RICHARD GOLDEN IS NO MORE,” announced a Bangor Daily News headline on Aug. 11, 1909. “Famous Comedian Died Suddenly in New York Tuesday — Creator of ‘Old Jed Prouty’ and Long an Ornament of the Stage.”
Such is the nature of celebrity that Richard Golden “is no more” even in modern history books. The creator of Old Jed Prouty, a name associated today only with an old inn in Bucksport, has disappeared from the list of Maine notables. Golden performed on a world stage in his day. Even as his career was in decline, his comic skills were in demand in theaters in America and Europe. When he died at age 56 a century ago this month, he was on break from a production in England.
The Bangor papers followed his doings closely. These items from their pages give some idea of what Golden did after his Jed Prouty days. He starred in “Commonsense Brackett” in 1904 in New York. During that same year, he appeared in Portland and other cities in a vaudeville sketch titled “Old Jed Prouty in Boston.” He appeared in New York in “The Bad Samaritan” as Uncle Ike that fall. In 1906, he appeared in a musical comedy called “The Tourist.” He was “Poor John” in Chicago and other cities in 1907. He adapted one of famed Maine writer Holman Day’s short stories, “The Case of Divorce,” for vaudeville in 1908 in Indianapolis and Boston. Then he was off to England, where his performance in “The Dollar Princess,” a German opera, became popular.
No matter where he went or what he did, however, the press clippings always contained the same bit of information. Richard Golden was the man who created Old Jed Prouty. He wrote the play with William Gill and then made it famous with his performance as Old Jed. It was a legacy that must have both helped and limited his career. Even his obituary in the Bangor Daily News made Old Jed the centerpiece of his life.
“Golden’s greatest success, and the play and character by which he became known to millions and will be best remembered by the public was Old Jed Prouty, a pastoral comedy of his own creation depicting life in rural New England with Bucksport, Maine as the … chief scene and a quaint old tavern keeper said to have once thrived in the river town as the central character. It
has been said that Golden drew this character from life, but whether he did or not, it surely was a most appealing photograph of a rugged and lovable old man, whose good heart, picturesque manner and quaint humor, as portrayed by Golden’s art, made such a happy impression all over the country,” said the newspaper. Beginning in 1889, Golden played the part for more than a decade — nearly 3,000 times.
Providing a synopsis of Golden’s life is more difficult than determining the origins of Old Jed Prouty. Various published accounts disagree on his birthplace and report events in his career with great vagueness and contradiction. I pieced together this account from the Bangor newspapers at the time of his death as well as other published reports if they had a ring of credibility.
Golden was born in Bangor on July 6, 1854, the son of Patrick and Matilda G. Golden. His father, an Irish immigrant, was the proprietor of a dry goods and millinery store on Main Street where Golden clerked as a boy.
Frank H. Davis, a columnist for the Bangor Daily Commercial, made a stab at Golden’s Bucksport connection in a column on Feb. 17, 1938. He wrote that Golden’s father was a contractor. He had a contract to build part of Fort Knox. While this work was going on, the Goldens lived across the river in Bucksport. He also relates that Golden’s birth name was Frank J., (but that his nickname was Dick). This was the same name as his nephew, Bangor police Inspector Frank J. Golden, who gave Davis much of the information for his column.
Richard Golden’s experiences in Bucksport included a job as a clerk at the Robinson House, which was renamed for Jed Prouty years later after the famous play, according to Philip W. Buxton in a story in Down East magazine in the winter issue of 1955. Whether Old Jed was modeled after the proprietor, James Moses, or some amalgamation of people is a matter of speculation.
There are many other stories about Golden’s career. As a boy, he was locally famous as an amateur minstrel. He joined the circus at age 13. He first performed onstage in Newport, Maine. He played the hind legs (or front legs, according to some reports) of a dancing heifer in “Evangeline,” a popular play in the 1870s. He achieved success in light opera, stage comedies, burlesque and vaudeville. He was married twice, once to Dora Wiley, known as “the sweet singer of Maine.” They had a daughter, Bernice, who was a professional actress. Much was made in the newspapers of her appearance on May 19, 1908, in “Brown of Harvard” at the Bangor Opera House.
Golden reportedly maintained his ties with Bangor. An editorial writer for the Bangor Daily News summed up some of his personal qualities in a piece on Aug. 20, 1909, after the actor had been buried at Mount Hope Cemetery: “While the successes of Richard Golden far outnumbered his failures as a playwright and an actor, there was never any failure in Dick Golden as a man. His personality was not only a delight to those who knew him, but nowhere in all of his long career did he acquire that ‘case of big head’ which has proved fatal to so many promising actors. … He knew his limitations and recognized them with increasing accuracy. Off the boards with those who knew him and liked him his homely humor and strange conceits were as warming as a fire kindled among hardwood logs in mid-winter.”
Dick Shaw and Gerry Spooner contributed information for this column. A collection of Wayne E. Reilly’s columns titled “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire” is available at bookstores. Comments about this column may be sent to him at email@example.com.