Elmer Blaney Harris: 1878-1966


 I.    The Beginning

II.   Elmer Blaney Harris

III.  The Elmer Blaney Harris Archive

IV.  Endnotes

V.   Works Cited



The Beginning

                On 20 March 1902, two days before actors Ellen Terry and Sir Henry Irving sailed for England after their last major tour together in the United States, aspiring American actor and playwright named Elmer Blaney Harris wrote from his apartment in New York City to his mother in Oakland, California:[1]

            Mrs. Hearst arrived last night, I believe.[2]  She had given strict orders to her man here not to divulge the time of her advent to a living soul, so I did not have the pleasure of meeting her. I s[']pose I'll hear from her before long.  Last night I arrayed myself in my silk hat! opera hat, if you please, one of that kind which you can mash without hurting them, my ulster which sweeps down to within six inches of my French heeled patent leathers, [..] my full dress beneath, and took the elevated for Harlem where Ellen Terry and Sir Henry Irving are filling their final engagement before [1/2] sailing to England on next Saturday.[3]  Ordinarily the super-structure of  the elevated road is not more than 30 or 40 feet above the surface of the earth, but out at Harlem, where they run in tiers, the topmost track is higher than the six-story buildings.  It[']s quite a climb.  At some of the places they have moving stairs on which you walk and the wheels do the rest.  Of course you do the "rest", too, while they're doing it.  Through another avenue I had met Mr. Howson, treasurer to Mr Irving.[4]  Mrs. Hearst had given me a letter to her banker in New York,[5] and he had presented me by note to Mr Howson—whom I found a fat, bleary-eyed, blasted Englishman.  It took me two whole nights <for me> to persuade that man that I was not a solicitor nor a sponger, that I wanted to see Miss Terry.  He was busy, naturally.  Every half hour he would bob up in my vicinity—generally in the draught near the entrance—and I would accidentally get in his way.  "Oh, here your are; now what do you want to see her for?"  He sprung that on me until I knew it by heart.  Finally I said, will you present my letter to her?  My letter from Mrs H[earst].  He took it and the next time I held him up he told me, quite shortly, that Miss Terry couldn't see me.  I asked for my letter, and he fumbled round in his pockets! and said, "I'll get it for you later; I gave it to the maid."  Then I knew that Mr Howson had told at least one fib in his life.  I guess he saw that I had him—he'd never presented it at all—and after the performance was [...] over Mr. Howson brought Miss Terry's maid to me, who [2/3] said that her mistress would see me.

            Miss Terry is a corker.  As tall as I, she weighs three times as much.  Has large soft hands and small genial features.  Her head was covered with a short yellow wig, and she wore the dress of the character which she had just been playing—Nance Oldfield.[6]  She made me at home on the corner of the table.  She herself sat on a trunk, surrounded by flowers, notes, and dresses.  She apologized for the size of the room.  I told her that I had had a larger one when getting only ten dollars a week, and added that she must be making at least fifteen.  She corrected me: "Only ten and a half,"—long drawl on the a.  We chatted about the plays in New York.  I reminded her of Mrs Patrick Campbell, an English actress, who carried N[ew]. Y[ork]. by storm at advanced prices this season, who, in order to deaden the noise on the street, had tan-bark spread over the paving stones before the theatre.[7]  She had [3/4] heard of it, and assured me that in London art was so loved that care was taken not to disturb performances.  I ventured to suppose that <perhaps> the horses walked on tip-toe when passing the entrances of the playhouses.  Speaking of Chicago she said she liked Chicago because the people packed the theatre.  I told her that the people of my native town could do nothing better.  She asked about my work, and said that I was doing just the right thing in seeking a position back of the footlights.  Promised me a letter to Sir Henry.  Gave me her London address,[8] and her address at Stratford on Avon, the Red House,[9] where she goes to play revivals of Old English comedies during the week of Shakespeare's birthday.  [4/5]  She invited me to come and see her in both places, and if she could she would get me a small part.  I expressed a wish to go on the same steamer with her and Mr. Irving next Saturday, but doubted whether I could get a berth on such short notice.  I thought I might go steerage.  She promised to come down to see me if I did, and I said that should she do that the first-cabin passengers would all be buying steerage rights.  There is hardly hope of my going on Saturday.  I want to see Mrs Hearst, and probably go for a few days to Washington.  Miss Terry thought the writing of short plays a great art.  It required a wonderful gift to draw probable characters in a few short speeches, and give a complete story in a few minutes.  Said she was looking for that kind of play.  I told her that I considered that an order.  Then she very graciously dismissed me, after telling [me] not to waste any time [.]in coming to England as the companies would all be made up for the summer season before the end of April.  On the way home I stopped at a restaurant and ate two hot shred[d]ed-wheat biscuits and cream, which made me dream of Ellen Terry, Shakespeare, myself, and you and a lot of other things.  (Harris, Letter #16)

