Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Johnny Prindle: The Funnyman’s Last Lines

JP 04A Ad1888SyrExpectations were high for Johnnie Prindle‘s newest production, “Reuben Glue, or Life Among the Bushrangers”, about the adventures of a Vermont Yankee farmer in the wilds of Australia, but if anything,  he exceeded them.

As the reviews rolled in from packed opera houses and SRO theaters in Syracuse, Buffalo, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and elsewhere, it was clear that Reuben Glue as portrayed by Johnnie was a tour de force.

The comments were much like he had received throughout his career: “He kept the audience convulsed with laughter; Johnnie’s song alone is worth the price of admission; patrons were delighted; frequent bursts of applause; Johnnie Prindle is a rare talent.”

Early on, it was the Boston Globe that epitomized virtually every subsequent assessment of his abilities: “The Howard was well filled last night to witness the first appearance of Johnny Prindle and his excellent company in Reuben Glue. As depicted by Mr. Prindle, Reuben Glue is supposed to be a Yankee, with the varied occupations of horse doctor, schoolmaster, prize pig raiser, lightning rod peddler, inventor, Fourth of July orator, and a natural-born detective.

“In all the varied and highly interesting phases of human nature which Mr. Prindle interprets, he is invariably successful, carrying the audience along with him … in a state of intense interest…. Everything he does bears the imprint of naturalness and unmistakably of genius in comedy. His specialties are so absurdly funny that the audience is convulsed in laughter at his antics and expression.”

He also continued appearing in Peck’s Bad Boy, but the most frequent show performed was Reuben Glue, playing to great success across the eastern and western circuits. Ten months after opening in Boston, the show returned to wonderful comments by newspapers on the East Coast.

Said the Boston Herald: “At the Howard tomorrow evening, Mr. Johnny Prindle, who has now no rival on the stage in the impersonation of a certain type of Yankee character, will appear in his greatest character success in Reuben Glue.” The Beverley, Massachusetts, Saturday Morning Citizen added, “Prindle … is the central figure, the fixed star about which all the others revolve. And as a star, he shines with such luminosity as to make the whole play full of light and sparkle.” And the Yonkers Statesman: “… he fills the part to perfection. There was not a dull moment when he was on the stage.”

As he grew into the role, Prindle’s fame grew as well. His talents were lauded by critics far and wide. Fully sixteen months after the play opened, the New York Herald said of Johnnie, “In walk, in gesture, in dialect, his work is so thoroughly eccentric as to put him into a school of acting all by himself.”

JP 04B Ad1890In spite of the effusive praise, Prindle was not one to rest on his laurels. During the first half of 1890, while performing and further perfecting his characters in Peck’s Bad Boy and Reuben Glue, he also wrote several successful songs (some performed by him), and was busy working on two new plays in which he would star during 1891, tentatively titled Zeb Holler and Who Am I? In trade newspapers, his songs were advertised for sale by sending payment to Mrs. Johnnie Prindle in Barton, Vermont.

In June he began advertising the imminent availability of Zeb Holler, but after receiving multiple offers from managers and producers, he opted for more time to prepare. Meanwhile, after a few more performances of Reuben Glue, Prindle started on another highly successful tour of Peck’s Bad Boy. His fame was such that new songs and new parts were added to the story to showcase his multiple talents. As usual, the plaudits were many: “sensational performance; shouts of applause; repeated encores; kept the audience in a continual roar all the time he was on the stage.”

Newspaper advertisements in late October informed fans that new material was coming soon in the form of Zeb Holler. In early December, one of his contemporaries, comedian Justin Adams, finished writing the other new play designed to showcase Johnnie’s talents—Who Am I?, which was named after one of Prindle’s own songs. Even as he appeared regularly in two of the most popular shows in theater, Johnnie’s career appeared destined to soar even higher with the two new productions.

The week of November 13 he played Peck’s Bad Boy in New Haven, Connecticut, followed by a week in Philadelphia beginning on November 17.

As had happened with increasing frequency, Prindle fell ill late in the year, this time just days after Adams announced the completion of the new play. And as usual, Johnnie returned home to Vermont, where his oldest daughter, Carrie, now 22, helped care for him.

He had always rallied in the past, but this time was different. Instead of gradually fading, the symptoms worsened. Then came the stunning news: on December 11, 1890, Johnny Prindle died unexpectedly from a malaria relapse. He was still in his early forties.

JP 04C Ad18901221CleveWithout warning, show business and fans everywhere had lost a beloved star of great magnitude. It was so sudden that advertisements trumpeting his upcoming appearances still showed up in newspapers nearly two weeks after his death. For several reasons – Glover’s rural location, the timing (just before Christmas), and because weekly newspapers were the primary media – word of his passing spread slowly. Those who missed the papers only learned of his death when word arrived with the next season’s traveling shows. Among fans who looked forward each year to a guaranteed night of laughs, the reaction was shock, disbelief, and overwhelming sadness – much like the aftermath of Robin Williams’ recent death in 2014.

In noting the passing of a beloved native son, the Plattsburgh Sentinel said, “None will feel his loss more severely than his aged mother, to whom he was always very kind, and whom he frequently visited.” Prescient words, indeed. She died a year to the day after that article appeared.

A few decades after his death, Johnnie’s accomplishments were recalled only occasionally, and after that, rarely, in both his hometown, Plattsburgh, where he was born and spent the first half of his life, and in Glover, Vermont, where he spent most of the second half of his life.

In 2013, on Glover Day, the town sponsored a Johnnie Prindle Songfest and Lookalike Contest, with plans to feature his story at the Vermont History Expo at Tunbridge in June.

Plattsburgh would do well to honor the memory of such a talented native son. From humble beginnings, Johnnie Prindle rose to great heights, bringing unbridled laughter to thousands of citizens for two decades. What a wonderful legacy – well worth preserving.

Photos: Advertisements from 1889, 1889, and 1890 (the 1890 ad appeared 10 days after Prindle’s death)

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

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