Thursday, August 6, 2020

The David and Jonathan of the Savoy Theatre


You notice how carefully that is worded. I am not saying that my couple indulged in ho-mo-sex-ual activities ... though I'll bet that they did ... but as a wise man once said 'you can't say someone is gay unless you've been to bed with them', and even I am too young for this pair. They were dead before I was born.

So, who were they, where did they come from, and what did they do at the Savoy? Well, their names were Edwin Schutt ISHAM (b Dunkirk, NY 1 January 1867; d Manasquan River 6 October 1937)  and George Edward DEVOLL [?DAVOL] (b Fall River 16 October 1864; d Brielle, NJ 2 February 1933). They came from New York (together), via vocal finishing lessons from Sbriglia in Paris, and were engaged in London to play knightly characters in The Beauty Stone. Edwin the baritone as Guntran of Beaugrant and George, the tenor, as Philip, Lord of Mirlemont. Both had actually been on the stage before -- Edwin in The Wizard of The Nile and George in the ephemeral Leonardo, in New York -- but the stage was not really their thing: they were parlour vocalists, polite concert singers, and their future career (together) would show it. But one can see (if not hear) why they were hired. Edwin was a six-foot-two, 31 year-old baritonic 'knight', and, well, where Edwin went, the fractionally older and less lofty, but capably tenorious, George went too.
So, what had they done until they came together ... Edwin, first, for the simple reason that there are lashings of information scattered everywhere about Edwin (Survey of the Ishams by Homer Worthington Brainard). Why? Well, he came from a small town, of which the newspaper greedily chronicled every afternoon teaparty (and there were lots) at which he sang, and that because he was the grandson of a local personality. Edwin senior had been a much-liked local businessman who put all his considerable savings into Miner's Bank, only to see the bank fail. His father, George Pierpont Isham apparently went into tobacco and property, and, it seems, that young Edwin didn't want for anything. He attended Cornell, the Boston Conservatory, and, for two years, the New York 'National Conservatory' (is it possible to do all three?), sang at local gatherings (at first as Edwin Isham jr, 'It is enough'), and then, in 1891, headed for England. I see him singing Godard's 'Arabian Song' and Gluck's 'Diana, unforgiving' (Iphigenia in Aulis) at Waldemar Mayer's violin concert (St James's Hall 20 May 1891, 'Mr Isham has a fine voice and it is obvious that he a singer of much refinement and taste, particularly in music of the lighter school'), but that is all. It may have been a short stay.

In the first meanwhile, George was in Boston. Studying? But a member (1st tenor) of the Lotus Glee Club ('Before the Dawn' &c), then 'tenor of the Apollo Club and the New York Art Society' singing the tenor role in The Creation at New Haven. And putting a toe in theatrical waters as the hero of the amateurish Leonardo ('sang with nice discretion'). I see him singing 'Der Sängers Heimgesang' and (oyoy) Godard's 'Arabian Song' at a concert in Brooklyn (13 February 1895) where the instrumental soloist was one V Herbert. He cello-ed 'The Swan'. The Godard song makes me wonder, had Edwin and George already met? I think so: because in February 1896, Edwin and George set sail for Europe (together) 'to study for the opera'. They enrolled with Sbriglia in Paris and .. (dot dot dot) .. from there ('they have left Sbriglia for concert enagements in London') moved to England. Where the Savoy Theatre awaited ...



In August 1899, they arrived back in New York (with one Theodore Flint, wonder where he fits in). George took a job as tenor lead in the under-sung Frank Daniels musical The Ameer  ('there was but one member, Geo Devoll, who proved vocally competent, but his manouevers on stage could hardly be called acting'). After a while, George chucked the theatre in and went off concertising with Edwin. And they conquered the tea-party and Women's Club circuit to the extent that Mrs Roosevelt invited them to sing for her hen party at the White House. In 1903, a journo summed them up: 'Messrs Devoll and Isham are the mildest of gentlemen. Their offerings are as tea at five o'clock in gentlest Boston, or mush at a girls' school far from the strenuous world. The gentlemen are neatly synchronised, very neatly and accurately indeed, but they seem to feel too much for manly utterance; which is deplorable  in a day a trifle overfond of vigour'. I have to prevent myself from reading between the lines, but ...

Well, there were plenty of takers for polite, gentlemanly entertainment. Mostly ladies ... ah! this is what I wanted. What they sang (1903). Programme: George solo: Mendelssohn's 'On wings of song', Chaminade's 'Immortality', The Queen of my heart', 'O sleep why dost thous leave me', 'Nevermore Alone', 'The Forsaken Maid'; Edwin solo: Faure's 'Au bord de l'eau'. Augusta Holmes's 'La Belle du roi', Messager's 'Lomg Ago in Alcala', 'O let night speak of me', 'Come into the Garden, Maud' (!!!), Cowen's 'Border Ballad'. Duets 'The Sea'. 'The Path of Love' (Brahms), 'Colmette', 'Passage Bird's Farewell' and, to finish, the Pearlfishers duet. Always.

I think that list sums up who they were and what they did. And they did it for many a year. From ladies' club to Piano advertising to genteel soirée.

In 1911, George married. His wife was Joanna Müller .. Isham. I haven't investigated her, but she is clearly a young sprig of his (boy)friends family tree. She seems to have fitted in finely, and I see her journeying with the boys in the 1910s and 1920s....

Is that the end? Nope. In 1919 Edwin and George purchased 17 West 67th Street. Then the garage next door. George was secretary of the '67th Street studio Building Association'. Oh no, the boys did not depend on Schubert and Messager for the daily caviar. In the same year, their collection of silver and pottery was put to auction

200 lots. Were they selling up their old Bachelor(s) pad ...? And moving into .. well, I think it was 27 West 67th. And Mrs Devoll came too. I see the three of them voyaging  to Europe together in 1928 ... 


Thanks to the family, I have this beautiful photo of the pair in older age. Edwin's mother, with whom he was latterly wont to travel, had died in 1927. But the boys (and Joanna) kept travelling. At some stage, Edwin (unmarried) 'adopted' a young 'distant relative' ... yes ... 

His legend, in typical American fashion, mythologised ...

Lambert Hall. Sounds grand. In fact, it was. He inherited property, in Manasquan, from an aunt, built an English Mansion there ...

Anyway, apparently, they all (all passion spent?) lived together in the greatest, wealthy, harmony ... until death did them part.

Oh, obituaries! 

There is heaps more to be said and found on these boys ('boys' is what TV now calls gay men of no matter what age) ... but this is a Cartesian blog, so I herewith retire ... and I shall dream of those two wonderful old men ... 

Were they lovers or just 40 years live-in pals?

Well! I didn't expect to come across a story like this in my Cartesian hunt!










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