August 18, 1856 – Charles Frohman
Charles Frohman was an American producer of both stage and screen, and one of three founders of The Famous Players Film Company (1912), which merged into Paramount Pictures, celebrating its 107th anniversary this year. Today owned by Viacom, Paramount is America’s oldest existing film studio and the last major film studio still headquartered in Hollywood.
In the late-19th century, Frohman developed a “star and combination system” in which his stars of Broadway shows and their original casts would tour the country after their runs in New York City, which revolutionized theatre in the USA. He got the idea after the success of this system in London. Frohman then organized the Theatrical Syndicate, which made stars of many playwrights and actors under his control. He wielded significant influence in matters of theatrical taste in North America and Europe.
By the turn of the century he was the leading impresario of both New York and London, bringing British plays to New York and Broadway shows to the West End. Frohman’s Manhattan headquarters and office were in the Empire Theater, which he owned, across the street from the Metropolitan Opera House, at Broadway and 40th St. In 1895, he produced the New York premiere of Oscar Wilde‘s The Importance Of Being Earnest. Popular actor and producer John Drew (great-great-grandfather of Drew Barrymore), appeared in shows there for more than 20 years, and Maud Adams starred in the role of Peter Pan in America in 1907, the production which gave Ruth Gordon her acting career its start. Peter Pan was the landmark event that theatre fans would probably most remember about the Empire,which was sadly demolished in 1953.
Frohman was known for his ability to develop talent. His stars included the biggest actors of the era, including William Gillette, John Drew, Ethel Barrymore, and Billie Burke.
Frohman soon set his sights on the new industry of moving pictures. The slogan for Frohman’s Famous Player Film Company was “Famous Players in Famous Plays”, offering feature-length films that would appeal to the middle-class by showcasing the leading theatrical actors of the time in film performances, including Sarah Bernhardt and Mary Pickford. Famous Player distributed its films through the start-up studio Paramount (1914), the first successful nation-wide distributor. Until this time, films were sold on a state or regional basis, which was costly to film producers. In 1916, Famous Player Film Company merged with Lasky Features which became Paramount distributors before becoming Paramount Pictures.
Tragically, Frohman never lived to see the merger that would spawn the creation of a worldwide cinematic powerhouse. A discrete gay man, Frohman had a longtime partner, theater critic Charles Dillingham (1868–1934), who also became a well-known producer. Dillingham produced nine musicals each by composers Victor Herbert and Jerome Kern. By 1914 Dillingham was operating the massive Hippodrome Theatre, staging some of the largest spectacles New York City had ever seen. He collaborated with Florenz Ziegfeld and showcased the dance team of Adele and Fred Astaire. Dillingham is the inspiration for “Billings”, the fictional character played by Frank Morgan in MGM’s movie, The Great Ziegfeld (1936).
In 1915 Frohman left Dillingham in New York City to travel to London to help his favorite playwright, J. M. Barrie (writer of Peter Pan). Barrie’s current play was having trouble with its first London production, and Frohman, at 58 years old, sailed to the rescue on the ill-fated Lusitania, which went down within sight of the Irish coast. Calmly puffing a cigar as the ship was torpedoed by the Germans on May 7, 1915, Frohman met his end as bravely as any stage hero, coolly commenting: “Why fear death? It’s the greatest adventure of all” , a paraphrase of a line from Peter Pan: “To die would be an awfully big adventure.” For his epitaph Frohman had already asked that he be remembered as “The man who gave Barrie’s Peter Pan to America”.
Frohman’s body was later washed ashore in Ireland, and it was later determined that he was killed by a heavy object falling on him, rather than by drowning. His body lay among 147 others awaiting identification, where a rescued American identified it from newspaper photographs. His body, alone among all the others, was not disfigured. His funeral service was held on May 25 at Temple Emanuel in New York City. Services were also arranged by some of his stars in other American cities: Maude Adams in Los Angeles, John Drew in San Francisco, Billie Burke in Tacoma, and there were memorial services at both St, Paul’s Cathedral and the Church of Saint Martin-Of The -Fields in London.
The night of the Lusitania’s sinking, John Ryland, a member of the staff at the Empire Theater in New York City, was inspecting the building at closing time when he saw Frohman sitting at his desk in his fifth-floor office. The light was on, and Frohman was looking over all of his pictures and theatre memorabilia that were laid out on top of his desk. Ryland was perplexed, as he had said goodbye to Frohman as he boardred the Lusitania only a few days earlier. Ryland asked why Frohman was back and if there was anything he could do. Frohman shook his head, and said:
“No, you can’t help me, John. Just leave me alone here for a few minutes. Thanks – and goodbye.”
Ryland left the room, but soon returned with the house manager, two box office boys, a press agent, and Frohman’s secretary, Peter Mason, all of them unbelieving. Frohman’s office was dark, empty, and everything was where it was supposed to be. The men laughed at Ryland, although some were unsettled by his insistence of what he saw. Later, after learning of Frohman’s death, Ryland never entered Frohman’s office again, despite continuing to work at the theater for the next two decades.
In his short time on our pretty planet, Frohman produced over 700 shows and 50 films.
In the film Somewhere In Time (1980), he is played by Christopher Plummer. In 2004, Dustin Hoffman portrayed him in the enchanting film Finding Neverland, and Kelsey Grammer played him in the less than enchanting musical of the same name on Broadway in 2015.
Paramount recently released a newly restored and remastered version of the silent film that Frohman produced, Wings (1927), on DVD and Blu-Ray. It won the first ever Academy Award for Best Picture in an award ceremony at the Hotel Roosevelt, which still welcomes Hollywood guests from Grauman’s Chinese Theater across Hollywood Boulevard. This film about World War I fighter pilots features the oldest male-male kiss, between actors Richard Arlen and Charles “Buddy” Rogers. Watch: