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Larry Harnisch reflects on Los Angeles history

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The Drunkard



I found this program from "The Drunkard" in a scrapbook that I bought years ago and rediscovered while unpacking a box of books today. "The Drunkard" was one of the most popular and long-running plays ever staged in Los Angeles. This particular program dates from the middle of 1934.
Here's a post I originally wrote for the 1947project that will give a bit of background:

Dropcap_i_baker n 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.

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The neighborhood of 605 N. Juanita Ave., one block east of Vermont, one block south of Melrose, from Google maps' street view.
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Comments (11)

The Drunkard was a wonderful place to take a date in 1944, clean fun, Root Beer, and Pretzels served, lots of boooing and laughter, something Los Angeles could us a lot more of today. Of course we walked there, no taking Taxi's back then. We lived on the corner of Occidental and Marathon, not too far from The Drunkard Playhouse.
Then there was also Bimini Pools just east of Vermont, and south of Beverly Blvd. with one heated pool, and two large cool pools. I don't know what ever happened to that. Now it's not safe to go anywhere in LA walking. But things will get better next year. Sad that this kind of fun is lost for the present generation. We Knew the presentation was phony, but that was the beauty of it. Kind of Simon Lagree character. With twisted Mustache to twirle.

A small car was used in promotions for The Drunkard sometime after 1947 and possibly up to the end in the 1950's. I'd like to find more info about it: expecially pictures.


i have a program that was sent to someone dated feb.14,1949. sent to Iowa, with a 3 cent stamp. it is a nice decortive piece in great condition. with a message hand writen in the message box. what i find interesting is the "guest book" section and how many times famous people were there for this performance (now dead). would you like me to scan my copy and send to you? thanks for sharing yours on line, Laura

I happen to own and operate the All American Melodrama Theater in Long Beach's Shoreline Village. We have in our stock pile of theater backdrops several pieces from the Theater Mart's "The Drunkard." We opened our theater with a version of the play and have been going ever since. We are trying to bring this type of family entertainment back to the Socal area.

Ken Parks

I have been trying for weeks to recall the name of the original theatre where I went as a young actress in the late fifties to see "The Drunkard"-a close friend of mine from the University of Michigan was perfoeming in it. I finally accessed this article and I do believe that it was called The Theatre Mart. My memory struggle may be over. Good times in those days!!!

Oh, my goodness you young whippersnapper. Are you suggesting that members of the Press bow to the attentions of Demon Rum and that is why you seem to suggest the takeover of the theater by the Press Club is ironic?Really!

as i said before that i have a program from the drunkard and i would like everyone to see it. the program got bigger and nicer. mine has alot of info and opens up to 17" tall, with fancy boarders and how many times famous people came to see the show. i dont know why i have it, but its like it was sent off just yesterday. koodos to you, Mr. Parks, for continuing this show were i was born, Long Beach. Now how do i get this copy put on line? any suggestions?

Thanks for this coverage of "The Drunkard"! I never realized the TheaterMart became the Press Club.

By the way, Henry Kleinbach (the hissablr villain Squire Cribbs) was only 21 years old, but excelled at makeup that made him look older. He was signed to play the villain Barnaby in Laurel and Hardy's BABES IN TOYLAND (1934), changed his name to Henry Brandon and had a long career in movies. He used to make frequent appearances at the LA Sons of the Desert (Way Out West tent) Laurel and Hardy club meetings until his death, and would perform routines and do his own version of Schnitzelbank which was entertaining. I remember him mentioning "The Drunkard" a lot, but I don't know if anyone ever did an extensive interview about it (though he was interviewed about L&H by a few people). When he left the play he was replaced as villain by Nestor Paiva, who also had a lengthy career as a film character actor. Neely Edwards was a veteran silent comedian whose film career went back to the Teens. Bobs Watson, the child actor, was also in it at one point or another.

I was born August 12, 1933 and celebrated my 16th birthday in 1949 at the Theater Mart. My father had taken me to see "The Drunkard" several times previously, but this was a major event (for me) and I remember every moment of it!!

Here are some of my memories:

The Mart was tiny, and people up front would rest their feet on the edge of the stage.

The entire audience hissed and booed the villain and clapped and cheered the hero.

The poor, abandoned woman living in the attic with her baby sat sewing.... by taking imaginary stitches in a "garment" and pulling the imaginary thread out the full length of her reach.

Neely Edwards, the MC, had a photographic memory and was able to introduce and comment on all celebrities and special event participants in the audience without using notes.

Edwards introduced me (in the front row, balcony) by saying The Drunkard was only 3 weeks older than I and having me stand (with spotlight on me) while the audience sang to me. I'm unsure just what song they sang.

After all the introductions had been made, the numerous side doors would swing open and waitresses dressed in period costumes entered carrying cigars and posies for the anniversary people and I believe the audience then sang "Let Me Call You Sweetheart". This was followed by waitresses entering bearing small cakes (complete with lighted candle) for the birthday people and the audience singing "Happy Birthday" for them.

The balcony was only two rows deep. The front row consisted of either one long shelf-table or numerous small tables side by side, while the back row was on a raised platform with small tables.

The Olio was MY favorite part and I remember "Gathering Up the Shells" sung by a woman gathering imaginary shells from the imaginary beach and putting them in an imaginary basket.

I also remember several women dressed in gauzy fairy dresses dancing in a circle and, at one point, thumbing their noses at the audience. My father was horrified when he realized I understood what they were doing and laughed myself sick over it! I don't remember the song they sang.

I remember someone appearing on a little "Juliet" balcony above and to stage left singing "Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage."

It was a fantastic experience and a wonderful birthday!! I still have the pictures my father took of me and my best friend in the courtyard before being seated. At age (almost) 78, this is one of the few happy memories I have of my father, so it is a personal treasure.

THE DRUNKARD. Every young actor should get a chance to do that wonderful old show. It has quite a history. I have done three productions of it, over the years. The first was while in High School in the San Fernando Valley. After the show closed at The Theatre Mart on Vermont, it was reopened at The Comedy Theatre on Van Nuys Blvd. by an old gentleman named William Jarvis, who had played in it at The Theatre Mart. He played the Villain "Squire Cribbs". I played the "comedy bumpkin". The second production was at a Summer Theatre in Big Bear, Ca. and I played "Squire Cribbs". The last time was by far the best. I played the good "Arden Renslaw" opposite Henry Brandon, once again playing the villainous "Squire Cribbs". What a delight that was!! It was at the W.C. Fields festival in Lompoc, Ca. in the 1980's, and the last time Henry played the show. Fun memories. Bart Williams.


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