Note: This is an encore post from 2005 and originally appeared on the 1947project.
In the summer of 1933, expecting nothing but a brief run and modest ticket sales, two theater people from Carmel, Preston Shobe and Galt Bell, hatched the idea of staging P.T. Barnum’s 1843 artifact of the temperance movement, “The Drunkard” by W.H. Smith. In keeping with the “meller drammer” atmosphere, the producers removed the theater seats and installed tables so the audience could drink beer and eat a buffet meal while hissing the villain, cheering the hero and singing “There Is a Tavern in the Town.”
The men had more ambitious plans for the theater, including historic Italian plays and a Russian version of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” recast as anti-capitalist propaganda. But for reasons none of them understood, “The Drunkard,” which opened July 6, 1933, kept drawing huge audiences and was selling out weeks in advance.
Strangest of all, people kept coming back to see the play, so that the producers abandoned the rest of the season. And not just regular theatergoers but movie stars, like Boris Karloff (who suggested old-time songs to be performed during the olios), Mary Pickford and John Barrymore.
W.C. Fields adored the play so much that he not only saw more than 30 performances, but he also built the 1934 film “The Old-Fashioned Way” around a production of “The Drunkard,” taking the role of Squire Cribbs and using many members of the Los Angeles cast. (That’s Jan Duggan “The Bowery Nightingale” with a ping-pong ball in her mouth getting whacked by Fields with a ping-pong paddle in “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man.”)
To everyone’s amazement, the play kept running week after week. The production marked its first year. And then another. Some cast members left for road shows of “The Drunkard.” Understudies took on leading roles and became stars of the show. As the years passed, actors who began as children outgrew their roles and had to retire. By 1940, there had been 16 weddings among the cast members.
On an unpainted cupboard in the women’s dressing room, someone tracked the number of performances and various historic events. On the night of the 2,245th performance, Hitler invaded Poland. On the 3,088th performance, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Through the war years, the Theatre Mart staged special shows for men and women in uniform. By its 7,085th performance on July 6, 1952, “The Drunkard” had been seen by more than 2 million people.
Finally, the Fire Department cut back on the size of the audience allowed per show from 340 to 260 and the play was no longer financially viable. On Oct. 17, 1959, “The Drunkard” closed with 9,477 performances.
Neely Edwards, 76, who had been in the show since Christmas Eve 1933, said: “I was getting kinda tired anyhow. I can stay home now and relax for a while. Something usually comes along.”
In 1960, the theater where millions had booed and cheered the story of temptation and triumph over the evils of Demon Rum became the headquarters of Los Angeles Press Club. By then Institute of International Relations had found another home in Whittier.