Sidney Bracy in an undated photo. Courtesy of Mary Mallory.
What makes one person a star, why another languishes in tiny parts or obscurity? Is it charisma, sex appeal, luck, opportunity, that pushes them over? And what about someone who was a star, and slips into small roles? Do tastes change, the industry changes, and this person is no longer the flavor of the month?
Such is the story of Australian Sidney Bracy, once a theatrical star and major player in film before falling into playing mostly small parts like butlers, valets,and the like. While his acting career lasted most of his life, he only saw recognizable success for about 15 years. His life revolved around acting and he continued to make a living at it during a time when there was no Social Security, no benefits and no residuals. Life for him was performing, no matter how large the stage.
Mary Mallory’s “Hollywoodland: Tales Lost and Found” is available for the Kindle.
Born Dec. 18, 1877, in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, Sidney Alfred Norton Bracy was the son of Henry and Lydia (Clara) Thompson Bracy, actors and founders of an acting company which toured performing Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. They did well, sending Bracy to Melbourne University, where he attended for four years.
Bracy loved the stage and performing from an early age, possessing an excellent tenor voice. He moved to England and performed comic roles in Sir Arthur Sullivan’s and Captain Basil Hood’s company.
The June 3, 1900, New York Times noted that “Sidney Bracy, a young English singer considered of some note, will make his first appearance in this city as Yuseuf in “The Rose of Persia” next fall.” In September, Sullivan’s and Hood’s operetta, “The Rose of Persia,” was brought over from London’s Savoy Theatre to play New York’s Daly’s Theatre with the full cast intact, including Bracy.
While the show was popular in London, the Times considered it only equal to Sullivan’s earlier works and saw no reason for its import. “No doubt the operetta would have made a much better impression with some spirit and more understanding. It really could not have been necessary to import such a company from the English provinces. A worse one could have been found on the New England circuit, and a better one on the Rialto any morning about 11 o’ clock.”
Bracy returned to England but traveled back to America by 1904 to perform on the American stage. On Jan. 1, 1905, Bracy married English actress Dorothy Martin at New York’s Little Church Around the Corner. While they focused their attention on New York, Bracy traveled wherever he could find work singing and performing. In June 1905, Bracy starred as Professor Knowitt in “a musical fairy extravaganza” production of “The Marvelous Land of Oz” in Milwaukee, per Variety. Bracy received fine notices for his comic style and tenor voice.
James Cruze and Sidney Bracy drive coast to coast in 1915. Courtesy of Mary Mallory.
As early as 1906, Bracy performed as a butler in a singing vaudeville sketch called “Accidents Will Happen.” Unknowingly, this role would help type him as a butler extraordinaire in years to come.
Bracy continued performing throughout the East and Midwest. While not a headliner, he played major supporting parts in shows, receiving good notices. In 1910, he costarred in George Broadhurst’s and C. T. Dazen’s “The Captain” at English’s Opera House in Indianapolis. On May 7, 1912, he received good notices as “equal to the traditions of the role of Guy”(Sir Guy Gisbourne) in a comic three-act operetta revival of “Robin Hood” at New York’s New Amsterdam Theatre. The show was a hit with fans, and several numbers, including Bracy’s comic duet, were interrupted by applause after only a few notes were sung.
In Sept. 12, 1912, Variety reviewed the Chicago production of George M. Cohan’s and Sam Harris’s production of “Polish Wedding,” a comic operetta starring Valli Valli, stating that “Mathilde Cottrelly, William Burres, Winona Winter, Armand Kalisz, and Sidney Bracy are some of the players who, by sheer force of personality, break through the banal lines and thin situations and get over the footlights” singing and dancing and bringing the show to life.
The New York Times again praised Bracy for his acting and singing ability in a comic operetta revival of “Rob Roy” in its Sept. 15, 1913, paper, noting that Bracy’s and Jefferson De Angelis’ burlesque serenade was one of the hits of the show.
Bracy performed a few times with Vitagraph in 1909 and 1911, before joining Thanhouser Film Co. in New Rochelle, N.Y., in 1913. Charles J. Hite had tried many times to hire him away from the stage, after seeing him perform in “Her Nemesis,” per the Sept. 9, 1914, issue of Motography. The article went on to report that he had performed in all Gilbert and Sullivan operettas except “Pinafore.” His “remarkable” tenor voice made him a great favorite with fans, and perhaps because this great voice could not be heard in silent films, he never achieved the great success of the stage.
