Once Upon a Time

Quincy playwright's fame burned brightly, then faded

This program is from a performance of “In Old Kentucky” by Charles Dazey, who also directed the play in Quincy in 1933. | Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County
By JOHN HALLWAS
Posted: Jun. 23, 2019 12:01 am

One now-forgotten Illinois playwright who had a remarkable achievement is Charles T. Dazey of Quincy, who wrote the widely performed play "In Old Kentucky," as well as many others.

He was born in Lima, a village between Quincy and Warsaw, on Aug. 23, 1855. His father, Mitchell Dazey, had come there in 1830 as a small child with the playwright's grandfather, Ishmael Dazey. The Dazeys were farmers from Bourbon County, Ky., and their sense of relationship to that state, where they had relatives, affected young Charles.

He grew up near Lima Lake, which was drained at the turn of the century. As he later recalled, "Within two miles of my early home there was once a fine lake, six miles long and three miles wide," and "its bays and sloughs ... teemed with fish." Also, he remembered that "Canada geese and brant [small dark geese with stubby bills] were so plentiful" that the lake attracted many hunters every spring and fall. Ultimately, the vanishing of that lake brought decline to the hamlet he had known and loved.

Dazey attended high school in Quincy, and during that time he saw noted actor Frank Mayo in a play titled "Davy Crockett." He was so impressed that he entertained the hope of becoming a playwright.

Afterward, in 1872, he went to Lexington, Ky., where he attended the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Kentucky University for one year. Then he switched to the College of Art, where he eventually graduated in 1877.

Later, he attended Harvard University, where his chief study was drama. As a sophomore there, he wrote a two-act comedy called "Rustication" in 1879, which was first performed at Harvard and then produced professionally in Boston. He also edited the Harvard Advocate, and during the year he graduated, 1881, he was chosen as class poet.

At his father's urging, Dazey studied law at Columbia University for a time, but he soon left school to develop his playwriting career. His first success came in 1884, when he sold a play called "An American King" to actor James O'Neill -- the father of playwright Eugene O'Neill. That play had a long tour on the road. Dazey also wrote other plays in the 1880s, such as "For a Brother's Life" in 1885, a drama of the Civil War that was performed in New York.

He made enough money to marry actress Lucy Harding, who was from Quincy, in 1887, and they bought a large ranch in North Dakota. But Dazey's financial situation soon declined. He invested heavily in wheat, and when prices fell, he lost his ranch. They then moved to Kansas, where he invested in real estate and also lost money. By 1890 Dazey, his wife, and their son were living with friends on an isolated Kansas farm.

He was still writing, though. At that time, plays were commonly written for famous actors, and so he wrote "The Little Maverick" for Maggie Mitchell. Fortunately, she liked the play and performed it, bringing some much-needed income to the Dazeys.

Much later, Dazey recalled the writing of "In Old Kentucky," which he crafted as an American version of "the Cinderella legend:" "I brought into sharp contrast two very opposite types -- one, a young Kentuckian, a veritable Prince Charming, born and bred in the Bluegrass region, and the other a little mountain lass, uncultured, ignorant, of low birth, but sweet, true, and womanly."

He also chose a Kentucky horse race, "the Ashland Oaks," as his main incident -- during which the heroine, disguised as a jockey, rides the thoroughbred of her beau, wealthy Frank Layson, to the winner's circle and thereby achieves her hope of marrying him with local approval.

Dazey's play was a huge success. "In Old Kentucky" was first produced in St. Paul, Minn., during 1892 and by 1894, it was a hit in New York. It was performed in many cities during the next 26 years, becoming one of the nation's most popular plays of that era. In all, more than 30 million people saw the play, in America and other countries, and such noted actors as Lionel Barrymore, Katharine Hepburn and Gary Cooper appeared in it.

"In Old Kentucky" also became the basis for a novel written by Dazey in collaboration with Edward Marshall. And beyond that, the play was filmed three times. The first two screen adaptations, in 1919 and 1927, were successful silent films. A "talkie," or sound film of the play, was made in 1935, starring Will Rogers in his final role.

Because "In Old Kentucky" had made Dazey both famous and wealthy, he kept on writing plays, such as "The War of Wealth" in 1896, "The Tarrytown Widow" in 1898, "The Suburban" in 1903, "Home Folks" in 1905, "The American Lord" in 1906, "The Girl from Texas" in 1908 and "The Stranger" in 1911.

In 1912, Dazey returned to Quincy, where he and his wife lived in an old brick home on the corner of 24th and Spring streets, and he continued to write. Among other things, he wrote screenplays such as "Modern Madness" in 1916 for Douglas Fairbanks, "Wolf Lowry" in 1917 for William S. Hart and "Shifting Sands" in 1918 for Gloria Swanson. Late in his life, he also directed a production of "In Old Kentucky" at the Adams County Fair racetrack.

Despite his great success, Dazey's fame was starting to fade by the time he died on Feb. 9, 1938. And since none of his plays was revived after his death, the once-noted playwright and screenwriter became obscure. Nevertheless, he was a talented figure of his era, who had a national impact. Quincy theater advocates might ponder doing a contemporary adaptation of a Dazey play.

 

John Hallwas of Macomb is the author or editor of 30 books related to Illinois history and literature, as well as hundreds of journal, magazine and newspaper articles. He also speaks widely on a variety of Illinois topics and has written history-based plays. He can be reached through his website: johnhallwas.jimdo.com.

 

Sources:

"Charles T. Dazey, ‘In Old Kentucky' Author, is Dead," Quincy Herald-Whig, Feb. 9, 1938.

Hallwas, John, "Career of Playwright Charles T. Dazey," Macomb Daily Journal, Oct. 23, 1983, p. 5.

Landrum, Carl, "Charles Dazey's ‘In Old Kentucky," One of America's Great Plays," Quincy Herald-Whig, May 19, 1985, p. 4E.

Hallwas, John, "Illinois Playwright Charles T. Dazey," Illinois Heritage, May-June, 2018, pp. 9-10.