Poor Eugene Powers. Like most notable actors of yesteryear, he has been forgotten. His memory has been so erased by the cruel passage of time that the keepers of the State House art collection almost forgot who he was, or so it seemed from recent comments in the press, when they “deaccessioned” his portrait, with plans to ship it to the Aroostook Historical and Art Museum in Houlton, the town where Powers grew up.
No one had much good to say about Powers when this deaccessioning affair was announced. The Associated Press noted that with his “sweeping Errol Flynn mustache,” he bore a striking resemblance to Walt Disney. Some folks attributed his fame to a fake English accent. Others said his very existence as a State House wall ornament stemmed from political influence. He was the nephew of popular Maine congressman and governor Llewellyn Powers.
“Powers’ greatest performance could very well have been his ability to remain before a State House audience for more than 60 years,” suggested MPBN’s A.J. Higgins, summing up the situation succinctly.
While Powers was certainly no Fay Davis (who also lived in Houlton) or Maxine Elliott, two of Maine’s most famous thespians, he was an accomplished actor and playwright. Let’s turn back the clock a century to see how he was regarded during one week when he visited Bangor. He was as welcome at the Bangor Opera House as he was on Broadway in those days.
Powers was working with the Klark-Urban Company. During a five-day stay in Bangor beginning Dec. 9, 1907, the company performed several plays written and starred in by Powers. “High class specialty acts” — juggling, illustrated songs, moving pictures and the like — were performed between the scenes.
This was back in the days when Bangor was known as “a show town.” Besides original cast Broadway plays and famous opera stars, it boasted a brand new movie theater and several concert venues. The week Powers performed, De Pachmann, billed as the world’s greatest pianist, was playing at City Hall. Moving pictures, including “Towed by an Auto” and “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” were featured at The Nickel, the city’s first movie theater.
One had to be good to play Bangor and survive the jibes of the Queen City’s sharp-tongued newspaper critics. The Bangor Daily News had clobbered the unfortunate Taylor Stock Company that had preceded Klark-Urban the week before. They “ought never to have been booked for an entire week in the principal theater of a city with a drawing population of 45,000 people. … In some very small country town the Taylor organization might be received with favor, but it proved the weakest, most unsatisfactory apology for even a ‘rep’ show that Bangor has had to endure in a very long time.”
The Klark-Urban outfit had better luck thanks to Powers, “an actor of reputation,” according to the Bangor Daily News on Dec. 9. He was still well-known in Bangor and well-liked from earlier appearances with other companies, the newspaper noted the next day in its continuing coverage.
The day after that, the paper gave a brief review to two plays written by Powers — “One Night in June” and “The Diamond Bracelet Robbery” — both starring the Houlton actor. “They are clever and well constructed little plays, and they reflect credit upon Mr. Powers. The acting was creditable also,” the critic said.
While this sounds a bit like “damning with faint praise” by a Republican newspaper that didn’t wish to offend the powers that be, it should be noted that the Bangor Daily Commercial, the city’s Democratic paper, invested even more space in covering Powers visit, granting him an interview of the sort seldom done for anyone except major celebrities. Perhaps, however, the Commercial was interested primarily in explaining why he wasn’t more famous.
“Mr. Powers has been on the stage for 15 years and has become well known in the theatrical world,” said the newspaper on Dec. 10. He was well-known in Maine and would be greeted in Bangor by many of his old-time friends.
The stage had always attracted him as a boy, but his family was opposed to such a career, Powers told the interviewer. At age 18 or 19, he and some friends put on an amateur production that he had written, and he made $500 performing it all over Aroostook County.
After that, the family withdrew its objections. “I always wanted to be an actor, but all the family said I must be a lawyer. I concluded that there were enough lawyers in the family and after I had written my piece and cleared $500, they decided to let me go,” he told the Commercial reporter.
Powers was probably better-known as a dramatist than as an actor, surmised the Commercial. In fact, he had written nearly all the plays for the Klark-Urban Company that season.
He had once worked for a time with Charles Frohman, the famous theater manager. He “was on the high road to success when he found it would be necessary to give up his contract in order to go out with his own plays in which he had considerable money,” the Commercial concluded on a low note. “He left the Frohman management and although he has been to them several times since, he has never been able to secure what he wanted. While he was with them he made good and had it not been for his money interests elsewhere, he would have probably been a notch or two above his present place in the theatrical world.”
Here’s hoping this time Eugene Powers enjoys a permanent run in his new home.