Who was Mae Desmond?

This portrait of Mae Desmond is from the New York Public LIbrary's Theatre Collection

This portrait of Mae Desmond is from the New York Public LIbrary’s Theatre Collection

These program notes were written by Dr. Mari Kathleen Fielder, granddaughter of Mae Desmond, for a February 2012 workshop of Leading Lady at the Ira Brind School of Theater Arts at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

Winkleman’s, an upscale shoe salon on the then-tony Chestnut Street, named a shoe after her: the “Mae-Belle.” The 1921 advertisement read: “Selected by the charming Miss Desmond [for its] spirit of beauty, style and youth.”

Certainly today we have perfumes and fashion collections, jewelry and even particular hairdos emanating from Hollywood stars. We show our respect to our local actors and actresses in a different way, however. We focus on their art and show our appreciation by steadily patronizing their performances. We do not name sportswear or fragrances – – or shoes – – after them. Why? This question sparked my ten years of research into the Philadelphia theatrical career of my grandmother, Mae Desmond.

Between 1919 and the early 1930’s, Mae Desmond ascended to become the city’s paramount local actress and, as such, local celebrity. Born Mary Veronica Callahan in 1887, she grew up in an Irish-Catholic household in the South Philadelphia enclave of Southwark (that area just below South Street on the east side of Broad Street). Mary was the third child in a family of, eventually, eleven children, nine of whom survived childhood. The Irish moved, upward and outward, out of Southwark to more prosperous neighborhoods, replaced by fresh-off-the-boat Italians and Jews as well as an expanding African-American populace. It was considered a bit shameful that the Callahans remained, still living in a two-room alley house without indoor plumbing. Mary’s father Michael Callahan, a survivor of Ireland’s Great Famine, had been a hedge teacher in rural County Cork, Ireland. In essence, hedge teaching – – named for the necessary lookout behind the hedges – – was an informal education system developed to defy British laws forbidding the education of the native Irish. Callahan could not be a teacher in America, however, since he possessed no formal certificate. Instead, he opened a book stall. It was not a lucrative occupation but it suited Michael Callahan’s rural Irish values, dedicated as he was to reading and imagining rather than accumulating possessions.

This did not sit so well with his American children, particularly the exceptionally pretty and ambitious Mary. After trying employment in the cigar factories of South Philadelphia, the teenaged Mary committed herself to a better material life for herself – – and for her entire family. She was a good storyteller and orator, skills instilled by her father. The acting profession seemed a good bet to Mary, who knew nothing of its competitiveness. She began to pick up day work as an extra at Philadelphia’s theatres. She so often got chosen at the Chestnut Street Opera House that she began to learn the lines of the plays offered there, hoping for a chance to go on stage in the place of an indisposed actress. It finally happened – – and within a year Mary Callahan was hired as the company’s resident ingénue. Only her name stood in the way. Irishness worked when it was romantic, conjuring images of ruined castles or lost rebellions, not when it suggested an awkward domestic servant – – or a Philadelphia Catholic schoolgirl. And, so, Mary Callahan was renamed by the management. She was, henceforth, Mae Desmond.

Frank Fielder was the juvenile – – the male young romantic lead – – of the Chestnut Street Opera House Stock Company. Unlike Mae, Frank had dreamed of performing on stage for as long as he could remember. He had taught himself to sing and to play the cello. He had written song lyrics and skits. His English father had died at an early age, leaving his Irish mother Maggie Casey two small children to care for solo. Despite her roots in the Gaeltacht (the Irish Gaelic-speaking area of western Ireland), Maggie desired American assimilation. She opened a boarding house near the Vine Street entertainment district and, among her varied American clientele often were its actors. From them, young Frank Fielder learned how to make one’s way into the bright lights of the theatre world.

At the Chestnut Street Opera House, Mae and Frank quickly fell in love. Their first child arrived in 1910 and with him a dilemma: how to be parents and actors? They coveted what all actors coveted: their names lit up on Broadway. That meant leaving home and families. Another problem was the incredible time and devotion demanded by the stock company realm. The typical stock company produced roughly thirty-six plays per theatrical season, a new one each week from September through May. Some stock actors worked a summer season – – “summer stock” – – to boot, another ten weeks between June and August, often in a resort locale. Mae and Frank compromised by securing the leads at a New York area stock company, Brooklyn’s Gotham Players. This was a typical stepping stone: from hinterland stock to urban stock, from urban stock (and foremost there, New York urban stock) to Broadway. Frank’s mother was brought into their nuclear family to care for the children, especially as a second son joined them in 1912.

