It's a sad fact that some of our finest stage actors have faded into obscurity because we have no film record of their performances.
I can imagine the theater skills of John Barrymore (yes, Drew's grandfather) because I've seen him in such films as the great screwball comedy "Twentieth Century" (1934). But Barrymore was born in 1882; earlier actors such as Annie Russell, born in 1864, weren't able to leave a legacy on film.
Annie Russell: Theater and legend
In Central Florida, we do have a treasured part of Russell's legacy, though, in the jewel of a theater named for her at Winter Park's Rollins College.
During a recent program there — an introduction to the Rollins Center for Lifelong Learning — my knowledge of Russell grew immensely, thanks to a talk by Jennifer Jones Cavenaugh, associate dean of Arts and Sciences. She's slated to teach "Annie Russell: American Stage Legend" in the new center's lineup of noncredit courses for folks 50 and older.
Here are just a few tidbits about Russell.
She began her acting career at the age of 8. While still in her teens, she became known in New York and beyond for her delicate beauty in ingénue roles. In 1881, she enjoyed one of her greatest successes in the play "Esmerelda," by Frances Hodgson Burnett, who would go on to write "A Little Princess" and "The Secret Garden."
The plot concerned a winsome North Carolina farm girl, played by a teenage Russell, who falls in love with a rugged neighbor in spite of her ambitious mother's objections. Of course, love triumphs.
Audiences loved the play, which enjoyed one of the longest runs of its era. Mary Pickford starred in the 1915 silent-movie version.
From "Annie-genue" roles to Shakespeare
But Russell grew to hate the ingénue roles to which theater producers limited her: the frail little flowers she disparaged as "Annie-genues." She wanted to be taken seriously — to play Shakespeare.
She got her chance in 1906, when she was 42, in a big-scale production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Instead of playing a heroine, Russell took the part of the fairy Puck. "I have been conventional for so long, and this is such a delightful escape," she told an interviewer.
Renaissance in Winter Park
Russell had troubles in addition to typecasting, including illnesses and two unhappy marriages that ended in divorce. Ill with influenza, she announced her stage retirement in 1918 and in the 1920s came to Florida and eventually bought a Mediterranean home at 1420 Via Tuscany in Winter Park. (Sadly, the historic 1926 home known as the Annie Russell House was razed in 2005.)
Without her lifelong profession, Russell was at loose ends, until her friend Mary Louise Curtis Bok told her, "I'm going to give you a theater," Cavenaugh said.
Thanks to Bok's gift to Rollins of $100,000 for the beloved theater now called "the Annie," Russell enjoyed a renaissance late in her life. At the theater's dedication in 1932, she returned to the stage after 14 years in a performance of Robert Browning's "In a Balcony."
Now, the Annie continues as Central Florida's oldest continuously operating theater. According to Rollins tradition, the first person to enter the dark theater before a performance says "Hello, Annie," and the last to leave says "Good night, Miss Russell," Cavenaugh said in her recent talk.
Who needs movie-star-era fame when you have that kind of wonderful legacy?
To learn more
At its introductory program in late June, the Rollins Center for Lifelong Learning also previewed courses ranging from "Land of Enchantment: 500 Years of Florida History," taught by Jack Lane, dean of Rollins' History Department, to "Super Heroes and the American Experience," taught by Julian Chambliss, associate professor of history — and much more.
Designed for folks 50 and older, the center's classes promise to be very popular, judging from the packed introductory program. To learn more, go to Rollins.edu/holt/rcll. The center is part of the Hamilton Holt School, 407-646-2232.