One cannot be an avid theater-goer for long before encountering the name George Spelvin in a cast list. Sometimes there's even an accompanying photo of the actor, in makeup and costume, of course. From one production to another, this master makeup magician can be tall, short, skinny, fat, clean-shaven or full-bearded, playing more characters in a day than some actors do in a year. Just six weeks before his 30th birthday, an article in the October 1, 1916 issue of The New York Times described George Spelvin as "a Broadway myth so generally accepted as to have become a Broadway institution."
Stories of how he was born are as varied as the raconteurs who tell them, but his date of birth is generally agreed to be November 15, 1886, when he opened on Broadway in Karl the Peddler by Charles A. Gardiner. I have read several articles proclaiming November 15th as George Spelvin Day — one even alluded to all of November as George Spelvin Month — yet I've spent my entire adult life in and around "the theatah," and never once did anyone remind me about George Spelvin Day. Be that as it may, following are the most popular spins on the origination of this American theater icon.
Spin No. 1 — A cast of 13 characters caught the superstitious eye of its producer, who refused to hire 13 actors. Instead, he hired 12 actors, one of whom was required to play two roles. Just who was that superstitious producer? According to a scribe for The Masquers Club, it could only have been David Belasco, whom he called "that super-superstitious late, great showman."
Spin No. 2 — At a play rehearsal one day, an actor said to the producer, "I can't play the cop in the first act and the bellboy in the third act and use the same name." With a flash of insight, the producer said, "I never thought of that." So the bellboy was played by George Spelvin and an American theater tradition was born.
Spin No. 3 — A favorite version of Spelvin's beginnings alleges that, in December 1906, the late Edward Abeles, about to open in Brewster's Millions, discovered, in conversation, that the producer was leaning heavily toward scrapping the whole show. Abeles, a great barroom debater, was never above making up "authorities" to support a claim, so during a break in the conversation, he casually mentioned that "Everything would be all right if only George Spelvin were here. HE would know what to do!"
The producer bit! He asked Abeles to get this Spelvin fellow. Abeles dashed to the barroom next door, went up to the first man he saw, and told him to "just say your name is George Spelvin and tell'em it's the greatest play you ever saw, just as it is. Tell'em they're crazy if they don't put it on right now." As the story goes, the producer wrote out another check and Brewster's Millions opened December 31, 1906 and ran for 163 performances, with George Spelvin listed in the credits. Did Abeles really drag a stranger out of the barroom? Did that same stranger actually play a small role in Brewster's Millions? Who knows? But somebody went on stage as George Spelvin for the run of the play.
George Spelvin is linked with some famous theatrical names: Two popular actors, William Gillette and Maude Adams, and the great Jacob Adler of the Yiddish Theatre, all used the pseudonym.
Proving the theory that "there are no small parts, only small actors," George has occasionally played a corpse. Once he even played a character who was only spoken of, never seen. What a trooper!
Throughout the years, there have been many variations on the theme: The Moscow Art Theatre once listed a Gregor Spelvanovich on one of their programs. Mrs.Frank Craven invented Georgette Spelvin as George's daughter. George also had a son, George Spelvin, Jr., who appeared in Salt Water and Gentlemen of the Press. Harry Selby is another name that is sometimes used for a "double" when George Spelvin has already been cast in a role.
George's children have trod the boards only occasionally, but his sisters Georgina and Georgia have appeared more frequently. Unfortunately, however, Georgina is now considered the black sheep of the family — ever since she started appearing regularly in porn films in the late 20th century. But if you're looking for a substitute for Georgina Spelvin in your cast list, I recommend you think about Georgeanna Spelvin or Georgie Spelvin (yes, exactly like Georgeanna "Georgie" Drew, who married Maurice Barrymore and spawned generations of performers!) By George! You couldn't ask for a better role model than that!
Across the pond, George's British cousin is the popular actor, Walter Plinge. There are two pretenders to his throne — Mr. F. Anney and Mr. Bart — but Walter's the icon. I know because, like George, Walter has his own day, December 2. So, fans of the theater, mark your calendars:
BTW, George Spelvin made a seamless transition to film, appearing in D. W. Griffith's The Birth of A Nation in 1915. A man of many talents, he next appeared as a dancer in Way Down East in 1920. He also had a small role in the Academy Award-winner, From Here to Eternity in 1953. His list of television credits goes back to the The Fugitive series, and even extends to the daytime soaps.
Back in the spring of 1949, in the tavern of The Masquers Club, three great minds belonging to three fun-loving (and possibly inebriated) members discussed the idea of an annual award to honor the acting art, to be given to actors by their Masquers Club peers. They were putting the finishing touches on their proposal when someone at the table (they say it was Alan Mowbray!) suggested it be called the George Spelvin Award. The vote was unanimous. Wiping away their tears of laughter, they ordered another round, made a long-winded toast to George Spelvin, and the meeting was adjourned.
There have been many recipients of The Spelvin. The first award was given to Milton Berle in 1949. In the early days, other recipients included Harold Lloyd, Jack Benny, Sir Laurence Olivier, Fred Astaire, Dean Jagger, Broderick Crawford, Ronald Colman, John Huston, Herbert Marshall and Edmund Gwenn, among others. Here are a few photos in honor of those wonderful performers.
Stage Whispers is published by carlacushman.blogspot.com/