Week of December 1st, 1917

 

One hundred years ago this week, the war continued; on the seventh, the United States declared war on Austria-Hungary. Grace Kingsley gave lots of advanced publicity for the biggest war-related event in entertainment:

Today’s the day–Red Cross Day on the Rialto, when benefit performances will be given at all the theaters, with proceeds to go to the Red Cross. All artists, electricians, box-office employees, ushers and stage hands have given their services to the big cause, and according to present signs, a big sum will be realized.

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Trixie Friganza

While everybody did his or her bit, the hardest working supporter was comedian Trixie Friganza. She sold tickets on the street and by telling Kingsley about her adventures, she provided even more publicity for the event. She wasn’t shy about pressuring people to buy. She recounted one particularly disagreeable back and forth:

“Will you buy a ticket?”

“Red Cross?” he inquired.

“Yes,” she said.

“Not a cent’s worth.”

“You’d better go back to Germany,” she told him.

“Wish I could!” he exclaimed.

Friganza assumed he was a German spy, but he slipped away before the authorities could deal with him. She had more success with another customer. Kingsley wrote:

There was an old grouch “with the corners of his mouth dropping down so far he could hitch his socks to ‘em,” as the joyous Trixie put it. “Say, he was one of those people who wouldn’t pay four bits to see the Lord’s Supper with the original cast—I’ll be he wouldn’t pay a nickel for the Resurrection—I smiled and smiled til it hurt, but he wouldn’t come through. But he had a youngster along with him—a boy—and the kid called out right before the crowd “oh, that’s the funny woman that fell off the roof in Canary Cottage. Oh Grandpa, I wanna go see her fall off the roof.” So the old gentleman who plays so close to the vest loosened up and bought like a good fellow.”

Friganza and her bass.

On they day itself, she did double-duty: she headed the bill at the Orpheum’s morning show, then performed at the Mason Operahouse during the evening show. Kingsley had described her act earlier in the week: “Bringing with her her artistic clumsiness and her carefully-arranged wink, Miss Frigzana presents us with an elaboration of her last season’s act, getting started off better than she did last time, as she introduces some very clever new songs, besides comedying with a big bass viol.”

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New York Times, December 6, 1917

Overall, Red Cross Theater Benefit Day was a success. Nationwide, they collected a total of $97,198.20.* The three Los Angeles theaters brought in about $2,900. However, it was a failure in New York City, despite having many more theaters, they raised only about $2,400.** Theater managers there blamed it on poor publicity. I think it was because they didn’t have Trixie Friganza. Kingsley summed up her effect:

Can you imagine our desolation if Trixie were to go off and be a Red Cross or a Blue Star nurse or anything? Why such a catastrophe would be just like taking the vote away from the American people!

 

Kingsley recommended more comedy to help cope with all of the sad news. She advised:

Whatever something-less days you may have this week, be sure you don’t make this your Sennett-less week! Viewing that gloom-chasing burlesque, An International Sneak, the newest Sennett comedy, which is unwinding joyously at the Sennett Theater, one wishes that all solemn clap-trap and buncombe which is place on the screen as “serious drama” were made over into comedies of the quality of this week’s Sennett, which burlesques with boisterous gaiety the spy photoplays which are so prolific now-a-days.

In particular she praised Chester Conklin, calling him “one of the really original and really droll screen actors of the day, and An International Sneak has a hundred funny bits of “business,” with Conklin putting them over in great style.” He had been working with Sennett since 1913 and went on to have a long career, with parts in such diverse films as Greed (1925), Modern Times (1936) and several Three Stooges shorts. He was also part of Preston Sturges’ stock company in the 1940’s.

 

*”Red Cross Appreciative,” Variety, January 17, 1918, p. 8.

** “Red Cross Matinees Fail to Fill Houses,” New York Times, December 8, 1917, p.13.