How Donald Brian, Dancing Adonis, Became a Stage Star
A Waltz to Fortune
How Donald Brian, Dancing Adonis, Became a Stage Star
When a lithe, nimble-footed young Apollo set the heads of matinee-goers aichirl with his dancing to the sensuous music of “The Merry Widow,” a new star appeared in the mimic firmament. Donald Brian danced his way to greatness. Ever since he created the role of Prince Dan’lo, Brian has held a first rank among matinee idols; and it appears that he is only at the threshold of his career Donald Brian is a Newfoundlander by birth, so that his spectacular success is viewed with pride on this side of the line.
A CERTAIN audience, with one accord, leaned over in their seats and shook with honest laughter. Which is not so remarkable in itself. Many audiences go to the theatre, for no other reason. And many shake with what they think is honest laughter, when it is not honest at all. Honest in this case meaning natural or spontaneous or —what you will.
But, as a rule, an audience, no matter how unschooled in stage tactics, will never laugh at a real effort to make stage love. Sentiment is a universal attribute, and as such, must not be ridiculed.
That’s the strange thing. For the hero in this instance, had just finished as dainty a ten-minute session of love-making as had ever been seen on any stage. The heroine buried her face in the pads of his shoulder,—likewise a perfectly legitimate bit of behavior on the stage or off. Moreover, the hero was the best known stage hero of to-day, the lion of matinee girls, the Adonis of all preying Venuses, Xantippes or Cleopatras, the dernier mot in afternoon idols, Donald Brian.
Then, why the honest laughter?
Ay, there’s the point.
As a matter of fact, Donald Brian does not altogether enjoy the reputation that his ability has thrust upon him.
On the contrary, he loathes it. For, when one thinks of a matinee idol, one of necessity, thinks of large, liquid eyes, a shock of black, fluffy hair, combed Brandon-Tynanlike back from a noble brow, and a voice to correspond with that nobility. Yes, and more. One thinks of a row of mirrors placed at such angles as will best display the different attitudes of the handsome demigod, to the best possible advantage. And one thinks of scents and gold cigarette cases, and nails manicured to the last point of effeminacy. And of,—
But hold. I am not commissioned to exhaust my vocabulary on a detailed eulogy of the typical afternoon Apollo, as one imagines him. Rather of Donald Brian, the most beloved matinee hero of the day, who, in no way, corresponds with the description which is typical.
And this brings us back to the original sentence. The laugh. Which explanation suffices as an explanation of Mr. Brian’s attitude toward all matinee yearners.
Love Making is Boresome
After he had finished his gruelling task of stage love-making, he forgot, for a moment, that he was living in a mimic world, and allowed his relief to make itself felt in a long-drawn sigh. The heroine, to hide her laughter, hid her head in his shoulder, and shook with a series of unrestrained laugh-sobs. And the audience, hearing the sigh, laughed too. Thus must Donald Brian, the hero of so many debutantes and school girls and school girls’ mothers, have slipped a cog in the revolution of his idolatrous demeanor.
And he was not sorry. For playing the stage hero becomes boresome at times.
Probably it is only early environment, making itself felt, this dislike of mimic ardor. Or probably it is only the natural feeling of man against appearing ridiculous. For where ever dwelt the man who enjoyed making love in public? Romeo didn’t, or Petruchio, or any of the Shakespearean lovers. And coming on down to our own times, amongst the men who have the greatest list of conquests to their credit, neither do Nat Goodwin or
DeWolf Hopper. Probably James K. Hackett enjoys making stage love, but he is a different type of stage demigod. We are now dealing with Donald Brian.
Is a Newfoundlander
And speaking of early environment, it is natural enough to suppose that that might have had much to do with forming his ideas on the subject. St. John’s, Newfoundland, would not naturally suggest a demonstration of one’s abilities at love-making, even on the stage. To speak of St. John’s is to speak of reserve, of reticence in ideas. And St. John’s was the birthplace of this stage idol, just thirty-five years ago.
