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Cecilia Loftus

Biography: 

(1876-1943)

Versatile, mercurial, and something of a contrarian, Cecilia "Cissie" Loftus, enjoyed careers as a vaudeville headlining mimic, a dramatic leading lady on the legitimate stage, a composer and lyricist of musical comedies, and a character actress. Born in Scotland, daughter of a star of the burlesques, she made her initial impressions in the English music hall.

Her 1895 American debut at Koster & Bial's Music Hall in New York established her as a genius of evoking other performers' (Sarah Bernhardt, Yvette Guilbert, Lettie Lind, Albert Chevalier, Hayden Coffin, May Erwin, Fay Templeton) singing and acting styles. At the beginning of her act she would emerge coyly, almost shyly from the rear of the stage, walk slowly to stage center and pronounce the single word, "Imitations," and then launch into virtuoso mix of singing and declamation in other people's voices and gesture languages. Observers characterized her as a whole body performer blessed with so masterful an ability to inhabit another character that it seemed artless. It was this quality that convinced theatre managers that she could perform as a dramatic lead. E.H. Sothern did most instructing her in dramatic art.

In 1899 Loftus temporarily left vaudeville to star in the London production of "His Excellency the Governor." Sir Henry Irving and Charles Frohman vied to sign her as a leading lady. She worked for both. Her greatest hits were as the heroine in "Richard Lovelace," Katherine de Vaucelles in "If I were King," and as Ophelia in "Hamlet."

At the turn of the 20th century, she appeared in opera starring in the Castle Square Theatre's production of Audran's "The Mascot" and in Humperdinck's "The Children of the King in London." This experience with comic opera convinced her she could become a composer and lyricist as well. She began penning popular songs, including several hits for May Erwin. She provided scores for several Broadway productions: "The Belle of Bridgeport" (1900), "Madge Smith Attorney" (1900), and "The Lancers" (1907). Loftus was herself one of the first singers to record her repertoire on wax cylinder devices.

Loftus's mercurial genius led to certain less than healthy behaviors. Fascinated with the operation of publicity, she began to play with the news, feigning dire illnesses and periodically "falling" into deep waters in order to be saved. She treated contracts with a cavalier willfulness and would break engagements or doublebook herself. Her imagined medical conditions blended at times with actual illness, and a demand for drugs and alcohol that periodically rendered her unfit to perform. Marriage to a physician gave her, curiously enough, unrestricted access to these crutches.

A 1920 divorce and several humiliations shocked her into a mid-1920s rejection of drugs, although she would never entirely free herself from alcohol. But in the late 1920s she resurrected her career, playing matrons on Broadway and in movies. David S. Shields/ALS