Arts and Leisure

Henry Savage Puts The Showgirls in the Broadway Show

At age 20, Mildred Taylor Mills’ future seemed stable. Heir to her father’s modest fortune, the Westport, Conn. girl was “for a long time considered the belle of Westport,” a local newspaper reported. In 1914, newly married and seemingly happy, 20-year-old Mildred shocked the town when she disappeared with the local postmaster – a married man more than twice her age. As her family made inquiries, the news that came back was not encouraging. Mildred had become a Henry Savage girl.

Mildred’s elopement wasn’t just a story worthy of a Broadway musical farce. She actually had landed in the middle of one.  As Broadway roared to life in the early 20th century, Henry Savage was one of its leading impresarios, and chorus girls were his trademark.

From Harvard to Broadway

Savage grew up in New Durham, N.H. After attending Harvard University and graduating in 1880, Savage created a prominent construction firm in Boston. By 1894, Savage had secured a fortune for himself as a real estate developer. Then he partnered with a firm to build a theater – the Castle Square Theatre on Tremont Street in Boston (It was torn down n 1933.).

Savage initially took an interest in the project as a developer. And the theater earned praise as a showpiece of construction for its Rococo/Renaissance style interior. Marble stairways lit with wrought-iron lamps lead from the main foyer to the upper balconies. The theater seated up to 1800 patrons, and it featured modern conveniences such as a elevators to the upper boxes and an early form of air conditioning that provided a comfortable experience even in summer.

Situated near train lines that served towns in all directions, the theater’s developers had located it as a perfect destination for a show and a night on the town. And it almost fell flat on its face.

Soon after the theater opened, investors wanted out and the theater management was jumping ship. Henry Savage astounded the world with his announcement that he would operate the theater himself.

What did a builder know about running a theater? Quite a lot, it turned out. After one struggle of a season, Henry Savage had the Castle Square Theatre up and humming.

Opera With an American Flair

One of Henry Savage’s first passions was opera. Specifically, he wanted to bring European operas to America – sung in English. Savage’s marketing targeted not the wealthy opera patrons who could travel Europe, but middle-class Americans, the majority of whom who might well go their whole lives without ever witnessing an opera. Savage and a group of like-minded producers intended to change that.

Savage’s approach to producing operas varied from the traditional model, where the big-name stars provided the draw. Realizing that he could not compete for the finest voices in opera, he instead employed lesser-known singers and promoted the opera experience itself, not the singular voices. He kept prices low, within reach of most people. If the voices were not absolutely top quality, they were very often exceptional, and many of his operas received rave reviews (He had some clinkers, too).

But Savage soon realized that staying rooted to the Castle Square Theatre limited his opportunities to increase sales. By taking his operas on the road, he could reach new audiences. He pushed into New York and Philadelphia, natural destinations, but competition soon sprung up there when others saw him succeed. So he also went to smaller cities in the Midwest and West.

Lightening Up

As time passed, tastes changed. And Henry Savage changed right along with them as he moved into the 1900s. He began importing comic operettas from Europe and elsewhere. Broadway in New York in this era had become an entertainment hub. Visitors flocked to the city to partake of a dinner, a show and night at the city’s clubs.

Henry Savage produced the operetta the Merry WidowSavage and other producers grappled with the challenge of keeping the pipeline of shows flowing, both importing plays from Europe and commissioning original works. The perfect formula for success for a musical involved a successful run on the stage, a traveling production of the show that carried it far and wide and its final evolution into a silent film. Not so different from today. And Henry Savage seemed a natural at surviving in that the rough and tumble world.

A Savage show would travel west moving from city to city, using the familiar template. Advance men traveled to a city to put up posters and place newspaper advertisements. The goal: build a ready audience before the theater troupe even set foot in the city.  In one instance, however, a Savage show arrived in Salt Lake, Utah, to find only minimal publicity. A strike had stopped the newspapers in the city. Savage directed that the production company publish its own newspaper – just one edition – to carry advertisements for the play. Starved of newspapers, the public warmly welcomed the publication and filled the theater seats.

To keep this operation churning, Henry Savage needed a steady stream of talent: writers, actors and, most importantly, chorus girls.

Henry Savage . . . Conniving Producer

Author P.G. Wodehouse and writing partner Gary Bolton documented the machinations of the industry in a semi-autobiographical fictional tale: Bring on the Girls: The Improbable Story of Our Life in Musical Comedy, With Pictures to Prove It.

Wodehouse, who at that time wrote lyrics for the musical numbers that intertwined with the stories in the plays, described a fictional “Colonel Savage.” Wodehouse and Bolton described a money-grubbing, conniving Henry Savage who, among other things, tricks writers into churning out a never-ending supply of stories by luring them onto his boat and trapping them there.

As much as the theater impresario needed writers, the demand for chorus girls was even greater. Whenever a show bogged down and no amount of rewriting could help, there remained a singular solution – add more chorus girls. Wodehouse explained:

“How wonderful those girls always were. They did not spare themselves. You might get the impression that they were afflicted from some form of chorea, but the dullest eye could see that they were giving of their best. Actors might walk through their parts, singers save their voices, but the personnel of the ensemble never failed to go all out, full of pep, energy and the will to win. A hundred shows have been pushed by them over the thin line that divides the floperoo from the socko.”

Bring on the Girls

For the chorus girls, a role in a Savage production could be life changing – as a chorus girl distinguished herself on the stage, she might wind up in New York or promoted to a larger role. Many also exited the profession via marriage or pregnancy or simple exhaustion.

The news that Mildred Taylor Mills had departed Westport, Conn., for a life on the stage rocketed around the town. What’s more, people soon learned that Arthur Jelliffe – 45 years old and a former postmaster – had also disappeared. Jelliffe most recently had worked as projectionist at a movie theater, and he too had caught the theater bug.

Mildred the telephone operator had become Mildred the chorus girl. But the scene changed quickly in Westport. Mildred’s mother and sisters petitioned the court to seize control of her assets. Arthur Jelliffe’s wife, meanwhile, began preparing a lawsuit against Mildred for alienation of affection.

Mildred Returns Home

Poster for Henry Savage EverywomanIronically, Mildred had a role in “Everywoman.” This Henry Savage production told the story of a woman who ends up miserable because she forsakes true love. Instead, her vanity drives her to pursue fame. In the end of the play, the main character is bereft. With her youth and virtue gone she has no one to care for her. Women theater reviewers did not particularly rave over the play.

When made into a movie, producers refit the story with a happier ending. Mildred didn’t have such a grim ending, either. With the show reaching San Diego, Mildred’s family managed to reestablish communications. She agreed to return home. She and Jelliffe had no romantic connection. The only reason given for her flight to the stage was her general discontent.

As for Henry Savage, he continued producing Broadway hits, with his last production in 1925. He died in 1927 at the age of 68 having produced more than 50 shows.

Photos: Billy Rose Theatre Collection – NYPL Digital Gallery

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