- Anthony R. Haigh
Drake, Samuel (15 November 1768–16 October 1854), actor, theatrical manager, and pioneer of professional theater in the West, was born in England of unknown parentage. Very little is known of his early life. It is said that he was born Samuel Drake Bryant but later adopted Drake as a stage name. He was apprenticed as a printer but broke his apprenticeship and joined an acting troupe. He became a manager of a small provincial theater in the west of England and married Alexina Fisher (date unknown), sister of the manager of the theater in Exeter. They had five children and, in the tradition of great English stage families, founded a theatrical dynasty. Martha Drake, their eldest child, was an actress who married a Frankfort, Kentucky, businessman and returned to England. Samuel Drake, Jr., was a talented musician but an average actor. Alexander Drake, who suffered from deafness but was an excellent singer and low-comedy actor, married the celebrated actress Frances Ann Denny ( Frances Ann Denny Drake), the “Siddons of the West.” Julia Drake was known as a great beauty and natural actress who specialized in high comedy and whose daughter, Julia Dean, was one of the best known actresses of her generation. James Dean, Samuel’s youngest son, was perhaps best known as a singer during his performing days.
Samuel Drake came to the United States with his talented family in 1809 and was engaged by the theater manager John Bernard to act and stage manage for the Federal Street Theatre in Boston. At that time, before the advent of directors, the stage manager was responsible for everything that happened on stage. Drake and his wife performed for three seasons in Boston before accompanying Bernard to Albany, New York, in 1813. There Drake again combined stage management with acting, playing roles such as Lear and Julius Caesar. In 1814 Drake’s wife died, and Bernard announced his plans for retirement. Drake’s future looked uncertain until, in the fall of that year, he met the actor Noble Luke Usher. Usher had come to Albany to find a stage manager for a proposed professional theater company in Kentucky, at that time the frontier of the “Western wilderness” (Ludlow, p. 5). For several years Usher’s father, Luke Usher, a Kentucky merchant with interests in the umbrella business, innkeeping, and the theater, had been trying to persuade John Bernard to establish a company in Kentucky. Usher’s son Noble was an actor who had worked for Bernard in 1806 and had toured the United States and Canada. The Ushers had established theaters in Lexington, Louisville, and Frankfort.
Drake promised the younger Usher that he would recruit a company and set off for Kentucky in the spring of 1815. When Usher died on the return journey, his father offered Drake the management of the company and encouraged him to stick to the original timetable. The Drake company arrived in Kentucky in December 1815.
The principal record of their trip westward is provided by Noah Ludlow, one of the actors in Drake’s company. His account of their journey forms part of his invaluable but often inaccurate autobiography published in 1880. Along with Ludlow in this initial acting troupe were Mr. and Mrs. Lewis, Frances Ann Denny, and Joe Tracy, all of whom also took on some extra administrative or technical role: Ludlow acted as advance agent, Mr. Lewis was the general manager of the company, and Tracy was the stage carpenter. The rest of the company was made up of the Drake children, who ranged in ages from thirteen to twenty. Given the primitive state of transport and the wildness of the country, it is unlikely that any other theater company in the annals of the American stage can have undertaken so hazardous or intrepid a journey.
They left Albany in May 1815 on foot, with their scenery, costumes, and baggage loaded onto a cart. They carried six scenes: a wood, a street, a parlor, a kitchen, a palace, and a garden. They also hauled with them a stage floor, made up of green baize cloth, and a portable proscenium arch that could fit into almost any space. The whole thing, with scenery and painted backdrops, could be put up and taken down in two or three hours. Usher’s job was to go ahead of this motley crew and arrange performances along the way. These performances paid for their trip. Their first such performance was in the courthouse of the small town of Cherry Valley, New York, where they presented two farces, The Prize and The Purse, followed the next night by the debut of eighteen-year-old Frances Ann Denny in the leading role of Julia in The Midnight Hour. Thus they continued from town to town, playing as they went. At Cooperstown, Ludlow notes that James Fenimore Cooper was in the audience to “encourage our pioneer efforts in the cause of Drama” (p. 9).
