BERT - the autobiography of Egbert Pettey

selection from Chapter 2: North Dakota Opera House


Maude came rushing into the kitchen where her mother was preparing breakfast, and announced on the morning of May 16, 1895:
-"The baby has come! A beautiful baby girl."
-"A baby girl! I'm going over to the house right away. Are you sure it's a girl?"
-"Yes, yes, it's a baby girl."
-"Did you see the baby?"
Maude hesitated before replying:
-"No, I didn't, but Agnes was there and she said it was a baby girl. So I ..."
Before she could say anything else Cora, her sister, burst into the kitchen shouting:
-"Oh mother, it's a baby boy, the loveliest baby you ever saw."
-"How do you know?"
-"How do I know? I just saw the baby."
-"Well, Maude told me it was a girl."
-"I can't help it mother. It's a boy. That's all there is to it."

Aunt Maude was quick to steer the discussion away from my gender:
-"Mother, I wonder what they'll call it? Is it going to have one of the family names?"
Grandmother let her off the hook but only momentarily:
-"I think they will name it after Dad's first wife Egbertine.
Of course, since he's a boy, they'll choose the name Egbert."
Maude, still embarrassed by her mistake, quickly approved the choice of name:
-"It's a lovely name -- very English."
-"But most unusual," added Cora dryly.
-"That's besides the point," replied grandmother annoyed that this discussion was delaying her departure.
-"I'd better go over there and see if everything is intact. Perhaps I should take some breakfast things?"

Both girls seemed to veto the idea. So grandmother, who lived just a few doors down from my parent's home in Jamestown, North Dakota, came right over.

Aunt Cora always enjoyed telling this story which never ceased to genuinely embarrass aunt Maude. I suppose that's why aunt Cora enjoyed repeating the tale. As for myself, I was early under the impression that this innocent enough mistake held some secret meaning for me. Now, don't get me wrong, I never thought for one moment that I was an Egbertine or that might have influenced my sexual preference, but just how many men do you know who are named after their grandfather's wife?

Aunt Maude, who was my father's baby sister, later became a fine, accomplished actress. She was a lovely looking woman and sang and acted in several New York productions. She appeared in one New York show with the great actor DeWolf Hopper. Maude Pettey's stage name was Maude Dufour. When I was growing up, she only came to Jamestown for brief summer visits to see grandmother. I thought she was pretty, but she was not overly interested in me, nor I in her.

My family was French-English on my father's side the Pettey's, and French-Welsh on my mother's side. There had been actors and actresses from both sides of my ancestry. My mother and father sometimes talked about them and other theatrical people who had all died years before I was born. Although the names didn't mean anything to me at the time, once in awhile I come across the name of an actor or actress that I remember having been discussed at home.

You might think that Jamestown, North Dakota was a rather unfortunate place for a child with theatrical roots to find himself. That was not at all the case, as you will soon discover. Founded in 1883, Jamestown was by the time I was born already a community of about four to five thousand settlers. And just because we were pioneer people didn't mean we were primitive.

Jamestown was a division point on the Northern Pacific Railroad with at least a half dozen trains going through town daily in either direction. Consequently, people who lived in Jamestown could easily travel to Minneapolis, Chicago or even Spokane. In turn, these from these and other cities regularly traveled to Jamestown. We rode the railroad constantly.

With all this traveling there was a need for at least one good hotel. Fortunately, Jamestown had two. The Gladstone was by the standards of the day, a first class hotel which boasted an excellent cuisine. The dining room offered a complete Sunday dinner for less than a dollar in the 1890's. Oysters on the half shell were a specialty of the house. The kitchen was for a time in the hands of an experienced French chef. The hotel itself was run admirably by a German hotel keeper. When people of any importance came to town, they stayed at the Gladstone. The Capital Hotel served as a good second hotel.

The early settlers who had migrated from points east were fairly well educated. I suppose a fair number of Jamestownites were even college graduates. Otherwise it would be difficult to explain how from its founding there almost always has been a college in Jamestown. True, the first attempt to establish a college had failed a few years before I was born. But when I was a boy, Old Main, high on the hill overlooking town, was reopened. To this day, Jamestown College has continued to flourish.

As a consequence, we were not as provincial as people might imagine today. I brag about that because movies and the press wrongly have made fun of the wild and woolly country of Dakota which has given the public a false impression of this area and its people. In fact, the social life was quite brilliant given the size of the community. Like so many other pioneer towns that had or wanted a reputation, Jamestown went about the task of building an opera house.

