Walkabout: America’s Best Bad Actor, Corse Payton, Part 2

Corse Payton, Etta Reed Payton and servant, backstage at their theater, 1903. Photo: Museum of the City of New York

Corse Payton, Etta Reed Payton and servant, backstage at their theater, 1903. Photo: Museum of the City of New York

Read Part 1 of this story.

In our last post, we met Corse Payton, self-billed as “America’s Best Bad Actor.” He enjoyed an extremely popular stage career at the end of the 19th century, working well into the Depression years. Like many New York City success stories, Payton’s began in the Midwest, as a county sheriff’s wayward son, in a town called Centerville, Iowa. For more of his early exploits, please see Part One of our story.

After many years of successfully touring Midwestern states and cities, Corse Payton, along with his wife and leading lady, Etta Reed, turned their sights to New York, specifically Brooklyn. The Great White Way of Manhattan’s theater district was legendary, but so too was Brooklyn’s huge collection of theaters, spread throughout the city.

Downtown Brooklyn was one large theater hub. Another was Williamsburg, and it was here that their company put down roots. From here they could take all of New York by storm.

In 1900, Corse Payton and his troupe came to Brooklyn. With the last of his funds, he paid $5,000 for the old Lee Avenue Academy of Music, on the corner of Lee and Roebling, renaming the theater Corse Payton’s Lee Avenue Theater.

In the days before radio and television, theater was huge entertainment, and everyone, highborn and low, loved a popular comedy, a sappy melodrama, or a musical extravaganza. Payton would join a busy theater circuit and would continue to offer his tried and true admission fare: ten, twenty, or thirty cent tickets. This formula would not let him down in Brooklyn, either. He would be a huge success.

In March of 1900, the Brooklyn Eagle announced that the new Corse Payton Lee Avenue Theater would open for business that fall. This would be the first announcement introducing the company to New York.

But while the theater was being refurbished, “by the finest architects in the land”, according to the paper, Corse and his troupe played Brooklyn and Manhattan, appearing at other theaters throughout the city.

One ad, featuring Corse and his wife Etta, is labeled “Corse Payton and his company, the 20th century theatrical miracle!” “Every play a gorgeous scenic production”, the copy reads, along with the announcement that “Mr. Corse Payton carries his own furniture, rugs, carpets, portieres, sofa pillows and bric-a-brac used in his mammoth productions.” Somehow I don’t think they meant that literally.

During their run at the Grand Opera House, also in Williamsburg, the paper announced that after Monday’s matinees, Miss Etta Reed would give one of her famous “Elite Orange Teas” on the stage after the show.

All ladies and their daughters attending the show were invited. A chance to hobnob with the famous actress, and perhaps meet her famous husband couldn’t be passed up. The events were a huge success.

Corse Payton was a canny businessman. While his theater was being renovated, he was out making money to fund the renovations, and put a roof over his head, as well as making a name for himself in the crowded theatrical world of Brooklyn and New York.

Unlike his previous trip to the city, where he had wined and dined theater impresarios, this time, they were wining and dining him. The company was booked in successive runs in theater after theater, until the curtain was ready to lift on his own theater.

On September 3, 1900, Payton’s theater had its grand opening. The Brooklyn Eagle reported that “Corse Payton entered the list of Brooklyn theater proprietors under most auspicious conditions yesterday, and if the audiences continue as large as they were at this opening performance he may regret not having builded [sic] an addition to the Lee Avenue house which now bears his name.

There was little standing room that night, and what few feet there were hardly served to accommodate the enthusiasm which bubbled upon every possible occasion.”

The Eagle would later report that the new Payton’s theater was now quite beautiful. Corse knew his stuff, and had had his architects and decorators redesign the old Music Hall so completely that nothing of the old hall was still visible.

The paper praised the stage, ceilings, floors and carpets, new draperies and seating. The boxes had been redesigned, and a large reception area had been created for Miss Etta Reed to have her teas and soirees. The building was given more and larger exits, making it safer, and the theater boasted of having more exists than any other Brooklyn theater.

Large offices for Corse and his theater manager were created in the theater, and for the actors in his troupe, rooms were made available in the building next door, as were new and larger rooms to store costumes, scenery and props.

Payton ran ads in the Eagle almost every other day, his repertoire of shows was vast, and his theater soon became one of the busiest and most popular theaters in Brooklyn. At a time when stock theater companies were going out of business, Payton’s was growing, rotating a series of shows which included everything from a large dramatic production of the sword and sandal Biblical epic “Quo Vadis”, to a turgid tragedy called “The Octoroon, a tale of Louisiana.”

