is undergoing a resurge of interest, and provoking a fresh round of articles, owing, apparently, to a current off-Broadway piece written around it. So, here we go. Can we at last, sweep away the fantasies and fictions surrounding this 150-year-old pasticcio legshow, and get round to the facts of the matter? Please!
For Wheatley to agree to this remarkably long run, success or failure, Barras must have come up with some stinging inducement. It appears that this inducement was some kind of a sharing terms arrangement, but it is fairly obvious that Mr Barras was in effect paying for his piece to go on, in order to establish its title for the future. The deal in place, the author set to preparing the scenery and properties for his production at the Academy of Music in his summer hometown of Buffalo, NY.
At this stage, Messrs Henry Jarrett and Henry Palmer came into the picture. Having recently formed a producing partnership, they’d been over in Europe ‘looking for novelties’ to import to America. Amongst what they’d seen were a production of the féerie La Biche au bois
in Paris, and the pantomime at Astley’s Theatre in London, and they had decided that they would put on a show, back home, which utilised some of the more original spectacularities they’d seen in those two pieces. They’d talked to some of the lead dancers from the Paris show, they’d negotiated the purchase of the big transformation scene from the London panto, and they had had the thought that their, as yet unwritten, show might go well (and not too expensively) at the Academy of Music. But then the Academy burned down, and so the would-be-producers made their way instead to the other home of New York spectaculars, Niblo’s Garden. But Niblo’s wasn’t available. Mr Barras had booked it for his 100 performances. Quite whose idea it was to mix and match, and to slip the bit of British panto Jarrett and Palmer had already paid out their money for, into The Black Crook
, isn’t recorded. But the result of the negotiations that ensued among Wheatley, Jarrett, Palmer and Barras, was that Barras was relieved of his potentially onerous ‘sharing’ terms and paid, instead, a small flat sum as a royalty, and that Jarrett and Palmer, effectively, took over as producers of the New York mounting of his play. And the first thing Jarrett did was to set off overseas, again, to start gathering up the ideas, decorations and personnel which they wanted, to change the show from a spectacular melodrama into something more like Paris’s wonderful La Biche au bois.
A veritable pot-pourri of scenery, mechanics, costume (or lack of it) and girls.
Barras’s scenic and costume designs, of course, went completely by the board. His half-made sets and clothes stayed behind in Buffalo, whilst the new producers ordered new ones, more in line with the Parisian-Londonish spectacle they intended to produce. In the end, Jarrett arrived back in New York only the day before rehearsals began, bringing with him 45 dancers and actors to add to the local contingent hired by Wheatley (‘wanted 60 ballet girls for Black Crook
at Niblo’s..’), and many a crate of European props.
By the time they opened, the extravaganza (‘written expressly for Mr Wheatley..’) ran for a full five hours. And that in spite of the fact that great chunks of Barras’s text, including his big final climax, which had got in the road of the panto transformation, had simply, and blatantly, been cut out. But if there wasn’t too much dramatic construction left, the show now included a full score of songs and choruses by various writers, some new and some borrowed, selected and arranged by house musical director Baker, a great deal of ooh-aah mechanical scenery, and a vast dose of the leg-show ballets and parades, typical of the more grandiose French productions, all of it mixed in with Barras’s remaining scenes of fairytale drama and romance, to make up a highly attractive, if reasonably incoherent and lengthy, opéra-bouffe féerie entertainment. The show’s priorities were visible from its advertising: the splendid `Tableaux, Costumes, Marches, Scenery' (‘operated by 71 stage-hands’) and the 'premium transformation' (‘purchased entire from Astley’s Theatre, London’) were splashed large across announcements which did not even mention the text or the music, and the 'Grand Parisienne Ballet Troupe' (62 girls, 39 American and 23 British, but, nevertheless, advertised as being fashionably French) and the 'Garde Imperiale' of marching girls were prominently billed, whereas the names of the principal actors and singers were down in the miniprint, when they were advertised at all.