I believe the money for Lloyds Opera House came from England. There was an English gentleman by the name of Mr. Garnett whom my father told me about when I was a little fellow.
-"You know," he said, "Mr. Garnett is a millionaire."

That didn't mean very much to me then. I thought of piles of money. That's all it meant to me. I suppose Mr. Garnett was the financial backer of the Lloyds since the building bore their name.

A three story brick building was built on Fifth Avenue. The marquee read on three sides: OPERA HOUSE. As you entered the theatre, you stepped into an elegant foyer with a red and white marble tiled floor. Several doors opened on three isles that lead to the stage. A massive gold leafed metallic chandelier hung from the ceiling.

I'll never forget the finely painted portrait of Shakespeare over the proscenium. Skilled artisans had also done the plaster work and the fresco on the walls. These were not slipshod jobs. Muralists from Chicago had painted an elaborate boat scene on the front curtain which depicted the Tiber River with the Basilica of St. Peter's and the Bridge and Castle San Angelo in the background. The detail work on the trompe l'oeil drapery and the Roman ruins was exceptional.

The mix of colors in the theater was stunning. The parquet seats were upholstered in electric blue velvet as were the tasseled drapes held back with gold ropes in the two lower boxes. In the two upper boxes the tasseled velvet drapes were in the same magenta, almost an American beauty color, as the upholstered seats of the dress circle. The first balcony was done in cedar green, a grey green while the upper balcony was done in dark blue velvet.

In addition to its being colorful, the Opera house was modern and comfortable. The interior was illuminated with hundreds of electric lights, a noteworthy fact in those days. The plumbing provided modern toilets for guests and performers alike. All the dressing rooms, regardless of their location, were nicely appointed and had the unheard of luxury of hot and cold running water. However, there were no sinks in the dressing rooms so the actors still had to depend upon the washbowl and pitcher.

On January 28, 1893, a week before its opening, the Jamestown Alert reported:

The only work remaining to be done on the opera house is in connection with the stage, where a large force is engaged in arranging the scenery, flys, traps, etc. The body of the house is completed, and presents a fine appearance. Soft carpets, heavy draperies, upholstered opera chairs, and polished balcony railings give an artistic appearance to all surroundings. A huge chandelier with sixty incandescent lights, adorns the center of the of the house, and the ceiling is studded with several dozen additional globes. In short, the new theatre is fully up to the standard of any in the country and an improvement of which Jamestown is decidedly proud.

The grand opening which took place on the evening of February 6, 1893, two years before I was born, foreshadowed the brilliant theatrical life that would flourish in this theater for nearly a quarter century. The governor of North Dakota, theatrical people, managers, technicians and the general public swarmed into Jamestown from Chicago, Minneapolis, Saint Paul, and Duluth. Others came from points as far West as Spokane. The Northern Pacific Railroad offered a special low fare from any point within North Dakota to anyone wanting to attend the celebration.

The day of the opening was colder than blazes. Before the grand opening many of the guests huddled together in the grocery store across the street from the theatre to keep warm. When the doors were finally opened, the throng rushed in as much to get out of the cold as to see the new theater. For this special evening, Frederick Warde played his Mark Anthony against Louis James' Brutus in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar to an enthusiastic sold out audience of eight hundred ladies and gentlemen who had braved the cold Dakota weather to attend the historic event.


Prices for tickets like for everything else, are always relative. Yet, if I remember correctly, parquet seats in those days were $1.50, dress circle seats $1.75, and balcony seats $1.00. Upper balcony seats were fifty cents. The four boxes, one above the other on each side of the stage, rented for twenty-five dollars a performance. They held up to a dozen chairs. So, these boxes were not prohibitive. And if there were only four people, you didn't have to buy the entire box. You could get individual box seats for around $2.50.

There were no hucksters in the theater. No pop corn, candy, or peanuts were sold. In those days, you could buy a good size bag of peanuts in the shell for a nickel and the upper balcony was often called the "peanut gallery", but not in the theater Dad managed. It was quite the thing then to crack and eat them during the performance. It was an awful job sweeping up the peanut shells. We didn't have vacuum cleaners in those days. So after a month or so of that sort of thing, dad stopped selling peanuts inside the theater. Of course, you could always bring candy to the theatre.

