Let wars rage still while I work with a will at this peaceful trade of mine. “Armorer’s Song” from Robin Hood
He lies beneath a rectangular stone set flush with the ground behind the Pilgrim State Hospital in Brentwood, Long Island, New York. I haven’t seen his stone for myself but I’m guessing it’s no different from the several thousand pock-marking a grassy plain near the water tower. Carved into the stone, his initial and his surname—E. Metcalfe.
He was born during the aftermath of the Civil War, the very week Jefferson Davis went on trial for treason. He died during the aftermath of the Second World War, as General MacArthur was being relieved of his command in Korea. The only war he would come to know was the personal kind, like when someone upstaged him or when the company manager treated the employees unfairly or maybe toward the end of life when he waged a battle with his own mind.
In later years, if someone were to ask E. Metcalfe, Who are you?, he might answer any number of ways:
Ivan Scorpioff rousting the soldiers . . . Though our hearts may ache and break, we fight on for duty’s sake! Love we must cast aside, for war’s the soldier’s bride.
Or Otis Tucker sputtering . . . I’m gonna give you a good time at the county fair today, Miss Abby, even if it costs half a dollar. And then I’m gonna marry you.
Maybe Carajolo, the Spanish toreador . . . I am famous on every shore, there is no one that’s worshipped more.
Perhaps Devilshoof who moans, Escape is hopeless.
One day he could be Garibaldi Panatella, speaking with an Italian accent; the next, he’s Henri de Bouvray, decidedly French. For a brief while he’s Ptolemy, bellowing I am the ruler of the whole Egyptian nation! Another time, Duke Rudolph, jilted by his sweetheart, determined to get revenge. He could answer so many ways you might think he was schizophrenic.
He has been known to appear out of nowhere wielding a weapon of some type or other . . . a sword, a cross-bow, a pistol. He’s been called a burly ruffian, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he socked someone in the mouth—more than once. But I’ll get to that.
E. Metcalfe: Who are you really?
His name in full was Edward Salomon Metcalfe, born in Philadelphia on December 8, 1868 to Heinrich Salomon and Auguste Kellner. Salomon, a restaurateur, died when Edward was three. Seven years later, when Edward’s mother remarried, he took the surname of his stepfather, Thomas C. Metcalfe. Shortly after the marriage, the family moved a thousand miles west to Minneapolis and by 1885, Edward and his younger brother were finished school and working for the same grain company as their stepfather. Edward had strength and size for the work but his interests were elsewhere. He wanted to sing and he had the voice for it—a basso profundo of “unusual power,” critics said later. Perfect for the stage.
At some point, Edward met the Andrews family—a traveling vocal group—and he was more than willing to trade the monotonous hum of the grain elevator for the bravos of a theater audience. After training with the Andrews and gaining experience in light operas like Hilda and The Bohemian Girl, he was ready to step out of the chorus and take on principal roles.
In 1890, Metcalfe joined George A. Baker’s Opera Company, a Minnesota troupe. He sang the role of Tito in Boccaccio, though not for long. Seems that “Baby” Metcalfe got into a set-to with his stage manager, J.J. Jaxon, over a nuisance policy. Jaxon had the audacity to fine Baby for failing to learn the words of a song. The set-to got physical when Baby bolted to the call board and tore down Jaxon’s notice of the fine. After which, pushing ensued—right out the door and onto the sidewalk.
Onlookers watched as Baby showed them he didn’t just sing and act, he could box too, bare-knuckled. Jaxon ended up with two black eyes and numerous purple bruises. Baby, at six-foot-two, was unmarred and likely unemployed by the end of the day.
But it didn’t take long for Metcalfe to join another company. And soon, he was playing T. Willie Rockingham in We, Us & Co., a three-hour plot-less farce that romped all the way to the city of his birth. I can just see his aunts and uncles and a handful of cousins in the audience, watching their Mettie play-act, probably for the first time. There they were right up front, applauding the longest and bravoing the loudest.
Then came a role in the melodrama The Still Alarm, though most of the drama was from real horses, a full-size fire wagon, smoke bombs, and simulated fire. But something other than all that hoopla caught reviewers’ attention—Metcalfe delivered his lines with a dark sense of alarm, despite playing the role of a man-servant with lines like, Sir, may I help you off with your coat. Was this his way of announcing he could do a serious straight role or was he simply miscast, with that “Forrestonian” voice of his? Overacting didn’t hamper his career because he was off to The County Fair, playing a sheepish farmer who, after fourteen years of courting Miss Abby, gets up the gumption to propose to her.
Next came A Trip to Chinatown. “A glass of sparkling, fruity champagne can scarcely be more invigorating than the evening spent in witnessing Charles Hoyt’s greatest farce comedy success, A Trip to Chinatown,” the theater critic gushed in The Daily Review midway through the 1894 season. Metcalfe’s role in Chinatown was Rashleigh Gay, a young madcap, itching for a rollicking good time. Seems Metcalfe and two fellow actors were itching for their own good time and champagne or some other intoxicating beverage played a role.
When they were reprimanded for getting too rowdy at their hotel, soon after Chinatown opened, they packed up and left without paying their bill, leaving the manager no choice but to swear out warrants for their arrest. Enter stage left: William H. Shorb, Justice of the Peace for the city of Decatur, Illinois. With a pound of the gavel, Shorb read the charge and levied the fine–$7.40 each plus court costs. “Maybe they’ll be less pert in the future,” sneered the local newspaper reporter.
