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John A. McCaull Comic Opera Companies

by Stephen E. Busch

The most voluble theatrical person with the press during the 1875-1900 period probably was John A. McCaull, or Col. McCaull as he was frequently called. An 1883 New York Times article begins: "Mr. John A. McCaull, the manager of the McCaull Comic Opera Company, arrived in this city from Europe yesterday by the steamer Fulda. He was seen at the Casino last evening by a Times reporter to whom he said: 'I went to Europe to get three things-- or rather people-- and I got them. They are Frederick Leslie, Baritone, Will H. Rising, tenor, and Miss Cecile Fernandez, soprano. Mr. Leslie is well known here. Miss Fernandez is an English lady who possesses a remarkable voice. Her upper and lower registers are really faultless. Her middle register is, perhaps, a trifle inferior. If it were as good as the others she could not be engaged for comic opera.  She is young, handsome, and full of vivacity. I think she is far superior to any prima donna we have yet had here in comic opera. Mr. Rising is an American who has been studying abroad for several years. He is a good actor, has a pleasing voice, and acts well. He is a son-in-law of ex-sheriff Conner. I visited not only London, but also Berlin, Vienna, and Stettin. What did I hear in Germany? Nothing but Millocker's Der Bettelstudent. It is the German Pinafore. It has been running over 250 nights in Vienna and Berlin, and 85 nights in Stettin. The German people are crazy over it. I anticipate a very great success for it here when I produce it at the Casino in November. [He had purchased the rights for its American performance.] I want to tell you one thing. Comic opera is done much better in this country than it is in London. I saw Iolanthe and Rip Van Winkle over there, and in the matters of cast, costumes, and scenery they were done in an immeasurably superior manner here by Mr. Henderson at the Standard Theatre. I didn't hear much about arrangements for grand opera.'"


The description of Miss Fernandez' voice hints that McCaull knew the singing voice quite well. It is in some contrast to a brief story supposedly related by Francis Wilson, once a member of his company, who "recalled that the Colonel sometimes offered plainly impractical musical suggestions to his company then stood by perplexed during the embarrassed silences that followed. On one such occasion, he stopped a rehearsal in mid-bar to suggest that all the ladies of the chorus take a certain high note with the prima donna. The conductor patiently explained to the Colonel that the high note in question lay beyond the reach of most of the ladies and was intended as the prima donna's gift to her audiences. There was a long, uncomfortable moment before the Colonel yielded. 'Very well' he replied and, turning to the ladies' chorus, he instructed: 'Each of you sing the highest note that you can.'"

In any event, McCaull was readily available to the press, and there are numerous interviews (or monologues!) recorded in the Times. Regardless of the impression that one may get on reading Wilson's story above, McCaull's singers and orchestral players always received good press reviews in New York and on the road. McCaull was in touch with public musical taste of the period. "I don't think there is any doubt in the world that comic opera at the present time [1887] is far ahead of anything as a musical educator. It appeals to classes of people whom grand opera would not reach, and while giving them everything they want in the way of good acting and intelligible American fun, it gives them love for good, wholesome music. In comic opera we are now getting a better class of artists. They are required to sing as well as to act, which is a fact distinctly worth noting. The public demands good voices, and, as a rule, what the public asks for it gets. The majority of people we are getting for comic opera are educated musicians. Our aim is to build up this thing until we get something like the Opera Comique in Paris, which, as everybody knows, is between grand opera and burlesque. That's what the Americans want, and that's what Americans will have, because they invariably get what they want. The music, to succeed, must be good, something akin to grand opera. The best critics in the world are the critics at the breakfast tables of the boarding houses and hotels.  Capture the breakfast tablers and you're all right."

OlcottMcCaull's Opera Comique Company appeared in Denver's Tabor Grand for six nights beginning April 2, 1883 and featured Johann Strauss' The Queen's Lace Handkerchief. The review in the Rocky Mountain News stated that "in musical and dramatic ability and magnificent costuming, the McCaull opera company is the best that has ever visited Denver. The scenery is very pretty and appropriate, the chorus well trained and well dressed. Their clothes actually fit them which is rarely the case in the companies which visit Denver, where the fact is painfully apparent that the costumes were made for those who had 'gone before.' Miss Lily Post was a bewitching queen, and besides having a sweet voice is a very good actress. Miss Matilde Cottrelly filled the part of the queen's confidant very acceptably. She has a fine voice, excellent stage presence, and a very expressive face. Mr. W. T. Carleton filled the part of Cervantes to everyone's satisfaction.  He looked the handsome poet-lover. His songs won enthusiastic applause, and they were well worth it." [A newspaper advertisement for the show stated that Carleton was "specially engaged."]

The company appeared in Denver again in December 1890. "At the matinee yesterday The Black Hussar was given by the McCaull Opera Company to a large house and was a thoroughly satisfactory presentation. The bill for the evening performance was Von Suppe's opera Clover which was given to a crowded and appreciative house. It was exceedingly well put on and was fully enjoyed, applause being continued and frequent. The chorus work was excellent and the work of the principals left nothing to be desired."

