The Girl on Stage

The following story is true. None of the names or places have been changed.

Francis White 001Francis (Frank)  White circa 1903;  Columbia University

It was a good time to be a young gentleman in New York and Frank White wanted to make the most of it. He had graduated with a degree in Engineering from Columbia University and then proudly served his country in The Great War.

WWI 001Francis’ White’s World War I medal.

After the war, he got a good job and his life had settled into a regular routine. He worked hard in the “high-tech” field of the day. He was an engineer at the Okonite Company. This company manufactured the amazing trans-Atlantic cables that allowed people to communicate across an ocean in seconds.

His social life consisted of lunch at the Columbia Club or the Engineers Club. Occasionally he would see a play at one of the many theaters in the city. He lived the satisfying, if very routine, life of a working gentleman in New York.

Then one evening his entire world was changed when he saw the girl on stage.

Frank had gone to see a light comedy by a British acting company. The play was an amusing little farce about an English upper class family. In one scene the family was having tea, and it was served by a young actress playing the family’s maid.

The second he saw her, Francis White fell in love. The girl only had a couple of lines and then exited the stage. Frank kept waiting for her to re-appear in another scene but she never did.  At the end of the play, Frank decided to do something rash; totally out of character for him.

Long after the play was over, Frank waited outside the theater by the side door where the actors and actresses would come out. After what seemed like hours, the actors and actresses came out in a group. No doubt they were headed for a late supper after the show. The girl he was seeking was in the middle. He was astounded that she looked even more beautiful than she had on stage.

Overcoming his innate shyness, Frank approached the group and asked he if he could buy her dinner. Without hesitation she told him, “certainly not!”. She noted that they had not been properly introduced and that she had no intention of going off with some “Stage Door Johnny”. The other actors all laughed and the actors and the girl went off in a group, leaving Frank alone in the alley.

The girl was named Elsie Clayton. She was English, but not the type of English woman she always played on stage. Actresses in those days did not come from the upper classes and Elsie was no exception. She was a Cockney. She came from that poor part of London where people have  the type of accent that all other English people immediately identify as “low class”.

It had taken years for Elsie to learn to speak with an Upper Class British accent. If she spoke in her real Cockney accent, English audiences would have laughed, and American audiences would not have been able to understand a word she said. She came from a family of actors, but they were comedians and Vaudevillian types. They could speak like a real Cockney on stage and get away with it. But Elsie wanted to be taken seriously on stage.

Elsie had finally gotten  a job with a real British touring company and made it to America with them. Unfortunately, the company went bankrupt soon after and she was stuck taking whatever bit parts she could get.  She felt lucky to have finally gotten the small part of a maid.

Elsie had liked the shy young gentleman who had approached her after the show. Of course, a young woman had to be careful of her reputation and he was after all, a total stranger.

The day after Frank White tried to meet Elsie Clayton the theater manager was at the theater very early to start setting up for that evening’s performance.

The theater manager was a tough-as-nails middle aged  man named Jack Kelly. Jack did not own the theater, of course. He was the type of man theater owners hire to take care of all the details the owners don’t want to bother with.  He had to get there hours before the actors and stay after them just to make sure everything was running smoothly.

Frank White entered the theater and walked over to Jack Kelly. Mr. Kelly was about to tell him to get lost, when he noticed that Frank was holding out a crisp new one-hundred dollar bill.

That evening, Frank was back at the theater it the front row and saw the same play again. He eagerly anticipated Elsie’s entrance. When she came on stage, she caught his eye for a second and gave him just the hint of a smile.

After the show, Jack Kelly lead Frank back stage and formally introduced him to Elsie Clayton. Jack Kelly gave a beautiful little speech about how he had known Frank and his family for years, and that Frank was “a good lad with a fine reputation”.

That evening Elsie Clayton did consent to allow Francis White to escort her to dinner. Less than a year later she consented to be his wife. They had a long and happy marriage. Frank loved her “real” Cockney accent, although he had to admit it was sometimes hard to understand.

They had been married for over a year before Frank admitted that he had bribed Jack Kelly to “properly introduce” them. Elsie then admitted that she had known a the time that Jack Kelly’s fine speech was a fraud. After all Jack Kelly was a good stage manager but a terrible actor.

And that is the true story of how my grandparents met. – Gregory Farrell

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.