MY LIFE WITH THE ORIGINAL MARKS BROTHERS
The dazzling Marks Brothers were the greatest impresario-performers of our small-town stage in the era before the nickelodeon. Here their breathless world of Villainy and Virtue is recreated by a leading lady of the troupe and the family
While I was listening to my bedside radio the other evening a singer started hamming the old song. Take Back Your Gold. The studio audience was in fits. ‘Take back your gold, for gold will never buy me." Virtue in spades, all right.
A MACLEAN’S FLASHBACK * BY KITTY MARKS * WITH FRANK CROFT
While I was listening to my bedside radio the other evening a singer started hamming the old song. Take Back Your Gold. The studio audience was in fits. ‘Take back your gold, for gold will never buy me." Virtue in spades, all right. Today such songs are resurrected strictly for laughs. And although I could laugh with the radio audience, it was with a feeling of guilt. It was like laughing at a dear, simple old lady who had once been your friend, unwittingly making a fool of herself in sophisticated company.
For I used to sing that song, and many like it. such as My Mother Was A Lady and The Black Sheep Loves You Best Of All, and sang them in all seriousness for audiences of fifty years ago and more who took them seriously, just as they took seriously every line of those
old dramas, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, East Lynne
and All For Love. And 1 played in scores of
those “mellerdrammers” to a bygone generation in every kind of house from town halls w'ith barn lanterns for footlights to well-equipped, electrically lit opera houses.
Today 1 am the only survivor of what some have called the most remarkable theatrical family in Canadian history, the Marks Brothers. Throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of this one the Marks Brothers were to the Canadian theatre what the Conacher family has been to Canadian sport.
Five of the seven Marks brothers, including my husband Ernie, left their father's farm near Perth, in eastern Ontario, and one by one formed their own touring companies. This was in the era of stereopticons. burnt leather cushions, cross-channel balloon flights and the eleven-hour day. To the people of the time, starved for entertainment, the Marks brothers brought the latest London and New York plays, often pirated and presented under false titles to conceal the fact. We churned the emotions of rural and
was back east—where else?—at finishing school.
It may have been corny fare, but by the time the last Marks company had folded, in the Twenties, we had served it to an estimated eight million Canadians.
It was. as I remember it, a hard life. On more than one winter's night the male members of the company took turns tending the stoves all night in rooming houses and hotels to keep warm. There was no breakfast in bed—no baskets of roses aw'aiting you in the dressing rooms. I bore Ernie five children and in every case I stayed on the boards until I was seven months
pregnant, and was back again a month after the child was born. The children traveled with us until they were three; then we sent them to a school in Brockville, my home town. It was a life of catching early trains, and often rehearsing in the coaches while the children, ours and those of other members of the company, played in the aisles or slept. Then we would be decanted on a station platform w'here our advance agent awaited us, ready to lead us to the hotel or boarding house he had picked out. Usually there w'as a hasty lunch and then a matinee performance. Right continued on page 58
small-town Canada (and sometimes neighboring states) with Lady Isabel's death-bed scene in East Lynne when she pleads for her husband's blessing ere she dies. Isabel had two-timed husband Archibald in act one; she didn't get the blessing. We stirred them up with Eliza being chased across the ice by at least four and sometimes six bloodhounds, and more than once I have heard sobs come from an audience as Little Eva was borne heavenward by the angels. And, in Always On Time, w>e kept them spellbound when young Molly sat down to regain her father's ranch in a poker game witn the villainous Mexican, Pedro, who had cheated the old boy out of the deed to the ranch while Molly
My life with the original Marks Brothers continued from page 17
wiJRi “Short of murder,” the chief constable said, “Bob Marks and his players could do no wrong”
ifter supper it was back to the theatre jr town hall to prepare for the evening »how. Then, back to the lodgings to >tudy new plays or listen to our stage lirector’s ideas for improving current )nes, until late at night.
No one grumbled. Everyone knew that pay day was as sure with a Marks company as with the civil service, and that many another actor was broke as well as tired and cold. Never, in more than fifty years of trouping, did a Marks
brother fail to meet the weekly payroll. That was a record which was probably unique for the times, and for the size of the companies.
The Marks boys stayed solvent because they always knew their limitations.
They knew they were small-timers, so they stuck to the small-time circuits. None of the brothers attempted to play Montreal or Toronto. They passed up Winnipeg and Vancouver when those cities started to grow.
They played briefly, and rarely, in Hamilton and Ottawa. They were wise enough to leave such places to the big English and American road companies, and stay where they were sure of a welcome.