Bracy did star in several shorts for the company that year, and Motion Picture News called him “a master of makeup” for disappearing into characters through the use of makeup and acting. Before Lon Chaney, Bracy achieved remarkable success altering his appearance to play a multitude of roles. He played five parts in “The Miser’s Reversion,” including the miser, a man of 40, himself, Stone Age and a prehistoric man. A photograph of him in his great makeup appeared along with the story. He also hid under makeup to play a Chinaman in “Sid Nee’s Finish.”
Along with James Cruze and Florence La Badie, Bracy starred in Thanhouser’s great serial, “The Millon Dollar Mystery” in 1914. Once again, Bracy received great reviews for playing a double role of millionaire who doubled as Jones the butler to protect the heroine, and perhaps sealed his fate as Hollywood’s future King of the Butlers. He joined Thanhouser’s top stars in “The Twenty Million Dollar Mystery,” the follow up to “Million Dollar,” and “Zudora,” another popular serial.
When Edwin Thanhouser returned and took over his old company in early March 1915, 14 players were laid off and Bracy and Frank Farrington quit rather than play in Thanhouser’s new focus of one and two-reelers, per Variety.
With time on their hands, Bracy and his great friend and co-star James Cruze decided to drive across country to the Great Exposition in California, visiting theatres along the way. Crowds turned out wherever they traveled, looking to meet the pair. Not long after, Bracy married his second wife, Evelyn.
Bracy briefly worked for Arrow in 1916, before joining Universal and making features and shorts with Violet Mesereau for a variety of their brands, including Red Feather and Bluebird. In 1917, he co-starred with Harry Myers in shorts and two-reelers for Imp, receiving excellent reviews for playing a hunchback in one film. Great stardom eluded him, and he moved from company to company, playing strong support or co-starring roles.
The actor continued performing onstage as well throughout these years, performing in summer stock in Mount Vernon, N.Y., in 1917, with Alec B. Francis in Los Angeles in 1921. Bracy also performed with the Writers Club performers like Cecil Cunningham and Leslie Fenton in shows around town from 1927-1931, and at Leo Carrillo’s Olvera Street Theatre in 1931.
By the early 1920s, Bracy was occasionally receiving strong supporting roles as villains in serials like “The Radio King,” and even as a detective in Universal’s “Mystery Club (1924),” based on Arthur Somers Roche’s series of stories called “Crimes of the Armchair Club,” which also featured Matt Moore, Warner Oland, and Charles Puffy. Director Erich von Stroheim gave him nice parts in “Merry-Go-Round (1923),” “The Merry Widow (1925),” “The Wedding March (1928),” and “Queen Kelly (1929),” as sneering valets and the like.
Unfortunately, Bracy had become typecast as a butler and valet by the mid-1920s. He played a valet in “An American Devil” in 1921 and a butler in the 1924 film, “A Wise Son.” Bracy appeared in “”Her Wild Oat (1927),” “Chicago (1927),” “Sunrise (1928),” “My Best Girl (1928),” “The Cameraman (1928)”, “Show People (1928),” “The Crowd (1928),” “While the City Sleeps (1928),” “Unholy Three (1930),” “Ten Cents a Dance (1931),” “Freaks (1932),” “Duck Soup (1934),” “Magnificent Obsession (1935),” “A Star is Born (1936),” and “Meet John Doe (1941),” mostly as butlers, valets, and grooms. He made enough, however, to live at 640 N. Croft in Beverly Hills. Many earned him nice notices as well.
Though only playing small roles or even virtual bits, Bracy’s name was often mentioned in short publicity stories in the trades and newspapers, either because he was well-liked, or because he possessed something of a name from his many years of acting. An Edwin Schallert piece in the March 11, 1932, Los Angeles Times reported that directors Jack Conway and Harry Beaumont requested him whenever a butler role appeared in their films.
Bracy did achieve one last great appearance on stage, however, when he revived his role of Sir Guy in a revival of the comic operetta, “Robin Hood,” at the Hollywood Bowl in June 1927, sponsored by the Art Theatre of Hollywood. Frank Lloyd Wright designed settings and Otto Oleson devised lighting innovations to highlight the large cast and over 300 chorus members onstage, in what the Los Angeles Times called “the most elaborate presentation in years” on the Los Angeles stage. More than 60,000 people turned out for the three performances, earning money for the Art Theatre’s building fund.
On Aug. 7, 1942, Bracy died at Cedars of Lebanon, two days after his close friend of 20 years, James Cruze, rating a small mention in the paper. Today, Bracy is virtually forgotten, though at one time he starred on both film and theatrical stages, thrilling people both in England and America.