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Sunday, February 5, 2023

Emerald City at the Elks

On October 19th, 1909, the above announcement appeared in the town newspaper of Grand Junction, Colorado. The local Elks Lodge (#575) had decided to stage a new comic opera, titled The Emerald City. This was to be done without regard to expense, and would involve a variety of local talent. Costumes would be hired from Salt Lake City, and the presentation would be held at the local Majestic Theater. Work was already underway on scenery painting, and it was expected to be “the most beautiful and spectacular amateur operetta or comic opera ever attempted by purely local talent”. There would be two performances only, and all would be under the direction of Mr. Archie Bliss.

There are a number of surprising things about this, not least of which is Mr. Archie Bliss. This entire production was his brainchild - he would write the adaptation, choose the costumes, design the scenery and stage the piece; he even performed. And he was only 20 years old.

Archie Bliss was the son of a local merchant, and seems to have been quite a renaissance man. References to his many activities were mentioned frequently in the newspaper; he played the clarinet, gave chalk talks, organized theater productions for schools, threw parties, and was an enthusiastic town booster. He worked as a postal delivery man, married in 1913, and lived in Grand Junction until his death in 1957 (that occurred unexpectedly, while visiting his son in West Virginia).

At any rate, in 1909 Mr. Bliss had decided to write a comic opera based on the Oz books. At that point there were only 5 titles, the most recent, The Road to Oz, having been published in July. The hugely successful Broadway production of The Wizard of Oz had toured the country for the last time in April of that year. (That production had only made its way to Colorado once, in 1904, and didn’t get as far west as Grand Junction). An article from November 13th reveals that Bliss received a letter from L. Frank Baum, who was said to be quite interested in the production.
Baum seems to be under the impression that the performance is to be a presentation of The Wizard of Oz stage production - and there were definite similarities between the two shows. But in the end it couldn’t truly be called the first amateur performance of the famous hit. A description of the upcoming show was published on December 3rd. According to Archie, it was to be “a delicious blend of the Oz books, though founded mainly on The Land of Oz. We have taken the best from each book and woven the whole together with a large number of appropriate songs”. Baum's own attempt at dramatizing The Land of Oz  five years earlier had resulted in The Wogglebug, a short lived disappointment. Archie goes on to describe the basic plot:

So the premise of the show does appear to be a blending of stories. There’s no Dorothy or cyclone, but the Wizard still reigns in the Emerald City. Jack Pumpkinhead, the Sawhorse and the Wogglebug have been dispensed with, but Mombi and Tip are main characters. A magic belt comes into play, but there’s no mention of a Nome King. And of course there is that startling announcement at the climax of the show!
On November 2nd a blurb announced that Bliss was traveling, to select costumes for the production. He was visiting “the largest costuming house in the intermountain region, located at Salt Lake City”. Presumably this was Salt Lake Costume, which opened in 1889 and remained in business until 2005. Another article, from December 10, states that the “great array of costumes to be used by the eighty and more people who are to take part in the local production of “The Emerald City” next Monday and Tuesday night, arrived in the city by express from Salt Lake City”.

Not everything could be rented -

So everything moved along smoothly, a cast list of 84 people was published, and rehearsal notices appeared. Finally the show itself was presented, on December 13th. The piece was given an extensive, and enthusiastic, review in the newspaper. The main criticism was the long wait between acts and scenes, due to difficulties in changing scenery on the small stage of the Majestic Theater. However, that problem was vastly improved by the second (and final) performance on December 14th. Each character was praised, and the respective actor complimented on their role.

As to the show itself: The Emerald City consisted of three acts and seven scenes. It opened with a maypole dance; (not unlike the Land of the Munchkins in the pre-Broadway production of the Wizard). Mombi the witch was introduced, and was assisted by seven weird sisters in her number “The Haunts of the Witches”. The Scarecrow spent much of the first act onstage in his Scarecrow pose, before being brought to life. The Tin Man received great praise for his characterization of the role. Miss Margaret Bunting made a “great little Tip”, who ran away to the Emerald City with the Scarecrow and Tin Man to see the Wizard, and “in the final act was turned into a beautiful princess” (a bit of a spoiler for the "startling announcment at the climax of the play"!) Apparently Mombi was also transformed from a witch into a young and beautiful maiden in the final act. The Wizard kept the audience in roars of laughter, Glinda the fairy queen was pleasing, and Robin Goodfellow made an appearance. There was a forge scene with a company of (G)nomes. Archie Bliss himself made an appearance as the Demon, and “made that weird part one of the most fetching of the cast”.

There was a drill, dance and song of little Frost Fairies; there were Forest Fairies; a song for Tip, Scarecrow and Tin Man called “When the Goblins Were at Play”, accompanied by six goblins. Female soldiers led by General Jinjur gave a drill and song at the close of the first act; apparently “General Jinjur and her soldiers immensely pleased every time they appeared”.

And that was just the first act!

The second act opened with the Guardian of the Gate, singing “The Guardian of the Gate”; a song from the pre-Broadway days of The Wizard. Tip, Scarecrow and Tin Woodman sang “When We Get What’s Coming to Us”, another Wizard song. “In the Valley of Ho-Kus Po” was sung by the Wizard, accompanied by chorus members in colonial costumes and hairstyles. The reviewer was greatly impressed by this number.

At the opening of the third act, Jellia Jamb had a song, “Take Me Up With You”, sung while seated in an improvised airship - perhaps some form of the Gump? There is mention of Miss Helen Bunting as a “mechanical figure”  - maybe Tik-Tok made an appearance? A skit was performed of “The Traveler and the Pie”, another standard from the Broadway Wizard. And a finale of “Airs of Nations” was yet another nod to the Broadway hit. G.A.R. veterans and a drum corp passed in review, and the grand finale was an Elks song written by the actor playing the Tin Man, with a display of flags in Elk colors.

Overall, it was a full evening of entertainment and a grand success. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any photographic record of the event. I contacted the Lodge, which is still active today, but their archives have no mention of the production. It seems to have slipped into obscurity.


Anonymous said...

Amazing research!

Jane Albright said...

This would have made a nice Bugle article.

Scott Olsen said...

Great article and research! Sounds like everyone in the town was in the play!