This company, which included Chauncey Olcott, the Irish tenor, had just appeared in Kansas City at Coates Opera House. This writer has traced other McCaull company appearances in St. Louis, Des Moines, and Detroit. But his companies usually covered only the eastern third of the country. In fact, he had three companies on the road, almost continually. McCaull explained:

There is no time in the year when one of my troupes cannot be heard in some city. One of my companies include Miss Griswold, Miss Parker, Mme. Soldene, Miss Knapp, Signor Perugini, De Wolfe Hopper, Oudin, Morsell, Steyne; another has Lily Post, Miss Drew, Digby Bell, Laura Joyce Bell, Hoff, and Herman Perlet as musical conductor; in my third company are Miss Ellis, Miss Gaillard, Plunkett, Harry McDonough, Alfred Klein, and Jenkins. Two of these companies play 40 weeks in the year. The other plays 52 weeks. It's a big undertaking. I have made a careful calculation and have found that there are 1,300 people who receive their direct support in connection with my companies.

McCaull claimed that his theatrical life began by accident. He was a practicing lawyer in Baltimore. He was the counsel of John T. Ford, of Ford's Theatre, who in 1879 controlled the right of producing Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance in New York. Mr. Ford was anxious to be released from his contract with D'Oyly Carte, and Col. McCaull came to New York to induce some New York manager to take it off his hands. He was not successful in this, a New York Times writer explained in 1885, and to this fact was due his entrance into managerial life. He determined to join Mr. Ford in producing Pirates himself in the fall of 1879. But first he tried Pinafore for four weeks and lost $5,000, even though Arthur Sullivan himself conducted the orchestra on the first night. Then he switched to the Pirates and by the end of December he had made a profit of $17,000. He gave up his law practice. [That does not appear to be much money today, but in 1879 a laborer working 12 hours a day earned $1.00, and there were no income taxes then.]

On Christmas of 1880 McCaull produced Olivette at the Bijou Theatre in New York. The Times reported that "this opera was the first great success which Col. McCaull had after engaging the Bijou, and from it he learned the power which light and attractive music has over the public, a knowledge which he has turned to financial account ever since."

By 1885 McCaull was operating his three comic opera companies with a Mr. B. D. Stevens acting as his agent in New York and arranging routes for all three companies. It was reported in July 1886 that one company "will go to Washington where they will open on July 19 for three weeks. At the close they will return to this city [New York] and the other two traveling companies will join them here. All are called to assemble at Wallack's on August 9 to meet Col. McCaull, on which occasion the three companies will be reorganized, and the parts will be given out for the coming season. One company will open at Wallack's for a supplementary summer season on August 30, continuing until October 2. From Wallack's this company will go to Philadelphia, opening for the season October 4. Another company will start on the road on August 30, beginning the season at Toronto, Canada, where they will open the new Toronto Opera House. The week of September 6 will be spent in Hamilton and London, Canada, and Bay City and East Saginaw, Michigan, in each of which cities they will inaugurate the amusement season, and in Bay City will be the first attraction of the new Opera House just completed.  On September 13 this company will open the new Grand Opera House at Detroit, where a week's engagement will be filled, after which Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis, and the principal western cities will be visited, and the company will return east in time to begin an engagement at the Star Theatre in this city on January 17, 1887, when a new opera will be produced. This third company will start on the road on October 4 with The Black Hussar and Falka, going west as far as Denver, Colorado, and returning to the east about May 1, 1887." This company, then, performed only two musicals over a six month period! But McCaull announced that "a feature of this company will be the complete orchestra that will accompany it for the first time," having decided "not to rely on the musicians of the provincial houses as he has done in the past with his traveling companies."

In late November, 1888, in Chicago's Leland Hotel, Col. McCaull convened his ninth annual Thanksgiving dinner for his company members, some past members, and a few special guests, about 70 people. Matinee and evening theatre performances precluded the speeches, some humorous, that were always a great feature of these dinners. The Colonel, however, did express the pleasure it gave him to entertain the friends around him, "and the dinner passed into the memory of those who had enjoyed it." That winter in Chicago he fell on the ice, receiving a deep cut on his head. From this, brain trouble developed and, later, paralysis of the muscles of the throat and of his right side. He continued to direct his company for about a year after this, though his speech was so incoherent that only his most intimate friends could understand him. When he was forced to abandon business altogether, the De Wolf Hopper Opera Company was organized from his people.

In late May, 1890, McCaull traveled from his home in Baltimore to New York to complete arrangements for the next season's performances of his comic opera companies. Harry Ashin, one of his managers, was contracted to assume control of the business management, Alfred Joel was to continue to act as treasurer, and Mathilde Cottrelly would continue in "full charge of the stage business." It was reported that his health was steadily improving, but it was not so. He continued in retirement at home.

On February 11, 1892, with the approval of McCaull and his wife, a huge benefit performance was given for him at the Metropolitan Opera House that netted $8,000. At almost the same time, another benefit was held in Chicago that brought $1,450. Attendees included many of his past and current stars, other theatrical notables, leading society people, and members of his company, past and present. Performers were from comic opera, grand opera [Mme. Scalchi], ballet, minstrelsy, legitimate drama, the circus [trained ponies], and Patrick S. Gilmore's band!

McCaull died November 11, 1894, about two years after his wife had passed on. He was survived by two daughters who had hopes for careers on the stage, but they never became stars.

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