Monday, June 26, 2017

Neil Litchfield, Lewis County’s Master Comedian (Part 3)

In early 1897, Neil and Stella Litchfield continued touring in the North Country, appearing at Canton, Chase Mills, Edwards, Lisbon Center, Oxbow, Massena, Morristown, Ogdensburg, Waddington, and other sites. For the next two years, they toured and performed while developing a new act for the future, a comedy sketch titled Down at Brook Farm. Ostensibly, it was loosely based on Brook Farm, a failed Utopian community founded in 1841 in Roxbury, Massachusetts.

The most popular characters Neil had portrayed during the past two decades — uneducated, pure-hearted rural folks — became the nucleus of the new act. Down at Brook Farm was inspired by the popularity of other plays and sketches with “uncle” characters in the title — usually Uncle Josh, at the time featured in shows as Uncle Josh Jenkins, Uncle Josh Simpkins, and Uncle Josh Weathersby. Neil himself gained great praise for portraying the lead role in Uncle Josh Spruceby, playing alongside Stella, who nabbed the second-leading role of Aunt Jerutha. Together they made the show a top hit while touring theaters and opera houses in New York City, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. Sometimes they covered a venue for three consecutive nights, and at other times appeared in three or four different towns or cities during the same week. It was an exhausting schedule but provided great publicity, and allowed time to refine the rural characters for the new act.

In July 1900, Neil secured the copyright for Down at Brook Farm, complete with comedic songs and a script that utilized the successful, time-tested formula of depicting stereotypical country bumpkins visiting the big city, and numerous misunderstandings during conversations between country folk and city folk. For instance, the governess (private teacher), testing young Johnny on his ’rithmetic, says: “If your father should give your mother a twenty-dollar bill and a ten-dollar bill, what would she have?” Johnny: “She’d have a fit! She never got so much as that.” Neil filled the leading roles of Johnny and Uncle Zach Ryefield, while Stella played the city governess and Melissa, a country girl.

Engagements at the Boston Music Hall, several Proctor’s Theaters in towns along the Hudson River, and in Baltimore suggested that with Down at Brook Farm, the Litchfields had a legitimate hit on their hands. The touring continued into early 1901, and during their 40th consecutive week on the road, they played Detroit to high praise. Everyone loved the show, especially the country sketch, and by April they were booked five months in advance. After playing the Pennsylvania circuit, and the Kohl and Castle Circuit that included Chicago, they were summoned to make the rounds again as soon as possible.

More success followed in Baltimore, Washington, Cleveland, and several cities of the Midwest. The New York Daily Mirror, covering all the entertainment circuits, reported in May 1902 that “Mr. and Mrs. Neil Litchfield, excellent artists, seemed to be more amusing than ever before in Down at Brook Farm, which they have measurably improved. The funny lines are almost continuous, and it is assuredly a treat to hear Mr. Litchfield’s perfect articulation in singing.”

By October, they had performed several times a week for all but one of the past eight months, and were still booked two months in advance. Neil kept it fresh by constantly adding new material that generated as much laughter as any show on the road. There was no further need to seek work — the Litchfields had become one of the most sought-after comedy teams in the business.

With the money rolling in, they made a large deposit on a home in February 1903 in the upscale section of Newark, New Jersey. Initially, they rented it to other parties, for besides current plans to continue touring, they were already booked to take their show across the pond to England the following year.

In October, a special version titled Hallowe’en at Brook Farm earned raves from holiday audiences. Meanwhile, the regular show, with constant tweaks and additions, was booked ahead for the entire season. From Gloversville in the Adirondacks to Utica, Indianapolis, and across the country, they filled theaters with folks anxious to laugh until it hurt. In Chicago, they were held over for three weeks.

In July 1904, after a visit to Turin (in Lewis County), where daughter Abbie was spending the summer, the three of them sailed for England on the Baltic. A month later, the New York Dramatic Mirror said of the Litchfields, “They made their first appearance at the Empire Theater in Newcastle…. From newspaper reports, they have made a big success.” In November, Neil informed the New York Clipper entertainment section that the show “is making as good a laughing hit as in the states.” England’s Bristol Mercury reviewed the act in December: “The star turn is provided by Mr. and Mrs. Neil Litchfield, American rural comedy artists, who gave their highly humorous sketch, Down at Brook Farm, which proves extremely laughable from beginning to end.” Similar plaudits followed at the London Palace Theater — “Mr. and Mrs. Litchfield top the bill with their funny sketch, Down at Brook Farm, which evokes hearty laughter” — and Somerset’s Western Daily Press, which said in customarily understated British fashion, “Mr. Litchfield is a clever comedian, and his efforts to amuse met with success.”

Next, the conclusion: The Litchfield Trio, great to the end.

Return to Part One

Photos: Neil Litchfield; advertisement, extended run in Detroit (1901); advertisement for Down at Brook Farm (1901); advertisement (Litchfields are in England)

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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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