Chapter 26: A Roller Coaster Ride for “Peter Weston”

Summary: “Peter Weston” does well during a one-week run in Atlantic City, but Frank Keenan’s poor performance on opening night in New York seals its fate. Unsure what to do next, Aggie convinces Frank to stay with the children in Quincy, while she heads to Hollywood alone.

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Frank Keenan was sure that “Peter Weston” would be a whopping success on Broadway, so sure that he shipped his limousine to New York and took a long lease on a house in the suburbs. We gave up our house in Hollywood and trained East with the two children and about 21 pieces of luggage—mostly baby equipment. We went to the Holly Tree House and found a young village girl to take care of the children while we commuted to New York for rehearsals or often spent the night there in a suite at the Algonquin.

Frank Keenan had directed the Chicago production. Now Sam Forrest was at the helm. There were some skirmishes between him and Keenan but the play gradually smoothed out. Frank did some excellent rewriting and finally the play seemed perfect. There was to be a tryout in Atlantic City. The opening night brought a crowded house, tremendous applause and good critical notice. After that, it was pure fun. We lingered on for the week’s run, seeing every performance and gloating over it.

We stayed at the same hotel as Judith Anderson and she and I got to be pals. Every morning we would go for a plunge in the surf, then sun-bake on the sand or take long strolls on the boardwalk. When men ogled us, I told Judy it was because of her, not me, a staid matron. But now that I was getting my figure back and had a lot of new clothes, I was secretly sure some of their glances were directed toward me.

One late afternoon, we swam for an hour and then, for some crazy reason, took a ride on a plunging roller coaster. The dips, the jerks, and the sharp descents churned my stomach. Nevertheless, I enjoyed Judy’s shrieks and giggles at the terrors of the ride and I guess she did mine. We repeated the ride again and again. Finally, Judy said, “Gosh, it’s late. I’ll have to hurry my dinner if I’m going to get to the theater on time.”

She did hurry her dinner–a vegetable dinner that the dining room captain recommended as the meal that could be served quickly. I went to my suite, lay down, and then picked leisurely through a light meal. The second act was on before Frank and I got to the theatre that evening. The house was packed and Keenan and Judy were playing magnificently. In fact, I had never seen Judy put more woe into her heartbreak scene.

Oddly, the fourth act of “Peter Weston” was of peculiar construction. With the exception of a few lines from a manservant, it was played by Frank Keenan and Judy. Keenan’s eldest son was due to be executed at dawn and Judy, his estranged daughter, had come back to the paternal roof to be of what comfort she could. But, as the act progressed, the old animosities between father and daughter flared up. And finally Judy swept upstairs, leaving her father to face disaster and an accounting with his God alone. When Judy made her fourth act entrance, she was greeted with applause. Keenan, clad in a magnificent dressing gown, rose to greet her. “My daughter! My daughter!” he cried. “I’m alone. So alone!” Father and daughter fell into each other’s arms. Then, to our utter surprise, Keenan slowly backed Judy off stage, saying, “Daughter, my dear, dear daughter! Go to your room.” For a moment, both were behind the wings, and when Keenan reappeared, he was no longer wearing his dressing gown but was in shirtsleeves.

We found out later that Judy’s vegetable dinner, which had been agonizing her all through the performance, had finally caught up with her. She’d been ghastly sick all over Keenan’s fine dressing gown, and he’d backed her off stage so the audience wouldn’t know of the contretemps. Keenan played the entire fourth act of “Peter Weston” alone. Sometimes he’d improvise lines, mumbling them so the audience could just hear. Other times he’d stride to the wings and utter the play’s lines, pleading for reconciliation. The tragedy of his expression told the audience the answers he received. When the curtain finally came down, there was almost an ovation.

For the opening night in New York, I splurged on a black velvet evening gown with the daring new décolleté back cut nearly down to my waist. Somehow, somewhere, I’d heard of an “author’s box “ at a play’s premiere. And I pictured Leighton Osmun and his wife and Frank and myself sitting in full view of the audience and, at the play’s close, bowing gracefully as our authors acknowledged the plaudits of the audience.

When we reached the theatre, Frank led me to two dark seats in the last row. This was just as well. Even in the first act we knew something was wrong. Tense moments didn’t hold. Lines that had always brought laughs were received with silence. Pauses prolonged themselves embarrassingly. It was the middle of the second act when Frank whispered, “Keenan’s drunk.”

Drink had always been a curse to Keenan. Mrs. Keenan had told us that, but she’d said that he realized he was having his last great chance with “Peter Weston,” and he’d absolutely sworn off. He had broken this pledge in Chicago. Frank and I knew nothing about it, but a two-week slump in receipts was due to his giving incompetent performances. Mrs. Keenan’s anxiety should have warned us.

The strain of the New York opening had been just too much for our star. His performance became progressively worse. Judith Anderson was tremendous. Somehow, she held the play together, a triumph that Keenan, in his muzzy state, must have resented. At the close of the play, he took his curtain call and was greeted with scant applause. But there were wild shouts for “Anderson! Anderson!”

