Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

America’s fabled royal family of the theatre, the Barrymores — a name recognized throughout the world by generations of audiences — began its meteoric rise in mid-nineteenth- century Philadelphia. The twentieth-century scions of entertainment — Lionel, Ethel, and John Barrymore — were born in Philadelphia, children of the rapscallion English charmer, Maurice Barrymore (1847–1905) and his equally delightful wife, Georgiana “Georgie” Drew Barrymore (1856–1893). Born Herbert Arthur Chamberlayne Hunter Blyth in India, Maurice Barrymore was witty, handsome, and irrepressible. Several theatre historians believe he chose his new name to avoid embarrassing his sedate parents, William and Matilda Blyth, when he went on the stage. Others contend he enjoyed its romanticism. Whatever the reasons, the twenty-eight-year-old actor arrived in the United States replete with his nom de plume in early 1875.

Among Barrymore’s more notable achievements was winning the light-weight boxing championship of England. He was no dilettante, but he had no training for the stage; to him, acting was an easy way to earn a livelihood. Attractive and congenial, he flourished, particularly in America and, especially, after he married Georgie Drew, daughter of Irish comedian John Drew Sr. (1827–1862), who died when she was a child, and his wife, Louisa Lane Drew (1818– 1897), an actress of formidable strength and character. Upon her husband’s death, and until 1892, Louisa Lane Drew managed the Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia. She was the mother of John Drew (1853–1927), considered the most gentlemanly actor of his day, and Louisa Drew, known as Wisa by family and friends. Maurice Barrymore had married into a family of performers that regarded acting as its chief purpose in life.

Louisa Lane Drew was the center of the family, the intimidating matriarch in whose cavernous house, at 140 North 12th Street, her grandchildren grew up (and where Lionel was born). The children referred to the residence as the “Tomb of the Capulets,” a reference to the crypt where William Shakespeare’s doomed teenage lovers Romeo and Juliet take their lives. Ethel recalled the house in Memories, her 1955 autobiography.

I thought that house in Twelfth Street was enormous — with large rooms and cavernous halls and most alarming echoes. I can see now the Victorian landscapes on the wall, the gold-colored sofa, the music box on the table which Grandmother magnificently wound up so that it might unwind “The Carnival of Venice,” and the square piano upon which were pictures of Edwin Forrest and his wife. There was a sturdy solemnity about the place which made me seem very tiny. Years later when I went back, somehow the house appeared to have shrunk. Everyone has experienced the same thing, I suppose. I sought, with some echo of the alarm I used to feel, for a copy of The Ancient Mariner, once so big that I could scarcely hold it on my lap, but it was only of ordinary size.

But about the house: on the second floor there was the sitting room, then the bathroom, and then the annex, which was our playroom., Then there was the big front bedroom which was a little frightening to pass, for in it dwelt my great-grandmother, who was ninety-five . . . . Then there was the long flight up to the third floor, rather dark at night. I remember Jack being made to go up it alone as a very little boy. As he disappeared in the darkness, he was heard to say, “You can’t hurt me. I have a wonderful power!”

So that was our home when our parents were on the road or in New York, which I’m sure my grandmother spoke of as “out of town.” On the ground floor also was the kitchen, which held charm and mystery for us because we were never allowed to go into it. Such beautiful smells! And soft Irish laughter. We always had Irish cooks and maids — all known as Mary Aggie. I suppose there once had been a Mary Aggie.

At the time, Philadelphia was famous in the world of theatre as a fertile seedbed of actors and actresses. Its theaters — the Chestnut Street, the Walnut Street, and the Arch Street — provided city residents and visitors with entertainment during the nineteenth century, and kept actors, managers, and producers busy until the allure of Broadway captured them. Since Maurice and Georgie were generally in New York or on the road touring, Louisa Lane Drew — a loving, yet domineering grandmother — raised the young Barrymores, who called her Mum Mum. She had arrived in America in 1827 and after a stage career and her third marriage in 1850, to John Drew, began her association with theater management. After her husband died at the age of thirty-four from a fall during a party for six-year-old Georgiana, she became sole manager of Mrs. John Drew’s Arch Street Theatre in 1862. She managed to defy the conventions of the day, which placed actresses barely one step above harlots, and became a respected social figure.