All this discussion about peanuts may seem peculiar today, but we were disciplined differently at the turn of the century. Nowadays, the sky is the limit. For example, if a young man had brought a young lady to the theater, and put his arm on the back of the seat around her shoulder and reached over and kissed her, it would have been considered a horrible thing to have happened. The whole town would have been talking about it the next day. That sort of thing just wasn't done. That's all there was to it. Nowadays, you think nothing about it. You see it constantly.

Our sense of morality was quite different. I wouldn't pretend to say that morals were any better then than they are today. I don't think morals change. The difference is that nowadays we have it in the open, whereas in those days it was behind closed doors. And this secrecy or discretion, whatever you wish to call it, ruled the behavior of gays and straights alike.

The front personnel included my father who was the manager and two men who worked in the box office. The only additional front personnel were the four to six high school boys were hired as ushers for a dollar a night. There were toilets in the theater, but no drinking fountains. So these same boys would pass out glasses of water on silver trays during intermission.

My father was also the stage carpenter, and had three assistants. He always helped backstage during the performance. The stage hands included four grips and scene shifters. Two others assisted in the flies, and two others were on the light switchboard. Two flunkies did whatever else had to be done.

Although the public areas of the theater were magnificent, as a young boy I was more interested in the backstage which became a sort of playground for me. Three dressing rooms and the chorus room were downstairs, below stage level. There was long make up table in the chorus room that could accommodate twenty performers. The four main dressing rooms including the star's located directly backstage was a more serene area. These handsomely decorated dressing rooms were even carpeted.

Since touring companies often traveled with little else than a trunk full of costumes, a theater of any consequence had to provide the properties and have a complete set of painted scenery on hand. What child would not be drawn into the make believe world represented by this scenery? These painted curtains were like pages in a giant illustrated story book for this small North Dakota boy.

There was a cottage set which had an exterior with practical windows and doors. You could sit on the window sills of the first and second story. For example, when Clyde Fitch's Barbara Frietchie played home the heroine stood in one of these windows, above all the rest of the actors on stage, and spoke the words: "Shoot if you must this old grey head, but save my country's flag." There were even set trees and stones.

Any number of outdoor scenes could be duplicated on stage. An ocean set with the ocean in front, had side flats painted as water giving a complete ocean view. No less than three garden sets included a formal Italian garden, a kitchen garden with vegetables, and a backyard set with lilacs in blossom. There was also a forest set a beautiful back cloth with cut cutouts on the side wings of trees and trunks. Overhead the borders were draped to create the illusion that the trees met on the stage.

The interior sets became my oversized imaginary play house. A bedroom set was done in yellow and brown. There was a parlor set in rose, grey and gold. A library or dark living room set was done in simulated mahogany. There was the kitchen set which looked liked a typical kitchen of the time.Add a prison set with bars on the windows and a stone effect wall that could double as a basement, and you have all the scenery in the inventory of the Jamestown Opera House. Of course, there were plenty of props such as tables, chairs, bureaus, and chests. Any furniture that was requested by the advance man and we did not have, Dad would arrange for a the local store to supply.

We had sufficient dishes to set a table for eight or twelve people as was required in a play like Shore Acres. If any of that china was broken it was the visiting troupe's responsibility, and had to be paid for. It was rare anything happened. Occasionally a glass would tip over, strike a plate and break. In a case like that I suppose it was just forgotten. After all glasses weren't expensive in those days. You could get a good looking glass for two bits so it was hardly worth charging.

As manager of the Lloyd Opera House, my father routinely booked road shows. It was not a difficult task since the stars were eager to play Jamestown because of the excellent accommodations at the Opera House and at the Gladstone hotel. Jamestown provided them with a welcomed respite from the ill equipped church and civic auditoriums in which they so often had to perform, and the second class hotels they had to live in. If a troupe played one or three nights, fair enough. But they generally succeeded in playing a full week. This was all the better since it permitted the actors to get their laundry done and all the other things they couldn't do in towns which were one night stands. Most of the great stars took a flyer on the road and did the road show circuits. Consequently, there are few in the calendar of names of the great actors and actresses at the turn of the century that I did not at one time meet as a youngster.

While the supporting cast usually acted very superior and had little to do with me, the stars behaved quite the opposite. Virginia Harnad and E. H. Southern were almost like relatives who periodically would visit. Mother often invited theater people as house guests during their run at the Opera House. It was not because the hotel facilities were inadequate. She did it to have them experience for a day or a week, the joys of a home atmosphere. My mother always kept a beautiful house, and she was the spirit of hospitality. You never were conscious that you were her guest when you stayed at our home. The house was yours. You were treated without ceremony like one in the family.