Two weeks later, after sailing to England aboard the R.M.S. Teutonic, Harris again sought an audience with Terry and learned in her response she would recommend only that he write to Benson and mention her "as reference for a 'weeny-weeny' part at Stratford" (Terry, letter #22, 5 April 1902).  Disappointed but undaunted, Harris slipped Terry's letter into a larger envelope to be sent from London to his mother in Oakland, California.  He included with Terry's correspondence instruction that his mother "save it most carefully" because "there's no telling how much it'll be worth some day" (Harris, letter #24).  Shortly thereafter, he advised her to "read up your Shakespeares" because "my next letter will be from Stratford, the home of immortal Shakespeare, & the resting place of his precious bones" (Harris, letter #28).  He would, he decided, follow Ellen Terry there, too.

            Such determination was characteristic of the twenty-four year old Harris.  Only a few months before, he had been an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, acting and writing for his school's stage with the Skull & Keys Club.[10]  With the patronage of his benefactress, Phoebe Apperson Hearst, he quickly found himself in the company of some of the most influential actors and producers in England (see Tempesta and the Tea Pot: An American Playwright in London, 1902-1904).  And though Terry never would find him employment, Harris was not discouraged.  He told his mother, "I sent her a nice box of flowers before I left, to keep my memory green & fragrant; & in the after years when I have more to offer I shall approach her again" (Harris, letter #31).  By August, he would be working for Benoit Constant Coquelin's company in France, gaining firsthand experience from the renowned Cyrano de Bergerac (Harris, letter #45).  In another year and a half, he would have his first play—Tempesta—produced by Rudolph Schildkraut in Hamburg, Germany (Harris, letter #117).  He was resilient, persistent, occasionally presumptuous, and above all, he was indefatigably optimistic.

            It is not surprising, then, that years later, as a sixty-two year-old playwright, Harris would choose to ignore the opening night drubbing critics gave what would become his most successful play, Johnny Belinda.  Doing so could not have been easy, however.  Life magazine called Harris's 1940 melodrama about an ostracized deaf-mute's rape and eventual salvation at the hands of a beneficent country doctor "The Strangest Play on Broadway" ("Broadway: 1940-41" 54).  Most critics were less flattering.  For instance, Brooks Atkinson, drama critic for the New York Times, wrote:

Now that Johnny Belinda has reached the stage, there may not be enough drama left to last through the rest of the season.  Elmer Harris has shot the works in one evening at the Belasco Theatre.  The mortgage is in it; also seduction, childbirth, death by lightning, murder by shotgun, a snowstorm, a Canadian Mounted in scarlet uniform and a court room scene.  As minor diversions Mr. Harris throws in a lesson on grinding grain on a water wheel and a scene with a spinning wheel.  Being a thorough workman, he also includes the kitchen stove and the kitchen sink.  (Atkinson 22)

Richard Watts of the New York Herald Tribune called the play "cheap melodrama" full of "shameless sentimentality," with a predictable plot and predictable characters (Watts n.p.).  New York Sun critic Richard Lockridge wrote:

One grows to suspect that the author has run across people rather like these somewhere, and seen them with some sympathy and understanding, and then made up altogether the wrong story about them.  (Lockridge n.p.)

In fact, he had met such people.  Not only was Johnny Belinda based on actual events which occurred near his summer home in Fortune Bridge, Prince Edward Island, Canada, but he had named many of his characters—including the play's rapist—after his neighbors (Underhay 4-11).  They were understandably outraged (Martha Brooks, personal interview, 18 August 1988).

            Regardless of the source of such criticism, however, Harris seems not to have been intimidated.  After all, his detractors were rarely unanimous in voice.  By 1940, several of his over one hundred plays and films had won critical acclaim, and many more had been popular and lucrative successes despite the reviews.  And in 1948, when Warner Brothers adapted  Johnny Belinda into an Academy Award-winning film with Jane Wyman, he reveled, as he always had, in the opportunities such appeal provided.  He promoted Johnny Belinda for the radio and the European stage, and as late as 16 July 1964, in a letter to Jack Warner himself, the eighty-four year old Harris asked the producer:

You're doing TV shows at your studio, aren't you?  It struck me that if you could get hold of Jane Wyman and the right advertisers, we could do Johnny Belinda in a whole series of half-hour or hour shows, and all share in the profits.  (Harris, letter to Jack Warner, 16 July 1964)

Warner did not produce such a show, but neither did Harris give up trying to attract an audience.  Shortly before he died in Washington, D.C., on 6 September 1966, he preempted work on his autobiography to renew attempts to revive other past successes (Harris, letter to David Sheldon, 29 March 1966).

