Title: Actress and singer
Death Date: August 21, 1876
Plot Location: Section 205
The following story was provided by Peter Schmitt, adjunct professor at Temple University where he teaches courses in Theater History, and creator of the podcast, “Adventures in Theater History: Philadelphia.”
On August 21, 1876, the theater community of Philadelphia was in mourning. The singer and actress Annie Kemp Bowler had suddenly died after a backstage accident during a performance of “The Black Crook” at the New National Theatre on 10th and Callowhill Streets.
Annie Kemp was born in Boston in 1836, one of eight children of Rufus and Maria Kemp. When her family relocated to New York, she had trained her voice for a career as a classical singer. She had her first success at a concert at the Brooklyn Athenaeum in October of 1855.
Soon she was well established as a talented and statuesque contralto singer, giving concerts all across America in the late 1850s. Joining Cooper’s English Opera Company, she played in such cities as Buffalo, Chicago, and New Orleans. During her travels in 1860 she fell in love with and married a fellow company member, the English tenor Brookhouse Bowler.
By early 1861 her career was doing splendidly. She and Brookhouse were both performing in the Rob Roy at the huge auditorium at Niblo’s Garden in New York. They also performed in other operas there, sharing the stage on alternate nights with the Philadelphia actor Edwin Forrest.
When the Civil War broke out the young couple, like many American musicians and actors of that era, feared that serious theatrical and concert work would mostly dry up during the conflict. They evidently thought it best to go to England until the fighting was over.
Much of the next two years for Annie and Brookhouse were spent touring the smaller cities of England with a troupe called the English Opera Company. It was perhaps not the glamorous life they had hoped for, but she made the best of it. Annie apparently had definite comedic talents. As her opera company toured the English provinces, she was often billed as the star of a farcical after-piece entitled The Yankee Gal.
In fact, the popular stage proved to have more lucrative employment for Annie than the world of serious opera. When she finally made her London debut in 1863 it was not in an opera, but rather in a commercial pantomime production.
By May of 1864 Annie was playing the Prince of Wales Theatre in Birmingham. Her role as a “mischief-making hostess” in The Golden Fleece was described by one reviewer as “becomingly pert, vain, and intriguing, and sang the music assigned [to] her with good voice and skill.” However, noted the critic, the audience “was not a very numerous one.”
The couple was eager to return to America after the war. In early 1866 Annie was cast as a magical character called “Stalacta.” The show was the very first production of The Black Crook, hailed by some scholars as perhaps the first true American musical.
The production caused a tremendous sensation when first mounted at Niblo’s Garden, even though it took about five hours to perform and its plot was convoluted. The piece was wildly successful, not the least because of the huge number of female dancers and singers on display in spectacular and revealing costumes, and all the magical stage effects.
As for Annie Kemp’s part, one writer summarized Stalacta’s contribution to the action of The Black Crook in this way: “[Amina’s fiance] Rodolphe, an impoverished artist, discovers a buried treasure and saves the life of a dove. The dove magically transforms into human form as Stalacta, Fairy Queen of the Golden Realm. She rewards Rodolphe for rescuing her by bringing him to fairyland and then reuniting him with his beloved Amina. Her army defeats the Count and his evil forces, demons drag Hertzog into hell, and Amina and Rodolphe live happily ever after.”
Evidently it was a very lucrative gig. Annie stayed with the show and played the entire run of 474 nights. In the eleven years after that initial success,The Black Crook would be re-staged by various producers in New York, Philadelphia and elsewhere. New songs, sets, and cast members were assembled for every production.
One ill-fated production of the show in Philadelphia suffered a terrible fire in June of 1867 at the American Theatre on Walnut Street. The building burned down, and over a dozen people were killed. Fortunately Annie Kemp was not there, having gone back to performing more serious artistic projects.
She joined Riching’s English Opera Troupe, touring across America with the company. In the late 1860s and early 1870s she often appeared in Philadelphia at the Academy of Music in such operas as Fra Diavolo and Il Trovatore.
In 1876, many grand theatrical productions were being planned for Philadelphia in hopes of catering to the expected crowds for the Centennial Exposition in Fairmount Park. One of these was a brand new production of The Black Crook at the New National Theatre. Annie Bowler was induced by the producers to reprise her role in the popular show, billing her in all advertisements as “the original Stalacta.” Once again she would descend from the heights of the stage, transforming from a dove into the beautiful Queen of the Golden Realm, as she had so many times before.
On the second night of performances, however, disaster struck as Annie prepared for Stalacta’s grand entrance. According to the Philadelphia Times: “In the transformation scene she became dizzy, lost her hold upon the supporting rod, and fell to the stage, a distance of fifteen feet, dislocating her shoulder blade and breaking her collar bone.”
Sadly the end was near for Annie Kemp Bowler. “She was removed to her boarding place and was doing nicely. Her speedy recovery was anticipated, when… she was suddenly taken with an affection [sic] of the heart and expired in five minutes.”
It was sad and shocking news. A few days later, the Times reported how the theatrical community of Philadelphia rallied to give her a fitting send-off:
“The entire company of ‘The Black Crook’ was present, and had made evident their grief for their departed cast mate…. As the pallbearers were carrying the remains out of the church Madame Salvotti sang ‘Rock of Ages’ and the New National Theatre orchestra (Professor C. Kaufman, leader) performed a solemn dirge.”
However, neither Mrs. Bowler nor her husband amassed much of a personal fortune during their careers. Who would pay for the expenses of the funeral, not to mention the burial? Fortunately, the charitable and fraternal organization known as the Actors’ Order of Friendship stepped in as it had done before for members of the theatrical profession who were in need.
The news story about Annie Kemp Bowler ended: “The remains were taken to Mount Moriah Cemetery, the grave being in the lot of the Actors’ Order of Friendship, the permit therefore being kindly granted by Mr. W.H. Turner, the secretary of the excellent Order.”
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