When he was quite a youngster, he used to spend his days in a machine shop. From eight in the morning till six at night, he worked there, clad in ambition and blue overalls. He used to sing as he worked, which characteristic still clings to him. Only, in those days, he was care free and happy, as only a manual worker can be. For he had not then the cares of a whole continent of amusements seekers to contend with. His greatest ambition was to finish his day’s work, discard his overalls and make himself clean for the evening.
And see him now! His greatest ambition naturally, is to get away from his night’s work, clean off the grease, paint and rouge, the trade mark of every player, forget the atmosphere of the theatre and enjoy a good meal.
Perhaps I should not say that this is his greatest ambition. For in so saying, I wander slightly from the path of truth. In which alleyway anyone of us should shudder to find ourselves.
But all of the above-mentioned list of details is what happens, every night after an exacting three hours of dancing, singing, love-making and the like.
As a matter of fact, he would like to retire to a farm and write plays. And forget all about his dancing and stage capers. This may happen, in five years.
Mingles with Crowd—and Listens
He likes awfully to mingle with the crowds who are his nightly audiences. Walking or trolley riding are the best ways. And very often, almost always in fact, he sits there, as with ears deaf and eyes unseeing, and listens to the com-
ments which are hurled toward him, from every corner of the car.
No, he is not a conceited man. For it is not for pleasant things that he listens. School girls and debutantes, with all the candor that their age allows, express their opinions of their popular idol, in no mild-voiced terms. When the light of the trolley car discloses to them the slightly irregular features of their stage demigod, his small, brown eyes and the scattering of grey hairs around the temples,—ah, when daylight turns its cruel rays on him thusly, great is the consternation in that trolley car. And many and varied are the epithets which are hurled toward the defenceless ear drums.
“Oh, he’s not nearly so handsome off the stage.”
“And his hair is positively getting gray.”
“I’ll bet you he is almost forty. You never can tell the age of actors, by their looks.”
Alas ! The tribulations which attach themselves to the life of a stage hero. Happier far the days spent in the whirring, sweating turmoil of the machine shop in old St. John’s!
Happier far the hours when young Brian sang in the choir of the old home church ! Thrice joyful the moments languished with the fishing line, on the bank of the old creek!
’Tis a hard life, this one of living up to an ideal. And the lithographers will make Donald Brian a great, handsome fellow, with the look in his eye, of the professional breaker of feminine hearts.
Alas, the day when he went to Boston to school, and took up the study of the human voice! Better far to have remained soprano boy soloist in the church in St.
John’s! Better to have left the stage out of his ambitious reckonings. For this same ambition has the habit of leading one into divers places, if one is not strong and mighty in one’s powers of resistance. Donald Brian was never strong and. mighty. Hence the tribulations of his incredible success!
He kept on following in the wake of his ambitions. And he met many obstacles and some successes. First in Boston, the town of his singing studies, he enlisted in the comedy called “Shannon of the Sixth.” And Donald Brian, the unsophisticated professional, with an adept hand for the rabbit’s foot and stick of grease paint. He was only sixteen at the time, according to careful calculation in dates. That was in 1897. Sixteen, with a voice just advancing beyond the boy soprano pipings. A boy at this age feels that he can go out and lay the head of the whole world on a charger. And it is that very feeling that has made governments topple and republics rise out of chaos, the very feel-
ing which has given the scaffold and electric chair any excuse for their respective beings.
Everyone remembers that quaint, oldtime ditty called “On the Banks of the Wabash.” Young Brian’s next step in this weird career he had chosen for himself, was in a comedy which that old song would bring to mind. It had to do with more of that estimable stream than the banks however, and hence was known as “On the Wabash.”
He was getting on. The first thing a
young man learns, when he has begun to “get on,” is the proper color scheme to choose for ties, shirts and socks. Donald already had a penchant for neat knots. This is one of the most necessary requisites for a successful stage appearance. Hence, it may be guessed that the Newfoundland boy was about to place
He remained there, for a season or so. That is, apparently, he remained there. We are taught to believe that one cannot progress by remaining too long in the same niche of success. Donald knew this. Therefore, he studied and planned. Probably, at that time, his ambitions yearned for the matinee idol shrine, who knows? It would only seem natural. For he was still very young.