            He never did finish his autobiography, and despite his persistence and optimism, his long and successful career, and his impressive list of associates, mention of Harris and his work today rarely elicits more than blank stares.  Furthermore, those interested in learning more about Harris will discover that what little has been written about him is neither thorough nor reliable.  Now, over sixty years after the premier of his most famous play, Johnny Belinda, the work here offers a long-overdue introduction to Elmer Blaney Harris.   [Contents]


Elmer Blaney Harris

            Born in Chicago on 11 January 1878, Harris was the youngest of four daughters and four sons (see Harris Genealogy). After a fire destroyed his father's broom factory a few years later, he moved with his family to Oakland, California.  He began studying at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1898, and before he graduated with a B.S. in 1901, he developed an interest in acting and writing for the school's theatre—an interest which attracted the attention and patronage of William Randolph Hearst's mother, Phoebe Apperson Hearst.

            Harris's association with Mrs. Hearst undoubtedly represents an early turning point in his prospects as a playwright.  With her encouragement, financial assistance, and influence in theatre circles, he was able to spend the next few years (1902-1905) in New York and Europe developing his skills and learning from a variety of established talents including actors Sir Henry Irving, Ellen Terry, and Benoit Constant Coquelin, drama critic William Archer, producer David Belasco, and writers Augustus Thomas and Richard Harding Davis.  He acted with touring companies, earned commissions translating works from French and German, and wrote and produced his first play, Tempesta.

            When he returned to California in mid-1905, the twenty-seven year old playwright enthusiastically launched himself into almost sixty more years of unbroken devotion to his writing.  According to one of several short, incomplete autobiographies, Harris writes:

            Returning to America, I lectured round at Universities and Women’s Clubs on Shaw and Ibsen.  I had met William Archer, translator of Ibsen’s plays, while in London.  I had 3 lectures sold out starting at the St. Francis hotel, San Francisco, the day of the Earthquake.  I don’t mean to imply that the lectures started the earthquake, but the earthquake pinned a lily on the lectures.

            I started writing special articles for Fremont Older of the S. F. Bulletin.  As critic I covered the repertoire of Olga Nethersole, then touring the country and playing a week in Oakland, across the Bay.  Miss Nethersole persuaded me to join her company and translate a French play for her.  I did so, winding up in New York, where I wrote short stories for Everybody’s, The American, and Redbook.  (Harris, “Elmer Harris,” n.d.)

Indeed, Harris’s work as a reporter for the San Francisco Call-Bulletin was abruptly terminated in April, 1906, when the San Francisco earthquake destroyed the newspaper's headquarters ("The 'Frisco Phenix [sic]" 1)—whereupon, in New York, Harris probably collaborated with Cora Older on translating Filette (later copyrighted in 1910) while simultaneously writing for The New York Globe and Commercial Advertiser, and publishing short stories and articles for magazines such as Redbook, Hampton's Magazine, Sunset Magazine, and Pictorial Review.

            It wasn’t long before Harris’s public and private lives converged.  According to Harris:

I returned to California and with six others—George Sterling, James Hopper, Arnold Genthe, Vernon Kellogg, Geraldine Bonner, and Mary Austin—started the present artist’s colony at Carmel-by-the-Sea.  While there I dramatized one of Geraldine Bonner’s short stories and called it SHAM.  Florence Roberts played it in Los Angeles and throughout the west, and Henrietta Crossman played it in New York and throughout the east.  This was in 1907-8.  In 1908 I married, and my wife and I spent a year’s honeymoon abroad.  (Harris, “Elmer Harris,” n.d.)

Letters from Austin and Bonner and signed photographs within the archive corroborate Harris’s involvement in Carmel, California (Harris in fact signed a contract with Austin in 1906 to collaborate on a work that probably never made it into production); however, his more extensive and important presence in joining and developing an artist’s colony at Fortune Bay, Prince Edward Island, Canada remains unmentioned in most of his brief accounts.  Shortly after his honeymoon in 1908, Harris built a house and joined actors C. P. Flockton, Charles Stevenson, and David Warwick, artist Charles Dana Gibson, singer and Gibson model Elsa Warwick-Kelvey, and others to create a community devoted to establishing and improving the local theatre.  And it was there, of course, that Harris observed events that would later inspire his most famous work, Johnny Belinda.

