Monday, February 01, 2016

Huntress 6: Harry's Swan Song, 1914-54

This is the sixth and final post about Chariton's Harry Hemphill, a star of the vaudeville stage who performed from 1894 until 1916-17 as "Huntress," musician, dancer and female impersonator extraordinaire. When the last post ended, Harry and his companion, George, had just landed in San Francisco aboard the steamship Sonoma after a nine-month performance tour of Australia and New Zealand. George was never identified further in a series of letters that Harry sent home to his friends at The Herald-Patriot during the tour, but I'm guessing this was George Lombard, Harry's prop manager. The photo of Harry as Huntress, at left, was taken in 1907, when he was 31.


Harry's letters home, a diversion for the hometown folks in Lucas County for nearly a year, ceased upon his arrival back on U.S. soil during April of 1914, but the work continued. He already had a three-month contract lined up that kept him busy performing on the West Coast vaudeville circuit until July.

Then, accompanied by his sister, Maude, Harry returned to Chariton --- Maude to visit; Harry, now manager and featured performer of an outfit called the Metropolitan Vaudeville Company, to organize his show for the fall 1914 season. During August, he was joined by his prop man, George Lombard, who lived in Colorado during the off-season. Walter Callanan, of New York --- Harry's advance man --- also came to town to work out details of the season schedule.

Harry described the Metropolitan, modestly, as the "largest and best independent vaudeville company traveling."

The show he lined up --- to premiere at Chariton's Grand Theatre on Tuesday and Wednesday, Sept. 5 and 6, before going on the road  --- featured himself, of course, as Huntress. 

Preview stories declared that Huntress, "a $5,000 feature," carried more special scenery and elegrant wardrobe than any similar act on the vaudeville stage.

His opening act "is a grand series of transformation dances embellished with dazzling electrical effects," a preview story for the premier reported. "On the second night, he gives portrayals of leading celebrities, a beautiful act in two scenes and five changes of Parisian gowns. With the assistance of the entire company, Huntress produces on the closing night a pantomimic oriental spectacle entitled 'Cleopatra.' It is claimed that this production is not excelled by anything of a similar character on any vaudeville stage, and from point of moral tone, scenic elegance and perfection of detail is properly termed a classic."

Other performers who formed Harry's company were Hartigan and Pritchette, dramatic sketch artists, who had a reportoire of three playlets; Al Warda, a comedian known for both songs and monologues; the Sisters Hyacinthe, who performed one-act operettas; Pen Parker, aka The Boneless Wonder, contortionist, juggler and trapeze artist; and Baxter and Baxter, who performed Irish and black-face character sketches that would shock and appall 21st century audiences but were par for the vaudeville course early in the 20th century.

A glowing review of the performances, published in The Herald-Patriot of Sept. 10, notes that the Grand was packed on both evenings.


Harry's company hit the road a few days after its Chariton premier, took a winter break which Harry spent with his mother in Chariton, then resumed the tour during 1915. The 1915-1916 season was similar to the previous year's, but with a substantial difference --- this was Harry's swan song. At age 40, he had decided to retire from the stage.

It's possible only to guess why, since Harry left nothing behind to tell us. Most likely several factors were involved. In the first place, he was getting older and his act was an extraordinarily athletic one; secondly, he had been on the road constantly for 22 years, from age 18 until age 40. Finally, the nature of vaudeville was changing dramatically. 

Initially, those pesky "movies" had been just another vaudeville "act" sandwiched between live performances. Now, the performers were sandwiched between movies and film was becoming the principal attraction. Harry's act was big, complicated, expensive and challenging to stage --- and rapidly becoming obsolete.


Harry's final season was on the West Coast and by the time he reached home in Chariton during October of 1916, several decisions already had been made. He had come to collect his mother and settle down in California, or so he thought at the time.

Harry scheduled his farewell performance in Chariton on Tuesday and Wednesday, Oct. 24 and 25, at the Temple Theatre.  Although he would retain ownership of the Chariton bungalow until after his mother's death, the Hemphills sold most of her household goods on Oct. 26, along with some of Harry's trunks. And then they were gone.


Plans changed after a time in California, however, and Harry and his mother, Elizabeth, headed back to the Midwest during early 1917 and settled permanently in Rockford, Illinois, where he opened a school of dance, which prospered. By 1920, his sister and brother-in-law, Maude and James Sullivan, had joined them in Rockford and she was teaching dance, too.

