Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Charles Frohman

Charles Frohman (1856-1915), an American theatrical producer of both stage and screen, was one of three founders of The Famous Players Film Company (1912), which merged into Paramount Pictures, celebrating its hundredth anniversary this year. Today owned by Viacom, Paramount is America's oldest existing film studio and the last major film studio still headquartered in Hollywood.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. In the late nineteenth century Frohman developed a “star and combination system” in which his stage stars and their original casts would tour the country after opening runs in New York City, a feat that revolutionized theater in the U.S. He mimicked the success of this system in London, as well. Frohman then organized the Theatrical Syndicate, which made stars of many playwrights and actors under his control. He thus wielded significant influence in matters of theatrical taste on both sides of the Atlantic. By the turn of the century he was the leading impresario of both New York and London, bringing British plays to New York and vice-versa. Frohman’s NY headquarters and office were in his Empire Theater, across the street from the Metropolitan Opera, at Broadway and 40th St. Beloved actor John Drew held sway here for more than 20 years (photo below), but Maud Adams, a celebrity actress in her day, created the role of Peter Pan here in 1907, the landmark event that theater goers would probably most remember about the Empire (sadly demolished in 1953).

However, Frohman soon set his sights on movies. The slogan for Frohman’s Famous Player Film Company was “Famous Players in Famous Plays,” offering feature-length films that would appeal to the middle class by showcasing the leading theatrical players of the time, including Sarah Bernhardt and Mary Pickford. Famous Player distributed its films through the start-up company Paramount (1914), the first successful nation-wide distributor. Until this time, films were sold on a state or regional basis, which was costly to film producers. In 1916, Famous Player Film Company merged with Lasky Features and Paramount distributors to become Paramount Pictures.

Tragically, Frohman never lived to see the merger that would spawn the creation of a worldwide cinematic powerhouse. A discrete homosexual, Frohman had a longtime live-in partner, theater critic Charles Dillingham (1868–1934), who had became a well-known producer. Dillingham (1916 photo at right) produced nine musicals each by composers Victor Herbert and Jerome Kern. By 1914 Dillingham was operating the massive Hippodrome Theatre, staging some of the largest spectacles New York had ever seen. He also collaborated with Florenz Ziegfeld and showcased the dance team of Adele and Fred Astaire. Charles Dillingham was also the inspiration for Billings, the fictional character played by Frank Morgan in MGM's movie, The Great Ziegfeld (1936).

In 1915 Frohman left Charles in New York to go to the aid of his favorite playwright, J. M. Barrie (noted author of Peter Pan). Barrie’s current play was troubled by a faltering London production, and Frohman, at age 58, sailed to the rescue on the ill-fated Lusitania, which went down within sight of the Irish coast. Calmly puffing a cigar as the ship was torpedoed on May 7, 1915, Frohman met his end as bravely as any stage hero, coolly intoning: "Why fear death? It's the greatest adventure of all" (a paraphrase of a line from Peter Pan: “To die would be an awfully big adventure.") For his epitaph Frohman asked that he be remembered as "The man who gave Barrie’s Peter Pan to the world and Rostand’s Chantecler to America."

The date of this newsprint warning by Germany (above) is dated April 22, 1915; the Germans torpedoed the British liner on May 7.

The night of the Lusitania’s sinking, John Ryland, on staff at Frohman’s Empire Theater in New York,  was inspecting the building at closing time when he saw Charles Frohman sitting at his desk in his fifth-floor office. The light was on, and Frohman was looking over all of his pictures and theater memorabilia that were laid out on top of his desk. Ryland was perplexed, as he had seen Charles off on the Lusitania only a few days prior. The staffer asked why Frohman was back and if there was anything he could do. Frohman shook his head, saying, “No, you can’t help me, John. Just leave me alone here for a few minutes. Thanks – and goodbye.”

Ryland left the room and quickly returned with the house manager, two box office boys, a press agent, and Frohman’s office boy, Peter Mason, all of them unbelieving. Frohman’s office was dark, empty, and everything was where it was supposed to be. The men laughed at Ryland, although some were unsettled by his insistence of what he saw. After subsequently learning of Frohman’s death, Ryland never entered Frohman’s office again, despite continuing to work at the theater for the next twenty years.

Coinciding with the centennial anniversary of Paramount, the restored and remastered version of the silent film Wings (1927) was released last week on DVD and Blu-Ray. It won the first ever Academy Award for Best Picture in an award ceremony at the Hotel Roosevelt, which still welcomes Hollywood guests across the street from Grauman’s Chinese Theater. This film about WW I fighter pilots also features the oldest extant male-male kiss, between actors Richard Arlen and Charles “Buddy” Rogers. Have a look at the restored footage:

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