            Harris’s first American play, Sham (1907), was quickly followed by a series of successes (The Offenders, 1908; Trial Marriage, 1909; Thy Neighbor’s Wife, 1911).  And as his associations within the industry rapidly developed,  Harris found himself writing both for the stage and for film.  Perhaps his first such effort, for example, was Thy Neighbor’s Wife: first rewritten with Oliver Morosco and Earl Carroll as the popular 1914 Broadway musical, So Long, Letty, and immediately adapted for the Oliver Morosco Photoplay Company's 1915 production of Pretty Mrs. Smith (rev. of Pretty Mrs. Smith 24).  Harris never looked back.  Dividing his efforts between the New York stage and the burgeoning Hollywood film industry, he had made a lucrative—and unquestionably physically demanding—decision.  Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, Harris wrote more than seven original screenplays and had adapted, collaborated upon, directed or supervised the production of almost thirty-five other silent and "sound" films.  Furthermore, he worked with a long list of important actors including Jack and Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Gloria Swanson, Hedda Hopper, Bebe Daniels, and the Marx brothers, and contracted as a screenwriter and “script doctor” for studios most of the major studios such as United Artists, MGM, Warner, Paramount, and Columbia.  At the same time, his continued activity in the theatre resulted not only in dealings with Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Elmer Rice, manager David Belasco, and producer J. J. Shubert, but in the production of at least ten more original plays and work on almost a dozen  more.

            Of course, the world occasionally impinged.  Just as he was entering the film venue, for example, Harris writes:

            Then came the First World War.  I was too old for the draft but became a member of the Food Board in Washington, Herbert Hoover presiding.  I became an authority on graham flour and sold carloads of it.  But I had always hated the damn stuff since childhood and bowed out, and became a member of the Fosdick Commission, dramatic director, civil aid to the commander, stationed at Camp Bowie, Texas, in charge of amusements and morale.  (Harris, “Elmer Harris,” n.d.)

Harris’s own account of his accomplishments after the war provide merely a snapshot of his prolific dedication as a playwright and screenwriter for the years that followed (information appearing in brackets is the editor’s):

            When peace came, I was stationed at San Diego and discharged there and returned to Los Angeles.  The first man I met was C.B. DeMille.  His mother Beatrice de Mille [sic] had been my agent in New York.  C. B. urged me to join Famous Players-Lasky.  I did so and was put in charge of their subsidiary company Realart at a salary of $50,000 a year.  There I made pictures, writing most of them, for Bebe Daniels, Wanda Hawley, Walter Hiers, Mary Miles Minter, Ethel Clayton and others, and occupied that position until Realart was absorbed by the parent company.

            I was twice story editor at Columbia for Harry Cohn, and wrote Frank Capra’s first story for the screen [The Matinee Idol, Columbia Pictures, 1928].  Mary Pickford’s asked me to write and produce a story for her brother Jack Pickford, and I did Garrison’s Finish [Jack Pickford Productions, 1923], a story of the Kentucky Derby, which put Jack back in circulation.  I made pictures independently for Mary [Pickford] & Doug [Fairbanks] and the United Artists.  I also made pictures independently in San Francisco for Producer’s Distributing Organization, when San Francisco was trying to steal some of Hollywood’s glory.

            I was in considerable demand at that time as a writer, and wrote for Universal, Fox, did the Dillinger picture for Edward Small [possibly Let ‘Em Have It, United Artists, 1935], and my contract with Metro-Goldwyn was a guarantee of 40 weeks annually at $2000 a week.  My highest salary was paid me by Irving Thalburg, $3125 a week for 8 weeks for doing the script of my play Stepping Out which Dillingham did at the Fulton Theatre, New York [1929].  Thalburg starred Charlotte Greenwood in it, her first motion picture [Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1931].  Harris, “Elmer Harris,” n.d.

Meanwhile, in 1918, Harris and his wife, Wilhelmina Beaumont Harris, had their first son, Victor, born in Los Angeles, and in 1921 a second, Elmer Blaney Harris, Jr.  Traveling constantly between Los Angeles, New York, and his summer home on Prince Edward Island, Harris’s productivity continued unabated through the 1920s as his work in various capacities on over two dozen film and play productions attests.  It is perhaps even more remarkable then that at the end of the decade, between a few films (i.e., The Desert Bride, 1928; Father and Son, 1929; The Barbarian, 1933; Cross Country Cruise, 1934) and a few new plays (i.e., Young Sinners, 1929; Ladies All, 1930; A Modern Virgin, 1931; Forbidden, 1931), he completed the first script for The Inner Silence (1934), a screenplay about a deafmute woman raped by the town villain near Fortune Bridge, Prince Edward Island.  Renamed and revised for the stage, Johnny Belinda premiered at Broadway’s Belasco Theater in 1940 and ran consecutively for over ten months before launching into another year of productions on the road and abroad. 

