Historical Markers
The Barrymores Historical Marker
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The Barrymores

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
6th and Arch Sts., Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
October 1, 1996

Behind the Marker

Arch Street Theatre Polka, dedicated to Mrs. John Drew, Lessee.
Philadelphia's Arch Street Theatre as it appeared in 1861
"I always hoped to be a pianist," Ethel Barrymore once confided, "but I had to eat, and acting seemed like the natural thing to do since the family was already in it."

So one art form's loss became another's gain, and, thankfully for a generation of audiences, her brothers Lionel and John, both of whom set out to be painters, had to eat, too. Thus, it was hunger - first for sustenance, then, more metaphorically, for self-expression - that led a trio of remarkable siblings with no designs on the family business to leave deep footprints on the stage. Although these Barrymores had to be coaxed onto the boards, their prodigious talents elevated their already accomplished clan from the nineteenth century's First Family of the American Theater into what early twentieth-century critics dubbed "The Royal Family of the American Stage." In time, the Barrymores would leave their mark on movies, radio, and television, as well.

Louisa Drew in Costume as Mrs. Malaprop.
Actress Louisa Drew in costume, circa 1890.
The royalty was in their genes. Their father, Maurice Barrymore (who changed the family name from Blyth because Barrymore sounded theatrically grander) was a reigning matinee idol of the late 1800s, and their mother, Georgianna Drew, a fine comedienne, was the sister of famed thespian and playwright John Drew, Jr., and the daughter of John Drew and Louisa Lane Drew, managers of Philadelphia's Arch Street Theater and noted performers themselves. After Drew's death in 1862, Mrs. Drew commanded great respect as the first female manager of a marker major American theater.

Born in Philadelphia, the young Barrymores were essentially theatrical orphans surrounded by theatrical tradition. With their parents so often away on tour, they grew up largely under their grandmother's care. When they weren't at school, they were around the theater. It was their playground and second home.

Lionel, the oldest, was the first to step into the family shoes, and the last to achieve a comfortable fit; his first steps were almost his last. While on tour, his parents sent for him to replace a child actor who'd become ill, but instead of delivering his lines, he stood immobile on stage, frightened and weeping. Close the curtain on Act I. At fifteen, it rose on Act II when he tried again - joining sister Ethel in her professional debut - in a bit part in grandmother Drew's vaunted tour of Sheridan's The Rivals. He managed not to cry this time, but so hated the experience he later claimed it covered him with "a blanket aversion to acting." By his late teens, he had moved to New York to study painting.

Photograph of the famed actor Maurice Barrymore, leaning against a piano and holding a cup of tea.
Maurice Barrymore, circa 1870.
Ethel, on the other hand, was a natural, blessed with commanding beauty, natural grace, and unmistakable presence. After a stream of supporting ingénue roles, many under the guidance of her grandmother and uncle, she became a leading lady - on Broadway - in 1901, and through her twenties and early thirties, as her repertoire expanded to include contemporary roles expressly written for her and theatrical icons like Nora in Ibsen's A Doll House and Shakespeare's Juliet, she would rise beyond mere stardom into the embodiment of glamour. In fact, the term "glamour girl" was coined to describe her.

John, meanwhile, bounced from boarding school to boarding school, developing a reputation as the wild and willful prodigal son that would stick for the rest of his life. He spent his late teens studying art in England, and when he couldn't hold a job as an editorial cartoonist in New York, returned reluctantly to the family fold - and a life in the theater.

Lionel, too. His failures as an artist led him to take a series of small parts to support himself. "I had nothing else to do," he later admitted.

Yet, once the Barrymore brothers were on stage, there was no stopping them, each carving his own path through the first decade of the new century. With his rumpled looks, Lionel turned into a character actor, a player who could disappear behind the mask of his roles. The ruggedly handsome John, on the other hand, evolved into a charismatic and versatile leading man, equally praised as a comic heartthrob and a serious tragedian - though his best role, overall, was playing the colorful John Barrymore, a larger-than-life character who drank too much, partied too much, and courted the opposite sex and his own celebrity with equal gusto. A quick wit, he would note at the height of his fame, "I like to be introduced as America's foremost actor. It saves the necessity of further effort." Yet, when he focused on his work, his efforts were superb.