On one occasion while their parents toured with Helena Modjeska (1840– 1909), a Shakespearian actress “of shattering power,” Lionel and Ethel were taken along and happily played with their toys in her opulent private railroad car, the Poland, described as a “miniature palace on wheels.” The unconventional and strong-willed Modjeska profoundly influenced the Barrymores, particularly Georgiana, who was deeply impressed by her Catholicism and converted. Georgie also had Ethel and Lionel christened Catholics. John, away at school, remained an Episcopalian, until he was later baptized Catholic. Ethel attended the Academy of Notre Dame, on Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square; Lionel enrolled in Mount St. Vincent-on-Hudson in New York.

Born in Philadelphia on August 15, 1879, Ethel Mae Blythe Barrymore originally wanted to be a concert pianist and not an actress. Because of her rich theatrical heritage, she felt obligated to follow in her family’s footsteps. She made her inaugural appearance in New York in 1895, performing with her Uncle John in The Bauble Shop, a sentimental comedy produced by Charles Frohman (1856–1915). On February 4, 1901, she opened in Clyde Fitch’s Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines as Madame Tretoni and scored a huge hit. Not long after, Frohman literally put her name up in lights. Her early triumphs with Frohman were largely attributed to her radiant beauty, her famous theatrical legacy, her engaging stage manner, and the right stage roles, chosen for her by Frohman. The greatest impresario of his time, Frohman died in the sinking of the luxury British ocean liner RMS Lusitania by a German submarine.

In her youth, Ethel Barrymore was internationally celebrated for her beauty. She was slender, five feet, six and half inches tall, with brown eyes and brown hair. On screen, she appeared tall and statuesque. She was reported to be simultaneously engaged, at the age of nineteen, to the Duke of Manchester, actor Gerald du Maurier, writer Richard Harding Davis, and British politician Winston Churchill. In 1909, she married Russell Griswold Colt (1882–1959), a Bristol, Rhode Island, socialite and stockbroker. They had three children: Samuel (1909– 1986), John Drew (1913–1975), and Ethel (1912–1977), all of whom pursued acting careers. After several partings and reconciliations, the couple divorced in 1923. She never remarried.

In 1930, Barrymore suffered her biggest stage flop, playing the role of Scarlet Sister Mary in the production by the same name. She and the entire white cast, including her nineteen-year-old daughter, Ethel, appeared in blackface in Daniel Reed’s adaptation of Julia Peterkin’s 1928 novel. She also began appearing more frequently in motion pictures. As she grew older, she played heroines whose ages were nearer to hers. She returned to Broadway in 1940 in her greatest hit, The Corn is Green, a semi-autobiographical play written by Emlyn Williams in 1938. Barrymore portrayed the middle-aged spinster L.C. Moffat, a strong-willed Welsh schoolteacher working in a small poverty-stricken coal mining village. The play ran for three and a half years and 477 performances. She reprised the role in a return engagement in 1943 for fifty-six additional performances. Bette Davis assumed the role in the 1945 film version and also in an ill-fated musical version in 1974 that closed in Philadelphia before making it to Broadway.

When asked about playing opposite Barrymore in The Corn is Green, actress Mildred Dunnock (1901–1991) replied, “She was a star, if there ever was one. I never thought of her as Ethel Barrymore. I always thought of her as Miss Barrymore. I think she was of another kind of theater, than we know these days, another sort of being.” Journalists concurred. After Ethel appeared in Indianapolis in Somerset Maugham’s Lady Fredrick, the local daily newspaper opined: Should men, as in the Pagan Age adore, One goddess would be Ethel Barrymore. While touring, she relished returning to Philadelphia. At her curtain calls, she would invariably come forward and proclaim, “It’s good to be home!” She fondly remembered her native city in her autobiography.

Philadelphia has always seemed to me to have an atmosphere of greatness, perhaps because of Benjamin Franklin, the Continental Congress and the Declaration of Independence. And Philadelphia people always gave one the impression of permanence, of having been there for a long, long time — as of course they have. It took far more than three generations to become an old family in Philadelphia, although three appear to be plenty long enough in most other cities.

She returned to Hollywood in 1944 to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) to appear in None But the Lonely Heart, as Ma Mott, the frumpy mother of Ernie Mott, played by Cary Grant, which won her an Academy Award for best supporting actress. She starred as the leading lady of MGM’s 1951 remake of its 1935 film Kind Lady, in which her character, Mary Herries, is an elderly woman. Barrymore, who appeared in the thriller with Maurice Evans, Angela Lansbury, and Keenan Wynn, played to great popular and critical acclaim.

