During the summer of 1929, an inexperienced but ambitious young actress cut her acting chops in Saranac Lake. The venue was a tent theater in a field behind the Haase Block by the Saranac River; the field is now a parking lot. The actress went on to shine as a star in Hollywood, acting alongside the likes of Cary Grant, Alec Guinness and Natalie Wood. Few would have guessed that the young woman dutifully belting out dramatic screams night after night under the tent behind Main Street would go on to be nominated for four Academy Awards, would win the Tony Award for her work on the Broadway stage, and would become the actress with the most Golden Globe Awards for films (a record later tied by Meryl Streep). The actress was Rosalind Russell.
The signs of stardom were there even that summer in Saranac Lake. Rosalind was remembered by many who knew her here as beautiful, bursting with energy and ambitious. She fought her way into her first big break into the theater in Saranac Lake, and after that her talent paved her way to Hollywood.
In 1929, Rosalind graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and like many other young pretty girls in New York City, was dreaming of a break into acting. Born in Waterbury, Connecticut, Rosalind was one of seven siblings. Her parents had emigrated from Ireland, and she was named for the ship on which they had traveled. The family hoped she would be a school teacher or a lawyer, but Rosalind dreamed of acting.
One day she heard that a Broadway producer on Long Island, Ed Casey, was casting for a summer theater in the Adirondacks. Casey had cured in Saranac Lake and believed the cosmopolitan town in the fresh air to be the perfect place for – as the program cover advertised – “A Bit of Broadway in the Mountains.” Rosalind opened the phone book and called Casey at home. Without a shred of acting experience, Rosalind got him to meet her. She charmed Mr. Casey, signing a contract on the spot for $150 a week.
And so in June of 1929, 1 Rosalind Russell, age 22, stepped off the train at the Union Depot in Saranac Lake. Casey’s partner, Dick Bartell, met her at the station and was dismayed to realize that Casey had hired for $150 a week the same inexperienced actress that he had spotted at her drama school and said he could get for $30 a week.
That summer, Rosalind earned every penny of her high salary, acting in 26 plays in 13 weeks. The theater was a tent in back of the Adirondack National Bank (now HSBC), and the stage was made of birch bark. It was no easy enterprise. Owners Casey and Bartel acted in every performance, and local Saranac Lakers pitched in to help the theater. Samuel Edelberg supplied the furs from his store. The Adirondack Piano Company loaned a Victrola. A. Fortune and W.W. Park provided furniture for the sets, and the Mary Elizabeth Beauty Shoppe helped with hairdos.
Rosalind stood out as the vivacious and dedicated leading lady who pulled the theater through its grueling schedule. As she said in her autobiography, Life is a Banquet, “at Saranac Lake we did an incredible amount of work, rehearsed every morning, played golf every afternoon, put on a show every night. And our first leading man nipped quite heavily (he was later replaced), which meant I had to learn his lines as well as mine.”
During her time in Saranac Lake, Rosalind mixed with the community and made some lasting friendships. One friend was Rosalind Ruminant, from Forest Hill Avenue, who for years received trunks of clothes from Miss Russell. According to Bill McLaughlin, Rosalind Russell “liked crusty old Tom McVeety who ran the Miss Saranac Diner.” In a 1976 Adirondack Enterprise article Mr. McLaughlin wrote that “she celebrated an occasional thespian triumph at the Mt. Baker Club on Moody Pond and apparently sat at the table next to Dutch Shultz.”
Rosalind stayed at the Hotel Alpine (then standing at the corner of Bloomingdale Avenue and Broadway) and on Forest Hill Avenue. Jean Mason and Diana Fortune tell a family story: their grandmother, Emeline Jones Schiller, was up from Utica to visit her sister, Lucy Andrus, at the family home on Lake Street. She had her young daughter, Virginia Schiller, with her. Ed Casey, who later married Lucy's daughter, Eleanor Andrus, was in town with his summer theater. Eleanor Andrus was likewise a member of the summer theater. So Ed would bring that year's ingenue, Rosalind Russell, to hang out at the homestead on Lake Street. The weather was warm, and the stovepipe for the woodstove in the living room was disconnected. This opening provided the perfect opportunity for Mrs. Schiller's teenage daughter, Virginia, to eavesdrop on Rosalind holding court with the theater crowd one floor below.