Our audiences were in towns like Lindsay, Ontario, where I looked over the footlights of the opera house for so many years that I saw children growing up and eventually returning to the theatre with children of their own. Or Campbellton, N.B., where shop girls got to know me so well they'd call me Kitty when I went shopping—not cheekily, just nice and friendly. Things like that paid for all the hard work better than money. In Souris, Man., the chief constable pounded on Bob Marks’ dressingroom door one night after a performance of Under Two Flags and gravely assured him that short of murder he and his players could do no wrong in Souris. And the family knew it had arrived when the Winnipeg Tribune, in 1905, published a cartoon showing Sir Wilfrid Laurier telling a wheat grower what the Liberals would do for him. The farmer is hugging himself with sardonic laughter and gasping, “Sir Wilfrid’s funnier than Tom Marks.”
The bailiff never came
Tom and Ernie were the comedians of the family. The other three. Bob, Joe and Alex, played it straight. All came directly to the footlights from their rocky, pine-covered country on the shore of Christie Lake. Bob was a peddler when he took to the boards, untutored, but with enough savvy to learn quickly how to please bucolic Canadians of the last century. Ernie was learning the cheese-making business when he suddenly found himself on the stage without even having been coached in how to make a graceful bow. Tom abandoned his apprenticeship to a cobbler for the stage. Joe was within six months of his ordination to the ministry when he fell at the same time for the footlights and for Grace Andrews, a dimpled ingenue with Bob's company. Alex, still on the farm, watched his brothers returning for summer holidays in plug hats, patent-leather shoes and diamond rings; then he too stamped the mud off his boots and became an actor.
They may have lacked stage training or, except for Joe, much formal education of any kind. But they all had a gift for play acting and production which got them by the uncritical audiences of their day. And they all had keen business sense. Joe once boasted, “No bailiff ever sat on a Marks trunk, and no bailiff ever shall.”
The brothers were big men. My husband Ernie was just over six feet tall, heavy, dark, with strong features, a slightly jutting chin and lively dark eyes. That description would cover the others, too. They were generally dressed alike in tall hats. Prince Albert coats and broad cravats. Their shoes always shone like mirrors. In a group picture they look as alike as so many wooden
soldiers. Each brother took his company across the country for forty-two weeks every year. In mid-June they would all return to the farm on the shore of Christie Lake as though responding to a migratory instinct. In a barn which they had converted into a rehearsal theatre they would study new plays, plot the coming year’s itinerary, and loaf.
The Marks brothers got their size and complexions from their father. They also got some of their histrionic ability from him. He was a good story teller, and was in demand as a reader. Every week when the Family Herald and Weekly Star arrived, an assortment of six to a dozen neighbors would arrive with it. The neighbors would sit along the porch —or around the kitchen table, in winter—while Tom Marks, senior, read about the latest poultry-fattening method, or regaled them with the current fiction.
When the brothers were bearded, successful men, old Tom Marks’ word was still law around Christie Lake. One afternoon some of the boys were playing croquet. Feeling began to run high; tempers flared and voices rose. The men were unaware of their father, watching from the woodshed doorway. Then, when Dad saw that things might get out of hand, he quietly stepped out onto the lawn. He didn’t say a word. It was just like a strict teacher stepping into an unstaffed schoolroom where the kids have been making high jinks all by themselves. Complete silence. And the game was resumed, quietly.
But it was usually more work than play at Christie Lake. If was there that the groundwork for an entire season was laid and each company would add a dozen or more plays to its repertoire every year. I was quite at home in more than fifty roles before I had been with the family five years. That was nothing. May Belle—she was Bob’s wife—knew more than two hundred roles, any one of which she could step into without a moment of studying.
We had to have a large number of plays. I remember Ernie saying to me, shortly before we closed our company in 1924, “This stuff, Kitty, compared with the great dramatists, is like Tin Pan Alley compared with Beethoven. It's the same old theme in all of our plays, but you have to come up with new variations all the time or the people get tired of it.”
Virtue and villainy were qualities which stood out in most plays of the period like the huge masks of a Mardi Gras parade, caricatured and enlarged beyond resemblance to anything real. But work and hardship came in oversized bundles too. So if an evening at the old opera house, whose Drama and Comedy murals were being slowly blackened by the gas jets, provided the antidote, the mixture had to be a strong one. The Marks companies played it not only heavy, but nice and loud. The people loved it, and them. The sight of a Marks troupe alighting from a train anywhere in the country sent a quiver of excitement through the station loungers equal-
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led only by ttftrexcitement of a circus parade.
Ad libbing was common because so many plays were so much the same. If a player forgot a few lines it was fairly safe to shout, “You’ll pay for this, you scoundrel!” or “Never, never, as long as there is a breath of life in my body!” Or anything similar. But not always. One night in London. Ont., Ernie was playing a lawyer. He was to open the last act with a long plea to the jury.
He was suddenly taken ill. He rose slowly, gazed at us for a moment, ad
libbed, “I’m washing my hands of this case here and now,” and walked off. The rest of us ad libbed the scene back onto the rails so deftly the audience never knew anything had been wrong.