The plan seemed to work like the proverbial charm, at least partially. Mae was “discovered” by New York producers who offered her a touring vehicle, Edward Everett Rose’s The Daughter of Mother Machree. Frank would be Mae’s manager. The play rode on the coat tails of the smash 1912 hit Peg O’ My Heart, featuring a spunky Irish-American innocent who travels abroad to be groomed into a lady by long-lost Anglo relatives. Ultimately, Peg brings much more to them – – common sense, family values, honesty, love – – than they give her. Peg would hold the record as Broadway’s longest run for a decade and made a star of its Bronx stock company leading actress, Laurette Taylor. Mae’s tour, however, caused stress all around, garnering only mediocre reviews and creating a boat load of personal problems. The tour convinced Mae and Frank that the New York scene was no match for their own values and priorities.

Back to the stock company realm they fled, this time with enlightened appreciation and a revised plan. This time the company would be their own. New York public relations ideas, especially about image, would be tweaked to their advantage. Starting in smaller markets, they would build a reputation for giving a New York quality product at a lower stock company price and, most importantly, their audiences would get in the bargain a star all their own: Mae Desmond. If all went well, they planned to climb up the stock company markets, from hinterland to small city, eventually back home to that closest-to-the-top urban market, Philadelphia. They chose to eschew the very top New York market in favor of the city they understood, and loved. New York had taught them that: they were a different breed. First and foremost, they were Philadelphians.

Their plan came to fruition. First in Elmira and Schenectady. Then back in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood. The next stint, in the city’s centrally-located Metropolitan Opera House, was their grandest. The Mae Desmond Players garnered a growing reputation as Mae herself gathered a heightening celebrity. She struck just the right chord within the city’s enormous Catholic streetcar suburban population. In Mae Desmond, they found a model of social climb of which they approved. In a city known for its seemingly snobbish Quaker remove, she was all-embracing. Whereas the rich seemed selfishly elitist, she was family-oriented. While material wealth usually appeared “showoffy,” Mae made it beautiful, graceful and natural. Mae gave lectures to her audiences (directed more often than not to the girls) on subjects such as motherhood, juvenile crime and even birth control. She posed for photos with members of her female fan clubs who brought her countless offerings of flowers and chocolates. She distributed photos of herself with her husband and children. All this woman-next-door intimacy – – while she rode in a lavender Rolls Royce sporting fresh flowers between velvet-tasseled window curtains.

For a generation, Mae Desmond embodied the optimistic surety that the hard-working life in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods opened to a wider, richer world. She proved you could leave home and rise, and yet remain home at the same time. For a time, nothing seemed finer, especially to the young women of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, than to walk in Mae Desmond’s shoes.

12 thoughts on “Who was Mae Desmond?

  1. Mary Lee Gibson

    My deceased uncle, Henry Gibson, was a Mae Desmond player when he was young. It inspired him to later be on Rowan and Martins “Laugh In” and several movies. I am writing a book on my mother’s life and remembered her mentioning Mae Desmond so I Googled her. She was a remarkable woman…I really enjoyed your notes about her.

  2. admin Post author

    Dear Mary, Thanks for your comment! I remember Henry Gibson from Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, which I enjoyed immensely during my ill-spent youth. Good luck with your book!

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  4. Sean Green

    I appreciate this post Charlie. This, along with reading my grandfather John’s journals (Mae’s second son), from the early 1930’s, helps to shed light on how fortunate I am to come from such a unique background. This post makes me feel immensely proud. I am forever greatful that you helped my mother put the play/workshop about Mae Desmond together.

  5. admin Post author

    Dear Sean, Thanks so much for your comment! I hope you haven’t heard the last of Leading Lady or a musical about Mae Desmond. Seth and I have been giving it a rest while we turn our attention to other projects (not to mention our personal lives), but I think we both want to return to it in the future. I’d love to know more about your grandfather’s journals. With best wishes, Charlie

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  8. Tom Miller

    Thanks very much for this post. When I was a child I remember seeing Dr Fielder’s grandmother, and the Mae Desmond Children’s Theater, present “Kit Carson and the Indians” to an audience of delighted children. This was sometime in the early 1950s. I’ve carried fond memories of that experience all through the years.

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  11. Emily Pritchard Cary

    During the 1940s, I studied with Mae Desmond and Frank Fielder and appeared frequently in her plays broadcast over a Philadelphia radio station. One role I recall was St. Theresa, Little Flower. I believe that one of the Fielder sons played the role of a priest. He also played opposite me in several other radio shows. As a shy child, the lessons I learned there enabled me to stretch my wings. The voices coming from the open window of the school caught my attention on afternoon as my parents and I were leaving Stouffers restaurant across the street. When their attention was drawn to nearby window displays, I took the opportunity to dash across Chestnut street and up to the school on the second floor. As I recall, access was via an old elevator – or was that in the radio station? Currently, I am writing a memoir about growing up in Philadelphia during WWII and am thrilled to discover that there may be a project about Mae Desmond underway.

  12. Emily Pritchard Cary

    If anyone remembers the call letters and address of the radio station where the Mae Desmond Players performed, I would appreciate knowing. I recall that we walked over to Market Street, or perhaps the one north of it for the shows. It was quite an old building and no doubt has been demolished by now.

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