David Belasco was born in San Francisco, California, on July 25, 1853. His father, Humphrey Abraham Belasco, was a London actor who, with his bride, Reina Martin Belasco, had succumbed to Gold Rush fever. Once in San Francisco, however, the couple settled into shopkeeping after David’s birth. Five years later, news of a gold strike in British Columbia lured them north, where David’s three brothers were born and where Humphrey Belasco maintained a tobacco shop while investing in real estate and digging for gold.
Belasco’s published memories of British Columbia are highly imaginative accounts, containing references to a monastic education as well as to his appearance as “Davido, the Boy Wonder,” with the Rio de Janeiro Circus. More sober accounts place him first at the Colonial School and then at the Anglican Collegiate School in 1862. Two years later, he made his first professional stage appearance, as the Duke of York in Charles Kean’s King Richard III. Belasco’s other theatrical efforts took place in San Francisco, to which his family returned when he was eleven. The Roll of the Drum, a childhood play strongly influenced by the penny dreadfuls, and a gold medal at Lincoln Grammar School for his impassioned rendition of Matthew Gregory Lewis’s poem “The Maniac” were among Belasco’s early achievements.
After graduation from Lincoln, Belasco entered a self-imposed, five-year apprenticeship during which he took a touring company up and down the West Coast, deriving much of the material by copying prompt books and pirating uncopyrighted Continental works. At twenty, he began a fifty-two-year marriage with Cecelia Loverich. His subsequent career in California was furthered by Tom Maguire, an unschooled Tammany barkeeper who opened a series of successful California theaters. As Maguire’s prompter at the Baldwin, a magnificent hotel/theater, Belasco oversaw Salmi Morse’s The Passion Play, which scandalized the citizens of San Francisco. During this period, he staged his Naturalistic version ofÉmile Zola’s L’Assommoir and collaborated with James Herne in such works as Chums, which became known as Hearts of Oak after its New York success under that title. Before Maguire retired in 1882, Belasco had written and directed a number of works, among them La Belle Russe and The Stranglers of Paris, an adaptation of Adolphe Belot’s earlier work.
Belasco’s first New York assignment was as stage manager at the Madison Square Theatre, backed by Marshall and George Mallory, who sought wholesome productions by American playwrights. The interference and parsimony of the Mallory brothers caused Belasco to leave after only a few years, in 1885. After brief stints with Steele MacKaye and Lester Wallack, Belasco was hired by Daniel Frohman to direct the Lyceum Theatre. There, he collaborated with Henry C. DeMille to produce The Wife, Lord Chumley, The Charity Ball, and Men and Women. In 1889, Belasco undertook the training of a red-haired society divorcée, Leslie Carter, for the stage. Finally, at forty, he had his first unqualified success with The Heart of Maryland, a Civil War drama written expressly for Carter, whose role called for her to swing on a bell clapper to keep the bell from ringing and to save her escaping Northern lover. After winning a lawsuit against N. K. Fairbank, Carter’s financial backer, for withdrawing funding for another play, Belasco produced Zaza—inspired, in part, by Carter’s determination to go on the stage—and began training another star, Blanche Bates, who initially appeared in Belasco’s Naughty Anthony. Ironically, the afterpiece with which Belasco bolstered his slender farce—an adaptation of John Luther Long’s story “Madame Butterfly”—proved the more memorable production. In later years, it became one of Puccini’s best-known operas.
In 1901, Belasco produced a dramatization of the life of Madame DuBarry, the mistress of King Louis...
(The entire section is 938 words.)