As I think back, I realize that many of the stars that played the Opera House were house guests at one time or another. Years after the theater closed, mother was still getting letters reminding her how much they had enjoyed their stay at her home. Of course, it was marvelous for my brother, and sister, and me. But I was the one who benefited most because they were already away at school during the years these celebrities stayed with us. Mother had only one guest room. So it was only possible for the star or a married couple to stay with us.

Virginia Harnad stayed at our home. Florence Roberts stayed three or four times. Rose Melville was just one of the ladies. She did some washing and hung it on the line in the backyard. Maude Feeley was another of my mother's guests. Partly to repay her hospitality, these guests sometimes would get mother's permission allowing me to dine out with them. I was very pleased to be taken out to lunch at the Gladstone. I was in eightth heaven seated at a table in the elegant dinning room with one of the great ladies of the theatre.

I suppose I was a precocious child. I certainly did take full advantage of the fact that my father managed the theatre. It was a field day for me. I loved the theater. From the time I could toddle around on my own, I spent a great deal of my time with dad in the theater. I grant you, I was a young boy, but I was not a silly youngster. When I was five years old, I was mature in my manner if not in my appearance. I was never one to stand back and suck my thumb. I never went through that nauseating period in life when I just stood around and was embarrassed by grownups or hid in the corner.

I got to know all the stars who played the Opera House. I talked to them, and they talked to me. Fearing to appear egotistical, I must admit that I was a good looking youngster with long blond locks and a velvet sailor suits. Mother had read Little Lord Fontleroy, and was decidedly influenced by the popular book's illustrations. She came as near as she could to duplicating those outfits. Anyway that's neither here nor there.


Most of the theatrical companies came to Jamestown from the East on their way West to Spokane and Seattle. I recall when the number 1 train arrived in town at quarter after ten in the morning and the baggage was hurriedly taken from the depot to the Opera House, a block and a half away. The actors and the actresses in the troupe immediately unpacked the trunks so the costumes would not be too mussed for the performance. Once the trunks were opened and the costumes were hung up, the actors would then go out for luncheon.

That was moment I held fort. I was already fascinated with costumes. I went from dressing room to dressing room looking at all the costumes. I knew what the gold star meant on the door of the large L-shaped room behind the stage. That was where I would find the loveliest of all the costumes.

On this one particular morning, I had done all the dressing rooms except for that magic room with the gold star. I had saved it for last just like one waits until the very last spoonful before eating the cherry of an ice cream sundae. As I peeked through the door, what I imagined I saw nearly frightened me out of my wits. There before me was a heavy set Black woman methodically combing the beautiful, long blond hair on what I thought was a decapitated head resting on a table.

I immediately started to scream bloody murder. I doubt I yelled for more than a few seconds when from around the corner of the dressing room appeared the most beautiful blonde woman I had ever seen. This woman with long golden hair and a gorgeous complexion rushed over to me, knelt down and took me into her arms and wanted to know what was the matter.
-"Don't be frightened," she said "This is Elsa my colored maid."

What frightened me wasn't the fact this woman was Black. I babbled something or another. Whatever it was that I said it certainly didn't take her long to figure out what was bothering me.
-"That's one of my wigs for the play. It's on a wooden block."

In the meantime, I had already developed a secondary interest. On a hanger, against the wall, was a white evening gown hung with pearls. It was just too beautiful for words. It was so lovely. I couldn't take my eyes away from the gown. The beautiful lady noticed what was attracting my attention and whispered to me:

-"You like the pretty dress?"
-"Yes, I do very much," I replied.
-"Now, I'll tell you something. Don't be frightened anymore. Elsa has hurt no one. She's only combing my wig for the play tonight."
I heard Elsa laugh as she continued working the tresses on the wood block.

-"If you're a good boy, I'll cut off all the pearls and send them to you when I'm through with the dress. By the way, who are you?
"My father runs the theater."
"Oh, you're Charlie's boy," she said.
I nodded yes:
-"I'll see that you get the pearls, dear."
I didn't know at that time that she was to be our house guest. At mid-afternoon I went home as usual and there she was. Mother said:

-"Berty, this is Miss Russell, and she's going to stay with us for a few days. I want you to be very nice to her because she's a very lovely lady, and she will love you too if you love her."

-"Oh yes, we met earlier today at the theatre," the beautiful lady added not the least surprised at seeing me again. She then told mother all that had happened earlier. So we became friends and I loved the three or four days I shared with Lillian Russell, the great beauty of her age.

