“One of the Saddest Spectacles I have Seen”

30 Mar

King Kelly made his New York stage debut at the Imperial Music Hall in January of 1893.

The Brooklyn Citizen said he was being paid $250 a week “to succumb to the fever of the theatrical stage.”

The New York Herald described the moment Kelly took the stage:

“He was hailed with cheers the instant he stepped before the footlights…It was the first time the Gotham baseball cranks had heard the former king of the right field sing, and they clapped their hands and stamped their feet in jubilation…His friends said that his first dip into the uncertain sea of theatrical life was a success.”

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A less generous syndicated review appeared in newspapers across the Midwest and West under the headline:

“King Kelly As A Star”

The article said:

“Kelly is a very handsome man and that particular has a very good stage presence.”

The “principal event” of Kelly’s performance was to recite Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat.”

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Ad for Kelly’s New York appearances 

His delivery of Thayer’s poem was not a hit with the nameless author of the piece:

“Kelly is probably as near to being king of the national game as any man, but he has thus far failed to solve theatrical curves.

“As an elocutionist Kelly undoubtedly fans the air as successfully as Casey did when he left no joy in Mudville by striking out.”

By the time Kelly took to the stage, Actor DeWolf Hopper had made “Casey” a well-known poem, having performed it throughout the country on vaudeville stages:

“When one has heard Hopper describe Casey’s unfortunate adventure, comparison between Hopper’s effort and that of Kelly naturally follows. Hopper’s performance is a work of art. One can almost see Casey as the comedian describes how he rubbed his hands with dust and wiped them on his baseball shirt preparatory to knocking out a 3-bagger. Kelly’s effort is without spirit, and the umpire says, ‘strike two’ as calmly as if there were several dozen left before Casey could possibly succeed in striking out.”

The writer allowed that Kelly was better in the portion of the show where he sang with his stage partner Billy Jerome.

A reporter for The New York World provided a more positive take:

“Kelly, the king of the ball-tossers, made a three-bagger. He hit one or two staccato notes so hard that he drove them through the skylights. The bleachers up in gallery shouted and howled until they grew red in the face. The cohorts down in the grandstand applauded. In the meantime, the umpire down in the orchestra waved his baton frantically and called Kelly safe. Mike was not a thing of beauty, but he made the hit of the season. Of course, Mike has not the voice of (Italian Tenor Francesco) Tamagno. Neither has Tamagno the make-up of Kelly.”

The World noted Kelly was “deluged” with floral arrangements from the likes of Tammany Hall boss and former Congressman “Honest” John Kelly and racetrack owner Phil Dwyer who sent “a sleigh of roses and carnations,” to former Giants owners John B. Day and Edward Talcott, who presented Kelly with “a floral wreath with ‘king’ in big letters woven around it,” to “Teddy Foley and the Bowery House Chowder Club,” who sent six “floral baseball bats.”

Kelly’s most scathing review came the week before he opened in New York; the “Boston Correspondent” for The Fall River Daily Herald, caught Kelly when he appeared at Boston’s Howard Athenaeum:

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Ad for Kelly’s Boston run

“One of the saddest spectacles I have seen for some time I beheld in a theater here one evening this week. M.J. Kelley, the $10,000 beauty, engaged in making a show of himself, trying to be an actor, inflicting the public with a sample of his vocal powers, was a sight calculated to make men weep. What on earth Kelly is doing on the stage I cannot see. What excuse he has for the act is beyond imagination. As a ballplayer he was a success, but as an actor is is as dismal a failure as it is possible to conceive…He stands up awkwardly as a manikin and moves with the grace of a wooden Indian”

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