            Though he called it his “last play” (Harris, “Elmer Harris,” n.d.), Johnny Belinda was hardly his final work—let alone his last original production—in either theatre or film.   His film adaptation of Damon Runyon’s The Three Wise Guys in 1936 and his early 1940 release of a new play, The Man Who Killed Lincoln (Longacre Theater, NYC) counted among a number of additional works that extended his efforts into the 1950s, when he included collaborative work on new “television plays” such as Man Proposes (1957) and Time and Tide (1958) with original and adapted stage plays such as Pappy (1951), The Parisienne (1958) and Love and Obey (1963).   Though most of these later works remained unproduced, his enthusiasm for their prospects, as well as for the viability of revising and producing past successes, continued until his death (Harris, letter to David Sheldon, 29 March 1966).

            On 6 September 1966, at age eighty-eight, Elmer Blaney Harris died at the  Doctor’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.  His obituary in the New York Times characterizes him as a “Broadway playwright and film pioneer” who “is probably best remembered for his 1941 [sic] stage melodrama, Johnny Belinda” (“Elmer B. Harris, Playwright, 88” New York Times 8 Sept. 1966, p. 47).  The Chicago Tribune remarked that he “had early careers as an actor and as a newspaper man” (“Elmer Harris, Playwright, Newsman, Dies,” 8 Sept. 1966, n.p.), and the Washington Star proclaims that he “held 80 Library of Congress copyrights for his various works” (“Elmer B. Harris, 88, Dies; Stage and Film Writer,” 8 Sept. 1966, n.p.).  What none of the obituaries mention, however, are Harris’s less well-known but equally intriguing ambitions: his co-funding with James Cruze Bosen in 1920 of the invention of the first camera able to “take and record motion pictures in color”; his summer tours around the coastal towns of Prince Edward Island aboard his sailboat, the Duchess, with fellow artist community members to stage plays and readings for local townsfolk; his shared interest in oil ventures in Bakersfield, California, and Nevada; his campaign in 1947-8 to establish a community theater on Prince Edward Island, which enlisted the support of Charles Coburn, Cecil B. DeMille, and Mary Pickford; and above all his indefatigable work on dozens of unpublished plays, short-stories,  and screenplays, all bracketed and elaborated on by hundreds of letters, contracts, pitches and appeals pertaining to the business of writing for and subsisting on the stage and screen.

            The work in progress that follows here—cataloguing information, scholarship, and artifacts—will, we hope, reinvigorate interest in Elmer Blaney Harris’s life and accomplishments while offering unique and heretofore unpublished insights into and documentation about the author’s era and associates.  Feel free to browse, to enjoy, and to return word of your visit so we might improve your experience when you return!   [Contents]


The Elmer Blaney Harris Archive

            Beginning in 1987, while hunting through archives on the east coast for information about Harris's past, I was invited to Maryland by my grandparents, Victor and Helen Harris, to reminisce about Victor's father, Elmer.  I had already announced my desire to study my great-grandfather’s work for my thesis in graduate school, but my hopes that such news would tempt secreted stockpiles of memorabilia from their hiding places (a researcher's fantasy) had been discouraged by the news that most of Elmer's private papers were destroyed shortly after his death (a researcher's nightmare).

            Most, but not all.  After a weekend of interviews with my grandparents (which I thankfully recorded), we recovered one of my great-grandfather's traveling trunks from a darkened, unused bedroom in their home.  We did so, however, with not a little doubt that we would find anything warranting more than passing interest.  But hardly a moment's inspection revealed that we had indeed uncovered a treasure: at the bottom of the trunk, beneath a tray full of clippings, bibles, and tissue-wrapped keepsakes, were three bound stacks of letters in Elmer Harris's hand dating back to the turn of the century. 

            A Calendar and Transcription of Selected Letters by Elmer Blaney Harris: 1902-1905 (Master’s thesis, Texas A&M U, Dec. 1989) derives from these letters.   Opening near his birthplace in Chicago on 9 January 1902—only two months before his first meeting with Ellen Terry—and closing in his home state of California on 25 March 1905, these 160 pieces of correspondence chronicle some of  Harris’s earliest experiences in and around the theatres of New York City, England, France, and Germany.  They are a remarkable, engaging record of his associations with historically significant actors, writers, and producers, of his successes and failures as a young actor and playwright, and of his enthusiastic determination to become an accomplished artist.  And included as part of his gratifyingly detailed travel narrative are, among postcards calling cards and various clippings, signed letters from Phoebe Apperson Hearst, Ellen Terry, and colleagues of William Archer and Benoit Constant Coquelin.  In many ways, perhaps, the collection is itself the journal of a young apprentice's Grand Tour, detailing changes and events during the first few years of what we have seen would become over six decades of involvement with the theatre and film.