Barras's tale was rather more Germanic than French, telling of the plots concocted by the vile Hertzog (C H Morton), under the spell of the diabolic -- and shades-of-Der Freischütz -- Zamiel (E B Holmes), to deliver up a monthly ration of human souls to the powers below. Hertzog selects the artist, Rudolf (G C Boniface), whom he frees from the clutches of Count Wolfenstein (J W Blaisdell), as his victim of the night, but, as he leads him to his fate, the young man saves the life of a benighted dove. The dove is the disguised fairy, Stalacta (Scottish operatic soprano Annie Kemp Bowler), and, in the course of the evening, she outwits Hertzog and steers Rudolf to a happy ending with the fair Amina (Rose Morton). The comedy was provided by the dramatic folks' servants, with J G Burnett as von Puffengruntz producing the lowest of it, and the musical hit of the show was a soubrette number `You Naughty, Naughty Men' as introduced by Mrs Lawrence, for 15 years of the English music halls, here performing under the pseudonym of 'Millie Cavendish' (she died, in an epileptic fit, four months into the run), in an incidental rôle.
Just as the similarly constructed Sheep's Foot
had done in California earlier in the year (20 March 1866), The Black Crook
provided New York with its most effective piece of grosse Spektakel-Feerie to date, and -- perhaps even more attention-pullingly -- its most uninhibited mass view of apparently little-clad female limbs to date, and those legs and the displays of scenic machinery roused an unparalleled interest as, with an ever fluid programme of components, the show ran on on Broadway for fifteen and a half months, closing 4 January 1868 after 475 performances. With his title more established than he could ever have dreamed, Barras quickly got his rather less grandiose production (‘without the imported nudities...’) off the mark at Buffalo, and the show was repeated thereafter, in often largely varying versions, all around the country, to the great profit of its author who had, as planned from the start, reserved to himself all outside-New York production rights.
Thus, for the few years of his life that remained, he collected largely, as Black Crook
productions -- many bearing little resemblance to his play, and merely using the title as a come-on signalling ‘leg-show with scenery’ -- sprung up. The show also made intermittent return visits to the New York stage over a number of years (Niblo’s Garden 1870, 123 performances, 1871, 87 performances, 1873 130 performances &c) and in latter days it was toured long around America by the country’s most determined spectacle merchants, the Kiralfy brothers.
A sad coda to the tale. Wheatley, Jarrett and Palmer all made fortunes from the Niblo’s run of The Black Crook. The bought-out Barras had to wait till a little later to make his money. He certainly did -- John McDonough snapped up the rights for a dozen major cities, John Meech of Buffalo for 16 lesser ones, and Maeder, Davey and Curran for the minor towns of 15 states -- but he had little joy of it. Sallie, for whom the piece had been written, died (Buffalo, NY, 9 April 1867) even before the New York run had ended and, soon after, a depressed Barras sold his mansion at Cos Cob to Edwin Booth. Finally, on 30 March 1874, he threw himself from a moving train.
The Black Crook became, during its months as a Broadway phenomenon, the butt of burlesque in virtually every minstrel and burlesque troupe in town. Christy’s Minstrels, the San Francisco Minstrels, Kelly and Leon (The Great Black Crook Burlesque) all featured parodies of the show, Tony Pastor offered John F Poole’s The White Crook and visiting British actor Edward Warden penned a Black Cook which went round the country.
A silent film based on the Black Crook story was produced in 1916 (11 January), with Australian ex-tenor Henry Hallam as Wolfenstein, E P Sullivan as Hertzog and Mae Thompson as Stalacta.
The favoured mytho-story of the creation of The Black Crook was used as the background for the show The Girl in Pink Tights (Sigmund Romberg/Joseph Fields, Jerome Chodorov Mark Hellinger Theater 5 March 1954).
2) grand opéra-bouffe féerie in 4 acts by Harry and Joseph Paulton founded on La Biche au bois. Music by Georges Jacobi and Frederic Clay. Alhambra Theatre, London, 23 December 1872.
An early effort to reproduce in Britain the same kind of vast and spectacular grand opéra-bouffe féerie which was then popular in France, this version of the La Biche au bois
legend owed nothing to its American homonym except its title. Lovely opéra-bouffe star Cornélie d'Anka starred as the vicious witch of the title out to thwart the enchanted Princess Desirée and her Prince, but the largest part of the evening's entertainment was, as in the American show, given over to its physical production, its ballets and the low comic element, as personified by author Harry Paulton as a comic vizier and Kate Santley (who had appeared for a while as Stalacta in the American Black Crook)
as the heroine's maid, in which rôle she delivered the show's stand-out song `Nobody Knows As I Know' in the overtly roguish style she favoured. The production, staged for Christmas, played until the following August. A simplified version with revised text and music was successfully produced at the same theatre in 1881.
As a result of the reponse to this reprint of my fifteen year old article, I followed up, a few days later, with another ... which can be read at ...