is the author of "Arizona on Stage: Playhouses, Plays and Players in the Territory, 1879-1912," released this month.
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