- The Enchanted Years of the Stage: Kansas City at the Crossroads of American Theater, 1870–1930
Winner of the Theatre Library Association's 2007 George Freedley Memorial Award for excellence in theatre scholarship, this refreshingly anecdotal history of the first golden age of live performance in America's heartland will appeal to interdisciplinary readers both within and outside of the academy. With streamlined endnotes but a thorough bibliography (divided by chapters) and expert archival research undergirding the narrative, Felicia Hardison Londré paints a fascinating portrait of touring theatre culture during the era of big business and Kansas City's coming-of-age as a transportation hub. As a hybrid text featuring occasional excerpts from local theatre critic D. Austin Latchaw, The Enchanted Years of the Stage also comments on the vexing dual role of the archivist as both objective observer and subjective interpreter. We see this quite literally in the sidebars positioned throughout the book that contain parts of Latchaw's "sixty-chapter retrospective," originally published in 1935 in installments in the Kansas City Star. As Londré shares in her acknowledgments, her original intention was to edit Latchaw's observations for publication, acting chiefly as fact-checker and organizer of his chronicle. Although that proposal was "deemed unmarketably dense" for twenty-first-century bookselling, the resulting hybrid Londré forged by incorporating reviews from (and scholarship about) Latchaw's contemporaries is a superior read, insofar as it goes beyond the limits of this Midwestern critic's focus on legitimate theatre to include vaudeville, burlesque, minstrelsy, and other popular fare. Readers will likely welcome the perspective of an experienced historian writing her twelfth book and trust her ability to intervene in the "bendable rules and elastic truth" so common to the period (5). As such, Londré bridges the gap between scholar and librarian; her desire to "set the record straight" (xiii) enriches her poignant plea for better-maintained (and more frequently upgraded) microfilm machines, so vital to the preservation of newspaper reviews and advertisements of historical live performance, especially given the reality of lacunae in archival research (xiv, xv).
Readers will relish the descriptions of Sarah Bernhardt playing at the Convention Hall in 1906 to the world's largest indoor audience for legitimate theatre (a record Londré suspects may still hold today) and of the kind-hearted impresario Abraham Judah's successful management of the popular-priced Grand Opera House, but skeptical readers may question the assertion that "the development of theater in Kansas City exactly parallels that of the [non-New York] American theater as a whole" (1). Because US theatre history typically focuses on Manhattan to the exclusion of Main Street, Londré's latest contribution offers fresh insight into the circuit-driven touring-theatre business that the railroads connecting American hinterlands made possible. While it may be impossible (and ultimately unnecessary) to test the theory that Kansas City was a microcosm of American theatre culture beyond the shadow of Broadway, it is certainly tempting to ask what we learn if we accept the maxim that "the local is indeed the universal" (2) and extrapolate from this book to other cities and their stages. At the very least, American cities appear to have learned from one another's mistakes. For instance, when a fire broke out at Kansas City's Grand Opera House in the month following Chicago's Iroquois Theatre fire, actor-manager Nat Wills kept the audience from panicking and rushing to the doors (as they did to their peril at the Iroquois) while Judah's staff propped open every exit door and Thomas Grady, an actor in the combination company, extinguished the fire. To do so he "grasped the live wire to pull it from the chandelier; he received a shock and his left hand burned to the bone," but his quick instincts saved the stage—not to mention the audience—from being set ablaze (213).
Overall, one can sense Londré's pride in the plucky spirit of Kansas City throughout this...