In 1878, Edwin
Booth was about to embark on a twenty week
tour of southern states. He knew Joe was getting
ready to leave Ellsler’s
company, and he offered him a place in his troupe.
It was a tough decision for Joe, but he turned
down his idol and friend. Instead, he joined the
acting company at the Boston
Museum. Again, "museum" was a
deliberate misnomer. It was a theatre, but on the
floors above the box office was an exhibit of
stuffed animals, wax figures, mummies, mineral
specimens, and other odds and ends that enabled
puritanical Bostonians to persuade themselves they
were attending a place of learning, and not a
palace of amusement. In addition to housing
mummies and mineral specimens, the Boston
Museum housed the finest acting company in the
The greatest American comic
actor of the era was William
Warren. He was on the stage for over fifty
years, and the last 36 of those years were spent
at the Boston Museum.
He didn’t tour and he wouldn’t play New York.
And yet despite this, he was a national
institution who drew adoring fans from around the
country season after season. He was one of the
reasons Boston rivaled New York City as a center
for theatrical activity during this period. He
gave a total of 13,500 performances in nearly 600
different roles, and was fresh and inventive till
the end of his career. Charles
Barron was another fixture at the museum as
its leading man. He was accounted the most
versatile actor in America, excelling at modern
and classical roles and played over 500 parts in
Joe’s reputation was already
growing nationally when R.
F. Field hired him for the Museum. Field felt
that Joe would strengthen the company, and must
have been amused when his newly signed actor
declared: "I am not handsome, and I am not a
masher, but I’ll get there all the same".
Joe’s self image and description didn’t
completely jive with the facts. He was slight and
not that tall. But he had a good athletic
physique, strong features and a great
Barrymore-esque profile. As to whether he was a
"masher" or not, he had a pretty strong
reputation as a womanizer. But Joe was always a
mixed bag. The American Biographical Dictionary
characterized him as
"half dashing man about town, half recluse."
Joe lived in a "swell"
boarding house on Cambridge Street just off of
Bowdoin Square in Boston. A fellow lodger was
Charles H. Hoyt who was a then a newspaper man,
but later became one of America’s most
successful and best known playwrights. He and Hoyt
bonded, and would frequent the chop houses and
prowl the city together. When E. H. Southern
joined the Museum company as a neophyte actor, he
was befriended by Joe and taken along. These
young professionals in a big city, playing hard
and working hard. Joe quickly became the
Museum’s leading juvenile, and in nearly four
years of frequently changing programs, he was in
every piece performed.
The museum produced the American
premiers of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS
Pinafore (1879) and Patience
(1881). In the roles of Boatswain and Grosvenor
respectively, he was said to have "sang and
danced with as much ease and abandon as though he
had been reared in a burlesque company." Kate
Ryan in her book Old Boston Museum Days
wrote: "…everyone about the theater was
somewhat doubtful as to the success of Pinafore.
Even Mr. Field was
uncertain about the outcome until the song: ‘He
is an Englishman’ sung by Joseph Haworth took
the audience by storm and received encore after
encore." Joe triumphed in musical theatre,
and the same season played "Romeo"
opposite Mary Anderson,
setting a box office record in Boston for a single
night’s gross receipts.
In March 1881, Joe introduced R.
F. Field to his Bostonian cousin Miriam O'Leary,
and she was hired to play small roles. Her
first appearance was with Dion Boucicault as a
guest in the ballroom scene of his play Colleen
Bawn. Miriam had one line: "We have
danced enough; 'tis nearly seven
o'clock." Joe coached her diligently
for weeks, and her large Irish family was in a
state of anxious anticipation until after her
debut. That oft repeated and practiced line
of dialogue subsequently became a catch-phrase
among the O'Leary siblings to label anything that
might be considered boring. From this modest
beginning, Miriam O'Leary became the leading
soubrette of the Museum company, and one of the
most popular actresses of the day.
During this period, Joe’s
artistic growth was remarkable. A critic at the time
observed: "When he came out of the West he
was crude and raw, but had an abundance of talent
which was only waiting to be developed." He
played second leads to Charles
Baron in Ruy Blas and Lester
Wallack in Rosedale; both would be
important plays for Joe in the future. Joe acted with great success in the beloved "Old
Comedies," as "Joseph Surface" in School
for Scandal and "Hastings" in She
Stoops to Conquer. At the Museum he shared
the stage once
more with Lawrence Barrett, and on numerous
occasions with the actor/author Dion
Boucicault. After nearly four years at the
Museum, Joe was offered the position of leading
man, but he decided it was time to move on.
At the end of his tenure, the theatre gave him a
benefit in which Charles Baron played
"Othello" to Joe’s "Iago".
Months later, that role established Joe as a
leading actor on the New York stage.