State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 44 Spring 1989


Hugh Mccrae: On the New York Stage, 1914

In 1914, when Hugh McCrae was a 37-year-old married man with a young family, he left Australia alone for New York. There he managed to sell a few cartoons, but made so little money he was almost penniless. Through a fellow Australian, he won a small part in a play entitled The Garden of Paradise, which was followed by work in several other productions. The following description of the way his theatrical debut came about is taken from notes which Hugh McCrae later used for a lecture on his experiences in America.
One morning (I wish I could remember the exact date of this) I received a letter from William Moore, addressed from London.
In it he told of the arrival in New York of an Australian actor named Heggie who had been especially engaged by the great Liebler Company for the purpose of producing a spectacular play called The Garden of Paradise. Covering this letter was a second one in the form of an introduction for myself to Heggie. This last letter I immediately forwarded to the Lambs' Club, and on the very next morning an equally indigent lodger as myself who had been feeling envelopes for cheques in the hall down below came rushing to my room. I was still in bed, and Karl, the lodger, stood beside me while I opened the missive in the hopes that something yet might drop out of it.
This identical man, quite positive of his prey in one instance, had actually opened an extra fat letter directed to the house and had scored, not banknotes, but a little bundle of English and Belgian flags.
On the present occasion he was disappointed also. It was merely a line from Heggie arranging a meeting with me for 10 o'clock on the same morning.
I made a quick nervous shave, and, as it was getting near to the appointed time, I kept turning over in my mind what I had better do with the ten cents in my pocket. Whether to buy an egg and a cup of coffee and walk to the theatre, or ride and go hungry, or invest in a drink to stiffen me up for the interview. It was so dreadfully late that I elected for a tramride. That meant no drink, no breakfast, but it at least assured punctuality.
I reached the offices in good time, and, despite my nervousness, must have cut a fairly dashing figure, because one of the managers, approaching me, asked if I were not Mr.—, naming some well known English comedian who was expected over from London at that time. My deaf and dumb gesticulations dispelled the illusion, and the manager returned to his desk with a grunt.
Starving and frightened, I sat there for an hour and a half, regretting my lost breakfast, when Heggie walked in. He proved to be a nice bright chirruppy man, something of the Lord Hopetoun type with an exceedingly kind face.
First of all he began by asking me what were my qualifications for the stage, to which I was forced to answer “None”. Whereupon he queried “Then what are your reasons for wishing to enter the theatrical profession?” I replied bluntly that I was on the edge of starvation. He said “You have had no experience. But you must pretend to have had some. If you will come upstairs with me I will introduce you to Mr. Stanhope who makes the engagements”
Rising out of this chair he went to the lift, I following him. On the topmost floor of the building, seated in a small office, among a nest of other offices equally small, we found Mr. Stanhope, a sharp sour-faced retired naval officer. He looked me up and down, with all the air of a rat sampling a new brand of cheese.
“Your experience?”
“Stock company in Australia”
The lie worked well.
“Australia, eh? … Splendid. Stand up. Let's have a look at you. That'll do. Rehearsal at 9 o'clock on Friday morning, Park Theatre.”
Mr. Heggie, by a flick of his eyes, suggested the doorway. “You had better leave the terms to Mr. Stanhope” he said.
I went home, flying very light on a queer gaseous combination of physical emptiness and spiritual joy … I had got a job.
I told Karl that; and Karl “opined” it might be a “fifteen dahlar jahb” and “a smart guy should be able to raise a week's salary in advance”.
In fact, my achievement so startled Karl that he became fired with the fever of emulation. And forthwith, having himself ironed his coat and pants, he whipped smartly into them, put on the high straw
bell topper of a Broadway blood, and, with “two bones” (that is to say 2 dollars) borrowed from Mother (his pet name for the landlady) whirred down to the corner to have his shoes shined.
He returned at 4 o'clock in the morning with Brown's Chop House written in broken veins all over his face. Needless to say he had never been near Heggie; but he had a story all “readied up” about an interview in which Heggie had offered him $50 a week.
Karl had never been so insulted in his life.
He said “I told him to cut the Cahmedy and come to business” which was Karl's way of remarking “Look here, dont you get trying any of your funny nonsense with me. My figure's 150. And if you dont like it, you can do the other thing”, or “fly the coop”, as they say over there.
I couldn't help feeling sorry for Karl, but he was an awful liar.
Once he came into me while I was crossing Tuesday off my Kalendar. I was so eager to be rid of the beastly thing that I had started erasing it in the morning before it had even very well begun.
“Say, kid,” he said “How's it for a dahlar?” and pushed a pleasant crinkly ugly bit of paper into the pocket of my pyjama coat.
“Oh Karl,” I replied “How can I ever pay you back?”
He waved his fine hands deprecatingly.
“Sure, you'll be getting a jahb soon” he exclaimed “And I'll be able to bleed you heaps