When Charles Hoyt was a boy, his father dreamed he would become a country lawyer. Instead, he invented the Broadway musical.
He wasn’t as well-known as Boston Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk, another son of Charlestown, N.H., nor fellow playwright George M. Cohan, but he dominated the American stage for 15 years during the late 19th century. His string of hit plays ended only after the death of his second wife drove him insane.
Charles Hoyt was born in Concord, N.H., on July 26, 1859, to George and Martha Hoyt. The family moved to Charlestown, N.H., when he was six so his father could run a hotel. The Hoyts were plagued by ill health: a younger brother died as an infant, his mother died when Charles was nine and his father became too frail to run the hotel. Charles attended Boston Latin School for two terms and was appointed to West Point, but he couldn’t pass the physical examination.
He wanted to be a journalist, but his father persuaded him to come home and study law. A friend offered him a shot running the St. Albans Advertiser while he vacationed. Hoyt jumped at the chance and wrote witty stories about the town’s social life. His stories caught the attention of the Boston Post. His law career was over.
He wrote a popular humor column for the Post and became the music, theater and sports editor. That led to his writing a melodrama that premiered at the Amesbury, Mass., fire house on March 21, 1881. It opened to good reviews – including one of his own, which lamented the variety acts that preceded the play were too long. Eventually he incorporated variety acts into his plays.
After he wrote another melodrama that did poorly at the box office, Hoyt wrote a funny play called A Bunch of Keys. It bombed. A friend suggested the actors didn’t act funny enough. Hoyt rewrote the play and supervised rehearsals until it was a Broadway hit. According to the New York Times, “Its humor is of that exquisite kind which rests on horse play, acrobatic feats, clog dances, the throwing of various missiles by the performers, the blowing of flour by one actor in the face of another, and such like pleasantry.”
The play made $56,000, while Hoyt earned $500 for writing it and a fee for the rewrite. In 1884, Hoyt quit his job and formed a partnership with a friend from the Boston Post, Charles Thomas. For the next 15 years they dominated Broadway, churning out an average of one hit per year.
Their first play, A Rag Baby, was a critical flop but a popular success, touring on the road for years. A Parlor Match was even more successful, playing far and wide. Another play, A Tin Soldier, toured as well. A 14-year-old actress named Flora Walsh took a small part in the production in San Francisco. Hoyt, then in his mid-20s, instantly fell in love with her. She returned his feelings and they were married July 12, 1887, 13 days before her 17th birthday and 14 days before his 28th.
He wrote a new play, A Hole in the Ground, for Flora. Again it was hated by critics, loved by the public. His next three plays — A Midnight Bell, A Temperance Town and A Texas Steer – were more serious and plot driven, but included elements of farce. Hoyt was asked why he didn’t take his art seriously. He replied, “I do. There is nothing funny about a game that is earning me $100,000 a year. That’s serious money.”
He had bought a mansion in Charlestown before his marriage and returned often to his home town. He brought theatrical stars as guests, tried out new plays and threw lavish parties. He was civic minded enough to be elected to the New Hampshire General Court in 1892 and 1894.
The year 1893 was successful financially but marred by tragedy. Hoyt’s play A Trip to Chinatown shattered attendance records on Broadway and his other plays filled theaters around the country. (Chinatown was later made into a silent film starring Anna May Wong and featured songs still known today, The Bowery and After the Ball, a later addition that appears in Showboat.) Flora died of pneumonia in January at the age of 22, his father died in February and his partner Charles Thomas died in November.
Hoyt was devastated but took a new partner, Frank McKee, and threw himself into his work. He produced new plays, A Milk White Flag and A Temperance Town, featuring an actress who would be named the most popular of her day: Caroline Miskel. Hoyt married her in March 1894.
His next play, A Runaway Colt, featured baseball players who had bit parts in his previous plays: Cap Anson of the Chicago White Stockings and Boston Beaneaters star Mike King Kelly, the model for Casey at the Bat. The ballplayers were lousy actors and the play didn’t do well. Hoyt went back to his old formula of musical farce and came up with another string of hits: A Black Sheep, A Contented Woman (written for Caroline Miskel) and A Day And A Night In New York.
Caroline in 1896 gave birth to a daughter who died the same day. Two years later, 25-year-old Caroline died in childbirth giving birth to a son, who died after an hour. Hoyt was overcome by grief and began to lose touch with reality. He sat in his New York apartment staring for hours at photographs of Caroline. In 1900, his partner McKee took him before a judge in Hartford, Conn., and had him committed to the Retreat for the Insane, considered a humane institution. He was released after a short while and returned to Charlestown, where he died four months later on Nov. 20, 1900 at the age of 41.
With thanks to Charles Hoyt, Popular Playwright of the Gay Nineties By Cliff and Linda Hoyt.