By Jill Passmore, Visitor Experience Co-ordinator
Originally, I intended this blog post to be about the life of Thomas Eben Blake Henry, the next in the planned series about Thomas Henry’s grandchildren. Initial research online confirmed all of the things we already knew from old family group sheets in the Oshawa Museum archival collection, coincidentally prepared by Ina Henry, T.E.B.’s first cousin and third wife. Further research specifically conducted on newspapers.com opened my eyes to a life that could never have been conveyed in census records and other information on Ancestry.com.
We knew that T.E.B. had been an actor based on the 1901 Census. He is listed as living at the family homestead in Darlington (today Clarington) with his parents, George and Polly, wife Mabel and daughter Lola. So presumably, he would be acting locally. But where? How do we find records from local theatres – there aren’t any in the OM collection? How do you identify actors in photos when most are in costume and makeup?
Knowing that T.E.B. ended up living in California near a number of other Henry cousins, I started a search on the newspapers.com, a large newspaper database, instead of communitydigitalarchives.com, which hosts our newspaper collection and a small number of other Ontario archival collections. Now, another problem cropped up. Under what name do I search? Fully, Thomas Eben Blake Henry is a unique name; but, without anecdotal evidence of a nickname or shortened name, researchers are usually at a loss and must come to the sad realization that you will have to explore every option of someone’s name – depending on how bad you want the information.
I did a lot of this research at home, during my out-of-office days, during this time of COVID-19. With internet connections not being good at the best of times, dialing in to access our work computers can be a bit of a nightmare. Remember the old dial-up days of the internet, with lagging conversations, getting frustrated and hitting buttons ten times only to have everything catch up and go crazy on your screen? It’s like that sometimes. So when I hit the jackpot with my T.E.B. research, I don’t remember exactly what it was that I had in my search options besides T.E.B. Henry. Like most discoveries though, I came about it somewhat accidentally. What I learned led me down a rabbit hole I wasn’t expecting.
The Atlanta Constitution wrote on June 27, 1910, “T.E.B. Henry has written a very promising play…will make good in stock or in the high-priced houses.” Set to open at the Bijou Theater in Knoxville, Tennessee in early September 1910, reviews poured in throughout major Tennessee newspapers.
“No expense spared for the elaborate scenic equipment,” “equal in this respect to any Broadway production,” and “the dialogue is crisp, pointed and direct in its natural simplicity,” claimed the Knoxville Sentinel.
The Chattanooga Daily Times said, “strong, vital play, full of realism, action and gripping situations,” and “it is said that every heart full of a deep purpose and desire will find a note of sympathy wrung from it by the direct personal appeal of the drama.” Meanwhile, the Chattanooga News wrote, “devoid of all lurid, clap-trap sensationalism…deep, absorbing heart interest and intense dramatic strength,” and “story is told vividly, directly and forcibly, carrying the audience through every scene with such realism as to make the pictures a living memory to all who see them.” Later, they also said, “the story is one in which pathos and humor are properly blended,” and “the scenery and effects have been especially prepared by Scenic Artist Charles DeFlesh, who declares that it is one of the best with which his name has ever been linked.”
The Bijou was hoping to draw in more people to see the play, having it open during the 1910 Appalachian Exposition, which ran from September 12 – October 12. The Exposition demonstrated progress in Southern industry and commerce and promoted conservation of natural resources. Former President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, spoke at the Exposition, though it is unknown if he saw a performance of T.E.B’s The Great Desire.
A preview of the play attracted 3000 people on Monday, September 5, 1910. The play takes place in the Selkirk Mountains and “is symbolic of the eventual supremacy of the innate good or mankind over the lower and baser elements of its nature, attained through the intervention of a good man.” The Great Desire and its characters is actually based on T.E.B’s time spent in the Rocky Mountains at a mining camp sometime in the late 1880s or early 1890s. A synopsis provided by The Chattanooga News follows:
Roger McLeod, a frontier parson, a very similar parsonage to Ralph Conner’s creation, “The Sky Pilot,” visits an obscure hamlet in the Selkirk mountains in behalf of the propagation of Christianity. While engaged in his duties he falls in love with Lorraine LaRue, the daughter of Barton LaRue, over whom considerable mystery hangs, and who because of his silence upon [t]he subject enjoys the sobriquet of “Silent Barton.” The parson in the pursuit of his love-making incurs the wrath of Dan Boreland, a frontier suitor of Lorraine’s, and forces him before the latter’s eye to retract a statement he made in disparagement of Lorraine’s crippled sister Nellie.
After Boreland’s true character is shown, Lorraine repudiates him, and the interest in the plot is centered upon the outcome of a three-handed love affair between the parson and the two sisters, both of whom wish to renounce him for the other. In the last scene the crippled sister is killed by her own father in a wild frenzy occasioned by fear and superstition caused by the howling of a wolf before the door.
Upon her deathbed the girl unites the hearts of the parson and her sister, and her father and her mother. The latter had long existed in the woods as a witch, though supposed to be dead by LaRue, he having struck her in a fit similar to the one in which he killed his daughter.
An ad from the (Louisville, KY) Courier-Journal on September 18, 1910 described the play as “a thrilling tale of life in the northwest.” Evening performances cost – 15¢, 25¢, 50¢, and 75¢, while matinees on Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday were 25¢.
It’s unknown at this time if the play toured and was shown at any other theatres.