When Judy came before the curtain, Keenan stepped in front of her and literally backed her off the stage. To our horror, the “bravos” that had greeted Judy turned to hisses for Keenan. And with those hisses, “Peter Weston” died. (Editor’s note: The Playbill link indicates the play actually ran for 23 performances, probably with dwindling audiences, before closing.)

So certain of the success of “Peter Weston,” we had spent money crazily. Now Frank and I holed up at the Holly Tree House, and I sent “feeler” letters to the coast, suggesting that “my husband, the playwright,” and I might possibly be coaxed to collaborate on some scenarios. But not a single studio took the hint. One producer friend, on a story-buying trip to New York, did invite me to lunch at the Algonquin and gave it to me straight from the shoulder: “The studios don’t want you and Frank to collaborate,” he said. “Don’t you see, Aggie, your last salary was $1,000 a week, Frank’s only $350. If you two wrote a script together, we’d only be getting work worth half of your combined salaries–only a $675-a-week job.”

Amazed at these “Hollywood mathematics,” I stammered, “But, but, when Frank’s play ran in Chicago, he got over $1,000 a week in royalties.”

“The play flopped in New York, didn’t it?” my friend said coldly.

When I went back to Holly Tree House that night, I found Frank nursing his right hand in a pan of hot water. He’d shaken the ashes in our antique furnace so often and so vigorously his hand was bruised and swollen. The old house had never been really warm all winter. Yes, something had to be done and, for the first time in our married life, I had to do it alone. I told Frank I wanted to go back to Hollywood by myself. I explained it was in the interest of economy.

“You see, dear,” I argued, “if we go to the coast with the children, we’ll have all kinds of big expenses. If you stay with them in Quincy at your parents’ home, I can get along by myself for practically nothing,”

So to Illinois we went, and Frank gave me a bank draft for $300, which I assured him was all I needed to conquer Hollywood. The whole family came to the Quincy train station to say goodbye. Mitchell, still just a baby, didn’t understand what was going on. Snug in his grandmother’s arms, he waved “bye bye” with enthusiasm. Ruth Margaret, two and a half, looked at me, solemn and bewildered. Frank was the worst. He tried to be cheerful but he had a hurt look in his eyes. I was miserable myself and a little afraid. Frank and I had been together so long. Would I be able to carry on alone?

***

(Editor’s note: Photos of Frank’s parents, Charles Turner Dazey and Lucy Harding Dazey, are shown below. More about C.T. Dazey below the photos.)

 

 

Charles Turner Dazey was born August 13, 1855 at Lima, Illinois, the son of Mitchell and Albina (Conover) Dazey. Albina Dazey died when her son was two years old and Charles was an only child. Charles Dazey attended the Methodist Episcopal College in Quincy, Illinois and then the University at Lexington, Kentucky. He received his B.A. degree from Harvard University in 1881 where he was elected class poet. He then received a M.A. degree from Jacksonville College in Illinois. His father wanted him to be a lawyer and for a year he attended Columbia University Law School. But the young Dazey was always thinking about writing plays and set to work in earnest the one career that appealed to him most.

 
Because of health reasons, Charles Dazey and his father, Mitchell, came to the Dakota prairies. They bought up land in Township 143 Range 59 of Barnes County, Dakota Territory and began farming on a grand scale. During the time spent on the farm, C.T. Dazey wrote the play “An American King” which was first produced in the Opera House in Valley City on December 13, 1883. Mr. Dazey assumed the leading male role in the play while other cast members were of the Valley City community. The play proved to be such a hit that it was presented in neighboring towns, including Jamestown and Fargo. The net proceeds went to the formation of a Public Library.

 
In 1885 Charles and Mitchell Dazey disposed of their land holdings and returned to Illinois. Just two years earlier, the younger Dazey had donated the land on which a townsite would be platted and thus bears his name today. The town-ship where his farm was located would also carry his name.

 
Charles T. Dazey was married on July 12, 1887 to Lucy Harding of the Quincy, Illinois area. The couple then made their home in Kansas, where Dazey continued his writing. A son, Frank, was born April 12, 1892.

 
It was at about this time Mr. Dazey began writing “In Old Kentucky” which perhaps became his greatest play. It met with opposition at first and wasn’t yet on the road to success until after its presentation in St. Paul by a summer stock company and finally at the Bijou Theatre in Pittsburgh by a touring company. Here the play met with great favoritism and the start of its many years on the stage. Even greater success came when the play was developed for the movie screen starring the late Will Rogers in his last performing role.

 
Mr. Dazey went on to write many other well-known plays including, “Rustication”, “For a Brother’s Life”, “The War of Wealth”, and “The Suburban”. His home was on the East Coast for a number of years before returning to Quincy, Illinois to live. Charles T. Dazey passed away February 9, 1938.
Source: Our Heritage: Dazey, North Dakota 1883 – 1983 Page 140 <www.webfamilytree.com>

 

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