30.11.10

The Pinafore Sails Down East

 Prelude:  Pinafore makes the Dilettante long for Cosi
 I should like Gilbert and Sullivan better than I do.  But I don't. I'm fairly well rounded musically, but I need only to hear the opening strains of  "I Am The Captain of The Pinafore", or "Three Little Maids Are We"  (am I the only one reminded of the Andrews Sisters?)  and I'm looking for the exits.
It's interesting, because in Blue Hill, the town where I grew up, Serious Music is a Big Deal, and in addition to our better known musical attractions, like the Kneisel Hall Music Festival,  we claim two major footnotes in the history of Gilbert and Sullivan performance in the United States.

Act 1. Miss Ober and the Ideals
Effie Hinckley Ober was born in Sedgwick Maine, a few miles from Blue Hill, in 1844.  In an unusual path for a single young woman from the hinterlands in the 19th century, she found her way to the city, where she launched a career as a theatrical agent.  In due course, she caught a performance of Gilbert & Sullivan at the D'Oyly Carte in London, and decided  to bring Pinafore to the United States.  Thus was started the Boston Ideal Opera company, specifically to stage an 'ideal' performance of the operetta in November,1878.   The performances took place on a 'ship' in a lake in Boston's Oakland Park. Within weeks, 'Pinafore had captured the popular imagination, and Miss Ober and her top notch troupe of performers took to the road, performing Gilbert & Sullivan and other light opera across the continent.  They were for a time probably the premiere touring company in the country---a fact memorialized in a scene from the movie Tombstone', in which the Ideals come to perform, prompting one character to ask, "who'd ever expect to hear Gilbert & Sullivan in a town like this?".

Georgia Cayvan, a popular actress of the late 19th century, made her debut as Hebe in the Boston Ideal Opera Company's America premiere production of 'HMS Pinafore' in 1879

Miss Ober did not forget her distant home on the Maine coast, and in 1883 commissioned a small shingled summer villa on Parker Point in Blue Hill, designed by George Clough, a Blue Hill boy, who trained under Snell & Gregorson in Boston, and was named official City Architect there in 1874.  Her tidy little cottage, on a cliff facing the Blue Hill Mountain, was called La Mascot, after an Audran opera that was one of the troupe's early successes

'La Mascot' Effie Ober's the summer cottage Effie Ober built in 1883 with profits from her Ideal Opera Company

By 1884 the 'Ideals', as they were known, were suffering from artistic and internal struggles, including the business manager being found nude on a train, babbling that spirits and the Devil were causing Miss Ober to conspire against him, and Miss Ober suspended touring for a time.  In Cleveland, she met  abolitionist publisher and attorney Virgil P. Kline, who  had come to prominence successfully defending Teagle & Schurmer, the last independent oil refiner in the city from being gobbled up by John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Trust.  Mightily impressed by his work, Rockefeller, did take over Virgil Kline, hiring him as his lead counsel.  Eventually, Teagle & Schurmer did merge with Standard Oil, and a Teagle, Walter, became Kline's protogee, groomed to become chairman of Standard of New Jersey, which under his guidance became Esso, later Exxon.  But I digress. Back to Effie:

The Ober homestead before 1888,
The same view after the remodeling of 1888.

In 1888, Effie Ober & Virgil Kline were married in Blue Hill, and moved into her parent's former home, which they had had George Clough remodel in the latest style.   This remodeled cottage was known, of course, as 'Ideal Lodge' after the new Mrs. Kline's opera company.   Heavily inspired by recently published works by McKim, Mead and White (notably the Narragansett Casino and the Osborne house at Mamaroneck) and William Ralph Emerson, the house, with its two story great hall with divided staircase and internal oriel window, was a suitably theatrical backdrop for Mrs Kline.

The service wing of Ideal Lodge with carriage arch inspired by the Narragansett Casino.

Oriel window in the great hall at Ideal Lodge

After Mrs. Kline's death, Ideal Lodge became the summer home of another colorful woman, the Countess of Santa Eulalia, born Elizabeth Shindler of Indiana, made rich by her second husband, hat manufacturer John Stetson, and a countess by her third, the former Portuguese consul in Chicago.  After her death, the house was owned for a time by her Stetson children.   In the 1960's, the once elegant summer neighborhood it had  anchored began a slow drift toward commercialism, and the cottage, after falling on hard times, is now a restaurant and inn known as Barncastle, for its combination of gambrel roofs and chateauesque turrets.

Act 2. Hey Kids, Let's put on a show!
In the early 1900's, the granddaughters of John Ellingwood Donnell traveled up to East Blue Hill, Maine, to visit a defunct granite quarry that he had purchased years before.   Delighted by the rocky oceanfront meadows they encountered, one of the granddaughters pursuaded her surgeon husband, textile heir Seth Milliken, to build a large summer bungalow on the property.  In due course, other structures were added, and the property, known as Ellingwood after Mrs. Milliken's grandfather, became a considerable estate. The Millikens and their five children would arrive each summer, with a bevy of maids, chauffeurs, governesses and tennis coaches in their wake.