Frequently suffering bouts of insomnia, she was a voracious reader. She became an avid baseball fan (although she claimed never to have had a favorite team), continued to play the piano, possessed a remarkable memory and, like her brother, Lionel, exhibited a keen sense of humor, although hers tended to be somewhat morbid. While starring in Thomas Raceward’s Broadway comedy, Sunday, she delivered her most famous line, although it was not in the writer’s script. “That’s all there is, there isn’t any more!” she pronounced. It became her trademark farewell at the end of curtain calls, much to the delight of audiences everywhere. Noted for her distinctive voice, with its husky throatiness, she was nicknamed Ethel Barrytone by drama critic Ashton Stevens.

She performed at the age of seventy-one, in 1950, in a benefit for New York’s American National Theatre and Academy. At the fall of the curtain, thundering applause forced her to take several curtain calls. Acknowledging the audience’s acclaim, she quipped, “You make it sound inviting.” They were the last words she delivered on the Great White Way. She retired to Mamaroneck, New York, but died in her sleep at her Beverly Hills residence on June 18, 1959. She is buried with her brothers in Calvary Cemetery, a sprawling Roman Catholic burial ground in Los Angeles.

The oldest of the Barrymore siblings, Lionel was born on April 28, 1878, and educated at Seton Hall, a Catholic school in South Orange, New Jersey. In his 1951 autobiography, We Barrymores, he recalled, “I went to Seton Hall School from the age of ten to fifteen, setting an all-time record, as yet unapproached, for resistance to learning.” Lionel made his first stage appearance in 1894 with his grandmother, Louisa Lane Drew, in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s late eighteenth-century play, The Rivals, he as Thomas the coachman, and she as Mrs. Malaprop, who often misspoke with great comic effect, probably her most famous role. He made his New York debut with his uncle, John Drew, in The Second in Command, in 1901.

Of the Barrymore siblings, Lionel was the one most at odds with the theatre, even though he achieved great success on both the stage and the silver screen. He needed acting, had plenty of talent for it, but he was not a public person. He was happier in private pursuits such as painting, sculpting, etching, composing music, and writing. While flamboyant brother John’s conflict manifested itself in outrageous behavior that became fodder for unflattering newspaper articles, Lionel’s was less discernible. An individual of many talents, Lionel had studied art in Paris and, in 1952, published his first novel, Mr. Cantonwine: A Moral Tale.

In 1904, he had married actress Doris Rankin. They had two daughters, Mary, who died at two, and Ethel, who died in infancy. The couple divorced in 1922 and the following year, he married Irene Fenwick, a well-known leading lady, whom he had met in 1921 while they both acted in The Claw. They were happily married until her death in 1936. Lionel continued appearing on the Broadway stage until 1925, when he finally abandoned the theatre and devoted his talents exclusively to acting in films. In 1926, he signed with MGM, a studio with which he remained associated for the remaining twenty-seven years of his film career.

He continued playing lead roles for several years, but gradually took on character parts in the 1930s and 1940s, establishing himself as one of Hollywood’s foremost character stars and dominating productions with his presence. In all, he played some 250 screen roles of varied character and range. He won an Academy Award in 1931 for his performance in A Free Soul. During the thirties and forties, he was best known for his role as Dr. Leonard Gillespie in the popular Dr. Kildare series. Severe arthritis and a leg injury partially paralyzed him in 1938, but he managed to continue his busy acting schedule even though confined to a wheelchair.

Actor Gregory Peck recalled working with Lionel in 1944 in The Valley of Decision, a motion picture based on Edith Wharton’s 1902 novel, set in nineteenth-century Pittsburgh.

By that point in his life, Lionel was confined to a wheelchair. At the climax of the story, he delivered a tirade to striking steelworkers. The minute we started filming that scene at 8:30 in the morning, Lionel gave it everything he had. He was going all out in the long shots, and in the crowd-reaction shots when the camera wasn’t even on him. Finally, the director, Tay Garnett, said, “Lionel, I may not get to your close-ups until late this afternoon. Take it easy. You’ll give yourself a heart attack.” And Lionel looked up from his wheelchair and snarled, “Well, who gives a goddamn?” Because he was loving going all out; he was loving giving a bravura performance. Nothing could hold him back. You can’t not learn from old pros like that!

