December 15, 2011
Curtain Call: Scranton's Celebrity Limelight
by Alicia Grega
Scranton, Pennsylvania of 100 years ago was an arguably more vibrant, thriving city than it is today. It earned the nickname The Electric City for boasting the first electric street car system in the U.S. (1886), but Scranton at the turn of the century was equally electrifying for its cultural life. The city was a somewhat notorious stop on the vaudeville circuits though the '20s. Its largely blue-collar, immigrant audience was ethnically diverse and hard to impress. "If you can play Scranton," it was said, "you can play anywhere."
Retired school teacher Nancy McDonald has published a new edition of her research on this heyday in If You Can Play Scranton: A Theatrical History, 1871-2010, in paperback ($12.95) and various e-book formats ($2.99-$4.99) via local publisher Tribute Books (www.tribute-books.com).
"Theater people regarded Scranton as a tough town to play. It allowed established starts to justify their reputations and made newcomers prove their right to hold the stage," McDonald explains. "Mediocrity was never excused, but at the same time, Scrantonians were quick to spot new talent and to applaud superb acting and fine production techniques."
The book is essentially a who's who timeline of Scranton's brushes with fame.
The author's sources include Academy of Music programs, newspaper articles, Lackawanna Historical Society collections, library reference materials, personal collections, and numerous oral accounts from those with first hand experiences and stories.
Following an account of the filming of That Championship Season in Scranton in the '80s, the book offers little more than a list of national concert headliners who've played Montage Mountain. (An earlier chapter covers big stars brought into town by Scranton Community Concerts or the Broadway Theatre League through recent years.) But theatre buffs will want this book for the historical photos alone and anecdotes about actors like Mae Desmond, who was immensely popular in the second decade of the 20th century. Among her triumphs was the role of Madame X, a woman who loses her son after becoming addicted to absinthe and is forced to prostitute herself in order to survive. The actress turned to druggist John Loftus who ran a store popular with performers next to The Academy of Music while researching the part. He introduced the actress to one of the city's infamous "scarlet women," a former drug user.
"I want to emphasize how highly theater people esteemed Scranton," Desmond is quoted in the book. "The people of Scranton made me feel loved. They made me feel I had found a second home for as long as I wanted to stay. They provided the inspiration that made it possible for all of us to perform."
A native of Dunmore, McDonald native traces her interest in theater through her father, to whom the book is dedicated. Paul McDonald worked as a theatrical electrician before taking a job with PPL and told stories about stars he saw come to town. Although the author herself minored in drama and studied voice, her career focus was history. She taught at West Scranton High School until she retired in 1999. The author will personalize copies of her book at Steamtown National Historic Site on Saturday, Dec. 24 at 11 a.m. Visit http://www.IfYouCanPlayScranton.com for more information.