One morning during her visit, I recall coming downstairs while Lillian was ironing her clothes. Mother was preparing breakfast, and the two of them were engaged in woman talk. At one point in the conversation, Lillian asked my mother:

-"Carrie, has Berty been baptized?"
-"No, Lillian, I haven't had him baptized. I've thought of it often. I know I should have it done, but I've neglected doing it." So Lillian said:
-"I had Dorothy baptized when I was home this past summer. Why don't you have Berty &nbsp&nbsp&nbspwhile I'm here and I'll stand in for him?"

Dorothy was Lillian's youngest daughter and was three years older than me. Mother seemed pleased by her suggestion:

-"It's a good idea, Lillian. Let's do it."
That same afternoon, we were all carted out to the local Congregational Church where I was baptized. I was really too young to understand what this was all about when on that day Lillian Russell became my godmother.

When Lillian Russell's company left Jamestown to my great pleasure, I was permitted to continue on with the troupe. I went as far West as Spokane with theWildfire production. Lillian had promised my mother to look after me until I could be put in the custody of an uncle who was a conductor on the Northern Pacific Railroad. He brought me back home on his next run to Jamestown. To be on the road with these actors and actresses was a great experience for this country boy.

Before the Great War when I was studying at the Art Institute in Chicago, I had the pleasure to meet Lillian Russell one last time. I hadn't seen her for years. I was no longer the little boy frightened by wigs on wooden blocks. I was now a young man of twenty. Jimmy, a friend and a cub reporter for the Chicago Examiner, to whom I had mentioned that Lillian was my godmother, came to me one day with a request:

-"Bert, I have to go to the Palace Theater where Lillian Russell is appearing, and I'm scared to death. Will you come with me." I gladly accepted his offer and accompanied him to the Palace.

She met us in the Green Room. Jimmy introduced himself to Lillian and nervously launched into his interview. There were no introductions as far as I was concerned. I stood in the background while Jimmy proceeded to ask his questions. She was just as lovely as ever although older than I remembered her. She appeared a little more of the hour glass figure,perhaps because she was corseted in the fashion of the day. However, her beauty and lovely expression were intact. Her skin was like rose petals. Her hair was, as always, golden. When Jimmy completed his interview, Lillian turned to me and said rather coldly: -"Young man, what are you doing here?" as much as to say: Get the hell out of here.

-"I'm here in Chicago studying art," I replied.
-"Oh, what did you say your name was?"
-"I didn't say what my name was. I was never introduced but I have a bone to pick with you. You never sent me the pearls."

Her reaction was as if she had just met a madman:
-"Good heavens, what are you talking about?
-"No," I repeated, "you never sent even one of the pearls you promised me.

-"Really Sir, I don't know what you are talking about?"
I had played out my little game, so I said:
-"Oh, Lillian dear, I'm Bert Pettey."
-"I'm Bert Pettey."
With that she took me in her arms, and we slobbered all over each other. We had a lovely time for a few minutes. Then she asked:
-"But the pearls, I don't remember?"
-"Do you remember the beautiful gown you wore in the last act of Wild Fire?"
-"Well, of course I do."
-"Do you remember when I came to your dressing room and screamed when I saw your maid combing your blond wig on a block?"
-"Oh, I'd forgotten about that."
-"And you told me if I stopped crying, you would cut the beads off your gown when you were through with the costume and send them all to me.

She went over to the grand piano on which there was a vase with a large bouquet of American Beauty roses. She chose one of the roses, kissed it, and gave it to me:

-"This will have to do in lieu of the pearls."

That rose was precious. I took it home and pressed it. When I returned to Jamestown I showed it to mother and placed in the old family bible. I still have it. The years have robed it of its beauty, but it is still the rose that Lillian gave me in lieu of the pearls.

That's how I met Lillian Russell, the great beauty of her age. She was a darling. For a short time, she became a second mother to me. Of all the actresses I've met over the years, she comes first in my heart.

BERT-- the autobiography of Egbert Pettey, from Chapter 2 "The Opera House." 1995 © by Lionel A. Biron. All Rights Reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced without prior written permission. Fine for your personal use, but please do not reprint, publish. photocopy or otherwise distribute.

To read about Bert's experiences in the 1920s working as an Art Director for C.B. Demille, click: Chapter 7: "Hollywood: The First Ten Commandments (1923)."