Mementoes of Napoleon
by Frank Vreeland
He knows every object in this store-room by heart, and when he discovers that one of them is missing not even the omniscient property man questions his memory. That singularly retentive memory is one quality which Mr. Belasco has in common with Napoleon and may perhaps account for some of his admiration for the great Corsican, for the manager might be said to have acquired the remnants of Bonaparte’s empire.
He has many relics of the Emperor—he even has the last pair of shoes Napoleon wore—and the walls of his executive offices are laden with pictures, many of them rare contemporary prints, showing the conqueror at the height of his glory, in death and being carried to his last resting place. On a trip to France, though Mr. Belasco had only half a day in Paris, it is said that he managed to spend $20,000 for Napoleonic pictures and momentoes in that time.
There are souvenirs of interest in American history, off the stage as well as on. On a wall in the Belasco offices hangs one of the original programmes used for the benefit performance for Laura Keene of “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre in Washington on the night that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated there. W. J. Ferguson, a member of the cast, is still to be found at the Lambs Club. The programme is flanked on each side by affidavits by R. O. Polkinhorn, the printer, and by Peter Harr, foreman of the printing shop, attesting to its authenticity, and the inconspicuous line at the bottom, stating that the programme was printed by H. Polkinhorn and Son, printers, D street near 7th, Washington, D. C., is further evidence of its genuineness, for the thrifty printers of fraudulent copies neglected to place this line on their counterfeit programmes.
There are contemporary engravings of the shooting and the pursuit of John Wilkes Booth, and three rare pictures of the assassin. The portrait of his father, Junius Brutus Booth, bulks large in the collection of pictures of stage notables on the walls, for the print shows the elder Booth breathing sulphur and flame in “Richard III.” Of course John Wilke’s famous brother, Edwin Booth, is accorded a prominent place in the gallery, and it gives food for thought to observe that “Hamlet” and other of his great Shakespearian revivals were performed at a place called the Winter Garden.
Another interesting Booth programme is that of the celebrated benefit production of “Hamlet” for Lester Wallack at the Metropolitan Opera House on May 21, 1888, with a distinguished cast, including Booth, Lawrence Barrett, Herbert Kelcey, Joseph Jefferson, W. J. Florence, Helena Modjeska and Rose Coghlan—the latter being the only one who can still answer the roll call.
Of particular sentimental esteem are play bills of Mr. and Mr.s Charles Kean, for it was with them that Mr. Belasco made his first stage appearance, being carried on as a baby by Julia Dean in the season of 1857 in “Pizarro,” and no doubt being willing, though for the nonce unable, to deliver one of his felicitous curtain speeches. Besides these one finds enormous dodgers advertising performances of Jefferson and Florence in “The Rivals,” with a company including Mrs. John Drew and Viola Allen; “The School for Scandal” at Mrs. John Drew’s Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia; E. A. Sothern in “Home” at the London Haymarket; Macready in “The Way to Get Married” at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden—a question which was seemingly puzzling them as far back as February 8, 1796—and announcements of the famous “Black Crook” at Niblo’s Garden and Barnum’s Museum.
Original Publication: Vreeland, Frank. “Belasco’s Property Room Houses Antique Gems.” The Sun and New York Herald 1 Feb. 1920, Sunday Magazine Section sec.: 7. Print.