On This Day 29th April

William Hooker Gillette (July 24, 1853 – April 29, 1937)

OTD in 1937 Playwright and actor William Gillette pases away in Hartford Conn. Immortal actor of Holmes on stage.

William Hooker Gillette (July 24, 1853 – April 29, 1937) was an American actor-manager, playwright, and stage-manager in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is best remembered for portraying Sherlock Holmes on stage and in a 1916 silent film thought to be lost until it was rediscovered in 2014.

Gillette’s most significant contributions to the theater were in devising realistic stage settings and special sound and lighting effects, and as an actor in putting forth what he called the “Illusion of the First Time”. His portrayal of Holmes helped create the modern image of the detective. His use of the deerstalker cap (which first appeared in some Strand illustrations by Sidney Paget) and the curved pipe became enduring symbols of the character.  He assumed the role on stage more than 1,300 times over thirty years, starred in the silent motion picture based on his Holmes play, and voiced the character twice on radio.

His first Civil War drama Held by the Enemy (1886) was a major step toward modern theater, in that it abandoned many of the crude devices of 19th century melodrama and introduced realism into the sets, costumes, props, and sound effects. It was produced at a time when the British had a very low opinion of American art in any form, and it was the first wholly American play with a wholly American theme to be a critical and commercial success on British stages.

Sherlock Holmes

Gillette as Sherlock Holmes
Advertisement for the 1916 film

Meanwhile, Arthur Conan Doyle felt that the character of Sherlock Holmes was stifling him and keeping him from more worthy literary work. He had finished his Holmes saga and killed him off in The Final Problem published in 1893. Afterwards, however, Conan Doyle found himself in need of further income, as he was planning to build a new home called “Undershaw“. He decided to take his character to the stage and wrote a play. Holmes had appeared in two earlier stage works by other authors in Charles Brookfield‘s skit Under the Clock (1893) and John Webb‘s play Sherlock Holmes (1894); nevertheless, Doyle now wrote a new five-act play with Holmes and Watson in their freshmen years as detectives.

Doyle offered the role first to Herbert Beerbohm Tree and then to Henry Irving. Irving turned it down and Tree demanded that Doyle readapt Holmes to his peculiar acting profile; he also wanted to play both Holmes and Professor Moriarty. Doyle turned down the deal, considering that this would debase the character.

Literary agent A. P. Watt noted that the play needed a lot of work and sent the script to Charles Frohman, who traveled to London to meet Conan Doyle. There Frohman suggested the prospect of an adaptation by Gillette. Doyle endorsed this and Frohman obtained the staging-copyright. Doyle insisted on only one thing: there was to be no love interest in Sherlock Holmes. Frohman uttered a Victorian rendition of “Trust me!”

Gillette then read the entire collection for the first time, outlining the piece in San Francisco while still touring in Secret Service. On one occasion, after they had exchanged numerous telegrams about the play, Gillette telegraphed Conan Doyle: “May I marry Holmes?” Doyle responded: “You may marry him, or murder or do what you like with him.”


New Holmes play

Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes consisted of four acts combining elements from several of Doyle’s stories. He mainly utilized the plots “A Scandal in Bohemia” and “The Final Problem“. Also, it had elements from A Study in ScarletThe Sign of Four, “The Boscombe Valley Mystery“, and “The Greek Interpreter“. However, all the characters in the play were Gillette’s own creations with the exception of Holmes, Watson, and Moriarty. His creation of Billy the Buttons (Pageboy) was later used by Doyle for “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone“. Gillette portrayed Holmes as brave and open to express his feelings, which was substantially different from the intellectual-only original, “a machine rather than a man”. He wore the deerstalker cap on stage, which was originally featured in illustrations by Sidney Paget.

Props and famous phrase

Gillette introduced the curved or bent briar pipe instead of the straight pipe pictured by Strand Magazine‘s illustrator Sidney Paget, most likely so that Gillette could pronounce his lines more easily; a straight pipe can wiggle or fall when speaking, or cause problems with declaring lines while it is clenched between the teeth. It is less difficult to pronounce lines clearly with a curved pipe. Some have lately theorized that a straight pipe may have obscured Gillette’s face. This could not happen with a curved briar in his mouth.