            Since 1987, however, the archive has multiplied to imposing proportions, including now dozens of recovered manuscripts, typescripts, and the myriad contextualizing paraphernalia requisite both to undertaking the sort of  bio-bibliographical survey such as we find here, and to prepare as fully as possible for necessary subsequent critical studies (see the beginning of such work in  The Decline and Fall of Sir Henry Irving, Herbert Beerbohm Tree and Henry Irving: The Actor-Managers' "Habit of Mind" Toward the New Drama, and Tempesta and the Tea Pot: An American Playwright in London, 1902-1904).  Alongside the initial discoveries reside notes from dozens of phone calls around the continent, interviews, correspondence, onsite research at the Library of Congress and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the Lincoln Center’s Performing Arts Research Center and the Shubert Archive in New York City, Prince Edward Island University, the Public Archives of Prince Edward Island, the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, PEI, and (by invitation) the odds and ends recovered during searches through various attics, cubbyholes, trunks, shoeboxes, photo albums, and (at least once) dresser drawers.  The resulting accumulated documentation numbers in the thousands of pieces: contracts, letters, playbills, newspaper clippings, royalty payment stubs, photographs, books and magazines, video and audio tapes—if it has anything to do with Harris’s film or play production, it’s there.  Letters from JJ Shubert, Jack Warner, Elmer Rice, Mary Austin, the Pickfords, CB Demille.  Signed photos from Charles Coburn, Charlotte Greenwood, Jane Wyman, Julie Harris, Jack Warner.  Contracts with Harpo Marx, Bing Crosby, and all the major Hollywood studios.  Stage sketches, prompt copies, other actors’ journals, reminiscences, and gossip.  Congratulations, criticism, anecdotes and ire.  Even a bound collection of his wife Wilhelmina’s poetry turned up.  And somehow I have acquired some of Elmer’s personal effects along the way: a traveler’s trunk and personal hygiene kit, a pillbox, a couple of canes, to name a few, and so on down to—strangely—his dental x-rays and my one speeding ticket unsympathetically awarded during a particularly exhausting drive from Prince Edward Island back to Texas.

            And still the archive grows, though even today periodic library and internet searches reveal hardly more than passing reference to Harris in a critical context.  Instead, Harris’s name is relegated to cursory obituaries and bio-bibliographies (the longest of which, written by son Victor, appears in the National Cyclopedia of American Biography), or to the plethora of scholarly and pseudo-scholarly lists wherein theater and film work attributed to Harris are at once disparate and despairingly incomplete.  Of course, no helpful mention of his contributions as drama critic and writer for periodicals can be found.

            With two important exceptions: Johnny Belinda  continues to draw a crowd.  1998 and 2000 summer festivals at the Charlottetown Confederation Centre for the Arts included the play, and there have been recent productions at Switzerland’s Theater Vogelweide—“Das Theater Vogelweide in Wels zeigt 3Johnny Belinda’ von Elmer Harris,” exclaims a 30 May 2001 internet article from Zurich ( in various American amateur repertoire productions.  And Elmer’s old house on Prince Edward Island, sold in the 1960s to actress Colleen Dewhurst and again in the late 1980s to entrepreneur and innkeeper David Wilmer and his wife, has been completely refurbished as The Inn at Bay Fortune.  Touted now as “the former summer home of Broadway playwright Elmer Harris (Johnny Belinda),” the inn is consistently regarded as one of the highest-rated getaways in all of the Canadian Provinces (see

            So the research continues.  And until recently, I have received the constant support and input of my grandfather, Victor Harris, and by proxy, his brother Blaney.  Sharing my work about Elmer Harris, I have in return been offered anecdotes, clarifications, elaborations, and an occasional documented record of the most recent productions of Harris’s work in Charlottetown and in American repertoire theatre.  Elmer Blaney Harris, Jr., alas, passed away on 25 June 1995, and was recently followed by his older brother and my grandfather on 15 April 2000; so it is to both of them that this work is dedicated: for their unwavering love for Elmer and Mops, for “the house on the island,” and for the unusual and cherished experiences and wisdom they received and that they shared, in life and letters, with all us kids.   [Contents]



