A New York Times obituary, published on February 18, 1976, told the story of a gentleman of the theatre with a legacy of extraordinary versatility. Of course by 1976, this actor-songwriter-producer and director hadn't been heard from since 1958, when he left the lights of Broadway and a world he'd called home since his debut there in 1919 in The Velvet Lady (at the New Amsterdam Theatre, today home to Disney's Aladdin). It would be easy to conjecture that by the time of his death, such a man had been forgotten, but that was not the case. Responsible in 1945 for bringing Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie to Broadway, and for resurrecting (if briefly) the career of the actress Laurette Taylor, whose performance as Amanda to this day is considered one of the greatest ever known, Eddie Dowling died an important part of the American Theatre, his name prominently displayed on the Theatre Hall of Fame wall in the Gershwin Theatre, alphabetically between the excellent company of Melvyn Douglas and Alfred Drake.
Eddie Dowling in his matinee idol days (circa 1930s).
Born Joseph Goucher on December 11, 1889, Dowling was the fourteenth of seventeen children. His schooling ended after the third grade, when his early musical talents (dancing for pennies outside local bar rooms in his native Rhode Island) gave him the confidence to head out on his own while still in his adolescence. According to his Times obituary, "When he was 11, he got a job as a cabin boy on the Fall River Line. Later, he held the same job on the ocean liners Mauretania and Lusitania. He then joined the boys' choir of St. Paul's Cathedral in London. ('My mother, God bless her, never knew until she was dying that it was a Protestant church,' he told an interviewer many years later.")
Eventually, Dowling's musical talents lifted him up as a music hall singer in venues across the United States, then later in vaudeville. Unique to his Broadway debut in The Velvet Lady, was that Dowling was allowed to sing two songs of his own composition. How many nineteen year old actors have ever accomplished that feat? Especially considering the show's composer, Victor Herbert, was one of the most established of his day? His very next show was that same year's Ziegfeld Follies of 1919, which featured Eddie Cantor, Marilyn Miller and Bert Williams. Also in the cast was Ray Dooley, a musical theatre actress, with whom Dowling fell in love and eloped. They remained a loving and loyal couple throughout their fifty-seven-year marriage.
Continuing his upward climb, in 1922, he co-authored the musical Sally, Irene and Mary, co-producing, co-directing and starring in it, too. It was a hit, and Dowling proved himself a name to contend with (in many different categories). He went on to produce the New York premiere of Margaret Webster's acclaimed Shakespeare company with Richard II, starring Maurice Evans. Shortly thereafter, he helped to craft the Pulitzer Prize winning The Time of Your Life, by William Saroyan, with himself starring in the role of Joe. He and Saroyan also shared in tandem the "Staged by" credit.
Eddie Dowling as Joe in The Time of Your Life (1939).
For an uneducated former hoofer-singer, the range, imagination and daring of his shows made Dowling a vital presence on the theatre scene. He was also very high up in Democratic politics, a personal friend of Franklin Roosevelt, and a one-time candidate for the United States Senate seat from Rhode Island (1934). His Golden Touch may have failed him there, but Dowling hit a personal milestone in 1944, when he took an option on a new play by Tennessee Williams, at a time when the young playwright had badly suffered the out of town closing of his first produced effort, The Battle of Angels (later reworked more successfully as Orpheus Descending). Not only did Dowling stage and produce The Glass Menagerie on Broadway in 1945, but he took on the role of Tom Wingfield himself, playing it as an older man looking back on his youthful days.
"I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth.
I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion."
Eddie Dowling as Tom Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie (1945).
In a well researched article from a 2013 issue of American Theatre Magazine, writer Paul Vandecarr tells the origins of The Glass Menagerie (from tapes left by Dowling), offering in striking detail exactly how Laurette Taylor came to play Amanda. I could highlight sections of it, but it's best to read it in full, if you are so inclined. I promise it's worth your time. Here is a link to it:
Dowling's next directing project was the 1946 premiere of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh. Sadly, it was not a success, leaving O'Neill in despair that audiences and critics rejected what he had thought was his finest work. Of course here we are in 2018 with a new Iceman opening soon (starring Denzel Washington), the fifth major New York revival since Dowling's opened seventy-two years ago. Sadly, O'Neill didn't live to see the play resurrected as a masterwork.
The last time Dowling appeared on Broadway, was as a replacement for the leading role of Ben Rumson in Lerner and Loewe's Paint Your Wagon. If anyone reading this saw that performance, I'd love to hear about it.
Eddie Dowling in Paint Your Wagon (1952).
When Dowling passed away forty-two years ago at age eighty-six, his legacy might have felt lost and forgotten, but I don't think so. The history books have it all written down. It's there to be mined, if you know where to find it. And though there's little to nothing for us to look at by way of film or tape of his work as an actor, Eddie Dowling will live on as a renaissance man of the theatre. As well he should.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in both hard cover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.