Today (May 7) marks the 98th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania by a German U-boat off the eastern coast of Ireland. Of the 1,959 passengers onboard 1,195 died. Among those who lost their lives were Charles Klein and Charles Frohman. Klein, an Anglo-American playwright, was famous for his melodramas of contemporary American life, including The Auctioneer (1901), The Music Master (1904), and The Lion and the Mouse (1905). He also wrote the libretto for John Philip Sousa’s operetta El Capitan (1896). At the time of his death, Klein was among the most popular and successful playwrights on the American stage, supported largely by his association with the infamous Theatrical Syndicate. Klein was traveling with his close friend and producer, Charles Frohman. Frohman, of course, was one of the founders of the Syndicate back in 1896 and through this organization held a monopoly on American commercial theatre. Frohman was one of America’s greatest theatrical producers and directly responsible for rebuilding the star system on Broadway. He introduced some of America’s most famous performers to the stage including William Gillette, Maude Adams, John Drew, Jr., Ethel Barrymore, along with playwrights Clyde Fitch and Bronson Howard. In many ways, Frohman’s work ushered in the business model for the infamous Hollywood studio system that would soon overwhelm the live stage as America’s premiere entertainment form. Among his most famous productions were Howard’s Shenandoah (1889), the New York premiere of The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) and, of course, J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (1904).
At the time of his death, Frohman was beginning his annual European tour to oversee his London and Paris “play markets.” Crippled by severe arthritis as the result of a fall a few years earlier, Frohman was unable to jump to safety. Instead, he stayed on board and according to the French actress and silent film star, Rita Jolivet (one of the few survivors), he uttered a paraphrasing from his most successful production, Peter Pan: “Why fear death? It is the most beautiful adventure that life gives us.” Within a year of Frohman’s death, the Syndicate would be overtaken by an organization of brothers known as the Shuberts. By the mid-1920s, the film industry (and its studio system) was draining Broadway of its stars and dominating the live stage. A curious side note: Songwriter Jerome Kern was scheduled to sail with Frohman but overslept after a night of serious partying (imagine American theatre without Show Boat, or “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “The Last Time I Saw Paris.”). Of course, imagine what American theatre might have been had the others not died.