             1  Agnes Robbins Harris, wife of Edward Alexander Harris, her second husband.  Their children were Walter, Edward, Jr., Jenny and Elmer, the youngest.  Agnes' first husband was William Harris, Edward's older brother, who died in an accident on Lake Michigan.  William sired Elmer Harris's step-brother William and his stepsisters Lillian Coffin (wife of Horace Coffin and mother of Marguerite), Agnes Ray (wife of Fisk M. Ray), and Hazel (Ada) Hicks (wife of E.P. Hicks).   (See Harris Genealogy.)   [Return]


            2  Phoebe Elizabeth Apperson Hearst (1842-1919), wife of George Hearst (1820-1891), mother of William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951).  She probably met Harris during his studies at the University of California, Berkeley, before he graduated in 1901.  According to the National Cyclopedia of American Biography, "The later years of her life were identified with California and particularly with the state university at Berkeley . . . . She had a gift for the discovery of talent, encouraged ambition wherever she found it, and made her houses in California centers for the entertainment of interesting figures in the worlds of literature, music, scholarship and politics" (488-9).  Mrs. Hearst helped finance Harris's travels through New York and Europe between 1902 and 1905: in letter #20 (25 March 1902), Harris claims that Mrs Hearst "gave me £244-18 for one year," and in letter #123 (15 March 1904) Mrs. Hearst writes, "Now that I know something of your plans, I will arrange for the necessary funds required for your journey to London, and the voyage to N.Y.  [1/2] I enclose £40. and when I hear from you, will send amount for the last two or three months['] living expenses."  Harris's numerous references to Mrs. Hearst suggest that their association was a comfortable and familiar one.  For example, in letter #9--from her to Harris--Mrs. Hearst informs him that she will be visiting the East Coast, and Harris's response is to leave his acting in Connecticut to return to New York City.  And in letter #62 (7 January 1903) Harris writes a poem about Mrs Hearst, "on receiving her photograph for a Christmas gift."   [Return]


            3  See the review of Sir Henry Irving and Ellen Terry in The Merchant of Venice at the Harlem Opera House (rev. of The Merchant of Venice, New York Times 18 Mar. 1902: 5).  Sir Henry Irving, born John Henry Brodribb (1838-1905), was the first knighted English actor and manager, and was renowned for his renditions of Shakespeare's plays (Bordman 374).  Accompanied by actress Ellen Terry, he was in the sixth month of his twentieth and last tour of America (Bingham 295).  Ellen Alice Terry (1847-1928) was an English actress who had worked with Henry Irving since their meeting in 1878.  English drama critic William Archer (1856-1924) praises Irving's "masterstroke as a manager--the creation of a tragedienne in Miss Ellen Terry," and describes her as "the almost necessary complement to his own talent" (Archer 100-1).  In response to financial troubles, however, she had formed her own company by 1903 (Melville 184).    [Return]


4  Charles E. Howson (d. 1907) is listed as Treasurer for Henry Irving and Ellen Terry's production of The Merchant of Venice at Irving's Lyceum in July, 1901 (Wearing 109).  [Return]


5  The banker referred to here is probably a Mr. Clark, identified in earlier letters by both Harris and Phoebe Hearst as a contact to Sir Henry Irving and Ellen Terry.   [Return]


            6  The title role in Charles Reade's play of the same name.  Henry Irving sponsored the revival of this play to alleviate financial difficulties (Melville 139).  Owner Ellen Terry starred in the play for several years (Bingham 250).  [Return]


            7  See "Mrs. Campbell's 'Bloom'" (New York Times 21 Jan. 1902: 6), which reports that in both Chicago and New York City Campbell's press agent persuaded city officials "to spread tanbark in the street before the theatre to deaden the noises."   [Return]


            8  Ellen Terry resided at 22 Barkston Gardens, Earls Court.   [Return]


            9  Ellen Terry's "idyllic retreat" in Gustard Wood Common, near Weathampstead, England (Melville 49).  She returned there in March to play Katherine in Henry VIII for the Shakespeare Birthday Festival (Melville 140).   [Return]


            10 Although the extent of Harris's involvement with Berkeley's theatre is currently being researched, at least one of his letters mentions his participation in the school's production of Jules Sandeau's Mademoiselle de la Seigliere (Harris, letter #40).   [Return]





Works Cited


Abbé, Charles S.  Our Great Actors: Portraits of Celebrated Actors in Their

            Most Distinguished Roles.  Boston:Estes and Lauriat,1890.

Archer, William.  Henry Irving: Actor and Manager: A Critical Study.  1883.

            St. Clair Shores, MI: Scholarly Press,1970.

