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Henrietta Crossman

Biography: 

(1861-1944)

Daughter of Major George Crossman of Cleveland, and raised in upper-class comfort, Henrietta Crossman became one of the major dramatic talents of the final decades of the 19th century. She debuted in 1882, secured a place in the Madison Square Theatre Company, and initially impressed audiences with her way with comedy in roles such as Edith in "The Private Secretary." Ambitious, she shifted allegiances between theaters and managers in pursuit of leading roles.

In fall of 1886, Crossman signed with Edmund K. Collier of the People's Theatre in New York, playing Kate in "Jack Cade." After stints with Robert Downing in "The Gladiator" (1887-88) and 1889, she found herself back at Madison Square Theatre in "Pine Meadows." Crossman did not register in the public mind as a star until 1892, when as a member of Charles Frohman's Lyceum Theatre company at the Hermann Theater in New York she played Mrs. Lovering in the transatlantic farce "Gloriana." It had taken her a decade to arrive.

In "Gloriana," Crossman discovered that her impression on the audience directly correlated with the energy and speed she exerted on stage. Since farces, the genre that exploits speed of action most insistently, are notoriously difficult to craft into successful stage shows, Crossman when not performing drawing room shenanigans looked to the other dramatic genre that made use of such energy, swashbuckling adventure romances. 1900's "Mistress Nell" became one of the triumphs of her career.

In 1903 while her company was playing the Pike Street Theater in Cincinnati, a fire destroyed Crossman's entire assets--props, payroll, and costumes. Her starring role in "Sweet Kitty Bellairs" the next year recouped the loss and established Crossman as the most subtle comedian of the stage, capable of portraying the volatile moods of the title character with delicacy and force. 1906's "All of a Sudden Peggy" was a further demonstration of her virtuoso emotionality.

Crossman had a particular fascination with trouser parts, and played travesty heroes in several of her costume adventures--"Mistress Nell," "The Sword of the King," and "The Country Boy." In each of these roles she wore top boots, which became something of signature for her. She made a brief foray into silent motion pictures in 1914 in the pantomime version of the stage play "The Unwelcome Mrs. Hatch."

Sound film however reanimated her career, and she enjoyed a healthy second life in movies playing grannies, comic older aunts, and dowagers. This second life was made possible by Edna Ferber who cast her as Fanny Cavendish the matriarch of the famous English acting clan who insists on acting after her shelf date has expired. "The Royal Family of Broadway" (1930), in which she starred alongside Ina Claire, reintroduced the performing community to Crossman's extraordinary craft as an actress. David S. Shields/ALS