He appeared to be gruff and hardened, but to those who knew him well, he was a gentle, kindly man and tolerant of everything, except stupidity. Friends and intimates appreciated his fine sense of humor. When he and his siblings attended their father’s funeral in 1905, one of the straps holding the coffin became twisted as it was being lowered into the ground. The casket needed to be raised and as it reappeared, Lionel nudged his siblings, “How like father — a curtain call!” In the 1950s, he moved to a rambling farmhouse in Chatsworth, California, where he died on November 15, 1954. His films included David Copperfield, The Little Colonel, Captains Courageous, Saratoga, A Guy Named Joe, It’s A Wonderful Life, and Key Largo. In 1933, he appeared as Rasputin in Rasputin and the Empress, the only film that featured all three Barrymores.

Acknowledged as the most talented of the three Barrymores, John was born on February 15, 1882. In his autobiography, Confessions of an Actor, published in 1926, he wrote, “I mean to be frank in these confessions and I might as well state early in them that I didn’t want to be an actor. I wanted to be a painter. I left the stage to study at art schools, and I only went back to the theater, because there is hope — at least money — for the bad actor.”

He reached the height of his career with a brilliant portrayal of Hamlet — revered by all who witnessed it — which debuted on Broadway in 1922. His tremendous effort in the role may have tested him too severely — he never played anything of comparable difficulty again. Barrymore was unable to give the same performance twice, but those who saw his Hamlet never forgot it. When it looked as if his run would surpass nineteenth-century American actor Edwin Booth’s legacy of one hundred performances, a delegation of actors entreated him to allow Booth’s record to stand. Barrymore responded by reprising the role 101 times.

A biographer of Sir Laurence Olivier (1907–1989) wrote that his subject sacrificed several meals for a cheap seat for Barrymore’s Hamlet at Theatre Royal Haymarket in London, which opened in 1925. Olivier claimed Barrymore’s performance provided him with nourishment for years of inspiration. “Barrymore had exquisite diction, consummate charm, and two techniques that greatly impressed me,” Olivier recalled. “First, he seemed to select a single word from each line for emphasis, and this he uttered with a great ring of passion; the result was a rhythm of alternating stresses and varied volume that kept the audience bound to him. Second, there was Barrymore’s roaring athleticism: his Hamlet sprang to life with sudden leaps and unexpected, flashing gestures. At that time, Shakespeare was often performed with almost anemic languor but Barrymore made Hamlet‘s agonies credible.”

John Barrymore’s years in Hollywood — where his classic good looks earned him the moniker “The Great Profile” — were extremely successful, although his four marriages were not. His wives included actress Katherine Corri Harris, wealthy socialite Blanche Marie Oelrichs Thomas (a poet who wrote under the pseudonym of Michael Strange), screen actress Dolores Costello, and actress Elaine Jacobs Barrie. With Thomas, he had a daughter, actress Diana Barrymore (1921–1960), and with Costello, a son, actor John Blyth Barrymore Jr. (1932–2004), father of Drew Barrymore (E. T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, The Wedding Singer, Never Been Kissed, 50 First Dates, Music and Lyrics, Riding in Cars with Boys), who changed his middle name from Blyth to Drew in 1958.

Several of Barrymore’s early films afforded him the opportunity to display his acting talent on the screen, but sound arrived too late to present him in his full glory. In his fifties, and already suffering from lapses of memory, he often resorted to reading his lines from cue cards. A heavy drinker beginning in his teens, his handsome face was beginning to show the ravages of his reckless lifestyle. With each passing year, he suffered even greater loss of memory caused by chronic alcoholism and, although he continued to make movies, his performances became painful parodies of his earlier work. In The Great Profile, produced in 1940, he lampooned himself as a sotted actor whose career had seen much better days. In 1941, he played himself as a washed-up ham actor suffocating in debt in Playmates. His last respectable role was as the voice instructor to an opera singer, played by Jeanette MacDonald (1903–1965), also a native Philadelphian, in the lavish film version of the operetta Maytime, released in 1937.

“John Barrymore was one of the very few who had that divine madness without which a great artist cannot work or live,” said Greta Garbo, who had appeared with him and Lionel in MGM’s timeless classic and winner of the 1932 Academy Award for best picture, Grand Hotel. In later years, he was known mostly for outrageous pranks, memorable bon mots, zany antics, and apocrypha which elevated him to a theatre legend. Even in death he had the last word, much to the delight of gossip columnists. Barrymore collapsed during a rehearsal of a radio show hosted by entertainer Rudy Vallee in May 1942 and died several days later in a Hollywood hospital. According to one tale, his dying words were, “Die? I should say not, dear fellow. No Barrymore would allow such a conventional thing to happen to him.”

