Monday, October 23, 2017

Just Passing Through: Eddie Bald in Elmira

by Erin Doane, Curator

Usually, we tell stories here of people who lived in the county or had some significant influence on the area. Every once in a while, however, we tell about those who just passed through here (for example: That Time Theodore Roosevelt was Assaulted in Elmira). Eddie Bald came to Elmira twice for very different reasons – to race a bicycle and to star in a play so bad that the author sued for injuries to her reputation. 
Eddie Bald was known as the “White Flyer” for his white cycling outfit.
Eddie “Cannon” Bald was born in Buffalo in 1874 and made a name for himself in the 1890s as a professional short distance bicycle racer. He rode and promoted Colombia Bicycles and was considered one of the great racers of the 1890s. He came to Elmira in June 1897 to compete in a State Circuit cycling meet sponsored by the Elmira Athletic Club. The Club hosted Bald and the other cyclists at the Pine Cliff Club in Bohemia on the Chemung River. At the meet, Bald set a new track record for one mile in 2:16 3-5.

Elmira Star-Gazette, June 16, 1897
Eddie Bald returned to Elmira a year and a half later in a completely different capacity as the star of the play A Twig of Laurel. In June 1898, Bald announced that he would be leaving the cycling tour circuit in October of that year to try his hand at acting for the first time. His announcement was printed in newspapers all over the country from the Washington Times and the Pittsburg Press to the Racine Journal-Times in Racine, Wisconsin and the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky. Editors joked that there was much debate about whether to run the story in the sports or arts section of the papers. Most lauded his change of vocation and were interested in seeing “the Adonis of the wheel” take to the stage.

Headline from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 4, 1898
Bald was not at all modest about his prospects for the play and his role in it. In an interview in the Buffalo Enquirer on July 11, 1898, he is quoted as saying: “Everybody is talking about the play and it’s going to be the greatest card in a long time. The title, ‘A Twig of Laurel,’ is a good one. Of course, I will be the drawing card. My name is expected to properly head the list, though there will be better actors, at least at the start. But I have no fear for the finish.”

The play itself was described as a four act “pastoral cycle drama” with a plot that was said to be “pretty, romantic and pleasing.” The third act featured a bicycle race scene in which Bald and other riders would actually race bicycles with the help of patented machinery and a panorama. The play was reportedly written specially for Bald in order to display his dramatic ability but I’m not entirely sure of that. The lawsuit that I mentioned was brought by Mrs. Genevieve Haynes as the author of the play but in the early press it was reported that Rochester newspaperman Warren Forbes wrote the play for Bald. According to Bald himself, the story was heavily re-written upon his request so perhaps the original was by Haynes and the rewrite was done by Forbes.

Buffalo Enquirer, July 11, 1898
A Twig of Laurel premiered in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania on October 31, 1898. It played in Canandaigua November 3, Binghamton November 5, Scranton November 8, Elmira November 10, and Syracuse November 11. After that it continued on to Albany and Troy before ending up in Boston on November 28 for a week-long run. The intent was to keep touring until the end of the theatrical season on May 1, 1899 but it didn’t make it past Boston. Poor reviews and low ticket sales forced the production to shut down.

Advertisement for A Twig of Laurel in the Scranton Tribune, November 8, 1898
The Elmira Star-Gazette was fairly kind in its review of the play. It stated that while Bald was lacking in the skills of more experienced actors, his shortcomings could be overlooked because he was new to the stage. “He has had practically no schooling for the stage and is as diffident and shy as a school girl. This handicaps him in his performance,” the review read. “However he reads his lines with precision and made a better impression than might be expected of an actor athlete.” Other regional reviews were much harsher declaring that “in taking the stage [Bald] has placed himself in an embarrassing position to say the least” and predicting (correctly) that “his starring tour is liable to be very brief.”

In December of 1898, the play’s purported author, Genevieve Haynes, filed suit against theatrical managers Luescher & Hefferon, who produced the play. She claimed that her reputation as a playwright had been damaged because of the casting of inferior actors. I wish I knew how the lawsuit was resolved but I could not find anything about it beyond that first report. I do know that Haynes went on to write other plays including Hearts Aflame and Once Upon a Time. Bald had contributed significant amounts of his own funds to finance the production and lost money for his efforts. After his unsuccessful turn on the stage, he returned to bicycle racing and never tried acting again.

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