History's Headlines: Lillian Russell, big star with a lot of heart, entertained Lehigh Valley audiences from the 1880s to the 1920s
Who was the most popular entertainer in Lehigh Valley history?
Well that would cover a lot of territory. But if you wanted to go by sheer longevity and crowd appeal that kept them coming back for more, chances are good you would have to give the prize to someone who is known today only to theater historians.
Her name was Lillian Russell and from her early 20’s until she quit the stage in her late 50s, she could fill a Lehigh Valley theater and just about any other theater with devoted fans.
What exactly was the audience’s reaction when Russell walked onto a stage? Here is a description from actress Marie Dressler: “I can still recall the rush of pure awe that marked her entrance on the stage. And then the thunderous applause that swept from orchestra to the gallery, to the very roof.”
When Russell last appeared in the Lehigh Valley on the stage of Allentown's Lyric Theater- now Miller Symphony Hall- in 1920, the crowd went wild for her. Russell wore a black velvet gown accented by a pin that outlined an elephant in diamonds and pearls, a gift from Anne Held, actress and first wife of legendary theater impresario Florence “Flo” Ziegfeld.
And some might have remembered the day when she first walked on the stage of the city’s Hagenbuch’s Opera House- Allentown’s first theater at 8th and Hamilton Streets- as a vaudeville unknown in the 1880s.
For someone who was to forge a career on Broadway’s Great White Way, Russell’s life began obscurely. She was born Helen Louise Leonard on December 4, 1860 in the rural town of Clinton, Iowa. Her father Charles E. Leonard was a newspaper publisher. But it was her mother Cynthia, a feminist and strong supporter of woman’s rights, who was the biggest influence on Russell’s life.
When her daughter turned 18, Cynthia Leonard separated from her husband. She and “Nellie,” as Russell was then nicknamed, moved to New York where several years later Leonard became the first woman to run for mayor.
Even before coming to New York, Russell had shown an interest in singing and acting. But her first real breakthrough came in 1879 when she appeared on Broadway as a singer at Tony Pastor’s Casino Theater.
Pastor, the leading showman of the day, is credited as the father of vaudeville. Offering a wide variety of acts, vaudeville was designed to make the theater, which had previously been regarded as too risqué for Victorian woman and children, a more refined form of entertainment. Pastor also realized that it would add to the crowds at the box office. Until it was eclipsed by movies in the 1920s, vaudeville was America’s most popular form of entertainment.
Russell first appeared in the Lehigh Valley in the early 1880s as a singer in one of Pastor’s traveling theater troupes. Allentown newspapers of the time record her as being on the bill with a variety of other acts.
An attractive person with an excellent voice, Russell quickly gathered a following. Whether she was appearing in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, one of the most popular vehicles for her talents, or simply as a solo singer, Russell drew a crowd. Her voice was so well known that in 1890 when Alexander Graham Bell introduced the first long distance telephone service, Russell’s voice was the first one carried over it.
Along with her musical talents Russell lived a flamboyant lifestyle. When the bicycle craze began sweeping the country in the 1890s, Russell had one made for her by Tiffany & Company’s jewelers. It was gold plated with handlebars inlaid with mother of pearl and wheel spokes featuring her initials set in diamonds. When Russell shortened the skirt on her cycling costume by three inches, exposing a bit of ankle, American women were shocked, and then promptly followed her example by shortening their own.
At a time when a lady’s name was supposed to appear in the newspaper only three times- birth, marriage and death- Russell was all over the newspapers and popular racy magazines like the Police Gazette, generally found mostly in those two all male sanctuaries of the day: saloons and barber shops.
Married and divorced several times, Russell was best known for her 40 year long affair with James Buchanan “Diamond Jim” Brady. Brady was a self-made multi-millionaire and gambler nicknamed for his collection of diamond jewelry worth $50 million in today’s dollars.
He and Russell, even in that era of large appetites, were legendary for their capacity to consume food. When he died, Brady’s doctors discovered he had a stomach that was six times the size of an average person. Oysters were said to be among the couple’s favorite dishes. “For a woman Nell done damn well,” said Brady after one such joint feast.
By the start of the 20th century Russell was gradually cutting down her stage appearances. In 1912 she married her fourth and last husband, a Pittsburgh newspaper owner, and finally in 1919 she quit the stage for good. But true to her roots, she wrote a newspaper column on political affairs and women’s rights- particularly the right to vote.
On October 19, 1920 Russell made her last appearance in the Lehigh Valley on the stage of the Lyric Theater to show support for the presidential campaign of Warren Harding.
But for everyone who came to hear her talk politics, many more apparently came just because it was Lillian Russell. “Miss Russell was the star,” noted one newspaper.
When the votes were counted, the "Russell effect" seemed to have its charm. Harding carried traditionally Democratic Lehigh County by more votes than it had ever given to any other Republican presidential candidate.
Two years later on June 6, 1922 Russell died at age 61 in her Pittsburgh mansion and everyone realized a star and an era had passed.
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