Donated Postcards Shed Light on Life of Native Utahan, Broadway Star

Recently the library’s Special Collections (Manuscripts Dept) received a donation of vintage postcards from Ken Sanders of Ken Sanders Books. Contained in the collection is a large number of postcards related to the life and career of the actress Maude Adams, the first woman in the U.S. to play the role of Peter Pan and one of the highest paid actresses of her time.

“This unique archive of Maude Adams as seen through the picture postcard provides a glimpse into this Utah born actress’s international appeal and rival to only Sarah Bernhardt,” commented Ken Sanders. “The many postcards document her myriad of stage successes, including her starring role as Peter Pan. The playwright Sir James Barrie expressly wrote the screenplay for Maude Adams to star in, and this is where the role of a female playing a male role in the theater, originated.”

Adams was born in 1872, the daughter of the actress Asaneth Ann “Annie” Adams. When she was just two months-old, she made her first appearance in the play “The Lost Baby at the Brigham Young Theatre in Salt Lake City, Utah. Although her father disapproved of his daughter’s interest in theater, Adams developed a keen interest in the performing arts and, as a child, toured throughout the west, performing in small mining towns alongside her mother. At age five, she starred in the play “Fritz, Our German Cousin,” in San Francisco. She was 10 years-old when she played in her first New York performance, “Esmeralda.”

At some point, Adams returned to Salt Lake to live with her grandmother and study at the Salt Lake Collegiate Institute, but her stay was brief. She returned to New York at age 16 and eventually moved to Boston to join “E.H. Sothern’s Theatre Company.”

It wasn’t until 1889 that Adams’s career really took flight. Charles Frohman, an influential producer, began casting Adams in adult roles, sometimes along with her mother. When the acclaimed actor John Drew, Jr. joined Frohman’s company, Adams was paired with him in a series of plays, which gained her great exposure and experience.

She later joined Drew’s company, appearing in the comedy “The Masked Ball.” Adams received a two-minute standing ovation for her humorous portrayal of the tipsy “Susanne.” It was this performance that landed her rave reviews. One critic wrote: “To sum the matter up, Maude Adams found herself enjoying the double distinction of being the youngest leading lady on the boards and the only actress who had been promoted to the galaxy of theatrical celebrities because she didn’t keep ‘sober.’”

When the British play “Peter Pan” was first brought to the U.S., the playwright Sir James Barrie modified the script to accommodate American taste, allowing Adams to be cast as Peter Pan. The Broadway show rose to critical acclaim. Adams toured with the company, performing more than 3,000 times as Peter Pan.

One of the most famous scenes in “Peter Pan” is when Tinker Bell is dying. Adams was the one who added the part where the audience is asked to clap if they believe in fairies—thus bringing Tinkerbell back to life. This was something is that Adams had herself incorporated.

Although a natural on stage, in person Adams was a quiet person. She enjoyed spending time away at the Cenacle at St. Regis Convent in Long Island, New York, which is where Adams is now buried. She also spent a great deal of time at her 450-acre summer estate in New York’s Catskill Mountains, which she donated to the nuns prior to her death. Considered a very kind and generous person, Adams was known to have shared her salary with lesser-known actors who needed the money more than she did.

If you would like to see the Maude Adams postcards, contact Special Collections at 801-581-8863 or visit the Special Collections Reading Room on level 4.

 

1Comment
  • Julie Jensen
    Posted at 22:10h, 29 June Reply

    Fascinating material. Thank you for putting this on line. The article is also helpful.

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