Drake’s company had serious confrontations with Native Americans, wolves, and indignant locals on their journey. When they arrived at Olean, New York, Drake traded in his wagon for a flat-bottomed boat, and the group embarked on a hazardous 200-mile trip down the Allegheny River to Pittsburgh. They arrived in Pittsburgh in August and were joined by five other actors. They presented a season of plays there in an old converted building, inappropriately named the New Theatre. Their repertoire included The Honeymoon, The Castle Specter, Speed the Plough, No Song, No Supper, and Pizarro. Mr. Williams, one of the newcomers, was determined to do this latter piece so that he could play the part of Rolla. Drake had to paint new scenery, and Williams had to recruit a number of extras to play “temple virgins.” The entrance of this group brought the play to a halt as the audience and actors, in fits of laughter, watched two beautiful young ladies followed by one elderly woman, one child, the theater’s cleaning woman, and the prop man in drag, come on stage in long white dresses to the sound of slow, dramatic music.
In mid-November the group set off on the second leg of their adventure: a 400-mile journey down the Ohio River in a flat-bottomed boat. They landed in Kentucky at Limestone (now Maysville) some sixty miles upriver from Cincinnati. The rest of the trip, to the state’s capital city of Frankfort, was made by wagon. Regular professional theater on the frontier could be said to have started on 4 December 1815, when Drake’s company, augmented by several local actors, performed The Mountaineers, or Love and Madness in the Frankfort Theatre. The company’s repertoire had been perfected “on the road,” so that by the time they arrived in Kentucky they had an extensive list of plays from which to choose.
In February 1816 Drake moved on to Louisville, having hired John Vos to renovate the theater there. These frontier theaters were often little more than barns or warehouses, but Drake wanted to convert them into playhouses that “were little inferior to those in the eastern states” (Western Courier, 15 June 1815). Louisville was growing fast as the industrial center of the state, and Drake made it his theatrical home. From there he established the Louisville-Lexington-Frankfort theater circuit that was the basis of his success.
Once this circuit was established, Drake encouraged his younger actors to set off on their own to play in some of the smaller towns in Kentucky and beyond. Several of them consequently went on to become actor-managers in their own right. Drake also tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to establish touring circuits in St. Louis, Vincennes, and Cincinnati. In 1823 he handed over management of his Kentucky theater empire to his son Alexander and daughter-in-law Frances Ann Denny Drake. Samuel Drake retired to his farm in rural Oldham County, where he died.
Drake’s company was prolific and provided its audience with a constant diet of new productions. During one season in Louisville the company performed twenty-four different plays in twelve days. They generally performed two plays a night, often with musical entertainment between shows. Ludlow complained of the sheer volume of work required of actors in those days; he felt that actors who had to study new plays daily had little chance of understanding their roles (p. 73). Drake, himself an accomplished actor, musician, and fencer, had his company specialize in farce and sentimental comedy, where “moral tendency is emulated, and where instruction is blended with innocent amusement” (Western Courier, 28 Feb. 1816). In this way he established the theater as a respectable form of entertainment and frequently performed benefits for hospitals, churches, and charities.
Although it might be overstating the case (as Ludlow often did) to say that Drake was the first to bring professional theater to the West, Drake’s vision of refurbished theaters that played an active role in the community, where one could see plays suitable for ladies and gentlemen of taste, with visually stimulating scenery and quality actors, formed the basis for the first really successful theatrical enterprise in the West.
The most thorough and detailed account of Drake’s life and work to date is West T. Hill, Jr., The Theatre in Early Kentucky: 1790–1820 (1971). The most entertaining account is Noah M. Ludlow, Dramatic Life as I Found It (1880), which was reprinted in 1966 with an introduction by Francis Hodge. The reader must be careful with Ludlow’s account; as he looks back on events that happened sixty-five years previously his memory is somewhat flawed and his own importance somewhat inflated. Other works of note are Mable Tyree Crum’s two-volume dissertation for the University of Kentucky, The History of the Lexington Theatre from the Beginning to 1860 (1956), George D. Ford, These Were Actors: A Story of the Chapmans and Drakes (1955), and Barnard Hewitt, Theatre U.S.A.: 1665–1957 (1959).