Show revives a music-hall performer

Impersonator: Harriet Lynn brings back to life Ella Shields, the Baltimore woman who may have been the model for `Victor/Victoria.'


September 06, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Later this month, nearly a century after Baltimorean Ella Shields arrived in England, the legendary music hall performer will be back on the London stage.

Well, not precisely. Shields died in 1952. This time around, another Baltimore performer, Harriet Lynn, will be impersonating Shields, who was a male impersonator.

You've never heard of Shields? Neither had Lynn, until she read a short article in The Sun 20 years ago. Lynn was immediately intrigued.

With an eye toward creating a one-woman show, Lynn began researching Shields at the Maryland Historical Society and Enoch Pratt Free Library. She discovered that Shields, born in poverty in 1879, went on to become an international sensation and is believed to have been the model for the title character in Victor/Victoria. Her signature song, Burlington Bertie from Bow, remains popular in England to this day. And, though much of her career was spent abroad, Shields also performed in vaudeville in this country, including a brief stint as "Mistress of Ceremonies" in 1947 at the Hippodrome Theatre during a vaudeville revival.

Eager to learn more, Lynn wrote letters to the editors of Actors' Equity publications here and in England. "People came out of the woodwork, people who knew her. I made a lot of friends," Lynn says of the replies she received from as far away as Australia. Recordings and even a video of a 1930s performance arrived in the mail.

One correspondent was a woman who was working with Shields in 1952 when the performer collapsed on stage in front of an audience of 3,000. Eerily and prophetically, Shields had changed the lyric in her famed song from "I'm Burlington Bertie" to "I was Burlington Bertie." She slipped into a coma and died three days later.

Shields' memorial service was held in England, but none of the performer's family attended. In the two decades Lynn has spent researching Shields' life in the United States and England, she has been unable to locate any of Shields' relatives. All she knows is that Shields' father was named either Edward T. Buscher or John Busher and that she had a daughter who lived in Buffalo.

Perhaps some holes in her research will be filled on Sept. 23 when she performs her 40-minute, one-woman show, Ella Shields: The Woman Behind the Man, at the British Museum of Science as part of the International Museum Theatre Alliance Conference.

A member of the alliance, Lynn had written to the organization about The Mars Millennium Project. (She created the program at Port Discovery last year, as producer and director of the Baltimore-based Heritage Theatre Artists' Consortium.) On a whim, she included a video of Ella Shields, which she performs in top hat and tails, relating Shields' life story and singing five songs including, of course, Burlington Bertie.

"They e-mailed me and said, `Congratulations. We want you to do Ella Shields.' "I was thrilled," Lynn says. "I said, `Somebody kind of cares.'"

Foxworth in `Proof'

Robert Foxworth, who played the title role in Center Stage's 1996 production of Brecht's Galileo, will be back in Baltimore in February when he stars as the mathematician father in David Auburn's 2001 Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play, Proof, at the Mechanic Theatre.

Best known to TV audiences for his long-running role as wine maker Chase Gioberti in the CBS series Falcon Crest, Foxworth appeared on Broadway last season as the prosecuting attorney in Judgment at Nuremberg.

Co-starring as Foxworth's troubled daughter will be Chelsea Altman, whose Broadway credits include the recent revivals of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and A View from the Bridge. The touring production of Proof will be directed by Daniel Sullivan, who won a Tony for directing the show on Broadway.

Proof will be presented at the Mechanic Feb. 26-March 3. For information, call 410-625-4230.

End of `Fantasticks'

You can't say it hasn't been a fantastic run. On May 3, 1960, The Fantasticks opened off-Broadway. Now the world's longest-running musical has announced that it will close Jan. 6. A previous closing notice, posted in 1986, proved premature. But this time, due to increasing costs and decreasing sales, the producer has said the end really is near. To date, the show has played more than 17,000 performances at Greenwich Village's 153-seat Sullivan Street Theater.

Radio comedies

Theater on the Air, AXIS Theatre's outreach program, will present two post-show radio comedies during the run of Christopher Durang's Betty's Summer Vacation at AXIS, 3600 Clipper Mill Road. On Sept. 15, the company will perform My Favorite Husband, the program that inspired the TV series I Love Lucy. An episode of Fibber McGee and Molly will be performed Sept. 22. Both shows are free and begin at 10 p.m.

Most of Theater on the Air's performances are presented at senior centers and retirement homes. The company's fall season is completely booked, so this is the only chance for the public (as well as old-time radio buffs) to get a gander at these nostalgic radio plays. For information, call 410-243-5237, Ext. 320.

Arnoult in Egypt

Philip Arnoult, founder of the Theatre Project, is in Egypt serving as chairman of the jury of the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre. Arnoult, an adjunct professor in Towson University's graduate theater program, previously attended the Cairo festival in 1995. He was accompanying the cast of the graduate school's production of Iago's Plot, a Kabuki-inspired Othello that won the festival's Critic's Prize for Best Direction. Arnoult, who still calls Baltimore home, currently is director of the Eastern & Central European Theatre Initiative, which pairs young European directors with American theaters.

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