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John Lester Wallack

Biography: 

(1820-1888)

Famed Broadway theatrical manager and director, John Lester Wallack grew up in an English acting family, yet to avoid having his career confused with that of his father, James William Wallack, he appeared for years after his 1847 debut as "Mr. Lester" on playbills. Though born in America, he crossed the Atlantic to make his reputation on British stages. American impresario George Barrett hired him to play in New York after the young actor's failed engagement at the Haymarket in London. Wallack's appearance and his ease on stage impressed Barrett, who cast him as Sir. Charles Coldstream in the farce "Used Up" at the Broadway Theatre in 1847. Barrett's hunch proved correct; the New York audience loved the young Wallack's comic acting.

From the first he excelled portraying English type characters and romantic leads. In his youth his professional colleagues considered Wallack the model lead: handsome, decisive, and intense. A fixture first at the Bowery Theatre, he moved to the troubled Old Broadway Theatre in late 1848 and saved it from bankruptcy with a long running version of "The Count of Monte Cristo." In 1852 he agreed to manage his father's troupe and house, leading the Old Wallack's Theatre uptown on the corner of Broadway and Broome. He presided over the house under its removal to the corner of Broadway and 13th Street in 1861.

It was with the opening of the second Wallack's theatre that he rechristened himself "Lester Wallack" in publicity. This theatre would be, during the third quarter of the 19th century the temple of legitimate theatre in America. He secured the greatest English talent, supported the classic repertoire, and premiere the best new French plays. He frequently appeared in offerings creating many memorable roles: Armand in "Camille," and Don Caesar de Bazan particularly. The list of the theater's successes - "London Assurance," "Fashion," "Diplomacy," "Money," "Home" - was equalled only by Daly's 5th Avenue Theatre.

Wallack became convinced that he could construct a more dramaturgically effective play than those being submitted to him by contemporary American playwrights, and so composed eight substantial melodramas and comedies, foremost among them "Rosedale," "Central Park," "First Impressions," and "The Four Musketeers." His success as both actor and manager as well as his desire for professionalism in acting attracted the finest talent of the 1860s and 1870s to his company. Yet his deep understanding of the pathologies of the performing profession, his tolerance of the temperament and whimsical imaginations of stagers, and his ingenuity in relieving the rivalries and persecution fantasies of his employees won him the love of his colleagues.

In 1882 the theatre moved again, but Wallack found himself increasingly beset by lameness and ill health. He surrendered control of the theater in 1887. The Acting Profession paid him a testimonial participating in a magnificent staging of "Hamlet" at the Metropolitan Opera House with Wallack in the title role and every other role taken by a luminary. It would be his final appearance on stage. He died in 1888 of apoplexy - beloved as one of the giants of the American stage. David S. Shields/ALS