Ethel Barrymore, three-quarter length portrait, seated, facing front
Ethel Barrymore, circa 1901.
In 1909, Lionel took the leap into the new medium of movies, as an actor and writer for D.W. Griffith's young stock company. Ethel was appalled; though the movies had evolved by then into acceptable middle-brow entertainment, they lacked the cachet of the stage, but by 1914, she, too, found herself seduced by the quick money the movies offered, and within four years had made thirteen silent films, all forgettable, including one, Life's Whirlpool, written for her and directed by Lionel. She wouldn't appear in another movie until 1932.

John also found his way into the movies. Between 1913 and 1916 he worked for pioneer directors like markerEdwin S. Porter in a collection of successful comedies and dramas, but, desperate to prove himself in weightier material, he returned to the stage, and in 1917 joined his brother in an acclaimed production of Peter Ibbotson. His reputation - as America's foremost actor - was firmly cemented with his Hamlet of the early 1920s; considered the American Hamlet of the era, Barrymore's Dane was critically hailed both on New York and London stages.

In 1925, Lionel gave up the theater for good and moved to Hollywood where he crafted a series of memorable characters in such movies as The Bells, Sadie Thompson with Gloria Swanson, Mata Hari with Greta Garbo, Dinner at Eight and Grand Hotel with his brother, and Captains Courageous with Spencer Tracy. In 1931, his work as an alcoholic lawyer in A Free Soul won the Academy Award for Best Actor. Two years later, he played Rasputin in Rasputin and the Empress, a picture that marked Ethel's return to the movies, and the only time all three Barrymores ever performed together.

John Barrymore, as Hamlet, reclining on steps.
John Barrymore as Hamlet, circa 1922.
While Ethel continued on stage - indeed, in 1928 she became the rare performer to have a Broadway theater named in her honor - John, like Lionel, left New York for Hollywood, easily transitioning from silents to talkies. Though an enormously popular romantic lead - his most notable movies included Beau Brummell, Don Juan, Svengali, A Bill of Divorcement with Katherine Hepburn, Twentieth Century with Jean Harlow, and The Great Man Votes - he sadly squandered his prodigious talents in a final group of forgettable comic roles in which he mostly chewed the scenery caricaturing his own image as an alcoholic and a roué before his death in 1942. His pallbearers included his great drinking companion and fellow Philadelphian markerW.C. Fields. But as John's career was spiraling down, Lionel's and Ethel's inhaled second winds.
John, Lionel, and Ethel Barrymore.
Siblings Lionel, Ethel, and John Barrymore in costume for the film Rasputin...

Though Lionel suffered a serious hip injury in the mid-1930s that led to his reliance on crutches and, finally, a wheelchair, his popularity was so well established that his infirmity was written into the characters he's best remembered by: the kindly Mr. Sycamore of You Can't Take It With You, the wise and patient Dr. Gillespie of the Dr. Kildare series, and markerJimmy Stewart's antagonistic foil in It's a Wonderful Life, the crotchety banker, Mr. Potter. A beloved and versatile institution, Barrymore made more than 100 movies and his radio reading of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol was engraved on the nation's holiday calendar for two decades. Barrymore was also an accomplished composer - his memorial tone poem to his brother was performed by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. As a writer, he penned both a novel and a memoir, and to his great pleasure, with his election to the Society of American Etchers, was finally, late in life, recognized as the artist he'd originally set out to become.

Ethel briefly retired from the stage in 1936, but was back on Broadway a year later, experiencing her theatrical renaissance as the Welsh schoolmarm in The Corn Is Green in 1940. She left the stage altogether in 1944 to return to the movies, co-starring as Cary Grant's mother in the dark melodrama None But the Lonely Heart, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She remained in Hollywood from then on, portraying a string of indomitable old ladies with hearts of pure gold in films like The Farmer's Daughter, Pinky, Deadline USA, and Young at Heart. She also starred in some early television dramas, and in 1956 hosted her own series, The Ethel Barrymore Theater, a fitting final curtain for a legend whose grandparents owned the theater she grew up in.

The family name - and legacy - continues on film through Drew Barrymore, John's granddaughter and Ethel and Lionel's great niece.
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