Gillette also made use of a magnifying-glass, a violin, and a syringe, which all came from the Canon and which were all now established as “props” to the Sherlock Holmes character. Gillette formulated the complete phrase: “Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow”, which was later reused by Clive Brook, the first spoken-cinema Holmes, as: “Elementary, my dear Watson”, Holmes’s best known line and one of the most famous expressions in the English language.


Irene Adler was “The Woman” of the Holmes canon, but she was replaced by Alice Faulkner, a young and beautiful lady who was planning to avenge her sister’s murder but eventually fell in love with Holmes; and the pageboy, nameless in the Canon, was given the name Billy by Gillette, a name that carried over into the Basil Rathbone films and that has been retained ever since. Sherlock Holmes, or The Strange Case of Miss Faulkner (later renamed Sherlock Holmes – A Drama in Four Acts) was finished.

Baldwin Hotel theater fire

The Secret Service company was playing in San Francisco and staying in the Baldwin Hotel when a fire swept from the property room of the Baldwin Theatre through the hotel in the early morning hours of November 23. The play’s script was in the possession of Gillette’s secretary William Postance, in his room at the Baldwin Hotel. The financial loss was estimated at nearly $1,500,000. Only two deaths were known at first, though several people were missing. The flames were confined to the Baldwin, though smoke and water damaged the adjoining structures.

Gillette’s secretary barely escaped, but the entire script was reduced to ashes. Postance went to the Palace Hotel where Gillette was sound asleep, and awakened him at 3:30 in the morning to break the bad news. Gillette was not overly happy about being disturbed in the middle of the night and simply asked, “Is this hotel on fire?” Assured that it was not, he told Postance, “Well, come and tell me about it in the morning.” Both manuscripts were destroyed – Conan Doyle’s original and Gillette’s adaptation – but Gillette rewrote the piece in a month, either from notes or an extra copy. Conan Doyle and Gillette had never met, so Conan Doyle’s shock was understandable, once the two finally arranged a meeting, when the train carrying Gillette came to a halt and Sherlock Holmes himself stepped onto the platform instead of the actor, complete with deerstalker cap and gray ulster. Sitting in his landau, Conan Doyle contemplated the apparition with open-mouthed awe until the actor whipped out a magnifying lens, examined Doyle’s face closely, and declared (precisely as Holmes himself might have done), “Unquestionably an author!”  Conan Doyle broke into a hearty laugh and the partnership was sealed with the mirth and hospitality of a weekend at Undershaw. The two men became lifelong friends.

Holmes tour

Wiliam Gillette as Sherlock Holmes
Lithograph – 1900
Library of Congress Collection

After a copyright performance in England, Sherlock Holmes debuted on October 23, 1899, at the Star Theatre in Buffalo, followed by appearances in Rochester and Syracuse, New York and in Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Sherlock Holmes made its Broadway debut at the Garrick Theater on November 6, 1899, performing until June 16, 1900. It was an instant success. Gillette applied all his dazzling special effects over the massive audience.

The company also toured nationally along the western United States from October 8, 1900, until March 30, 1901. This was bolstered by another company with Cuyler Hastings touring through minor cities and Australia. After a pre-debut week in Liverpool, the company debuted in London (September 9, 1901) at the Lyceum Theatre, performing in the Duke of York’s Theatre later.

It was another hit with its audience, despite not convincing the critics. The 12 weeks originally appointed were at full-hall. The production was extended until April 12, 1902 (256 presentations), including a gala for King Edward VII on February 1. Then it toured England and Scotland with two ancillary groups: North (with H. A. Saintsbury) and South (with Julian Royce). At the same time, the play was produced in foreign countries (such as Australia, Sweden, and South Africa).

