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Who Is Dan Rice?

Filichia thoroughly enjoys a new book about a now forgotten but once famous showbiz entrepreneur of the 19th century. logo

Finished a book that was a total delight. It doesn't totally concentrate on theater--it's much more about the circus--but there are plenty of theatrical tidbits in it. It's a biography of Dan Rice, and before you say "Who?" be apprised that author David Carlyon understands your lack of awareness. That's why he's officially titled the book Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You've Never Heard Of (Public Affairs Books; 528 pages; $30).

There was a time in the late 19th century when all the country knew of Dan Rice. A racehorse was named for him and a professional baseball team chose as its moniker "The Dan Rice Baseball Club." He had no financial interest in either, but he obviously had his fans, some of whom named their children after him--albeit after he offered five bucks to anyone who'd do it.

All this from a guy who was born in obscurity in 1823 as Daniel McLaren and who started out working in carnivals with a trained pig (he'd eventually move up to a trained rhinoceros). He began as a clown but, as he aged and gained more fame, Rice sought respectability and chose to call himself a comic, then a pundit, then a humorist. Eventually, he became a circus impresario of great renown as the presenter of "Dan Rice's Great Show and School for Educated Animals." As Carlyon writes: "In Europe, Richard Wagner was writing musical pieces with action revolving around a magic ring. In Philadelphia, Dan Rice was presenting the same thing."

Dan Rice was also a blowhard. He claimed that President Zachary Taylor made him a colonel (untrue). He claimed that Queen Isabella of Spain was interested in his doing a European tour--but he didn't bother to check and discover that, at the time he made his boast, Isabella was 10 years old. Yet, Rice might very well have invented product placement, for he opened his show with a song heralding his favorite restaurant as well as the hotel where he was staying.

So, why don't we know him? For one thing, he equivocated in his political opinions before, during, and after the Civil War, always hoping that he'd be able to give whatever crowd he was appearing in front of what it ideally wanted to hear. (To be fair, after the war, he did commission the country's first Civil War memorial, which still stands in his hometown of Girard, Pennsylvania.) More to the point, Rice had been a broad entertainer in wild 'n' wooly times, and his star fell when audiences changed. Carlyon notes that Rice started out in a time when a husband horsewhipped a man who had gossiped about his wife, and when a 14-year-old kid who snuck under a circus tent was clubbed to death by a guard. At any given performance, fights could break out between the locals and the circus staff; one Illinois newspaper gave two sides to a whiskey-fueled fight, saying, "It is no more than right for us to give both versions," though it then added: "and we trust our readers will not believe a word of the last one." Of an 1832 production of Richard III at the Bowery Theatre with Junius Brutus Booth in the title role, Carlyon writes: "Management oversold the house, so people sat on the stage, fingering props and refereeing the Battle of Bosworth Field."

By 1849, the noted Shakespearean actor William Macready wasn't above hissing the equally noted Shakespearean actor Edwin Forrest when the latter portrayed Hamlet. That was one of the incidents that eventually led to the Astor Place Riots of 1849, as audiences fought to show which actor they preferred. Carlyon points out how this fiasco led to profound changes in audience behavior. Suddenly, hooligans and roughnecks were scorned; polite applause was the way to go, and that didn't serve our liquor-prone hero Rice, whom one paper called "the excruciating jester." But, as Carlyon so smartly mentions, "Rice did not lose his voice as much as the audience lost theirs."

Rice was soon broke--though, as Carlyon writes, "He knew the importance of appearing prosperous, especially when poor." There was an unsuccessful run for congress before he took on something that had been a Paris Pavilion and proved too expensive to tour. He lost $60,000 on it, while a circus named for a guy named Barnum made $400,000 in the same time span. "Money flowed through his life like water rolling off a paddlewheel," says Carlyon. Then came bankruptcy. (Well, that's what comes from too much bills and liquor.) Near the end of his life, Rice was hawking a product called "Jo He, The Texas Panacea," which probably wasn't much more effective than Pirelli's Miracle Elixir.

There were multiple marriages. When Rice divorced his first wife, Maggie (to marry a much-younger 18-year-old, natch), the lady started her own troupe: "Mrs. Dan Rice's Great Show." Dan didn't like it, but that was her name, so he had to endure it. When she remarried, however, Rice sued to stop her from her continuing calling her show by that title. So, soon, audiences read "Mrs. Charles Warner" in fine print, "formerly" in even finer type, followed by "Mrs. Dan Rice's Great Show" in the largest type of all--type, in fact, that was larger than the name of any of the performers. When Maggie gave interviews, she mentioned that she "had been the wife of a somewhat famous clown."

Rice's final marriage was to a well-heeled woman named Marcella Jones Greathouse DeGoffredo Robinson. (Did I get all of that?) By this point in my reading, the biography of Dan Rice seemed to rival the autobiography of Belle Poitrine, but I bless Carlyon for giving us so many facts about those thrilling days of yesteryear. He tells us that, during the Panic of 1837, theaters were so poverty-stricken that they gave change in I.O.U's. And I had to laugh when he called the 1840-1841 season "one of the most depressing in the history of the American theater." (Have you noticed that almost every season is called that?) But one thing about the business has certainly changed: According to Carlyon, "Demand kept a play running for 18 straight performances--in an era when two in a row was unusual."

This was a time when Shakespeare was big, so Rice performed Act Five of Richard III on horseback. He'd introduce equestrian acts with "My kingdom for a horse" because he knew that everybody would recognize the line. He also parodied Macbeth with such lines as "Is this a beefsteak I see before me?" (I guess you had to be there.)

Carlyon offers a veritable 19th century lexicon. He gives the origins and meanings of the words "claptrap" and "hooker" and the expressions "to wing it" and "read the riot act." "Rhino" was slang for money, which is how we eventually got the expression "to pay through the nose." How amazing to find that "amazing" was once considered a vulgar word. Similarly, the word "role" was considered to be "in miserable taste." A punch was called "a New York kiss." If you took pictures, you were not a photographer but a "photographist." To "play the woman" meant to snoop around for information--and women back then most certainly did not like the word "women."

Names of people we still know are peppered throughout the tome. There's Tony Pastor, long before the man opened the 14th Street restaurant that's mentioned in "Hello, Dolly!" (Rice hired him as one of his clowns). While Horace Greeley was no fan of Rice, Walt Whitman was--though he didn't like it when Rice overdid the double-entendres. Jean Leotard was the man on the flying trapeze; his name has been immortalized as the term for the type of outfit he wore. And Carlyon mentions that Reverend Henry Ward Beecher railed against the theater "for making honest businesses seem boring." (Well--in comparison, they are, aren't they?)

By the time I reached Dan Rice's death on February 22, 1900, I was sad that the book was ending. Needless to say, I thought a great deal about The Unsinkable Molly Brown as I read, for both deal with a poor person who struggles to make it financially and, once the money comes, must struggle again to be accepted by the high muck-a-mucks. The best musicals seem to have either big characters and/or big events, and this story has both. Finally, much of Rice's life parallels that of Will Rogers--a humorist who also started off modestly, captivated a nation, even ran for office. And didn't Rogers' life provide fodder for a long-running, Tony-winning hit?

Hey, you composers and lyricists out there--get your hands on Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You've Never Heard Of, and then get to work! As for the rest of you, just get the book.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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