The Milliken estate in 1912, with the newly constructed main house, 'Wing and Wing', later setting for The Mikado', in the background.
  'Wing and Wing' as remodeled by Philadelphia architect Edmund Gilchrist c. 1920

In the summer of 1924, despairing of the pernicious influence of the roaring twenties on their five children, Alida, Martha, Minot, Seth and John, Dr. & Mrs. Milliken added a music coach to the summer staff, hoping to provide an alternative to movies and fast parties.  The idea was had to stage a performance of 'HMS Pinafore'.  Children from other social families on nearby Mt. Desert were recruited for starring roles and chorus.   The Milliken's 103 foot Herreshoff yacht, 'Shawna' would stand in for the Pinafore, classical music students, studying  with their instructors for the summer would provide musical accompaniment, and car headlights would provide illumination.  The commodious stone porches of the boathouse would house the audience, which included, by the way, the Dilettante's grandmother, who remembered it as 'just magical'.

One wonders if Effie Ober Kline, who had brought 'Pinafore' to America 45 years earlier(damn her), by then 80 and still summering in Blue Hill, was in the audience.  It seems very likely so, but there is nothing in the record to answer the question, and all who would know are now dead.  I wish I had wondered a decade ago.

The Milliken yacht 'Shawna' the stage for 'HMS Pinafore", in front of the boathouse

The performance was a great success, and the following autumn, when everyone was back in New York, it was decided to put on another performance, this time in the marble stair hall of the Milliken's townhouse at 951 Madison Avenue (now the site of the Whitney Museum).

The courtyard of Wing and Wing decked out for the 'Mikado'

By the next summer, the performances had become a tradition, and they mounted a performance of 'The Mikado', at 'Ellingwood', using the formal garden and courtyard of the main house, known as 'Wing and Wing', decorated for the occasion as a Japanese temple.  Another rousing success, the group decided to become an official entity, and perform in New York for the benefit of charity.  And thus was born the Blue Hill Troupe, possibly the most respected, and social, amateur Gilbert & Sullivan troupe in the country, which has since raised millions for charity, including a return engagement to Blue Hill a few years ago. 


Prologue:
 Mrs. Milliken had yet another claim to fame.  Rich, fashionable and social, she was also a fanatic right winger,  and as mother of one of the John Birch Society's major supporters, she derived great pleasure from playing bridge with her friends, using her special set of John Birch playing cards.

9 comments:

Reggie Darling said...

One of the more embarrassing and humiliating events of Reggie's life happened when he was newly-arrived to NYC and met and fell in with a group of lock-jawed boys and girls who were members of the Blue Hill Troupe. He got along with them swimmingly, even though, he--like you--wasn't exactly an ardent G&S fan: nice enough, Reggie had always thought, but certainly not one's calling in life. But since Reggie was new to town, and wanted a crowd to run with, he thought "why not?" -- it could be worse. So he decided, much encouraged by his new-found friends, to try out for the troupe. Having been a Whiffenpoof at Yale, which in some circles is considered a plum assignment, he assumed that he would be a shoo-in for a place in the Troupe's front of stage crowd. So he put his hat in the ring. But it wasn't just a matter of trying out, one had to pass the social test first, which meant one had to attend a series of cocktail and other parties at members' apartments (t is NYC after all) and run the gauntlet. Reggie did so, with flying colors, as one is of the tribe after all. So far so good. Once he passed that aspect of the membership test, he was left with the vocal audition, which he assumed would be a piece of cake, since he had been singing all his life. But it was not cake, no not at all, it was a lump of coal and a draft of arsenic for Reggie. He flubbed his audition badly, a pathetic effort made all the more humiliating by the fact that his followed one by a fellow who was a member of the NY City Opera (fer chrissakes) who was casting about for something to do in his off hours (unlike Reggie who was looking for some fun other than his day job at the bank). And Reggie was, um, politely turned down for membership in the Troupe. But there's more to this story and Reggie thanks you, DED, for reminding him of this sordid series of events in his life, since it is an excellent subject for Reggie to examine on his own blog, which he now intends to do at some point. And so it goes.

Beth said...

This is such a great post! I love your anecdotal stories about Blue Hill, a charming community that I really know so little about. Please keep sharing them!

Janet said...

Oh, that Oriel window!

La Petite Gallery said...

There must be so much history
in that town.. There really was a lot of wealthy people up there.
You did a fantastic job on this post.
yvonne

TOPSY said...

DED- Thank you for the link to POC and the Baldwin room!

Turner Pack Rats said...

i am shocked - not a G&S fan. when i was knee high to the stage, my mom and her GFs used to make the trek about once a month in the summer to Cumston Hall in Monmouth to see the D'oyly Carte Players perform. so i was dipped in music and G&S at an early age. we saw them all - pinafore, mikado, pirates and all the obscure ones too. and amazingly, i still like them. you should do what i do with opera. i really love the human voice esp. ones as highly trained as opera singers. so knowing i should like opera, once a month i force myself to listen to the met on mpbn. sometimes the whole thing. i much prefer the singers of the past- caruso et al. and have many fine red label victor 78s which when played on modern equipment are very nice. so force yourself. you'll get used to it.(or not). the obscure ones are better.
i also love your stories of blue hill and bah hahba. nice to hear all the connections in a place i've been so many times but know not that much about the inhabitants.

security word def - (i swear you make these up) - "antiod" - most of the republican party

sarahsbooks said...

"...the Countess of Santa Eulalia, born Elizabeth Shindler of Indiana, made rich by her second husband, hat manufacturer John Stetson, and a countess by her third, the former Portuguese consul in Chicago..."

Fact is so much more fun than fiction - why make anything up when you have material such as this to work with!

John T said...

Wow, the comments can be a whole story in themselves! I have, perhaps foolishly, been skipping over these little posting-ettes!

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