Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Neil Litchfield, Lewis County’s Master Comedian (conclusion)

After prospering for eight months in England, the Litchfields returned to Newark, New Jersey, at the end of March 1905 for a brief respite before embarking on another season, one that was fully booked into 1906 at scores of stops from New York City to Colorado. Neil’s daughter, Abbie, was now 16 and had begun taking part in the act, which was modified with roles to utilize her talents. After several positive reviews, they began appearing in November as the Neil Litchfield Trio. Her first critical assessment under the new name said simply, “Miss Abbie Litchfield, as accompanist, could not be improved upon.”

A month later, their touring days nearly ended in Vermont, where they were directed at the last minute to take a different train for a better route to their next performance. The one they were initially scheduled to board crashed near Vergennes, killing three passengers, seriously injuring 14 more, and leaving a dozen others hurt.

By January 1907, the Litchfields had performed Down at Brook Farm more than 3,000 times in England, Canada, and the United States. Now working as a trio, they remained as busy as ever. Early in the year they toured northern New York, covering several towns along the St. Lawrence River. Heading southeast, they performed at Whitehall in Washington County before moving on to Vermont and the New England States. Later in the year, there were stops in the central and southern states, with 20 weeks booked in Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas prior to a dozen more stops back in northern New York.

A stint at year’s end in Pennsylvania produced the following review in the New Oxford Item: “No better press notices are given to any entertainment of its class than those bestowed upon the Neil Litchfield Trio by the principal newspapers from the Atlantic to the Pacific. They stand top-notch with the best. The Litchfield entertainment has met the popular demand of the Lyceum public for something ludicrously funny, but withal artistic and refined.”

In January 1908, it was announced in the New York Dramatic Mirror that for the coming season, the Litchfield Trio “was already booked for a tour of nearly every state in the union except the Pacific.” The show included impersonations, music, singing, humorous recitals, and, of course, Down at Brook Farm, which, said the Syracuse Herald Journal, “Has long been regarded as one of the best acts of its kind in vaudeville. The sketch is as delicious a bit of comedy as one might wish to enjoy.”

For the next few years they toured the entire country virtually nonstop, mostly for the Chautauqua Society, the Redpath Society, and American Lyceum, but at other times on their own. New and past reviewers concluded that the act was only getting better with time. The Palestine Daily Herald in Texas offered effusive praise in January 1910: “No more pleasing or prettier entertainment has ever been given under the auspices of the YMCA than that Monday night at the city hall, when the Neil Litchfield Trio presented their charming entertainment which held the audience from start to finish. Mrs. Litchfield was violinist, Miss Litchfield pianist, Mr. Litchfield impersonator, dramatist, singer, and everything that could be said. We have always heard of the ‘face with a fortune,’ but we never saw that face until last night. Mr. Litchfield can, with a smile, frown, a twist, or snarl, transform himself into any character. He is best as a humorist, but his beautiful rendition of ‘The Old Red Cradle That Rocked Us All’ brought back our vanished childhood and all the pathos and beauty of home and mother. The evening was one of pleasure to every person attending.”

The Rice Bureau of Nashville, Tennessee, for whom they drew an audience of 5,000 at one of many events, said, “They give a high-class entertainment, and the sketch Down at Brook Farm is highly recommended by the press. The past year, the trio have covered the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and from Canada to the Gulf.”

Through 1911 and into fall 1912, they continued drawing large crowds, spreading joy and laughter among thousands of appreciative patrons. The trio was at the top of its game, one of the few acts among thousands that was a guaranteed draw no matter where they went or how often they performed.

As usual, when the new season began in fall 1912, the Litchfield Trio was booked months in advance, with stops as far away as Colorado scheduled for January. Lyceum had thirty-five weeks of arranged dates for them stretching well into 1913, including a tour of the Pacific Coast states.

But as they began touring in July, Neil was incapacitated by something referred to as “nervous trouble.” Month by month, entertainment magazines and newspaper columns offered updates on his condition. In July and August, all summer performances of the trio were canceled. When he remained ill into October, another eight weeks of scheduled shows were dropped. At that point, he had so declined that doctors placed him in a sanitarium, cautioning him to abstain from work at least until 1913. But to the shock of everyone, he continued failing, and on December 7, at the age of 57, Litchfield passed away.

G. Paul Smith, a writer for The Lyceumite and Talent magazine and a personal friend of Neil’s, wrote, “In barely a month—almost at their first Chautauqua stand—he ‘went all to pieces’ and suffered a complete nervous breakdown. I am wholly unable to account for it. Suffering, apparently, from no disease, he simply wasted away.”

The heartbroken Smith then quoted a snippet from the James Whitcomb Riley poem, “He Is Not Dead”:

I cannot say, and I will not say
That he is dead—he is just away.

Neil’s talent, abilities, kindness, and gentle personality call to mind the personas of former TV stars Carol Burnett and Red Skelton—warm, engaging performers who could act at a high level, improvise, manipulate their faces in unusual ways, and create wonderful new characters. Like them, Neil Litchfield touched millions with joy and laughter during more than three decades of public performances. He is a proud part of both Turin and Lewis County, New York’s past.

Photos: Neil Litchfield (1908); Neil Litchfield Trio promotional brochure; advertisement for performance in Medina, N.Y.; Litchfield Trio, from brochure.

Return to Part One

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Lawrence P. Gooley

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.

3 Responses

  1. Jerry Tarver says:

    I have one of the ca1908 photographs of Litchfield in which he is surrounded by thirteen of the characters he created. Oddly, my copy is mounted on a card above the printed words “Neil Litchfield, Permanent Address, Hartwell, Ohio.”

    Thanks very much for the rich account of Litchfield’s life, although I am at a loss to explain the Ohio connection.

  2. Lolaine Ruskin says:

    I have heard of your writings on Neil Litchfield and was very happy to receive these from my cousin. Neil Litchfield was my great grandfather and I have some of his vaudeville sketches and an original playbill. I also have some handwritten notes he sent to his booking agent. This biography you have done so well is like icing on the cake for me. My grandmother was also part of his group when she was a little older. She had many wonderful stories of her travels with her father. Thank you for taking the time to write about Neil Litchfield. I thoroughly enjoyed the reading.

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