Trodding the Boards

A Note to My Readers:  It was heady stuff…trodding the boards as a high school senior..”Onions In the Stew” and on to Auburn Community College acting under the direction of Dan Labeille in Moliere’s “Tartuffe”…studying Pinter and Chekov and crewing behind the scenes for “Antigone”.   On the road to the Corning Theater Festival…and later the marvelous fun with the Auburn Players…Mark Twain’s “Adam and Eve”.  Rehearsals.  Scrims.  Gels.  Albolene cream.  Performance jitters.  Applause and a curtain call.  

In later years when I would attend the theater, I would find my foot or hand twitching in sync with the performer’s movements.  Obviously though I had gone on to other things, some ancient vibe still responded to the footlights.  And it’s no wonder…it’s wired in the blood.

George D. Curtis, vaudevillian, Minnesota

George D. Curtis, vaudevillian, Minnesota

My great grandfather, George Downing Curtis,  was a theater man.   From his youngest days he was an entertainer and drama followed him in every aspect of his life.   He trod the boards, but soon found his entrepreneurial nature and began purchasing billiard halls and ‘eating establishments’ and vaudeville theaters…eventually opening one of Ithaca, New York’s first moving picture theaters in the old Cornell Public Library.    George was also a dandy who sported a diamond pinkie ring and it wasn’t a big leap to expand his business interests to men’s clothing stores.  Then on to Rochester where he and he wife purchased the old St. Paul’s Church and opened the Happy Hour.  Within a few years the building was razed and the great and grand Strand Theater was built.     Always the showman, his life story is definitely grist for the stage.  Gambling.  Drinking.  Scandal.  Bankruptcy.  Grandiosity.   Divorce.  But never dull.

The Smell of Greasepaint

He wasn’t the only grandson of  Quaker Obadiah J. Downing to find himself drawn to the world of entertainment and drama.  George’s older cousin, Edgar O. Rogers also left the small village of Cayuga to eventually find life under the proscenium arch.   His father, George G. Rogers,  well versed in caring for horses, took his wife, Mary Downing Rogers and their children to Waterloo and then to Rochester where he became a prominent veterinary surgeon.

E. O. Rogers, as he was always booked, had a flare for jewelry and was known to wear a very large diamond breast pin…only to be out shone by one of his minstrel players, “Hi Henry”, whose pin was described as illumining “the hall more than half a dozen or so kerosene lamps”.

As a young man, E. O. Rogers came back from the Civil War and immediately began his stage career.  By 1869 he was a variety performer headlining his own troupe with vocalist, Kate Tilston; comedian Mr. Fielding; Miss Susie Starr, whose specialty was a “Greek dance”;  Mr. E. F. Gorman, flutina soloist;Miss Maude Grinnell, actress;  Mr. J. M. Murray and Miss Nellie Clifford.  Called the Rogers Combination Company they were advertised as the most complete variety troupe ever brought together with a combination of five distinct companies -presenting dramatic, burlesque, pantomime, terpsichorean, Ethiopian and musical features.

Auburn and vicinity welcomed many of  his earliest shows.  The E. O. Rogers Pavillion show performed in Moravia in the summer of 1879.

In 1882 while his cousin was beginning his entertainment career opening billiard parlors and eating establishments, Edgar was the manager of a Havana NY Journal 17 Jun 1882 E O Rogers Uncle Toms Cabincomplete theatrical company taking “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” on the road…

laden with canvas of Mr. Roger’s Pavillion Opera House which he erects in every place where the show is given.  It is the most complete affair of its kind ever carried about by a traveling organization.  It included a large and commodious state, twenty-three complete sets of scenery, folding opera chairs for parquet and dress circle.  The stage has an area of 1600 square feet and the pavilion has a seating capacity of 2, 200.  The company consists of thirty-six artists.  Music is furnished by Professor Morey’s brass and string orchestra.

Never missing an opportunity to astound and thrill, the troupe of performers entered each town with a street parade featuring two uniformed brass bands, “white and colored.”

Investing in a large farm in Friendship, Alleghany, NY in 1885, Edgar and Lillie established a summer home where they could find respite from life on the road and ‘the canvas theater’.

With the flamboyant moniker of The E. O. Rogers Mammoth Double Uncle Tom Cabin’s Troupe, his retinue played to a full house at Nye’s Opera House in Auburn in February 1887 and again at Genoa’s Academy Hall.

The village of Cayuga welcomed their favorite son when he brought the E. O. Rogers Pavillion Opera Company presenting “Ten Nights in A Bar Room” under the big tent in July of 1888.  Company members (Professor) C.  J. Morey and W. B. Waterman registered at the Titus House belonging to  Edgar’s uncle,  David Sands Titus.

With his wife, Lillie Crider Rogers, who played Topsy to his Simon LeGree, Edgar and his entourage traveled throughout New York state, Pennsylvania and New Jersey to “Standing Room Only” crowds of enthusiastic fans as late as 1889.

