We are the Adirondacks, with a rich history of mountain lore, guide stories, Great Camps, and Olympic glory. But our mountain history tends to overshadow elements of the past that can serve as great attractions for both locals and tourists alike: fame and achievements by regional natives and residents in non-mountain endeavors. Among the dozens of examples I could cite, how many of us knew that one of the most popular songs ever written was penned by a native of the North Creek-Wevertown area? Or that two world-champions―a beloved cyclist, and one of the greatest of all North Country athletes―were both based in the Glens Falls area?
Learning about the unusual talents and accomplishments of locals is highly entertaining, which makes it virtual gold for local museums. But so many of these stories are overlooked. Take for instance, Port Henry’s Helen Redmond. Though you’ve never heard of her, her talents were once celebrated from coast to coast.
Redmond’s early years suggested little hope for success of any kind. She was born in 1878 in the Cheever section of Port Henry, a rough-and-tough iron-mining village on the shore of Lake Champlain, where her family had lived for more than a decade after emigrating from Ireland. Of the 9 Redmond children, 7 survived, and by the time Helen was two, her father had also died.
Mrs. Redmond (Kate) found work as a servant and cook in a Swanton (northern Vermont) hotel. Among the Redmond children was 12-year-old Mark, who went to work every day with Kate, serving as a “hotel job boy.” Two teenage sons also worked to support the family. It was not a promising beginning.
But there were some positives. Helen’s singing talents were apparent, and at the age of 15, she found work with the traveling Robin Hood comic opera. At 16, she joined the Bostonians, billed as “America’s Greatest Light Opera Company.” It was the perfect showcase for Redmond’s beautiful voice and wonderful flair for comedy.
After touring the Northeast with the Bostonians in 1894, Helen was hired by Frank Daniels, one of the top comic-opera stars of the day. Daniels starred in his own shows, which routinely featured beautiful women as supporting cast and chorus members. Basically, they were eye candy that could sing. Those capable of performing at a higher level had the opportunity for advancement, and Helen was soon on the move.
In 1895, the latest hit for Daniels was The Wizard of the Nile. On Broadway, Helen ably handled lesser roles in the show, and within a year, she was playing the lead in matinee performances, to great acclaim. She also understudied the Cleopatra character and received high praise for that role as well. Critics touted her comic genius and wonderful voice. Frank Daniels recognized those same talents in her.
Next came The Mandarin, another resounding success. Her superb singing and acting were reflected in Broadway marquee mention of Helen as one of the show’s leading stars, supported by a chorus consisting of “sixty others.” More and more, she was distinguishing herself from the group of regulars.
In early 1898, Redmond, just weeks beyond her teens, played a starring role in The Idol’s Eye, singing a beautiful solo (her voice was described as a sympathetic high soprano). In Massachusetts, the usually conservative reviewer of the Boston Transcript called Helen, “one of the most beautiful and best-voiced leading young women in light opera.”
At the time, several magazine and newspaper stories featured chorus girls who had risen to stardom. Chief among them was Helen Redmond, who had been earning $18 per week just two years earlier. By late 1898, her weekly salary had risen to $125, equal to $3500 in 2013. After five years on stage, and at the tender age of 20, she was a legitimate star and making big money.
The New York Clipper described her in The Idol’s Eye: “… not only a beautiful girl, but a clever actress and vocalist.” When she toured cross-country again in 1898 with Daniels in The Wizard of the Nile, effusive praise was forthcoming. The Daily Iowa Capital said: “Miss Helen Redmond, in the part of the princess, sang a solo which won for her applause from all parts of the house. Miss Redmond is a very beautiful woman and with the form of a goddess.”
In opera, success among the female performers of each show was defined by the title “prima donna” (the lead singer). In Frank Daniels’ next big production, The Ameer, Helen Redmond toured across the country to great praise as the show’s prima donna. The public loved her, and critics did, too. On the West Coast, she was called “the most beautiful woman ever seen on the San Francisco stage.”
In New York City, Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Kansas City―wherever she appeared, the press reaction was positive. “She is Daniels’ prima donna, she of the wondrous eyes and the pure soprano voice.” Or, “Her singing prompted several well-deserved encores.” As the Albany Evening Journal said, Redmond was “a star of the first magnitude.”
Show biz can be heady stuff, and some things never change. Quirky stories and celebrities’ habits have long been the subject of great attention. Redmond was certainly not immune to it, and as always, the attention was a press agent’s dream. Nothing is or was ever too silly for stars to indulge in.
In 1899, the latest fad was to walk one’s pet in public, using a harness (some even included a bit). In Helen’s case, the harnesses were “made of the finest silver chains, with tiny bells jingling at every movement.” She hired a boy to care for her three famous pets.
And why would any of that seem eccentric or excessive? Because the pets were turtles.
Yes … dozens of New Yorkers harnessed their turtles, walked them daily, and let them (while still in harness) swim in ponds. They were carried to different locations using “silk-lined manila baskets shaped like tiny hampers.” Some turtles were described as “wrapped in embroidery blankets, with their names outlined in gaily colored silks. These blankets have a tiny ring and silken card attached.” Sounds a little crazy, sure, but what the heck … we had Pet Rocks in the 1970s.
Next week: The conclusion―Stalked, stardom, and surprises.
Photos: Helen Redmond; Bostonians poster (Library of Congress); 1897 Ad―Redmond on Broadway at age 19.