Well, anyhow, he placed his left foot on the rung, before very long. “The Man from Mexico,” was the helping agent, this time. And he went on studying. He learned, in some inscrutable way, that he was rather graceful on his feet. In a play, one spends much of one’s time on one’s feet. See how logical was Donald’s reasoning? He began to think of dancing that was different. Many dances are different, but one cannot truthfully say that they are graceful. Donald knew this, even at that early stage of the game. And he resolved to learn dances that were both graceful and different.
“The Man from Mexico” was followed by “The New Boy.” This gave young Brian the opportunity of approaching the second rung.
For a young fellow, he did a great deal of thinking. And he began to reason things out for himself. He knew that the Stock School was an exc e 11 e n t training school for young actors. And he decided to benefit by it. So the next season found his name registered in a well-known Stock theatre. And he was not sorry he had registered there. For the end of the season showed that he really had advanced.
He had a good opportunity to put this training into practice the following year, in “The Chaperons.” He had now reached up to about the third rung of the ladder. And the press had begun to notice him. The press is an elusive thing, as fickle as it is elusive. But it did not avoid Donald Brian, and from the first, was less fickle than is its wont.
It was in his work, the next year in “Florodora” that he won the most enthusiastic epithets so far. The public likes “Florodora,” and it liked Donald Brian.
He next took an important part in “Fifty Miles From Boston,” the following season. People back in St. John’s were watching their Donald, and now and then, they received clippings from the papers, saying very nice things about him. And they were naturally quite proud. For it is a strange thing about
Continued on page 111.
Continued from page 34.
humanity that, no matter how opposed it may be to one of its elect few choosing the stage as a profession, it is always loudest in its praise of that same being, once he has begun to make good.
“Little Johnny Jones” afforded young Brian to do some song hits, the next year. Also, he introduced a few of the dances he had been thinking about.
And the study of the dance went on, until in “Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway,” people began to talk. Once people begin to talk, the theatrical magnates think it is time for them to play a new card. Charles Frohman had been watching this graceful, young fellow, for some time. And when Charles Froh-
man begins watching anyone, there is sure to be something brewing.
The Merry Widower
He continued his vigil, all through the next season’s run of “The Silver Slipper,” and when New York received “The Merry Widow” to its theatrical bosom, it was Donald Brian who was chosen to originate the part of Prince Danilo. Great was the enthusiasm of the theatregoers. Long were the press notices. Donald Brian was obliged to hie him to the photographers. Shoals of pictures appeared, of a dashing, young Prince, with a budding mustache. It was then that the letters began to come in, imploring this idol for his autograph. And they were usually answered. It was good for “business.” The autographs were sent, but ten cents was charged for each. Did Donald Brian want the dimes for himself? No, a thousand times, no! He gave them to the Actors’ Fund. And many were the silver bits that dropped into its coffers.
Fame had taken the Newfoundland boy by the hand, and promised never more to let him out of her sight. And the matinee girl outbursts continued, the extravaganzas of description, the exhaustive epithets of admiration. In spite of himself, Donald Brian had become a matinee idol.
And such he remained all through the next season’s run of “The Dollar Princess.” He learned new dances, and cultivated new stage manners. He was growing in favor.
It was the next year, when Charles Frohman was ready to produce “The Siren,” that the young Newfoundlander first saw his name in electrics above the stage entrance. A new star had evolved!
The following summer, the New York papers announced that he had taken a run over to Europe for a short holiday.
Evolved the Futurist Twirl
Holiday? Could any matinee idol ever have a holiday? Never as long as he had a reputation to sustain, such as had Donald Brian. He was studying the new dances of London, Paris and Vienna. And he hurried back to New York, to begin work on the next season’s play. From the fifty dances that he studied there evolved the “Futurist Twirl,” which he dances, this year, in ‘ The Marriage Market.”
Does he dance the tango? No, he does not, or the turkey trot. And he wants to forget that the word “dance” ever belonged to his vocabulary. Which may be sad news for his host of matinee admirers, who indulge so extensively in the latest of Fashion’s dancing decrees.
When his season is over, he runs away to the Canadian woods, where he can boat and fish, to his heart’s content, and the content of his small step-daughter.
Yes, this may be sad news. But it’s true, nevertheless. Donald Brian is a married man.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.