Atkinson, Brooks.  Johnny Belinda Is the Story of a Man Who Is Going to

            Marry a Deafmute Wife.”  New YorkTimes 19 Sept. 1940: 22.

Bingham, Madeline.  Henry Irving and the Victorian Theatre.  London:

            George Allen & Unwin, 1978.

Bordman, Gerald.  The Oxford Companion to American Theatre.  New York:

            Oxford U P, 1984.

Bowie, Chuck.  A Calendar and Transcription of Selected Letters by Elmer

            Blaney Harris: 1902-1905.  Master’s thesis, Texas A&M U, Dec. 1989.

---.  The Decline and Fall of Sir Henry Irving.  Unpublished MSS.  June, 2001.

---.  Tempesta and the Tea Pot: An American Playwright in London, 1902-

            1904 .  Unpublished MSS.  June, 2001.

"Broadway: 1940-41."  Life 17 Feb. 1941: 43-54.

Brooks, Martha.  Personal interview.  18 Aug. 1988.

“Elmer B. Harris, 88, Dies; Stage and Film Writer,” Washington Star 8 Sept.

            1966, n.p.

“Elmer B. Harris, Playwright, 88” New York Times 8 Sept. 1966, p. 47

“Elmer Harris, Playwright, Newsman, Dies,” Chicago Tribune 8 Sept. 1966,


“The 'Frisco Phenix [sic].”  Editor and Publisher 28 Apr. 1906: 1.

Harris, Elmer Blaney.  “Elmer Harris.”  TS.  3pp.  n.d.

---.  Letter to Agnes Harris (#16).  20 March 1902.  Harris Papers.  Private

            Collection, C. Bowie.

---.  Letter to Agnes Harris (#20).  25 Mar. 1902.  Harris Papers.  Private

            Collection, C. Bowie.

---.  Letter to Agnes Harris (#24).  8 Apr. 1902.  Harris Papers.  Private

            Collection,  C. Bowie.

---.  Letter to Agnes Harris (#28).  [c. 20 or 21 Apr.] 1902.  Harris Papers. 

            Private Collection, C. Bowie.

---.  Letter to Agnes Harris (#31).  6 May 1902.  Harris Papers.  Private

           Collection, C. Bowie.

---.  Letter to Agnes Harris (#40).  16 Jul. 1902.  Harris Papers.  Private

           Collection, C. Bowie.

---.  Letter to Agnes Harris (#45).  19 Aug. 1902.  Harris Papers.  Private

           Collection, C. Bowie.

---.  Letter to Agnes Harris (#62).  7 Jan. 1903.  Harris Papers.  Private

           Collection, C. Bowie.

---.  Letter to Agnes Harris (#117).  14 Feb. 1904.  Harris Papers.  Private

           Collection, C. Bowie.

---.  Letter to David Sheldon, 29 March 1966.  Harris Papers.  Private

           Collection, C. Bowie.

---.  Letter to Jack Warner, 16 July 1964.  Harris Papers.  Private Collection,

           C. Bowie.

Hearst, Phoebe Apperson.  Letter to Elmer Harris (#9).  16 February 1902. 

           Harris Papers.  Private Collection, C.Bowie.

 ---.  Letter to Elmer Harris (#123).  15 Mar. 1904.  Harris Papers.  Private

           Collection, C. Bowie.

The Inn at Bay Fortune.  Website.  June, 2001.

Lockridge, Richard.  Johnny Belinda, Feverish Melodrama, Opens at the

           Belasco Theater.”  New York Sun 19 Sept. 1940: n.p.

Melville, Joy.  Ellen and Edy: A Biography of Ellen Terry and Her Daughter,

           Edith Craig: 1847-1947.  London:Pandora, 1987.

The Merchant of Venice.  rev.  New York Times 18 Mar. 1902: 5

“Mrs. Campbell's ‘Bloom.’”  New York Times 21 Jan. 1902: 6.

National Cyclopedia of American Biography.  Vol 51.  New York: James T.

          White, 1970.  63 vols.  488-9.

Terry, Ellen.  Letter to Elmer Harris (#22).  5 April 1902.  Harris Papers.  Private

          Collection, C. Bowie.

Theatre Reviews, Zurich.  Website.  June, 2001.

Underhay, J. C.  “Spots of Interest In and Around Bay Fortune.”  Dingwell's

           Scrapbook.  Unpublished ms.  Public Archives of Prince Edward Island,


Wearing, J. P.  The London Stage: 1900-1909: A Calendar of Plays and

           Players.  2 vols.  Metuchen: Scarecrow, 1981.





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