By 1938, venerable Ford's Theater of Baltimore, age 68, was the seediest specimen on the East Coast's major tryout circuit.
In early October of that year the theater world was watching "the road" for the passage to New York of a new play by Robert Sherwood, accomplished master of Broadway hits with substance. "Abe Lincoln in Illinois" was coming to town, both Washington and Baltimore. There were dire predictions that a show in three acts and 12 scenes was rather "heavy fare" for hit material. Only a few previous productions -- "Victoria Regina Victoria" and Noel Coward's "Cavalcade" among them -- had managed to succeed with big-scale historical documents.
Along with the show came a veteran but relatively unknown Canadian actor, Raymond Massey. The curtain on the new Sherwood play, a relation of the president's life through 1860, went up at Ford's on Monday evening, Oct. 10. The grapevine had already telegraphed the news that it was a hummer that rated 15 curtain calls in its Washington debut.
Donald Kirkley, drama critic of The Sun, called the show "an authentic drama rather than a historical pageant." He said the opening-night audience gave it "an unusual ovation" and that Massey was "the very image of the man he is portraying."
In the rather more sparkling prose of critic Gilbert Kanour, readers of The Evening Sun learned that the production "came triumphantly to Ford's" and was "packed with effective incident and undeniable power." He found the celebrated Lincoln-Douglas debates "exalting." He said Massey's physical re-creation of Lincoln was "almost amazing in its authenticity" and a welcome relief from earlier Lincoln shows, which he said insisted on portraying the liberator as "an itinerant backwoods soul-saver who is not quite bright."
The fact was, said Kanour, Massey and Sherwood had managed to "contrive something majestic out of what the exasperated Tories hooted as a scarecrow."
After a three-day run, the show headed north. At the end of the New York premiere of the show, there were cheers and 26 curtain calls, the latter perhaps a record for 1930s Broadway.
With the Abe Lincoln epic, Sherwood stepped up into a new dimension as a playwright. At about 6 feet 6 1/2 inches in height, he could reasonably claim he "towered over everybody" in the American theater. As for Massey, Hollywood soon cast him in a reverent translation of the play into film and the Canadian actor was highly acclaimed in the role.
"I thought about 'Abe Lincoln in Illinois' for three months and wrote it in three weeks," Robert Sherwood told the press. Actually, he had prepped for the show by lavishly studying Carl Sandburg's notable "The Prairie Years."
Sherwood won three Pulitzer Prizes for his plays and one for his dense book documentary on the Roosevelt years, "Roosevelt and Hopkins," a story of FDR and one of his chief aides, Harold Lloyd Hopkins. Sherwood knew his subject intimately -- he had once served as an FDR speech writer.
The paths of Robert Sherwood and Raymond Massey diverged after the glory of "Abe Lincoln in Illinois." Massey took to television with gusto in the 1950s, and as Dr. Gillespie in the "Dr. Kildare" series, he scored a ratings triumph. Offered exposure in the same medium, Sherwood flopped badly in creating a series of dramas that aired on prime time.
Sherwood would die at 59 in 1955. The Grim Reaper caught up with Massey at 86 in 1983. *
For a classic bio-portrait of Robert Sherwood's theatrical years, see "The Worlds of Robert E. Sherwood: Mirror to His Times" by John Mason Brown (Harper & Row. 1965).