The Roar of the Crowd

Belmont NY Weekly Dispatch 22 Apr 1890 E O Rogers Circus AdIn 1890 the flamboyant showman was not satisfied with the throngs and financial success that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” garnered and decided a menagerie would be his next great venture.  Giraffes, elephants…”Ladies and Gentlemen…from the far corners of the world, I bring you…” kind of entertainment.    E. O. felt the need for something new to excite the audience.   For decades he and his accomplished troupe of stage performers had been one of the most successful companies in New York State.    On his new farm in East Hill in Friendship, New York, $8, 000 worth of circus animals were prepared for his latest venture.  A circus.   The animals had been  purchased from the holdings of the late Adam Forepaugh who died in Philadelphia in January of 1890 during the flu epidemic .   Forepaugh and P. T. Barnum had the two largest circuses in the nation, were bitter rivals and E. O. Rogers was ready to give old P. T. some stiff competition.

Elephants and camels were ‘prowling around” the farm joining the ‘terrors’ of the local neighbors…the Rogers family bloodhounds.  Despite the “-ugh” commentary in the Belmont, NY Dispatch, they politely wished Mr. Rogers a prosperous business.

Within months, he and Lillie who had been childless, adopted one year old Sarah Richardson from a Rochester orphanage and renamed her Edna Rogers.  Lillie’s twice widowed mother,  Emily Hess,  moved in with the Rogers and life was good.

Unlike his troupe of human performers, transporting the animals,  training them, caring for them was a bigger task than he had imagined.  And the human performers…were a different breed entirely.  He had heavily invested in his new enterprise confident in his ability to draw crowds.  But the competition was quickly becoming thick and he was out of his element.  Now in their forties and with a new daughter to consider, the Rogers found themselves struggling.    Expenses were terrific and the environs of  a circus brought a rougher side to their lives.

And gambling.  In 1891 during his Great Inter-state show,  circus and menagerie booking in Cattaraugus county New York, he was arrested for conducting a three-monte swindle in connection with the show “whereby one man lost $250.  Rogers readily settled the matter by back the money with $15 costs added.”  Things were going from bad to worse.

Running out of money and not getting any younger, the Rogers decided to go back to what they knew best.  Acting.  By 1897 E. O. Rogers had been booked quickly as a popular orator and promoting him as of “Uncle Newark NY Union Sat Jan 9 1897 Edgar O Rogers Sherman Opera House LectureTom’s Cabin fame’ and ‘veteran circus man’ .  He  gave illustrated lectures  on Sunshine Shadows of a Great City” and  “The War of the Union” and exhibited pictures with Edison’s kinematograph.

Trouble followed Edgar in the form of Rochester laborer Charles John.  When little Edna came home in late summer of 1898 and reported that she had been ‘interfered with’ and pointed out Mr. John as her molester, the enraged father rushed to the site where the man was working a short distance from the Rogers’ home and beat him badly enough to require a physician.  Edgar was arrested and put on trial.  Evidence of Mr. John’s proclivities were brought about by testimony of others in the neighborhood whose children had similar complaints.   After a short deliberation, Edgar was pronounced not guilty and he returned home to the arms of his family.

An 1899 newspaper report in the Bolivar New York “Breeze” reported.

E. O. Rogers, formerly of Friendship is now proprietor of an Uncle Tom show.  Rogers once made $60, 000 with an Uncle Tom show.  Then he got stylish and put his money into a circus that bankrupted him.  He is making money.

The Final Curtain

His beloved Lillie, known as the greatest Topsy for her role in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, was stricken in her dressing room before a performance of Edgar’s acclaimed play “A Dash For Freedom” in 1903.  Her husband carried on his role on stage and the audience knew nothing of the tragedy unfolding back stage.  She died days later in their hotel room in Friendship.

Edna,  then 13 years old, lived with her maternal grandmother in Williamson, NY and Edgar went on with the show.  Westfield NY 1 Nov 1905 E O Rogers Stock Co Ad

The new company, Rogers Dramatic Company later The E. O. Rogers Stock Company, toured the northeast performing their old standard “Ten Nights In A Bar”, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”.  The trades were picking up on his activity back on the boards with great enthusiasm in 1905 reporting a repertory which included his own play “A Dash For Freedom” and characterizing him and his performance as “the author, manager and leading man, is receiving much praise for his clever acting.”

As late as 1907 he was promoting himself  in the New York Dramatic Mirror from his mother-in-law’s Williamson home.


At Liberty after Oct. 15

For old men – height 5 feet 11 – weight 190 -wardrobe-experience-ability-good habits-one play preferred.

He was 57 years old.

In three years he would be dead, destitute, but not forgotten.   The vain and glorious young man who trod the board with the beautiful Lillie, wore diamond stick pins, fascinated crowds near and far, dreamed the wildest dreams ,  took his final curtain call at the Old Soldier’s Home in Bath, New York.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2013.  All Rights Reserved


Author’s Note:   My great grandfather, like his cousin, dreamed amazing dreams and found himself without his theater and his family.  

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