Stage-Struck

Miss Augusta Boylston was probably the only woman ever to be married at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Skaneateles and arrested by New York City’s finest for participation in an indecent and immoral production which “paraded and glorified sex perversion.”

Her history on the stage began with amateur theatricals. The society pages of the New York Times noted, in April of 1899, that Miss Boylston, “an accomplished amateur actress,” would be appearing with friends in Sydney Grundy’s play “The Snowball” and a farce entitled “A Pair of Lunatics” by W.R. Walkes.

The wedding – which I am sure is the part you are truly interested in – took place on June 14, 1905. Miss Boylston was the daughter of Augusta Shoemaker Boylston Roosevelt and the step-daughter of Samuel Montgomery Roosevelt. The Roosevelt family lived in New York City, traveled a great deal, and “opened their country place,” Roosevelt Hall, during the summer and occasionally over the Christmas holiday. Miss Boylston, whose father, William Cloud Boylston, had died when she was young, was a fixture in the Social Register and on the New York Times’ society pages, all the more so because her step-father’s cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, was the President of the United States.

At Roosevelt Hall, the bride on the arm of her step-father, S. Montgomery Roosevelt

The groom was Donald Campbell, son of Major General John Campbell. On the way to St. James’, and on the way back to Roosevelt Hall for the wedding breakfast, Augusta was delighted to see flags flying from the porches of every home, a tribute, she was sure, to her new husband’s military connections. The following day she wrote a letter of thanks to the Skaneateles Press for this lovely gesture, not realizing that June 14th was Flag Day.

In January of 1919, while spending the holiday at Roosevelt Hall, Mrs. Boylston Campbell and a friend, Mrs. Harper, “gave a clever Negro farce” to entertain her mother’s guests on New Year’s Eve. Do join me in wincing. Such entertainments were apparently common in that day, and were known also as Ethiopian Interludes or Negro Burlesques. Popular titles were “Slim Jim and the Hoodoo Man,” “Love and Lather” and “Rastus Comes to the Point.” There is no record of which play was performed that evening, but among the guests were the Rev. and Mrs. George Hewett, Clarence Austin and other notables from Skaneateles society, and one wonders if anyone gave it a second thought.

Mr. & Mrs. Donald Campbell lived on Park Avenue in New York, but their marriage did not last. Mr. Campbell was a patent attorney; Mrs. Campbell was stage-struck and her true passion took her away from home and husband.

In September of 1920, listed as Augusta Boylston, she did one night at the Manhattan Opera House in Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People.” And then came “Meet the Wife.”

A 1924 comic farce by Lynn Starling, “Meet the Wife” played for 232 performances on Broadway with Mary Boland in the lead role of Gertrude Lennox, supported by Clifton Webb and Humphrey Bogart. Successful plays often spawned Hollywood films and touring productions. In the case of “Meet the Wife,” film star Laura La Plante got the movie role (in 1931), but Augusta Boylston got the lead with the touring company, probably her longest and most successful engagement. From the autumn of 1924 through the winter of 1925, she played cities like Reading, Pennsylvania; Carroll, Iowa; and Niagara Falls, N.Y. In larger towns like Utica, N.Y., the company would do four performances, and in smaller towns like Fredonia or Penn Yan, N.Y., one show.

Life on the road could not have been easy, but Augusta received consistently good reviews, and was noted for her “light, deft touch.” Clearly, she was a trouper.

Back in New York, she won the part of Mrs. Hetherington in “The Pleasure Man,” written by Mae West at the height of her shocking powers, a play about an actor whose charms had put so many co-stars in the family way that he finally became the target of a brother’s revenge.

The play opened at the Biltmore Theater on October 1, 1928. At the end of the first performance, the police raided the dressing rooms and arrested all 56 cast members, including Augusta Boylston, still in costume and makeup. Since many of the cast members were men in drag — the real cause of the authorities’ outrage — the rush to the paddy wagons through a throng of 3,000 onlookers was good theater. Also among the prisoners were young actresses clutching bouquets from admirers, weeping because the months of rehearsal had been for naught.

Mae West was not appearing in her play; she was starring in “Diamond Lil” at a nearby Broadway theater. She came to the police station, also still in costume, to bail the cast out, and her lawyers obtained an injunction to allow the play to continue the following evening. (They had already sold $200,000 in tickets). But the injunction was thrown out, so the police again raided the theater, this time while the actors were on stage. Once again, Augusta Boylston was arrested and carted off to jail with 55 of her fellow thespians.

Fittingly, her next role was as Mrs. Binney in a New York play called “Hot Water.” This one ran for 32 uninterrupted performances at the Lucille La Verne Theatre in 1929, and it was Augusta Boylston’s final turn on the stage, playing a woman who was “all ready to step in and be the life of the party.”

Her death was noted in the July 2, 1949, issue of Billboard, in “The Final Curtain” section: “Boylston – Mrs. Augusta E., 71, former legit actress, June 22 in New York. Her last Broadway appearance was in “Meet the Wife.” Her son survives.”

While the notice wasn’t entirely accurate, it was in Billboard, and she was noted as a “legit actress.” I think she would have liked that.

* * *

“AmyW3” at an Ancestry.com message board was kind enough to write and tell me that Augusta’s personal scrapbook, with her notices and reviews, is in the collection of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center, at 40 Lincoln Center Plaza, and is available to researchers. Thank you, Amy. The “Hot Water” press photo above was taken in 1929 by Arto De Mirjian of the De Mirjian studios on Broadway.

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3 thoughts on “Stage-Struck

  1. I am Ms. Boylston’s granddaughter, child of her son, John Boylston. Wonderful article! Is it possible to identify all those folks in the wedding party? I imagine that most of the men were my “Grandy’s” brothers, but they are a whole lot younger than when I knew them! By the way, some of the other “scandalous” news about Gussie is that she divorced Donald – something unheard of at that time, but was always in touch with my dad and with us, although my brother Donald, named after “the groom” had not yet been born. My sister was named for her – Katharine Augusta Eccleston Campbell. Any other info you may have of this daring lady would be most appreciated! Donald remarried an Esther Kemp.

    • Dear Janet, I love to hear from family members of the people I write about. I will ask the Village Historian about the others in the photograph. She has Samuel Montgomery Roosevelt’s original photo album and I think there may be more wedding photos. Thank you so much for writing. Would you like the publicity still from “Hot Water”? I hunted it down for this piece, but have it scanned now. Best, Kihm Winship

  2. Pingback: Roosevelt Hall « Skaneateles

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