— Profiling Della May Fox (1870 - 1913), actress and singer whose talent, diminutive stature, and childlike persona earned her great popularity on the American stage in the 19th century. And when she set that spit curl on her forehead, it became the mode of fashionable young women from coast to coast.
For half of her short life, Della was a principal attraction in America's musical theater. She was born in St. Louis, Missouri, to a successful photographer and his wife, Andrew & Harriett Fox, and from the time she could walk and talk, Della was a performer. She made her first stage appearance at the age of 7 as a midshipmate in a youthful cast of H.M.S. Pinafore, and followed that with other children's roles. (In the 1870s & '80s, it was a popular trend to cast Pinafore and other Gilbert & Sullivan operettas with children and send them on tour through the midwest where they were popular with audiences.)
In 1880, Della appeared as Adrienne in Adolphe Dennery's comedy, A Celebrated Cause, which attracted the attention of the not-yet-famous Augustus Thomas and his theatrical cronies. Known collectively as the Dickson Sketch Club, they were preparing to produce a touring show built around Thomas's adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's story, Editha's Burglar, and Thomas engaged Della as the lead. Burglar was a short story, hence a short play; even with a 10-minute intermission, it ran under an hour. The sketch-clubbers filled another two hours with comic sketches and barbershop quartets. Not only was the tour a great success, but the names of Della Fox and Augustus Thomas became familiar to audiences throughout the midwest and Canada. Thomas wasted no time expanding Editha's Burglar to four acts, renamed it The Burglar, and secured the great Maurice Barrymore to play the title role. Success ensured, the play continued to tour for another two years.
Della forged on, determined to become a Broadway star. In the late 1880s, she appeared with Comley Barton and the Bennett & Moulton Opera Company, where she played soprano roles in the operettas Fra Diavolo, The Bohemian Girl, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado, among others. In February 1889 she appeared for the first time at Niblo's Garden in New York, her light opera roles having brought her to the attention of Henrich Conried, who engaged her to play the soubrette role of Yvonne in The King's Fool.
When DeWolf Hopper formed his light opera company the following year, and began actively seeking a company of supporting players, Della's was one of the first names mentioned. In May 1890, Hopper (or Wolfie, as he was known to Broadway denizens) opened in Gustave Kerker's Castles in the Air, with Della in the supporting role of Blanche.
They received good notices, but Della's first big success came the following year when she played the trouser role of Prince Mataya, singing "Another Fellow," in Hopper's production of Wang. The show was so popular that the lean & lanky Hopper, a foot taller than the diminutive & dainty Della, continued to play it through 1892, then re-teamed in Panjandrum in 1893, and The Lady or the Tiger in 1894.
Continuing to play in comic opera and operetta, Della starred as Clairette in William Furst's The Little Trooper in 1894, following that in 1895 with the starring role in Furst's Fleur-de-Lis. In 1897, she appeared with Lillian Russell and Jefferson De Angelis in The Wedding Day.
In 1898, Della put together her own company to produce and star in an original musical comedy, The Little Host, credited as the work of two librettists (Edgar Smith and Louis DeLange) and two composers (Thomas Chilvers and William T. Francis). Host opened the day after Christmas 1898, and ran for a month at New York's Herald Square Theatre, garnering rave reviews before embarking on an equally successful 3-month tour. According to one critic, her performance in Host "brought her to the pinnacle of success." She was said to have been for a time the highest-paid performer on the American variety stage.
The 19th and 20th centuries collided, and the dust didn't settle for nearly a decade. Della's life seemed to parallel the time. Due largely to abuse of alcohol and drugs, she began turning up fairly frequently in private hospitals and sanitariums (or "retreats" as they were called then). After she married Jacob D. Levy, a jeweler, in 1900, she performed in only three productions: The Rogers Brothers in Central Park in 1900-1901 (which earned the first critique of her failing voice); The West Point Cadet in September 1904; and in a revival of Rosedale in April and May 1913. She died of acute indigestion at a private sanitarium in New York City on June 15, 1913, and is buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery, Saint Louis, Missouri.
Stage Whispers is published by carlacushman.blogspot.com/