This summer two grandchildren of Phyllis Schuyler Thaxter, one of the authors whose work is included in our archives, came into the cool from their island summer home to explore the materials in their grandmother’s collection. As we’ve pointed out in previous posts, such visits give us the welcome chance to pull collections from the shelves and explore what’s inside in a bit more depth than we usually have occasion to do. It’s always illuminating and often very fascinating, and this time was no exception.
As we lifted the lids from the boxes that day, we were swept into the glamorous worlds of the 1920s and 1930s stage and screen. Phyllis Schuyler Thaxter of Portland was a classically trained actor who performed on Broadway and in regional theaters in Maine from the 1920s-1940s. A highlight of her career was her 1923 role as “Elvira” in Booth Tarkington’s then new play, “Magnolia.” The comedy opened in Atlantic City at the Apollo Theatre and then ran on Broadway at the Liberty. Her large scrapbook contains mementos from the entire course of her involvement, from being recommended for an audition through to the final bows and reviews, and by all accounts she and the play were a great success. “Phyllis Schuyler played the part of an older and worldly sister with clever coquetry,” and, “Miss Schuyler is excellent in the role of coquette,” and “an excellent Southern flirt.”
Thaxter had married Maine Supreme Court Justice Sidney St. Felix Thaxter, and in the early thirties she shifted her acting focus to the greater Portland area and became involved in the promotion of regional theater as well, serving as president of the Portland Players, whose South Portland theater now bears her name.
In addition to her stage career Thaxter was also a journalist, writing two columns for the Portland Press Herald and contributing to the entertainment section of the New York Times. Her Press Herald column “Through the Stage Door with Phyllis Schuyler Thaxter” gave readers glimpses behind the scenes of the theatrical world and the latest news from the stage. The clippings show her engaging style — easy and conversational, speaking directly to the readers about what she’s going to discuss, what she experienced in gathering the material and what she hopes they will get out of it. One of her columns opens with, “Well, in seven days, I have seen 12 plays. I am rapidly approaching the saturation point. My mind is a kaleidoscopic mass of impressions and ideas. From the welter of these experiences, I hope to untangle something to present to you, the readers of this column.” As each piece unfolds, one really gets the sense of sneaking “through the stage door.”
Her large collection of playbills from 1930s-1960s productions in Portland, Boston and New York dazzle with great graphics and images of the popular actors of the day debuting plays and musicals that since have become classics: Polly Rowles in “Auntie Mame” (1957) and later, Angela Landsbury in the same role in “Mame” (1966); Tom Bosley in “Fiorello!” (1957); Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert in “West Side Story” (1958); Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn in “The Man in the Dog Suit” (1958): Walter Matthau and Art Carney in “The Odd Couple” (1965), and Hal Holbrook in “Mark Twain Tonight!” (1966), among many others. (The ads in these programs — for girdles and cigarettes, automobiles and laundry detergents — are also historically interesting and graphically fun.)
In addition to her coverage of the theater, Thaxter also interviewed Hollywood’s greatest film stars for her Press Herald column, “Adventures in Cinemaland.” In early 1937, the newspaper invited readers to vote for their favorite movie stars and, once the votes were tallied, Thaxter was dispatched via jet plane to the Hollywood lot of Paramount Pictures for a whirlwind interviewing tour.
The scrapbooks in her collection overflow with interview clippings and glossy on-location photos of Thaxter with the likes of Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, John Ford, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Montgomery…the list goes on. In all instances Thaxter looks relaxed and at home, unassuming yet confident, enjoying her time with the actors in her mission to bring the magic back home to her readers. And judging by their smiles and comments in the clippings, the luminaries of MGM seem tickled to be with Thaxter, too.
With Myrna Loy on the set of “Parnell,” 1937
In her article on Bette Davis, Thaxter reports: “Would you like to know what Bette, who weighs all of ninety pounds, ate for lunch that day? Well — I’ll tell you. Five frankfurters. She said she was hungry.” On the set of “Kid Galahad,” 1937:
With Joan Crawford (whom Thaxter liked, despite what others said of her,) on the set of “The Last of Mrs. Cheney,” 1937:
On Clark Gable, who was filming “Parnell” with Myrna Loy, Thaxter writes:
“I watched Clark getting a manicure through the window of a barber shop and finally caught him. “Well,” I exclaimed, “I’ve been trailing you like a bloodhound all over the lot and I’m exhausted.” Gable laughed and led me to his dressing room…I told him that the votes in Portland called for me to interview him and I was going to do it or die in the attempt…”
She liked Randolph Scott, who was on the lot shooting “High, Wide and Handsome,” saying, “Scott is a gentleman, very delightful — a little shy but very courteous and sweet.”
And, despite Thaxter’s physical assessment of her in the headline of her installment on Ginger Rogers, Thaxter reports that, “As to her love life, of course, a girl as thrilling as Ginger has had love affairs aplenty. At the moment I would say that her heart interest was that handsome charmer Cary Grant. He appeared at the set that afternoon to visit. I also saw them together at Ed Horton’s party. They looked and acted infatuated…I can only say that to your reporter it smelled of orange blossoms.”
In addition to getting the inside scoop from the actors on her list, she also covered for her readers the transcontinental flight itself, and the behind-the-scenes nuts and bolts of makeup, camera work and direction. As a keen observer of the details Thaxter gained an appreciation for the filmmaking process: “Metro Goldwyn Mayer has 24 sound stages where inside scenes are made. Three thousand people, exclusive of the actors, are employed on this lot alone. Everything is worked out very carefully before a picture starts and the production is made with the minimum of confusion. When you have seen a picture being photographed and watch the care with which the scenes are taken and retaken – you look with new respect at the finished product which represents much imagination, so much care, precision and ingenuity. What seems like magic is in reality the result of the perfect functioning of many brilliant minds.”
Again, in all cases, her style of speaking directly to her readers is so effective, using phrases such as, “I wanted to get you some pictures, so…” and “I’ve tried to make you see…” that you know she never loses sight of her audience or her mission as their eyes and ears in taking them on the set in Cinemaland. And as to how this exciting career fed her as well as her readership, she writes in an article on Katharine Cornell that,
“One of my reasons for not minding the fact that I grow a year older each year is that as the years roll on I am able to watch the progress of the gifted people of my generation.”
Thaxter also was able to watch the progress of her daughter, Phyllis Schuyler Thaxter, as she became a successful film actress (working with a number of the stars whom Thaxter had interviewed,) who is especially remembered for her role as the mother of Christopher Reeve’s “Superman.” She also acted in episodes of “Twilight Zone,” “Medical Center” and “Barnaby Jones.” She died this past August at the age of 92. And her daughter (and Thaxter’s granddaughter), Skye Aubrey, has had a long and successful acting career in television.
It may seem as though, by the length of this post, that the entire collection has been covered here, but this is just a smattering! We invite you to come in and see if your favorite stars of the stage and screen might be found within this collection that gives such a rich and broad view of the productions of the time — the themes and subjects, the romance and glamor, the creativity and hard work — both in the theater and on the screen.
Phyllis Schuyler Thaxter. Through the stage door and the Paramount gates. Bringing the stars home.