On the same evening in 1828 that Mrs. Eliza Lane appeared at the popular Bowery Theatre, her daughter Luisa Lane, already a stage veteran at age seven, made her American debut. Little Louisa was to grow up to be an eminent actress appearing with Junius Booth, Macready, Forest and most often with Joseph Jefferson. It was however, after her third husband's death at 35, that she distinguished herself in a different role as the manager of the Ash Street Theatre in Philadelphia, a stock company theatre that she ruled with an iron hand.
Her first husband was a much older actor, Henry Blaine Hunt who she divorced in 1847. She then married George Mossop in Albany in 1848 but he died a year later. Her marriage to her third and last husband, prominent Irish comedian John Drew, was also in Albany on July 27, 1850. That union would produce the children that would perpetuate the acting-family dynasty. Their first child of four, Louise Drew, managed to avoid going on stage but she did marry an actor, George Charles Mendum. For a short period Mendum managed the Arch Street Theatre for his mother-in-law but he was promptly fired for "presuming."
The next three children would all become actors: John Drew, Jr. would have a major career often billed as, "The First Gentleman of the American Theatre;" daughter Georgie Drew followed her brother's lead to the New York Stage and became a popular comedienne, and lastly Sydney Drew would enjoy a thriving career on stage.
John Drew, Jr. was engaged with the celebrated Augustin Daly Company in New York where he befriended a fellow actor, Arthur Chemberlayne Blythe, a handsome Englishman. Blythe's family were so aghast at his intention to go on stage that they asked him to pursue such an abominable profession in America under a assumed name so that he could return to England unnoticed when he failed. Blythe became Maurice Barrymore and it was a young man with that name that John took home on their Sunday off to meet his family in Philadelphia.
At that time, John's sister, Georgie, had begun in small parts at her mother's Arch Street Theatre. The comely girl and dashing Brit immediately hit it off. Not too many Sundays later they were engaged and soon after married. The couple was to have three children: Lionel, Ethel and John. All were born in their grandmother's house in Philadelphia, a home as rigidly dominated as the Arch Street Theatre. That house was to be home for the three siblings when they were little; the only home they would ever share. At early ages they were sent off to different schools: the boys to Seaton Hall Prep in New Jersey and Ethel to a convent school.
Surprisingly, none of the three expressed a desire for a career in the theatre. Lionel and John both wanted to be artist and Ethel loved the piano and hoped to one day play professionally. "We became actors," Ethel once said, "not because we wanted to go on the stage, but because it was the thing we could do best." The Arch Street Theatre provide some income to the extended family but other than that, Ethel wrote, "It must be understood that there was never any money anywhere that wasn't earned week by week by this whole family by the profession of acting."
Fortunes change! Ethel's mother, Georgie, died at age 34, the Arch Street Theatre was no more and Ethel had to earn a living. So, at around fifteen her grandmother sent for her to come to Montreal and join her and Uncle Sidney on stage. She was given a small scene in THE RIVALS; a scene usually cut from the Sheridan script. If in the scene Ethel was a flop, it could easily be omitted the next night. Of course she was not a flop. Over he next fifty years she would become one of the American stage's most accomplished actresses; certainly worthy of inclusion in anyone's top five along with Minnie Maddern Fiske, Helen Hayes and a couple others you might want to argue about.
But it was during these apprentice years, learning her craft, that she honed her art. "I don't remember ever being told anything by anyone," she wrote in her biography. "Once when I did ask Mumum (her grandmother) something about acting, she lifted her eyebrows and said 'You should know that without being told.'" So much for formal training.