Nearly a hundred years ago today, what was then the longest running show in the relatively young history of Broadway, had its closing performance. The play was called Lightnin' and at 1,291 performances entertained audiences continually for three years and one day. No show before it had ever managed so long a run. It was a big deal. It still is, since as of today, Lightnin' stands at #76 in the list of Broadway's longest running shows. The last straight play to run for three years (Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs), closed thirty-four years ago. So again, a big deal.
The Playbill for the 1938 revival, featuring Fred Stone as Lightnin’ Bill Jones.
Written by Frank Bacon (with an overhaul from Winchell Smith), the lead character of Lightnin' Bill Jones was in service to a rural comedy that Bacon created for himself to star in. An actor for much of his life, he had come up with the concept and plot for the play years earlier, but had never been able to find someone to produce it. Now at age fifty-four, he finally got someone of note, John Golden, who had the idea to put Bacon together with Smith, another actor-turned-playwright. Golden produced the show on Broadway, but not at the theatre he named after himself that still stands on W. 45th Street (and is current home to A Doll's House, Part 2), as it hadn't been built yet. Instead, Lightnin' opened at the Gaiety Theatre, which once stood on the west side of Broadway between 45th and 46th, where I saw a second-run film or two in the late 1960s after it had long since been converted to a movie house called The Embassy. It was eventually torn down in 1983 to make way for the Marriott Marquis Hotel.
Smith, who had a hit the previous season that was still running—Turn to the Right!—had a significant hand in crafting Lightnin' into something special. As reported in the New York Times, in a curtain speech from the stage of the Gaiety on its opening night, Bacon acknowledged Smith's contribution by "generously giving all credit to his collaborator." Though this should not underestimate the nuances Bacon apparently brought to the character of Lightnin', both in writing and acting, that went to the heart of a slow-witted, but charming old man; one with none of the qualities that might ordinarily be associated with such a flashy nickname. As the Times critic wrote, "Merely the same old figures of rural melodrama are paraded again ... [but] one is so interested in the central character and so captivated by the fun of the thing that it no longer matters." Lazy and laid back, Lightnin' would later be played in a 1930 screen adaptation (in an early talkie) by the laconic Will Rogers, whose entire career was forged on playing such gentle folks.
An advertisement from 1930 for Will Rogers as Lightnin'.
The plot of Lightnin' doesn't bare much scrutiny as there isn't much there to scrutinize. Easily enjoyable, its lowbrow country humor not only put a smile on the face of sophisticated New Yorkers, but that of audiences everywhere. Almost immediately, productions popped up in major cities and in minor hinterlands all across America. Bacon was so beloved in the role that he toured in it for the rest of his life, which was unfortunately cut short when he died of a heart attack following a performance in Chicago at the age of fifty-eight. He didn't live long enough to see his son, Lloyd Bacon, become one of the most prolific directors of early Warner Bros comedies and musicals. Among his outstanding credits were 42nd Street and Footlight Parade and the wonderful Edward G. Robinson comedies A Slight Case of Murder and Brother Orchid.
Frank Bacon (1864-1922).
The New York Times opening night review of Lightnin’ also made mention of an actor who was pointed out as “excellent” and “revealing himself a highly promising juvenile.” This was a young Ralph Morgan, whose brother Frank would go on to fame as The Wizard of Oz, but was himself a fine actor, who in 1933 became the first (as well as fourth) President, of the newly formed Screen Actors Guild. I also couldn't help noticing that among the cast was an actor named George Spelvin. Now for those in the know, this is the name that has always been used for either someone who doesn't wish to be credited, or done as a trick to the audience by listing a name in the program of a character who may never appear. Funnily enough, when I looked at the cast list for Winston Smith's prior play, Turn to the Right!, I noticed that George Spelvin made an appearance (or didn't) in that show as well. It was not uncommon to see Spelvin's name time and again in the early part of the last century, as my research via the Internet Broadway Data Base shows a dozen such entries for the plays between 1906 and 1919. And if you're at all curious, the last time George Spelvin's name was in a Playbill was in 1985's The Mystery of Edwin Drood (and why not?).
My first exposure to this whole notion was not in the theatre, but on television. Growing up as I did watching I Love Lucy reruns, I'm sure I'm not alone in recalling one of the Hollywood episodes where Lucy has someone impersonate a producer to fake interest in Ricky, so that it will make Dore Shary (the studio head) put Ricky in another film after "Don Juan is Shelved" (the title of the episode). And the name that got used for the phony? George Spelvin.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon.com. I invite any and all comments at Ron@ronfassler.org