Such resourcefulness wouldn’t have been much use when in Kingston one night about fifty Queen's students came to the opera house with the evening's presentation. Jesse James, committed to memory. The students had a block of seats in the gallery. From the opening to the final curtain they chanted the lines in unison with each member of the cast.
It was unnerving but we stuck it out; and no one asked for a refund at the box office.
Soon after the Kingston experience we were booked to play Cobalt, then a raw young mining town. We were uneasy about going to what we envisioned as a tough, rootin’ shootin’ mining community, especially after what had happened at Kingston. During the first performance coins began to rain down on the stage. It made us uneasy until we realized that it was meant as a gesture of approval. The more open-handed
members of the audience hurried back to the hotel ahead of us and had the bar lined with drinks for the male members of the cast.
Even in small towns, though, there was an occasional snag. At Orillia in 1912 the opera-house manager refused Alex’s company the use of the theatre. "Town hall's good enough for you rubes.” the manager told him. Alex soon discovered that Robert Manteli had been in Orillia playing Julius Caesar and Macbeth two weeks previously. Still under the spell of that fine old American ham. the manager refused to have his boards desecrated by a troupe of Ontario backwoodsmen.
The Marks Brothers not only picked their communities wisely, they also never went over their heads when making up a repertoire. Yet they could appreciate good theatre when they saw it. One summer Joe reported back to Christie Lake after a couple of weeks in New York scouting for new plays. While there, he had seen one of the first North American performances of Hedda Gabler. That evening in the old farmhouse he enchanted the family with his account of the Ibsen classic. "It would be wonderful to play it." he concluded. “It would be wonderful to be able to,” he amended. Then, with a sigh, he asked. “Who’s got the lines for All For Love? I think my gang will study that one next."
In those days I thought of Canadians as one large family and ourselves as members of it on a constant round of visits. The Marks Brothers had become a national institution when I became a member of the family at the beginning of the century.
Playing to farmers who had hitched up in mid-afternoon to make their way over miles of treacherous roads just in time for the evening show, to schoolchildren who had been given a special half holiday to see a matinee, or to townsfolk arrayed in rustling crinoline and biting starch for a night at the “opry house," made you feel you were fulfilling a mission rather than merely doing a job of work.
Life with Daughter
I was fourteen when I first nyt Ernie Marks in Brockville. I was small, auburn haired, blue eyed and vivacious. For several months I had been singing at concerts in and around Brockville. For a long time Ernie pretended to be more interested in my voice than in me. He sent me sheet music from time to time and wrote me encouraging letters about my singing. Then, two years after we first met. he called for me in a hired livery buggy one day and we drove through town. There, driving through the streets of Brockville, at high noon. Ernie proposed to me.
After we were married I sang with his company as a between-acts specialty. After Ernie taught me to dance, my act became a song-and-dance routine. But in less than a year I was one of the players. I played my first role in the old Perth opera house. I had the part of Daughter in Bringing Up Father. It was one of the newer comedies at that time, based on the McManus "funny paper" Jiggs family.
One or more of the brothers had been in the theatre for more than thirty years when I made my debut in Perth. Thentheatrical career started one early autumn day in 1870 at the village of Maberly, near Perth. Bob, aged twenty, was hawking his wares of sewing machines and mouth organs around Maberly, and not selling many. A roving ma-
gician and his ventriloquist assistant were filling the town hall at a dime a head. Bob paid his dime just to find out what King Kennedy, the Mysterious Hindu from the Bay of Bengal, had that enabled him to milk the rustics in a way that Bob. with the latest in German harmonicas and Yankee sewing machines, couldn't. Bob studied the faces of the audience instead of watching what happened on stage, and got his answer. Rural people in that lonely and humdrum age were starving for entertainment of any kind.
After the show, Bob. who had never >o much as given a recitation at a church supper, asked King Kennedy if he could join the troupe. He could add to the variety of the bill by singing, he explained. King Kennedy took him on and the trio worked their way as far as Winnipeg by winter. Early in the spring they went on the Red River by llatboat to Grand Forks. N.D.. offering their show of music, magic and ventriloquism. They played in saloons, tents, churches and town halls. By mid'iimmcr they had split up. for reasons never made clear.
Bob returned to the farm wearing a plug hat. frock coat, a manful attempt at a beard and. greatest of all. a diamond in his silk cravat which made him glow' like a firefly as he strutted along ihe shore of Christie l.ake.
Before the summer was over he had persuaded Tom to drop his cobbler's last and tour the west with him. Tom was a natural comedian. They made up an act:
Tom: "Can't understand that hen of mine. Everytime 1 see her she's sitting on an axe."