Lest Philadelphians forget the rich legacy of this first family of American theatre, the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia annually presents the Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre. The competition is the Philadelphia area’s only comprehensive theatre awards program, recognizing artists for excellence and innovation while serving to increase awareness of the richness and diversity of the local theatre community. Each year the alliance reviews more than one hundred productions presented by the region’s professional theaters. The Barrymore Awards honor excellence in acting, design, choreography, music, education, community service, and lifetime achievement. The 2008 awards presentation program will be held in October.


Travel Tips

Although many historic theaters have long since disappeared, travelers can still enjoy a number of grand old venues throughout Pennsylvania.

Between 1724 and 1971, more than eight hundred theaters opened in Philadelphia alone. The oldest continuously operating theater in the United States, Philadelphia’s venerable Walnut Street Theatre, welcomed its first audience in 1809 as the Circus Theatre. It was renamed the Olympic Theatre in 1811, and given its present name in 1820. Stage performers included John Drew and Ethel Barrymore, who made her debut on its stage in 1901. President Jimmy Carter awarded the theatre the Philadelphia Liberty Medal in 1990 and, in 1996, PHMC dedicated a state historical marker commemorating its place in entertainment history.

The Merriam Theatre, erected in 1918, one of John Barrymore’s venues, and the Forrest Theatre, built in 1928, are primary Philadelphia destinations for touring Broadway shows. The Sovereign Performing Arts Center, known also as the Rajah Theatre (1870), in Reading, the Keswick Theatre (1928) in Glenside, and the State Theatre (1926) in Easton are well known playhouses in eastern Pennsylvania. John Barrymore appeared at Symphony Hall in Allentown, erected in 1896 as Central Market Hall.

Historic northeastern Pennsylvania theaters include the Mauch Chunk Opera House (1882) in Jim Thorpe, the Scranton Cultural Center (1929), the Ritz Company Playhouse (1930) in Hawley, and the Sherman Theatre (1928) in East Stroudsburg.

Lancaster’s 1852 Fulton Opera House, among the country’s oldest continuously operating professional theaters, was a tour stop for the Barrymores. Ethel Barrymore appeared more than once at the beaux arts style Mishler Theatre (1906) in Altoona. The theater, built by Isaac Charles Mishler (1862–1944), is currently the home of Altoona Community Theatre. Many Broadway shows and international entertainers appear at Hershey Theatre, Hershey, built in 1933 by Milton S. Hershey (1857–1945). The Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Theatre in York raised $17.5 million to refurbish the Capitol Theatre (1906) and Strand Theatre (1925) complex as one theater.

The 1903 Byham Theatre in Pittsburgh, formerly the Fulton Theatre, witnessed performances by Ethel Barrymore. (The theater’s circa 1930 neon marquee sign is on exhibit at The State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.) Other historic southwestern Pennsylvania theaters are the Coyle Theatre (1891) in Charleroi, the Casino Theatre (1900) in Vandergrift, the recently restored Grand Theatre (1902) in Elizabeth, and the State Theatre Center for the Arts (1922) in Uniontown.

In northwestern Pennsylvania, Warren’s 1883 Struthers Library Theatre, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, hosts the Warren Players, concerts, and movies. The Barrow-Civic Theatre (1944) in Franklin offers a full season of stage productions and cultural events.


For Further Reading

Alpert, Hollis. The Barrymores. New York: Dial Press, 1964.

Barrymore, Ethel. Memories. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1955.

Barrymore, John. Confessions of an Actor. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1926.

Barrymore, Lionel. We Barrymores. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1951.

Burt, Nathaniel. The Perennial Philadelphians. Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1963.

Fowler, Gene. Good Night, Sweet Prince: The Life and Times of John Barrymore. New York: Viking Press, 1944.

Henderson, Marcia C. Theater in America. New York: Harry N. Abrams. Inc., 1996.

Kotsilibas-Davis, James. Great Times, Good Times: The Odyssey of Maurice Barrymore. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1977.

McClelland, Jim. Philadelphia Guide to Visual and Performing Arts. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2007.


Jim McClelland, of Philadelphia, writes regularly for Pennsylvania Heritage. He is the author of Fountains of Philadelphia (2005) and Philadelphia Guide to Visual and Performing Arts (2007).