Before radio and television and the rise of talking movies, major celebrities visited Bangor and other small cities in surprising numbers. The stars who showed up in late October and early November 1913, a century ago, demonstrated that the Queen City of the East was hardly the remote place some people imagine. The rich array of famous actors, great musicians and celebrity lecturers who came to town that fall is astonishing by today’s standards.
Helen Keller and her teacher, Mrs. John Macy, the former Anne Sullivan, addressed 1,500 people in the auditorium at City Hall on Friday, October 17.
Afterwards, the Bangor Daily Commercial called it “perhaps the most remarkable lecture ever given in Bangor’s City hall.” Reserved seats to the event, sponsored by the Bangor Teachers’ Club, cost 50 cents and 75 cents. Keller is still so famous today that no more needs to be said.
On Wednesday, Oct. 22, famous band leader John Philip Sousa and his band performed on the stage of the Bangor Opera House. Only three-fourths of the seats in the theater were filled, and Sousa, who had played in Bangor about a dozen years before, “looked a trifle old,” declared the Bangor Daily News.
But after hearing a “fantastically varied” program “ranging from Rubinstein to that pleasing vaudeville tit-bit, Snookeyookums,” besides many of Sousa’s own famous marches, the newspaper declared the concert to have been “unquestionably the finest of its kind given here in many a day.”
A few days later on Monday and Tuesday, Oct. 27 and 28, Peggy O’Neil and “a brilliant metropolitan cast” appeared on the same stage in the Broadway hit “Peg O’ My Heart.” This was O’Neil’s breakthrough hit.
She wowed the crowd in Bangor.
“If Miss O’Neil can keep her pretty head from being turned by flattery of sincere praise, she should rise very high someday,” declared the Bangor Daily News.
Later, a popular song was written about her, and it’s said she performed in the first television broadcast in England. Today, she has been largely forgotten, the fate of so many stage actors who did not establish successful movie careers.
The Maine Teachers Association held its annual convention in Bangor at the end of October, bringing two famed lecturers with it. Both John Kendrick Bangs and Jacob Riis had spoken in Bangor on previous occasions.
Bangs, a distinguished magazine editor, author and satirist, lived in Ogunquit. A well-known speaker in his day, he has been forgotten today. His post-banquet talk, which lasted an hour and a half and did not end until midnight, consisted of “a series of delightfully intimate, smoothly polished sketches” of men of letters whom he had known including Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain.
Riis is still well known today thanks largely to school books that mention his background as an immigrant who climbed the ladder to success. He became a crusading journalist and photographer. His books on the squalid conditions in New York City slums were famous.
In Bangor a century ago, he urged teachers to stay up to date. He chided teachers “who know all about the authors of the Elizabethan Age, yet teach that the splendid, virile writings in American newspapers of today may corrupt one’s literary style; who can name the actors in the old Greek amphitheaters, but who never heard of George Arliss.”
George Arliss, in fact, was scheduled to star at the Bangor Opera House that same evening, Saturday, Nov. 1, in “Disraeli,” the role that became identified closely with much of his career. Years later, after starring in the film version of the play with sound, he became the first British actor to win an Oscar.
After noting that the subject matter of the play — a British prime minister — was of little interest to most Bangoreans, the critic for the Bangor Daily News declared Arliss had transformed the “dry bones” of the story into a tale of glamour and intrigue. Arliss “is more than an actor of the first rank — he is a consummate genius.”
The critic also noted that in Lewiston, the play had attracted only “half a house,” while in Bangor, “it drew two audiences that jammed the Bangor Opera House to its doors.” Bangor journalists always tried to give the city a pat on the back for cultural achievements.
There was plenty more of this type of entertainment to come. A series of four lyceum performances were scheduled to begin Nov. 5 and end in February 1914. The speakers included Dr. Harvey W. Wiley, known as the “father of the Pure Food and Drugs Act,” which became law in 1906, and Champ Clark, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The final event in the series was a production of “The Merchant of Venice” by a famous Shakespearean company. The newspaper advertising said it was “a course conceived for the entertainment of ladies and gentlemen of culture and discrimination.”
Other events that fall included the Maine Music Festival, an annual extravaganza held in the Bangor Auditorium that featured some of the most famous opera singers in the world.
The Bangor Opera House promised a Broadway play written by Owen Davis, the accomplished “Bangor boy” who won the Pulitzer Prize a few years later for his playwriting skills.
This was truly the golden age of entertainment in Bangor. With half a dozen theaters as well as several auditoriums such as the old wooden Bangor Auditorium, which sat near where the new Cross Center stands today, there was something for everybody.
While Bangor’s upper crust flocked to see George Arliss on stage at the Opera House, folks with less refined taste were sitting in Bangor movie houses enjoying “In the Clutches of the Ku Klux Klan” at the Palace and “The Taking of Rattlesnake Bill” at the Nickel. They were watching Ricci’s Italian Saxophone Four and Mme. Busse and her Wonderful Toy Terriers at the city’s premier vaudeville house, The Bijou, while upper-class folks dreamed of hearing opera diva Lillian Blauvelt and other famous stars at the Maine Music Festival in October and again in November.
This wealth of live entertainment — something for everybody — would last only a few more years until movies, radio and television took over.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. A new book of his columns, “Hidden History of Bangor: From Lumbering Days to the Progressive Era,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at email@example.com.