"Pa grabbed the young man and whirled him on stage, not realising the curtains had already opened and the play had begun."
By Gregory Doran:
The tour began in Montreal, and they spent a month in Canada, before arriving in the United States. The company of 26 actors (18 men and 8 women) included a 21 year old Basil Rathbone, who had made his professional debut with Benson's company, and would later find fame in Hollywood playing Sherlock Holmes in fourteen films during the Second World War.
The Stratford actors played three weeks in Chicago. But their reception was not what had been hoped or expected. Benson himself was panned in The Windy City. One review called him "a skittish old beldame, peaked, capricious and jerky", while another called his Benedick "deplorable".
After Chicago the tour visited Columbus, Ohio, (where our production of Julius Caesar played in May 2013). They continued to zig-zag back and forth, across the State lines, playing Grand Rapids one week, and Detroit the next. They spent Christmas in St Louis, Missouri.
It was here that one of the great Benson stories is supposed to have occurred. Pa Benson had a secretary/dresser, a young man called Christopher Tancred. One afternoon during the St Louis run Benson and his secretary were out walking when they came across a studio giving classes in the latest new dance craze to hit town. It was known as the Hesitation Waltz. Always interested in physical activity, and a little deprived of his usual sports, Benson decided they should join the class.
That night, Benson was waiting in the wings, fully made up as Richard III, and ready to perform for the umpteenth time. On a whim, he suddenly suggested to young Tancred, that they try out the new steps they had been learning. Pa grabbed the young man and whirled him on stage, not realising the curtains had already opened and the play had begun. How Pa Benson then managed to adopt his slouching pose as the crookback king, and segue into "Now is the winter of our discontent" is not recorded.
Next: Louisville to San Francisco