Backstage Death, Despair and Love at the Winnipeg Orpheum on May 15, 1912 in Winnipeg.
By Grant Simpson
When Warren Conlan walked onto the Winnipeg Orpheum stage on May 15, 1912, he was a celebrated Shakspearian actor, touring the Keith-Orpheum Circuit in the company of another celebrated Shakespeare veteran, Frank Keenan. They were performing a one-act playlet called “Man-to-Man”, and the small cast included Keenan’s eighteen-year-old daughter Hilda, who had the role of office assistant in the play. On the evening of May 15, the Orpheum was packed with an engaged audience who were ensconced in the performance. As the playlet neared its finale, Conlan was waiting behind a curtain for his final scene. Hilda delivered his cue line but there was no entrance. After a brief pause, she made her way to the curtain pulling it back and to her horror she saw Conlan slumped over the little stage table. The unfortunate actor then fell forward face-down onto the floor. Even at eighteen, she had grown up on the stage and in true theatrical tradition she knew the show must go on. She quickly shut the curtains and attempted to carry on with the scene. In an attempt to inform the other actors on stage that something was terribly wrong, but not tip off the audience, said “He’s gone” and then went over to answer the phone which was the next part of the script. Hilda’s father, being the consummate pro, jumped in and covered Conlan’s role for the remainder of the scene. Apparently, the Winnipeg audience was oblivious to the tragedy that had unfolded during the act and showed their approval of the performance by demanding two curtain calls, which the cast took while Conlan lay face-down on the stage a few feet behind them. As soon as the final curtain went down Keenan rushed over to check on his fallen actor who unfortunately expired a few minutes later. It was later determined that Conlan had suffered a massive heart attack on stage.
It must not have been easy to go on after that – but the comedian on the bill was none other than Ed Wynn, known to most of us as “Uncle Albert” in Mary Poppins. When Wynn sings “I Love to Laugh” and with every laugh, defies gravity and begins to float around the room – it makes you want to bask in the levitated joy. From all accounts he made the Winnipeg audience in 1912 feel the same way.
Wynn was a self-made comedian who pioneered vaudeville by refusing to use ethnic or lewd humor in any of his acts. He simply commanded the stage by his charm and charisma as he walked on stage with one prop – a large felt fedora made specially for him at his father’s millinery shop back in Philadelphia. During his 10-minute turn he proceeded to convert the hat into over two-dozen different surprising shapes as he rattled off a rapid comedic patter.
When the show ended that fateful day in Winnipeg, the audience noticed that the Police had arrived and were backstage investigating the scene. A shocked and somber cast comforted each other as the reality set in that they had lost one of their stage family. Covering the role was easy – Vaudevillians were masters at that – but when troupers work together night-after-night as they travel the continent from one end to another – they form familial bonds. Frank Keenan, the leader of the troupe gave a simple statement to the Winnipeg Free Press saying, “Warren Conlan was one of the best examples of the scholarly gentleman on the stage.”
Although the performance had resulted in tragic loss – it also created new life. Ed Wynn’s act and Frank Keenan’s act converged on Winnipeg that week and it was the first time that Wynn and Hilda Keenan met. As Wynn later said, “She was about the cutest girl he had ever laid eyes on.” The pair fell in love and were married soon after.
Frank Keenan went on to become one of the most successful of the early Silent Screen actors and Ed Wynn went on to become one of the highest paid Vaudeville Headliners of all time, then onto Broadway Musical and Hollywood fame. He became one of the early Vaudevillian millionaires.
After marrying Wynn, Hilda retired from the stage and raised their son Keenan who went on to be one of the most prolific character actors in Hollywood appearing in over 200 movies and 250 television shows. He had two sons that carried on the family tradition as actors, writers, and directors, which led Keenan to quip “It means that I have guaranteed work in the business.” Keenan’s granddaughter, Jessica Keenan Wynn who is currently a Broadway star and carries on the family tradition beautifully in shows like “Mama Mia”, “Heather” and a series of movie and television appearances. I guess when you have theatrical lineage that includes the likes of Frank Keenan and Ed and Hilda Wynn and Keenan Wynn – the wax apple doesn’t fall far from the paper mâché tree.
In May 1946, Winnipeg Free Press Columnist Frank Morris wrote a note to Keenan asking if he was named after the famous Shakespearian actor. Wynn wrote back and told the story of how his parents met on the Winnipeg Orpheum Stage, fell in love and as he said in the note “I am a direct result of that union”.
Winnipeg played a role in the wonderful world of Vaudeville that still echoes today on Broadway, in Hollywood and television.
Grant Simpson is a 40 year veteran of vaudeville who hosts the Vaudeville Podcast, the Prairie Vaudeville Radio Show and writes about vaudeville history.
The podcast on Ed Wynn can be found here: Podcast Link
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