Thursday, June 22, 2017

Neil Litchfield, Lewis County’s Master Comedian (Part 2)

By 1893, Neil Litchfield and his wife Hattie had resumed touring with other companies that billed Neil as “The Man of Many Faces.” After spending the year with the Vivian De Monto Company, they joined the Reno and Ford Company for the first half of 1894. In August they began touring the eastern and midwestern states with the Prima Donna Company, during which time Neil began to stand out noticeably from his fellow performers. Reviews in Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania agreed with the Syracuse Evening Herald’s assessment that, despite great work by the show’s star, Eva Mecusker, “The most enjoyable thing of the evening was the recitation work of Neil Litchfield, whose ability as a comedian is large and could be employed more than it is with advantage.” A reporter for the Youngstown Daily Telegram wrote, “Neil Litchfield, as the ruralist, was the star of the show. His work was clever, and the reception he got was deserved.”

Late in the year, he performed with James B. Mackie’s company, The Side Show, and received rave reviews. As a budding star, he no longer needed to jump at the next offer, and instead began advertising his services to the highest bidder. In 1895, Litchfield announced his availability in major trade magazines and the entertainment sections of New York City newspapers. That summer, he toured coast to coast with Heywood’s Celebrities company, which provided ample opportunity to test new characters and refine other bits. A few months later, he joined another group, the Alhambra Vaudevilles. As reported in the New York Dramatic Mirror, “Carter, the magician, and Neil Litchfield, the character impersonator, are the leading people in the company.”

While his career was flourishing, Neil’s personal life was unraveling. Back in 1890, a year after they married, he and Hattie had welcomed a daughter, Abbie, to the family, and all was well as the two happy parents performed together. But over the next few years, life on the road proved an issue, and while Neil traveled, Hattie remained at home in San Francisco. They drifted apart, and the marriage officially ended in December 1895.

He began touring with a troupe led by Anna Eva Fay, a very popular mentalist, magician, mind reader, and seer. Litchfield, billed as a comedian and “facialist,” was praised from New York to San Francisco for his great ability to make people laugh. Although he appeared mainly during 15-minute breaks between Fay’s acts, he was a hit. The Deseret Evening News in Salt Lake City said, “Mr. Neil Litchfield, with his clever character impersonation, amuses the audience quite as much as Miss Fay mystifies them. He is a whole farce comedy in himself.” At Winnipeg (Canada) and other locations, the show was held over for several days due to popular demand.

In June 1896, less than two months after his ex-wife Hattie remarried, Neil wed Stella Miller (her real name was Laura Adela Miller) of Blissfield, Michigan. Together they raised Neil’s daughter, Abbie, as their own. Years earlier, Stella’s adoptive parents had toured annually with their own performing company, appearing with such superstars of the day as Edwin Booth. Under her parents’ tutelage, she had become a strong talent in her own right. She and Neil would in time have a similar effect on Abbie.

After accepting individual engagements with other companies, they re-signed with Eva Fay’s troupe, Stella performing as a violinist and Neil delivering character monologues that kept the crowds in stitches.

In 1897 they appeared with James Mackie’s Little Jack Horner company and the Bates Brothers’ Comedy Company, earning eye-opening reviews that served as portents for the future. To keep the audience engaged, Neil and Stella were assigned to perform between the main acts, but they stole the show, generating great enthusiasm among the crowd. Said a writer for the Rome Sentinel: “Between the acts, specialties of a very pleasing character were presented…. Mr. Litchfield is a first-class monologist and impersonator and a whole show in himself. It is no effort for him to keep an audience in laughter.”

In December, they visited folks in Turin and did several shows in upstate New York. A week before Christmas, the New York Dramatic Mirror gushed over Neil’s talents, bolstering his image before the hometown folks with a photo and commentary. “This is a picture of Neil Litchfield in his impersonation of the Yankee farmer, which has made him well known and popular from Maine to California. Mr. Litchfield is a comedian of varied talents, and does not confine himself to ‘rube’ impersonations by any means. He is equally good in Yankee, German, Irish, Scotch, and English dialects, and is a versatile, all-around character actor. Mr. Litchfield has been on the stage a number of years, but only during the past few seasons has he confined his attention to character impersonations. He has appeared with great success in a number of plays, and of late has made a big hit in vaudeville, in a sketch in which he is assisted by Stella Litchfield, who is an accomplished actress and talented musician. Their sketch is a combination of fun and music which is calculated to give great satisfaction to almost any audience.”

Next: Creating a classic, and conquering England.

Return to Part One

Photos: Poster touting the Man of Many Faces; Litchfield advertises his availability (1895); Litchfield with Eva Fay troupe (1896)

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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.

2 Responses

  1. […] Next: On to greater heights and a new partnership. […]

  2. […] Part II: On to greater heights and a new partnership can be found here. […]