Sir Henry Irving was touring America when Sherlock Holmes opened at the Garrick Theatre, and Irving saw Gillette as Holmes. The two actors met and Irving concluded negotiations for Sherlock Holmes to begin an extended season at the Lyceum Theatre in London beginning in early May. Gillette was the first American actor ever to be invited to perform on that illustrious stage, which was an enormous honor. Irving was the dean of British actors, the first ever to be knighted, and the Lyceum was his theater.

Sherlock Holmes made its British debut at the Shakespeare Theatre in Liverpool on September 2, 1901. It was the beginning of a major triumph. Gillette then opened Sherlock Holmes at the Lyceum in London on September 9. The Lyceum tour alone netted Gillette nearly $100,000, and it made the most money of all the productions in the final years of Irving’s tenure at the Lyceum. In the United States, Gillette again toured from 1902 until November 1903, starring in The Admirable Crichton by James M. Barrie. Gillette’s own play Electricity appeared in 1910, and he starred in Victorien Sardou‘s Diplomacy in 1914, Clare Kummer‘s A Successful Calamity in 1917, Barrie’s Dear Brutus in 1918, and Gillette’s The Dream Maker in 1921. A brief revival of Sherlock Holmes in early 1923 did not generate enough interest to return to Broadway, so he retired to his Hadlyme estate.

Worldwide fame

Gillette as Sherlock Holmes, caricatured by ‘Spy’ in Vanity Fair (1907)

In his lifetime, Gillette presented Sherlock Holmes approximately 1,300 times (third in the historical stage-record), before American and English audiences. He was also shown widely, through appearances in many editions of the Sherlock Holmes canon and in magazines by way of photographs or illustrations, and was also well represented on the covers of theater programs.

Around the world, other productions took place, based on Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes. These were often satirical or parodical, which were sometimes successful enough to last several seasons. Frohman’s lawyers tried to curb the illegal phenomenon exhaustedly, traveling overseas, from court to court. Legitimate productions were also produced throughout Europe and Australia for many years.

Even Gillette parodied it once. The Painful Predicament of Sherlock Holmes – the first of a handful of one-act plays he would write – was written for two benefits, and was performed for the first time at the Joseph Jefferson Holland Benefit at the Metropolitan Opera House on March 24. Holland was an actor who had been forced to retire the year before due to illness. The skit featured five characters: Holmes, Billy the page boy (played by Henry McArdle), the madwoman Gwendolyn Cobb (who had nearly all of the dialogue and was played by Ethel Barrymore), and the two “valuable assistants” who come to take the madwoman away. Its original title was A fantasy in about one-tenth of an act, and the entire scene transpires in Holmes’ Baker Street room “somewhere about the date of day before yesterday.” Retitled The Harrowing Predicament of Sherlock Holmes, it was performed again on April 14 for the benefit of the Actors Society of America at the Criterion Theatre (with Jessie Busley as Gwendolyn Cobb and McArdle again as Billy), and again at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London when Gillette inserted it on October 3 as a curtain-raiser for Clarice. Playing Billy in the curtain-raiser was young Charlie Chaplin. When Clarice was replaced with Sherlock Holmes, Chaplin continued as Billy.

Models for Holmes’ portrait

The magazines Collier’s Weekly (USA) and The Strand (UK) pushed Conan Doyle avidly, offering to continue the Sherlock Holmes series for a generous salary. The new stories were resumed in 1901, first with a prequel (The Hound of the Baskervilles) and then with Holmes actually revived in 1903 (in The Empty House). The Holmes series continued for another quarter-century, culminating with the bound edition of The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes in 1927.

Gillette was the model for pictures by the artist Frederic Dorr Steele, which were featured in Collier’s Weekly then and reproduced by American media. Steele contributed to Conan Doyle’s book-covers, later doing marketing when Gillette made his farewell performances. Conan Doyle’s series were widely printed throughout the USA, with either Steele’s illustrations or photographs of Gillette on stage.

In 1907 Gillette was caricatured in Vanity Fair by Sir Leslie Ward (who signed his work “Spy”) (see above), and later became the subject of such famous American caricaturists as Pamela Colman Smith, Ralph Barton and Al Freuh.

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