Rosalind came back briefly the next summer of 1930 to open the tent theater for the summer, but then she moved on to join the Copley Players in Boston. Already, her career was taking off. In the 1930s she began working for MGM, making comedies such as Four’s a Crowd and dramas like The Citadel. In 1953 she returned to Broadway for the huge Tony Award-winning hit, Wonderful Town. She is well remembered for her title role in the long running Broadway production of Auntie Mame.
Rosalind Russell died in 1976 at the age of 69. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. If Saranac Lake had a walk of fame, she would certainly have a star here too.
Article originally published in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise in February, 2008, as part of a series of articles written by Historic Saranac Lake for the Winter Carnival theme, "Hooray for Hollywood."
Adirondack Daily Enterprise, April 13, 2002, reprinted from December 1976
Girl from Au Sable Forks becomes Hollywood legend
To some of us falls the task, not always enviable, of setting down those things of interest which may someday become local legend. It is an honor but a horrendous responsibility as well to take the far removed memories of someone's life and piece them together for public consumption.
The recent death of Rosalind Russell inspired a rare flood of phone calls and street collarings indicating that I was to be the one who should chronicle and catalogue the somewhat timorous chapter of Rosalind Russell in Saranac Lake.
Naturally nothing appeared in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise under my name about this talented star of stage and screen who had literally hatched right in the tent theater back of the Adirondack National Bank, or more closely, 64 Main Street.
Everyone knew a little bit about the theater, of course, and a few knew a great deal about it, but the pieces were fragmented and isolated so that a rather hazy picture emerged.
The tent theater was still vivid enough in the minds of those reckless residents of the Roaring '20s, however, to bring forth a few tangible answers about Roz and her tinseled tenure on the board[s] of the Saranac Lake tent theater.
We know that she was a very beguiling and lovely girl whose sights were set squarely on stardom, and if Saranac Lake was to provide the springboard to fame, she was more than willing to begin here.
Beanie Barnet, a direct lineal descendant of the past glory of the village, said the first time he saw Rosalind Russell in the tent theater, he ran up to Jacqmor's where he was working and told the girls in the shop that a beautiful and wondrous creature whom he could not help loving at first sight was starring in "The Cat and the Canary," and her screams could bring you right out of your seat.
The tent show was managed by a vaudeville performer from the Castle Square Theater in Boston who brought his stock company to this village because of its heady and cosmopolitan atmosphere.
Rosalind charmed everyone in town since she was extremely pretty and her beauty held up well once she had shaken the dust from the sawdust trail and taken her rightful place in Hollywood alongside Joan Crawford. Myrna Loy, Bette Davis and Paulette Goddard.
Rosalind had it here, and she had it there even more so, and her reign was long and illustrious.
And now they are trying to knock down the Hotel Alpine when all it needs is an electric sign over the marquee saying "Rosalind Russell Slept Here." This should restore business and keep Broadway prince Joe Isabella in command of the sinking hostelry!
Radio WNBZ tried to resurrect enough information on Rosalind Russell to piece together a local paragraph to insert with the national obituary while the Enterprise left it entirely to UPI news service, so Saranac Lake was not mentioned in that sad epic as published on the date of her passing.
She celebrated an occasional thespian triumph at the Mt. Baker Club on Moody Pond and apparently sat at the table next to Dutch Shultz on one occasion when the notorious beer baron was traveling incognito to the Canadian border.
Why do we always remember the girls so vividly and pass over the male luminaries? It is usually Faye Dunaway, Veronica Lake arid Doris Kenyan who become our conversation pieces. Doris, an Au Sable Forks girl, achieved Hollywood stardom and in the recent Nov. 15 facsimile of the first issue of the Enterprise as a dally in 1926, she was on the playbill opposite Warner Baxter at the Pontiac.
Rosalind was close to one family here in the village and sent trunks of clothes to Rosalind Ruminat whom she looked upon with affection from her days in the village and who lived on Forest Hill Avenue.
One thing comes through strongly in all the bits and scattered mementos of this charming actress. While in Saranac Lake she was highly thought of and her warmth and affection were limitless to those whom she came to know and admire and … yes … depend upon!
We will continue to include Rosalind Russell in our sentimental history book. It's a shame that more people who had even a tenuous relationship with this exceptional woman failed to come forward to add a measure to what is already known.
See also: 27 Lake Street
1. A recent biography suggests that Russell may have come to Saranac Lake as early as 1927. See Dick, Bernard F. Forever Mame: the life of Rosalind Russell, University of Mississippi Press, 2006, p. 21 Full text here