Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The faces of The New Boy

[1] Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 2, 1896.
I’M VERY pleased to read Peter Jensen Brown’s The Real Alfred E. which raises new questions about the origin of the Alfred E. Neuman image so familiar to readers of MAD magazine. However, Brown’s findings raise a few other questions in my mind. First a short chronology of The New Boy on the stage will set the scene. 

[2] Grossmith, in The Bookman, Volume 37.
The New Boy, a play inspired by F. Anstey’s popular book Vice Versa, opened in London on February 28, 1894, with Weedon Grossmith in the title role, and ran for fourteen months in England, ending round April 1895. The first American show of The New Boy was produced in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on September 14, 1894 with British actor Willis Searle, whom one writer described as ‘droll and diminutive,’ as the boy. 

[3] Grossmith, in Munsey’s Magazine, 1909.
Searle’s acting was criticized by many including New York’s Spirit of the Times who on October 13, 1894, reported
‘Following the advice of the Spirit, shrewd manager Charles Frohman has sent Willis Searle into the provinces and engaged a new boy for the New Boy, at the Standard. Any change would have been for the better; but James T. Powers is a decided improvement. He looks the part and gets some fun out of it.’ 
[4] James T. Powers, 1897.
The words ‘he looks the part’ may be significant; suggesting that the actors were imitating the promotional image used on posters and advertising rather than the poster being inspired by the phiz of any particular actor. 

As Brown notes: 
‘James T. Powers performed the role until early December, 1894, and continues performing the role on the ‘original cast’ tour through April, 1895. Bert Coote played the role in the first national tour that started in mid-November, 1894, and continued for more than a year, ending in early 1896. Bert Coote later purchased the rights to produce the play himself. His independent production toured the country through 1899.’
[5] Grossmith, in Behind the Footlights, 1904.
THE FIRST actor to take on the role was Weedon Grossmith (1854-1919), who began life as an aspiring artist, studying at the West London School of Art before becoming a successful portrait painter. He illustrated his brother George Grossmith’s celebrated book Diary of a Nobody and exhibited paintings at the Royal Academy. In 1888 he took to the stage, touring America with Rosina Vokes theatrical company. Back in London he appeared in Sir Henry Irving’s Robert Macaire and Richard Mansfield’s Prince Karl. He was manager and lessee of Terry’s Vaudeville Theatre in London from 1894 to 1896, and it was here that the farce The New Boy was first produced. 

[6] ‘Who’s the NEW BOY?…’ June 3, 1895.
One tantalizing fact is that Weedon Grossmith was also well regarded as a caricaturist and as a member of the Savage Club formed close friendships with all the leading caricaturists of the day, including Harry Furniss and Linley Sambourne. This may be significant since it still has not been established if the caricatured face on The New Boy advertisements originated in London or America. Grossmith or one of his friends may actually have designed the original poster image (shown HERE when Bert Coote was enacting The New Boy) on which all others were based. That’s pure speculation at this point in time but intriguing nonetheless. 

[7] New York Dramatic Mirror, April 6, 1895.
Like Brown I could find no images of Willis Searle, also an Englishman, but his acting in the part of The New Boy was widely criticized. And, contrarily, he was widely praised in America for his part as the female impersonator in Charlie’s Aunt. 

[8] Bert Coote, Rochester Democrat, February 5, 1899.
One of the most popular New Boys, and the last, was British born Bert Coote. He took to the footlights at age 5 and spent twenty years as a stage comedian in the United States. He began working in films in 1930 and died at his London home on September 3, 1938. He was seventy years old. 

[9] James T. Powers, Marie Burroughs Art Portfolio of Stage Celebrities, 1894.
James T. Powers was born in New York on April 26, 1862, and began life as a Western Union messenger boy and clerk in a tea store. He first ventured on stage with a minstrel troupe in Vernon, NY, which gave one performance before folding. He knocked around in variety and vaudeville until 1882 when he played a comic policeman in Evangeline. In 1897, after playing The New Boy, he toured with Daly’s musical comedy company and the Shuberts.

[11] James T. Powers as The New Boy, November 18, 1894.
Many of the images of comedian James T. Powers do bear a ‘real-life’ resemblance to Alfred E. Neuman but as seen in newspaper drawings of Powers playing the Boy onstage the resemblance is nonexistent, another reason to suppose that the image may have been prepared before the actor was hired for the part. On the other hand the artist may have pictured the scene from the vantage-point of a newspaper desk, or a barstool.

[12] F.M. Howarth strip cartoon in Puck, September 6, 1893.
A few questions remain – did the face of the Boy originate in England or America? Who designed the face, was it a nonentity or the work of an already celebrated English or American cartoonist? Who drew the original image – the Ur-image? In previous posts I pointed out the Neuman resemblance in pre-1894 Puck cartoons by F. Opper and F.M. Howarth. 

[13] F. Opper, March, 1888.
WAS that serendipity or was The New Boy image taken from a previous source? Thanks to The Real Alfred E. we have new avenues to explore. At this point a thorough search for New Boy advertisements in British periodicals for the period 1893-96 is needed to ascertain whether the face originated in England or America. 

[14] New York Tribune Illustrated Supplement, unknown date.

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