But being pert was in Metcalfe’s psyche and in 1902, he did it again—socked his manager in the mouth and followed up with a verbal scorching. Different manager, similar circumstances as his blow-up in 1890. This time, the majority of the company of The Princess Chic stood in solidarity with Metcalfe, claiming the manager was too domineering. Metcalfe wasn’t the only player to leave the company. The prima donna, Marguerite Sylva, walked out—she was done with long hours and second billing.
By the turn of the century, Metcalfe had performed in London, Montreal, Vancouver, Winnipeg and too many states to list here. Along the way, he married a stage actress in Chicago and divorced her posthaste. Manhattan was home base now and it was there that he found a new love.
Her name was Cornelia Chapman, born in Texas, raised in Tennessee. When Nellie was a stage struck teenager, her mother brought her to Manhattan, maybe to frighten her into returning home or maybe to play the role of stage mother. Nellie joined Alice Nielsen’s company in The Singing Girl, as a member of the chorus, and soon after, Metcalfe joined the company as well, taking the role of Frederick. Their courtship was brief but widespread—from New York to Pittsburgh to Indianapolis to Montreal. In true trouper fashion, they were married during the five-week run of The Princess Chic in Boston. Their marriage was announced in the Dramatic Mirror’s “Gossip of the Town” column, in a clipped, un-gossipy sentence.
Six years later, a daughter, Margaret Anna, was born to the couple in Manhattan, while Metcalfe was playing Robin Hood downtown. Imagine the lullabies her father sang to her every night—“Little Gypsy Sweetheart” from The Fortune Teller, “My Low C” from The Chaperones, “See How the Fates Their Gifts Allot” from The Mikado. The singing bug bit Margaret too and at age nine, she made her stage debut in Konigskinder. Now imagine them living in a miniscule walk-up in Midtown, vocalizing morning, noon and night, all three of them. I wonder how often neighbors pounded the walls and called for quiet.
Between stints on the road, Metcalfe worked as a clerk—I’m guessing he was selling sheet music at twelve cents a copy for a department store—and he performed with a local singing group, the Big City Quartette. “They sing nonchalantly, putting their hands in their pants pockets,” a critic said of the quartette’s performance at the 23rd Street Theatre. And for that nonchalance, they became quite popular—for a brief while.
IV. Doppio movimento
There comes a time in an actor’s career when theater critics across the land begin to reach consensus on the actor’s ability. They either laud or pan them. In Metcalfe’s case, critics lauded him. They remarked on his unusually smooth voice, his distinct pronunciation and his rapid advancement in the profession. And they recognized his versatility as a singer/actor: “he plays with an apparent joy in being a comedian.”
Metcalfe wasn’t always with the first-run cast. Sometimes he was with a touring troupe sent on the road once the first run proved successful. He was living out of a suitcase, show after show. And the consensus among critics was: “a splendid basso,” “seen and heard to splendid advantage,” “a splendid record,” “splendid foil.” Reviews like that could keep an actor on the road for hundreds of nights in The Chaperons, The Toreador, Robin Hood, The Strollers, The Spring Maid, The Red Widow, The Beauty Shop. And so it did for Metcalfe.
Then after twenty-eight years on the road, Metcalfe decided to take a break from the stage. The United States was going to war, so he did his bit by opening a military goods store in the Candler building in Times Square, equipping soldiers with everything from uniforms to revolvers to canteens. When the war ended, he closed the store and returned to the stage. He had changed and so had the theatrical world. Dashing hero and romantic leads were behind him—it was time for sheer hilarity. His comeback was in The Street Cinderella with the four Marx brothers, though the show was short-lived. They closed after one month, due to the post-war flu epidemic sweeping the nation.
But Metcalfe’s comeback was just starting. Next came Frivolities of 1920. Flippant, high-powered, geared for record-breaking speed, critics said. And that August, as Metcalfe zoomed into his fifth week of Frivolities in San Francisco, his wife died unexpectedly back in Manhattan. I wish I could tell you how much time he took off but it’s impossible to say. His name is in the “coming attractions” notices in newspapers in the following weeks but an understudy could have been playing his part. By October, he was back on the road with Frivolities. Then in December, Metcalfe disappeared from the stage. He was living in Morningside Heights near Columbia University, clerking, according to the New York City directory.
When he reappeared in 1922, Metcalfe linked up with the four Marx brothers again and for several seasons he was their snappy-talking foil in Twentieth Century Revue, I’ll Say She Is, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. Twice he traveled to London with the troupe; in 1922 for On the Balcony and 1931 for Varieties.
At age sixty, Metcalfe got his first (and only) movie break in the movie version of Animal Crackers. Dressed in a police uniform, badge on his chest and revolver on his hip, he’s Officer Hennessey, interrupting Mrs. Rittenhouse’s house party to arrest a thief (Harpo). Metcalfe and Harpo stand side by side, one a giant, the other a naif. And as they shake hands, an entire set of silverware plunks to the floor from Harpo’s coat sleeve.
It’s a zany scene, but now that I know who E. Metcalfe is, I tune out the zaniness and watch it with a catch in my throat. His voice rings deep and full as he speaks to Harpo in plaintive tones:
Now why don’t you go home . . . Go home for a few nights . . . Don’t you know your poor old mother sits there . . . night after night . . . waiting to hear your steps on the stairs . . . and I can see a little light burning in the window . . .
And with those words, the curtain fell on the movie career of Edward Salomon Metcalfe. His was a stage career that lasted decades, not just because he was talented, but because he worked with a will at that peaceful trade of his. And it certainly helped to have friends named Leonard, Adolph, Julius and Herbert Marx.
Author’s note: Special thanks to Robert Bader, the definitive expert on the Marx Brothers, for comments on Metcalfe’s body of work.