Katharine Cornell grew up in Buffalo where her father, who had given up his medical practice in 1901, managed the Star Theatre. She inherited his love for the stage from him and from God her own immeasurable reserve of talent. In 1916, she moved to New York to join the Washington Square Players. It was there that she met an inspiring young director from Seattle, Guthrie McClintic. They were married in 1921, forming both a matrimonial and a professional partnership that would last until Guthrie's death forty years later. Over the next ten years, their careers would effloresce culminating in 1931 in the Cornell-McClintic Corporation formed to produce their own plays. Their initial offering, "The Barretts of Wimpole Street" was a phenomenal success. It ran for 370 performances, opening at the Empire Theatre on February 9, 1931 and closing in December of 1931. Katherine played Elizabeth Barrett Moulton-Barrett opposite Brian Ahern as Robert Browning.
Breaking with the accepted practice of the time, when the play closed, they decided to take it on tour. It was the height of the depression and many experts advised against it. The couple planned to rotate a three play repertory of: Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," Shaw's "Candida" and "The Barretts of Wimpole Street." Included in the company of sixty was the eighteen-year old Orson Welles making his stage debut as Mercutio in "Romeo and Juliet." Basil Rathbone replaced Brian Ahern and played Romeo in addition to Robert Browning. The tour met with remarkable success in every city they played.
Christmas day 1933 found the troupe on a train making its way toward Seattle where they were scheduled to open that night. The exchanging of gifts and celebratory lunch grew grim with the realization that they might not make it to Seattle in time to set up and perform at the scheduled curtain hour. It was raining; it had been raining; it would not stop raining and train travel through the state was perilous and agonizingly slow. If they reached Seattle at all; they would be late. At every pause, a telegram from theatre management would come on board with anxious inquiries. They were sold out. Could they announce over the radio and in the papers that the troupe was delayed but would perform at the scheduled hour? Night fell and still the train crawled westward. A new telegram: Could they hold the audience even if the curtain would be delayed for fifteen minutes or half of an hour? Seven o'clock gave way to eight o'clock and nine o'clock passed to the sound of steel wheels clicking over rail junctures in time with the clock. Clearly there could be no performance this night. There went one-eighth of next week's paycheck. That was the rule when an "Act of God" cancelled a show.
Finally a tired gaggle of actors and stagehands set foot on the platform of the Seattle Station at 11:15. They were astounded to see a tarpaulin stretched to a line of waiting trucks. The trucks would haul the scenery to the theatre and the phalanx of cars whose drivers stood holding umbrellas was there to transport the cast and crew. The audience was still waiting. Twelve hundred theatre-goers, many in evening dress, milled about the lobby or were snacking in the Olympic Hotel across the street. Would Miss Cornell still go on for them? Would she play?
The company sprang into action. They would get ready in record time but there was so much to do. The set had to go up, the lights adjusted and set, costumes donned and more. It would take hours. McClintic decided the audience might enjoy the process and ordered the curtain taken up. The audience actually saw the stage being set up and lighted - saw the wall of the Victorian Barrett house fall into place; then the window of Elizabeth's room and the distant canvas depicting Wimpole Street behind it. The stage hands received a round of applause with the completion of each step. Trunks were dragged on stage and costumes distributed by the wardrobe mistress in full view of the audience. Soaking wet actors traded dripping raincoats for flowered waistcoats and lace pantaloons. Most interesting, perhaps because it was most foreign to the viewers, was staging the lights. The focal point of the play is the couch upon which Miss Cornell spent the entire first act. The lights playing on it had to be adjusted to the inch. The Seattle denizens watched in delight as the portly stage manager, standing in for Miss Cornell, assumed one languorous pose after another duplicating the movements of his star that he watched from the wings every night. Each new attitude drew applause. And then everything was ready.
At five minutes past one, the auditorium lights dimmed and the curtain went up, less than two hours from the time the company had arrived at the train station. Buoyed by the patience and the compliment the audience had gifted them by waiting, the cast gave one of its greatest performance. It was three forty-five when the final curtain fell. It was probably too late to go to bed anyway so the audience stayed to give more curtain calls than the exhausted troupe had received at anytime on the tour. It is the best of Christmas presents when both the presenter and the receiver get something so perfect they both will remember it always!