Robert Barnet and Boston Musical Theater

by Anne Alison Barnet

(2004, Northeastern University Press, Boston, MA ISBN 1-55553-611-5)


In the 1890s and the 1900s, Robert Barnet brought together Boston Brahmins, bankers, bohemians and Billy Dalton to create a series of successful extravaganzas featuring young men of fine families cavorting in female drag to the benefit of Boston’s own First Corps of Cadets and their ambitions for an Armory. Designed by one of their own, the architect William Gibbons Preston, the Cadets built, show by show and wall by wall, “a rusticated granite fortress with a six story head-house, a two-hundred-foot long drill hall, and fortress like details: triple doors to defend against mob attack, a drawbridge and a light well that looked like a moat.” The fear of the day was not Islamists, communists, anarchists but immigrants—especially Irish Catholics.

The author, Ms. Alison Barnet, is the great granddaughter of Robert Barnet, the man whose annual extravaganzas raised the money to complete the bastion of Boston’s Back Bay where, in its quirky glory, it still stands at the corner of Columbus Avenue and Arlington Street. Ms. Barnet writes with elegance and subtle humor. Unlike run-of the-mill biographies of family members, she writes neither to exalt nor vilify. She is removed in time, circumstance and relation from her subject and takes us along as she pieces together the story of a man who was bound to Boston but would have succeeded on Broadway. A number of his shows were staged on Broadway: Excelsior, Jr., Jack and the Beanstalk, Three Little Lambs, Miss Pocahontas, My Lady, Up to Date, Miss Simplicity, The Show Girl or the Magic Cap, 1492 and Tabasco, but even the shows that went no further than Boston were covered by the New York drama critics.

Too often the history of show business and the stage is confined to the goings-on in New York City. Boston was home to the Fox-Howard clan, the birthplace of vaudeville and the stage for all manner of presentations from lecture series to dime store curio museums to classic and contemporary drama. Extravaganza King fills in missing pieces about the history of the American stage, and its appeal should extend well beyond city limits.

The cast members for Mr. Barnet’s extravaganzas were cadets and veterans of Harvard College’s Hasty Pudding shows more often than of armed conflicts. Occasionally a ‘ringer’ made his way into the cast. One was Billy Dalton, a young man who liked to dress as a girl and entertain the two-fisted patrons of Butte, Montana’s dance halls. His father banished Billy to Boston, which it must be allowed was not much of a punishment. He entered dancing school where he soon shined, and he was hired to perform in an eventual three of Barnet’s extravaganzas. Young master Dalton, encouraged by reviews and applause, changed his name to Julian Eltinge in 1903, went to Manhattan to play musical comedy and vaudeville as a female impersonator and eventually had a Broadway theatre named for him.

Ms. Barnet brings various Boston amateurs and professionals back for a final bow, and traces her great grandfather’s arc of success and eventual decline through the 1910s into 20 years of obscurity.

By sketching the plots and production numbers of various Barnet shows and tracing their incubation and production, Ms Barnet She fills a void that statistics cannot. This is a wryly told and useful book for theatre buffs.

To order: your local bookshop or www.amazon.com or www.bn.com.

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