Prescott residents have taken Shakespeare and community involvement in theatre seriously for more than 150 years!
The idea that volunteers or “amateurs” as they were called might join the players on stage to help create a larger spectacle or that plays involving community members might be presented as fundraisers (and crowd-pleasers) are local traditions that can be traced back to the 1870s.
Even before Prescott’s Victoria Hall opened in 1876, actors visited our town regularly – many touring through New York state and taking advantage of the short ferry ride between Ogdensburg and Prescott. They presented plays such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ten Nights in a Bar Room.
Edward (Ned) Miller and his Maple Leaf Minstrels were frequent visitors to Prescott, and were often joined by local musicians and elocutionists. Miller’s collection of theatre memorabilia (now housed at the Toronto Public Library) includes references to Victoria Hall and various Amateur Dramatic Society of Prescott plays of the mid-1870s, including Black-Eyed Susan, and the collection suggests that the Hall was well used by the community for benefit concerts (Odd-Fellows entertainment for benefit of the poor) and school productions (entertainment by students of Prescott Model School).
Minstrel shows remained popular until the 1920s, but I discovered an early reference to Shakespeare in Prescott thanks to a circa 1880 libretto kept by the Toronto Public Library. A Modern Romeo and Juliet: An Operetta in Two Acts was written by Ernest Longley and performed by the Prescott Dramatic Club. The Brock Bibliography of Published Canadian Plays describes the work as an “operetta in Gilbert and Sullivan style. Upper-class Mrs. Montague Smith refuses to let Juliet marry Romeo Robinson because he is poor. But all ends happily when Romeo receives an inheritance and Paris Brown decides he’d rather marry a more docile woman.”
The Longley family name is well-known in Grenville County, but Ernest Longley’s accomplishments as a young pianist and composer are almost forgotten. He was born in Maitland in 1866, the fourth child of George Canning and Sarah Longley and probably wasn’t much older than 15 when he wrote A Modern Romeo & Juliet. The involvement of Brockville’s ACJ Kaufman suggests he may have taken his first piano lessons from the infamous professor, and a short report in the PRESCOTT MESSENGER (August 1883) tells us he then departed for Germany to pursue studies in Stuttgart, on the advice of the American Consul in Prescott, Col. Slaght.
International music journals of the mid-1880s describe Ernest Longley as a teen prodigy who, unfortunately, suffered from a disease of the throat and lungs—probably tuberculosis. After a year of touring in North America and a winter on doctor’s orders in Davos, Switzerland, he succumbed to his illness in late 1889.
Another entertainer that Fort Towners particularly enjoyed was May Bell Marks and her performances of Kathleen Mavourneen. Early 20th century newspapers tell us she was “certainly an outstanding feature”. She was an established New York actress when she married Robert W. Marks, a member of Perth’s fabulous Marks Brothers who were known to many Canadians as a “most remarkable theatrical family…the dazzling Marks Brothers were the greatest impresario performers of our small town stage in the era before the nickelodeon.” (MACLEAN’s, 1958)
When the Ogdensburg Town Hall and Opera House were completed in the early 1880s, some of the first plays presented were Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Macbeth and As You Like It. The OGDENSBURG JOURNAL reported as follows:
“Tonight Mr. Thos. W. Keene will make his second appearance in this city, producing on this occasion Shakespeare’s great tragedy of ‘Macbeth’. Mr. Keene will be welcomed by a good house, quite a party we understand are coming from Prescott (February 25, 1884).”
“No student and lover of Shakespeare can afford to miss the opportunity to witness this splendid production of ‘As You Like It’ (starring Rose Coghlan). It is the first presentation of the comedy at the new Opera House, and will be staged and costumed in the same elegant manner as when presented in New York and Boston (October 13, 1886).”