Charles Melton Walcot Jr., Class of 1857
Silent Film Actor
Founder, Fordham Theater
"Father of Fordham Dramatics"
Anyone who has ever strutted and fretted an hour up a Fordham stage, or has rigged a light high up in the flyspace of Collins Auditorium or the Leonard Theatre, or has merely lent an ear to Rose Hill’s players — Prep or university, men and women alike — has been part of the legacy of one or both of two Fordham legends: Walcot and Leonard.
Hall of Honor inductee and longtime Prep teacher, Fr. John “Jack” Leonard, SJ, moderated Prep and university dramatics for an astounding six decades. The undisputed “Patriarch of Fordham Theater,” he was a driving force in sustaining Fordham theater through most of the 20th century.
Walcot, on the other hand, Class of 1857, predated Leonard’s arrival at Fordham by nearly a century. As a third-year Second Division student (in other words, more or less a Prep junior), he would accomplish a feat of singular historic significance that has earned him the title Father of Fordham Dramatics. On the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1855, Charles Melton Walcot Jr. produced, managed, acted and sang in the very first Rose Hill theatrical production. The rest, as they say, is history.
Charles Melton Walcot Jr., was born in Boston on July 1, 1840 to English-born Charles Melton Walcot Sr. and Anne Powell Walcot. The elder Charles had been educated at Eton and trained as an architect; Anne Powell was an actress on the English stage. After their marriage, Charles, Sr. would leave architecture behind and begin a career in dramatics. Immigrating in the 1830s, the Walcots quickly established themselves on the American theater scene. Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, Charles, Sr. would grow in notoriety, not only as a stage actor, but as a writer of comedies and farces as well.
While his father was achieving wide success on stages up and down the East Coast, Charles, Jr., was boarding at St. John’s College in Fordham, New York. He began his Rose Hill career in what was called Second Division — the school known today as Fordham Prep. Little is known of Walcot’s time at Rose Hill — at least until 1855. That year, Rev. Remigius Tellier, SJ, rector, or president of St. John’s, exhorted the student body to provide the academic community with dramatic entertainments — theater and drama, of course, had long been a staple of the Jesuit educational tradition.
The actors’ son would answer the call, and founded the St. John’s Dramatic Society, today known as the Mimes and Mummers, the oldest club on campus.
The first production opened on December 8, 1855, with Walcot playing Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV. A second play was also offered, a Victorian piece called The Seven Clerks, or Three Thieves and the Denouncer, with Walcot in the role of Hans Hoogfitd. Between the pieces, he even regaled the audience with dance and a comic song — typically vaudevillian as was the style of the day.
Charles Melton Walcot is also credited as stage manager for that first production, as well as its technical director — he had organized a group of boys to form Fordham’s first stage crew and together they createed all the sets and scenery. Encouraging their son’s fledgling enterprise, Mr. and Mrs. Walcot donated a drop curtain, painted specially for the St. John's Dramatic Society. Construction of an actual campus theater was decades away, and so the scene for this historical bit of dramaturgy was a removable wooden platform assembled at the end of the Study Hall.
From Walcot’s spectacle would spring the storied history of Fordham theater, for both the Prep and the university. From 1855 through the remainder of Charles’ Rose Hill years until the 1913 creation of a district Prep Dramatic Society, Second Divisioners, or Prep boys, were included in the casts and crews of all the troupe’s productions.
Surprising no one, Charles Walcott followed in his parents’ footsteps after his time at St. John’s College. His first professional role occurred on stage in Charleston, where he played Montano in Othello. He would have additional engagements in Cincinnati, Ohio and Richmond, Virginia.
By 1861 he was a regularly featured character actor at the Winter Garden Theater in New York City. Within a few short years of his Fordham graduation, the younger Walcot was a leading man of the New York stage. He worked with some of the finest actors and actresses of the time, including Irishman Barry Sullivan, the eminent American comedian and actor Joe Jefferson, J.H. Stoddard, Charlotte Cushman and light comedian Edwin Adams.
In 1863 Charles married a fellow thespian, Isabella Nickinson, who was born in New York City in 1847 and had begun her stage career at age 8. Like Charles, Isabella had come from a theatrical family — her father, John Nickinson, was a noted comedian of the day. Shortly after their wedding, they both appeared at the Winter Garden in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Charles played Octavius Caesar, and Isabella took the role of Calpurnia. Among their castmates were Edwin Booth, who played Brutus, and his later-infamous brother, John Wilkes Booth, in the part of Mark Antony.
In 1867, the Winter Garden was destroyed by a fire, and the Walcots moved to Philadelphia, where both were lead players at the Walnut Street Theater. After a time in Philadelphia, they joined the theater company founded by Daniel Frohmans and would appear in productions at the Old Lyceum Theatre on Fourth Avenue in Manhattan until 1899. Throughout their careers, the Walcots almost always appeared together.
A journalist interviewed Walcot for the San Francisco Chronicle on July 20, 1902 and described him as "tall and stalwart, and with a gentle thatch of white hair and the rosy and accentuated cleanliness of the traditional English gentleman." The reporter asked him what it had been like to act with the great Edwin Booth, and Walcot provided a snapshot of life in the theater at that time:
Yes; Booth was much with us at the Walnut Street Theater. A noble player…I would play Iago to his Othello one night; the next Othello to his Iago. Or in Julius Caesar we would change about. In turn playing one night Cassius, the next Brutus, the next Marc Antony. Oh, an actor had to have a repertoire in those days! Think, we would give in one week during a Booth starring engagement six tragedies, putting them on with one rehearsal apiece. Of course, the actor would know pretty much what was expected of him.
Isabella suffered a stroke at their home in Rhinebeck, New York and died three months later on June 2, 1906, at their Manhattan residence, 200 West 101st Street. According to her New York Times obituary, "Mrs. Walcot was for forty years a familiar and loved figure on the stage."
Late in his career, Walcot dabbled in the emerging genre of silent film, exploring moving pictures as a medium for his craft. His notable film credit: Professor Illington in the 1919 production of Phil-for-Short.
Charles Melton Walcot Jr. died on January 1, 1921, in New York City. Twenty years earlier, before his foray into the cinamatographic, Walcot had closed his Chronicle interview with the following:
An actor's fame is written in sand. A painter, writer or composer can leave his work behind as tangible testimony of his greatness. The actor's dies with him if it does not die before him. Those who remember, wrangle about his qualities, and to others he is not even a name.
As far as Fordham is concerned, both the Prep and the university, there will never be wrangling about Walcot’s qualities. There will only be gratitude to the Father of Fordham Dramatics on whose name Old St. John’s College will never bring the curtain down.