Bob: "She's broody, you fool. She's
only trying to hatchet!"
Or. Tom: "So you're a college man. are you?”
Bob: "Yes indeed. 1 have studied
l atin, Greek, geometry and algebra."
Tom: "All right, if you're so smart, let’s hear you say it's a fine day' in algebra."
With a fund of similar jokes culled from old almanacs they set out for the west via Owen Sound. Manitoulin Island (‘where a show put on for the Indians was well received), the Soo and Port A rthur.
They soon saw that a song-and-patter act was wearing thin. On their way back cast, while working through Michigan, (hey hired a handful of U. S. actors and actresses. Each of the two brothers formed his own repertory company and prospered from the start. I think all the Marks brothers were businessmen first and showmen second. They used their heads.
As Joe, Alex and Ernie each left Christie I.akV in turn to play with a Marks company, then form one of his own, they all learned Bob's and Tom’s formula for success in show business. One method w'as to engage players who were good, and would work for a little less than the going wage: these had to be young players on the way up. or older players beginning to slip—though not too noticeably. Another factor was to give .i full evening's entertainment. Every darks troupe offered vaudeville between ¡he acts of the plays*. Joe. for instance, put on a trick cyclist between acts one and two of East Lynne and a contortionist between acts two and three. A Marks Brothers production was busier than a three-ring circus. Ernie ‘nought a cinema projector into the halls and showed The Great Train Robbery between acts two and three of The Orphans. Such tactics paid ofT. In a day when five cents would buy a pound of
the best hamburger, the Marks Brothers were each netting from ten to fifteen thousand dollars a year.
As prosperity increased the brothers sprouted diamonds like lights going on in a building. The men and their wives as well; we all had them, on fingers, arms, watch-fobs —everywhere. Tom wore a triple-stone ring with a five-carat diamond in the middle and a fourcarat stone on each side of it. It was never off his finger, on stage or off. If playing a tramp, a farmer or a copno matter what—the ring illuminated every gesture on stage.
When Ernie and I became engaged in 1900 his parents-gave a reception for us at the farm. They had a huge table in the dining room. About twenty people could sit at it. I can still see the family as I looked down the table that night, and remember being just a little breathless at the glitter of diamonds and other jewelry. It was like a picture you see of an ambassadorial reception, or something. But this was deep in the Ontario hush.
By 1920 time was running out for the Marks Brothers, Impresarios. When my husband Ernie began showing The Great Train Robbery between acts he didn’t know that the movies were going to kill repertory companies, vaudeville, and all but the big-time in live shows of any kind. He realized it soon after, though, for in the early Twenties we left the road and came to Oshawa, Ontario, where we bought the local movie house, which still bears the name Marks Theatre, and settled down to spend many happy years. Ernie was mayor of the city in 1931. He died in 1952. Oshawa is still my home. I have always liked the city.
One by one the other Marks companies went the way ours had. As they said their last lines, most of the Marks brothers returned to the farm to stay. Bob remained on the stage until he was in his late seventies, then retired to Christie Lake. He converted the rehearsal barn into a summer hotel and ran it until he died in 1936 at the age of eighty-six. Joe wound up his company
in the late Twenties, then worked as advance agent for a magician for a number of years. He retired to the farm and died there in 1944 at the age of eighty-two.
Tom also went home to Christie Lake. He turned the old house into a hotel, as Bob had done with the barn, and named it Arliedale after his daughter Arlie, who had been with his company most of her life. Arlie, with her husband Jim Perrin, continued to play repertory in eastern Canada until her death in 1944.
Tom died in 1935 when eighty-one years old. He had always been a comedian whether on stage or off. There is a story that a short time before his death he was walking with Arlie on the shore of the lake. A sudden gust of wind carried Tom’s wig into the water. He strode on without hesitating, and waving to the sinking wig cried, “So long, old top." Arlie laughed dutifully. Her father said, “Thank you, my dear; but what a pity I hadn’t a larger audience for that one.” And being a veteran trouper he probably added mentally, “at half a dollar a head.”
Today, I am kept to my bed much of the time because of illness. But I go out into the world whenever I can to visit my children, and they—and many friends—come to see me. I don’t pore over old scrapbooks. I prefer people, especially young people. I think that the young people today are a credit to the country and the race. They are frank, resourceful and mannerly. And I believe that the world of 1958 is vastly superior to the world of 1908, H-bomb or no H-bomb. 1 wouldn’t swap atomic fallout for the eleven-hour day, the crude medical knowledge, the open saloon and the Dickensian orphanages of half a century ago even if I could get ten-cent beefsteaks thrown in.
But for all that. I must be allowed to look hack wistfully now and again on my earlier days. I had a devoted husband, loving children, and I was doing the work I liked best. For all those I would gladly start my life with the Marks Brothers over again, if