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The Theatre: Black Majesty

2 minute read

Since Manhattan’s high-arched, vast-lobbied Empire Theatre threw open its doors “way uptown” 45 years ago, it has ever been the home of the theatre’s great est stars and entrepreneurs: Maude Adams, Ethel Barrymore, Katharine Cornell, Helen Hayes, Charles Frohman. Gilbert Miller. A fashionable theatre always, the Empire today is a patrician landmark.

For many a year, part of the Empire “atmosphere” has been a great strapping Negro with a broad smile and a big diamond-horseshoe stickpin. In the days before motor cars and electric callboards, big John Ryland boomed up waiting carriages through a megaphone. Retired long ago into the lobby, he became a busy, affable, impressive, handshaking figure, able — when in the mood — to reminisce about Manhattan’s First Families and stage celebrities alike:

. . . the roast chickens he used to bring to Maude Adams in her dressing room (“She would nibble a wing and I’d eat the rest”). The opening night of Maude Adams in The Little Minister (“There ain’t never been such applause anywhere or ever”). The Count de Castellane, who tipped him twelve cents for calling his carriage, and George Gould, who tipped him $5. The people he gave private bicycle lessons: Vanderbilts, Goulds, Ethel Barrymore, John Drew, Anne Morgan, Elsie de Wolfe. Imploring Charles Froh man not to sail on the Lusitania (“Mr. Frohman went down into the sea, and somethin’ went out of the Empire that ain’t never been replaced”). Vernon Castle, who sent him a ring from France during the War. Theatre Man Al Hayman, who gave him his diamond stickpin, left him a $1,000 mink-lined coat, silk under wear, $25 shirts.

Recently John Ryland, age unknown, developed bad heart trouble. But he would not stay away from the Empire. Fort night ago, having worked as usual, he went home, died in his sleep.

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