As We Liked It

A dismal Fourth, and a Shakespearean novelty on the links

No one remembered a more dismal Fourth of July, even though, for once, nobody was killed or even hurt.

Both of Knoxville’s biggest Fourth celebrations had been sponsored by the Grand Army of the Republic, the vigorous association of Union veterans. There had been lots planned at Fountain City and Chilhowee parks, several baseball games, a tennis championship, horse races at Johnson’s park, the annual tug-of-war between the veterans of the Blue and Gray (all well past 60, they were leaning more toward the gray). Box ball, later better known as four square, was the rage in 1908; there were to be tournaments. There were to be fiddlers and fortune-tellers, and an expected 70,000 jamming the streetcars to see it all.

But it rained. It rained hard all morning and into the afternoon, spoiling the big picnics, the band concerts and dancing and fireworks. Since Chattanooga’s baseball team had come all this way, they felt obliged to play half the planned double-header with Knoxville in the rain and mud. Knoxville won in 13 miserable innings. A tennis championship between pioneer auto dealer Cowan Rodgers and Atlanta’s Nat Thornton went on in the mud and drizzle. “Even the lime lines were sickly pale,” reported the Journal & Tribune. “Time after time balls were thrown to the players, the ones in use having become so muddy that they had lost their resilience.” The match was called in the third set.

It was the wettest Fourth, and the driest: “Knoxville’s first Fourth since the saloon disappeared from our midst,” after 1907’s citywide ban. “Usually the Fourth is a great day for heavy drinking.... The shipments of liquor... into Knoxville this week have been somewhat heavier than usual, and it is therefore supposed that many in East Tennessee are prepared for a hilarious occasion.” Most just enjoyed their hilarity at home.

Lacking saloons, though, Knoxvillians were looking for other ways to spend their summers. After the rain that made the Fourth so dismal, something unusual was stirring out west.

Out Kingston Pike, a couple of miles past city limits, was a new institution rumored to be prompted by the saloon ban: the Cherokee Golf and Country Club. Known to be a posh and private club, for once Cherokee hosted a big public event: a performance of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, to be performed out on the golf course, “on the edge of the wood with lofty trees and smaller bushes in the background, with the heavens as a canopy and with the characters walking through the forest.” Most of the performance was after dark, with “calcium lights to give the effect of early-morning sunshine.”

The production was “open to the entire public.... The entertainment is not private nor by invitation, but is for the public at large.”

It was a rare example of the country club’s community outreach: “A steamer has been chartered by the club for the accommodation of all who have no other means of transportation....” The riverboat left the Prince Street Wharf downtown at 7:30. At a reception afterward, it was promised, “the audience will be the guests....”

Part of the appeal of a nocturnal outdoor play, explained the Journal, was that “to those who prefer simplicity of dress, there is no demand for show, as the combination of bring colors and white of the ladies’ gowns blend into one perfect whole without the individual being conspicuous.”

The Coburn Shakespeare Players were a distinguished troupe, among them present or future Broadway stars. The best known of them was their young leader, “an ambitious and gifted actor” from Savannah named Charles Coburn. Representing “the younger school of Shakespearean interpreters,” Coburn’s technique was known for “its simplicity of method, its freedom from stilted conventions, and its keen intelligence.” Coburn played Orlando, and was especially fond of his co-star, Ivah Willis, who played Orlando’s beloved Rosalind; they’d met three years earlier, as actors in a performance of the same play. Coburn and Ivah had been on tour in Knoxville when they married, reportedly on the stage at Staub’s Theatre on Gay Street. He had sentimental feelings about the place.

Even though it wasn’t the only interesting-sounding show in town that night—the Peruchi-Gypzene Players were at Chilhowee Park, putting on the well-known play Trilby, with Will Irwin as Svengali, the “weird mesmerist”—a big crowd turned out on the links to see some Shakespeare.

Miss Ivah Willis “caught the true spirit of the part, its sportive gaiety and natural tenderness,” said the Journal. “Her vivacity and intuitiveness was radiant with youth and imagination, yet she held no monopoly in this festival of wit. Mr. Charles Douville Coburn played Orlando with great spirit and high activity. His work was sincere, straightforward, and full of humor.”

Henry Hadfield, as melancholy Jaques, spoke the line “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” on the Cherokee golf course. The Journal found him “a most interesting study.”

Ivah Willis Coburn was never well known for anything other than the role of Rosalind, but she went places with it. Two years later, she and her husband led the first known Shakespearean play at the White House, another outdoor production of As You Like It, for President Taft; in 1912, her Rosalind became the subject of a painting by groundbreaking artist Robert Henri.

She died in 1937. The widowed Charles Coburn, a different figure from the slender young thespian who’d acted on the golf course in Knoxville 30 years earlier, gave up the live stage to move to Hollywood to accept a strong supporting role in Clarence Brown’s Of Human Hearts. It began an unlikely second career for a guy in his 60s, as a portly, jowly, monacle-wearing character actor in dozens of major movies, from The Lady Eve to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Coburn was nominated for three Oscars in the ’40s, and won one, for The More the Merrier.

He returned to Knoxville at least once as an old man in the 1950s, just to have one more look around.

© 2008 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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