About 1920, Harry decided to expand his operation and purchased the landmark Germania Hall, a three-story brick structure at  121 South Madison Street in Rockford built in 1890 by the Germania Gesang Verein, a social organization with strong emphasis on music. Harry promptly rechristened the building Hemphill's Egyptian Temple.

Pioneer Hall, aka Germania Hall, aka Hemphill's Egyptian Temple, in Rockford.

Harry's new quarters included a spacious apartment into which he settled with his mother, rooms for his dance studio --- and a hall with one of the best dance floors in the region. As a result, he started booking dance bands and opened what became a major social attraction in the Rockford area during the early 1920s.

Here's the lineup for a typical week during October, 1925 --- Dahlstrand's Orchestra on Tuesday evening, Oct. 20; Cedarstrom's Syncopators on Wednesday evening; Finkheimer's Frolickers on Thursday; Leaver's Famous Harp Orchestra on Friday evening; and the Peerless Society Seven on Saturday night.

"A pleasing variety of good dance orchestras five times each week with 'Old Time' on Fridays," Harry promised. This operation was conducted in addition to his regular work as a dance instructor and Harry and his staff traveled to Chicago, even New York, to make sure they were up on the latest dance trends.


As Harry's newest enterprise was thriving, however, his mother's health was failing and on July 7, 1922, she died with Maude and Harry, who had been caring for her, nearby. As late as May 6, Elizabeth had been staffing the Hemphill's Egyptian Temple ticket office, Harry reported in a long letter to The Herald-Patriot, published on July 13.

Rather than returning Elizabeth's remains to Chariton, Harry and Maude decided to bury her in Rockford's Greenwood Cemetery "where I can go and visit and be near her always," Harry wrote.

Plans change despite the best of intentions, however --- and it wasn't long before Elizabeth was stranded in Rockford with no one at all to visit her grave.


A couple years after Elizabeth's death, Harry decided somewhat unexpectedly to marry. His bride was Miss Anna C. Wenquist, two years his junior. Harry was 48 at the time of their marriage and Anna, 46.

The eldest daughter of Olof and Clara Wenquist and apparently the mainstay of her parents --- as Harry had been for Elizabeth --- Anna had been working as a clerk in a Rockford department store when they met, but soon after their marriage launched a new career and soon was teaching dance by Harry's side.


By 1926, James and Maude Sullivan had moved back to California and Harry and Anna decided to follow. The operation in Rockford was closed and by 1927, they had relocated to San Diego and opened Hemphill's Dance Studio.

The Hemphills lived for more than 20 years at 1740 Upas Street in San Diego, a house valued at $35,000 in 1930 (a considerable chunk of change even in California at that time). And they continued to teach dance --- as well as to choreograph local productions --- through World War II. They seem to have been both very successful --- and prosperous.

In 1946, Harry and Anna made a final trip to the Midwest. During late September, they spent several days with friends in Chariton, with a side trip to Des Moines to visit a special friend of Harry's, Miss Pearl Lewis, long an employee of the Chariton newspapers. They then continued on to Rockford to spend a few days, too, then on to Milwaukee.

Anna died Dec. 27, 1948, in San Diego. Harry sold the house and moved to smaller quarters, but remained active for about six more years. He died in San Diego on Sept. 23, 1954, age 78, having lived a long and quite remarkable --- although by now almost forgotten --- life.

While doing a little research in California about our old friend, I came across a request dating from the early 2000s for information about Hemphill's Dance Studio. San Diego-based SOHO (Save Our Heritage Organisation) reported that Legacy 106, a firm of archaeology and historic preservation consultants, had acquired photographs and other archival material related to Harry's and Anna's operation that appeared to date from the 1920s into the 1940s, but had no other information about the studio.

So some artifacts related at least to the final phase of Harry's career survived.

I doubt that I could help much with those final years, but certainly would be glad to share some information about what came before --- and now you can, too.


Unknown said...

Is there any other photographs? This has been really fun to read and I thank you very much for posting it. We can always find information on the big picture from an age but I love the personal stories very much-Thanks Again

Frank D. Myers said...

Hi Rich. Harry had no immediate family when he died, so heaven only knows what became of his stuff. Apparently there is an archive of dance studio photos from the San Diego phase of his life still in San Diego, but I've not been able to track it down --- yet.