Payton did not star in “Quo Vadis,” by the way, he imported a dramatic leading man for that one. Etta took the stage as the tragic Octoroon.

And so it went. Corse Payton’s Lee Avenue Theater did very well for over ten years. As vaudeville began to replace other forms of theater, the theater added variety shows to the beginning of their evening’s entertainment. Many famous actors of the period got their start with Corse and Company.

The Gish sisters, Lillian and Dorothy were cast members, as was Mary Pickford and Ed Wynn, along with lesser known names such as Richard Bennett, who was the hero of “Quo Vadis,” and Ernest Truex, Mary Miles Minter, and, according to some sources, Mae West.

The Payton’s were the toast of the town; both Corse and Etta were frequent guests at parties and events. Corse was often asked to perform at charity events, which he usually did.

He and Etta became quite active in various Brooklyn charities that sponsored Christmas shows for children, lending the theater for such events, filling the seats with poor children who were treated to a show, a meal and gifts. In 1902, Mrs. Sittig’s Christmas Tree Club was the recipient of their generosity, hosting a full house full of children.

He first gained the sobriquet “America’s Best Bad Actor” somewhere during this time, supposedly the creation of the cartoonist known as “Tad.” He embraced it, and began to use it in his advertising. The first decade of the 20th century was the Payton’s glory years.

Everything was going fabulously. When the Queen of Austria’s jewels came on the market in 1902, Corse was in line to bid on some of the fabulous baubles for his wife, boasting that he would display them around the neck of a gold washed, life-sized statue of Etta Reed that graced the theater lobby.

In 1905, he announced that he was going to build a new hotel in Williamsburg, since he was unable to find a first class luxury hotel for himself and Etta to live in. It was going to be on Havemeyer Street and Broadway, across from the new East River Bridge Plaza. He was also going to build a bungalow in the beach community of Far Rockaway, where he often summered and entertained guests.

Of course we all know this can’t last. And it didn’t. By 1912, business was beginning to suffer. Vaudeville was becoming much more popular than stage shows, and while Corse offered vaudeville acts in his shows, they were secondary to the plays themselves.

There were law suits filed by patrons who blamed the theater for slip and fall accidents. And then in 1915, Corse’s beloved Etta died. In her will she left nothing to Corse, to the shock of many, dividing her estate between her mother and her son, Gustave Reed Payton.

Her largest asset was ownership of the Jones Theater, on Fulton Street and Grand Avenue. She had opened it as Mrs. Payton’s Playhouse, in 1903, dedicated to women in the theater. The house would run plays and entertainment for women, and featured all-female ushers and orchestra members. It only lasted two years, and became a vaudeville house, but Etta owned it until her death.

That same year, Corse Payton’s Lee Avenue Theater closed. Later reports, including Corse’s obituary in the NY Times, say that he closed it when the BMT ran the elevated line through his balcony, but theater historians say that that couldn’t have been the same building as the one on Lee Avenue.

He may have just taken the story and claimed it as his own, it was his style. Corse left Brooklyn, and took up residence in Manhattan, at the Academy of Music, on 14th Street. He would marry again; his second wife was also an actress, a woman named Henrietta Brown.

In 1921, Corse declared bankruptcy. He stated in court papers that he owed creditors $9,000, and he had no assets. Although he and his company had been pulling in up to $6,000 a week at the Academy of Music, at times, he was still broke after rent and expenses were paid.

The movies were also taking their toll, as the entertainment habits of Americans were changing. His former players, such as Lillian Gish, were making the movies more popular than ever, and vaudeville and stage plays were on the wane.

Somehow, he emerged from that experience, and went on to build Keeney’s Theater in Newark, returning to New York to the Carlton Theater in Jamaica, Queens. Both theaters would become movie houses. In December of 1933, Corse came down with pneumonia. He recovered, and returned to his home at 72 Tompkins Avenue, but developed heart disease, and weeks later, was in the hospital again, where he died, on February 23, 1934. He was 67.

His obit in the Times called him a matinee idol, and said that during his lifetime, he had gone from making over $100,000 a year, to not knowing where his next meal would come from. He took both in stride, was never worried about it, and was an actor, both on stage and off.

He was survived by Henrietta, who would pass away in 1958, an actress to the end. Gustave Payton, his son with Etta, drops off the face of the earth. When his mother died, the lawyers were unable to find him. He is never mentioned, either before or since. A mystery in the otherwise open book that was Corse Peyton’s amazingly full life. GMAP

Newspaper ad. Brooklyn Eagle, 1900

Site of Corse Payton’s Lee Avenue Theater. This building is not the original theater. Photo: Cinema Treasures

Corse Payton’s Lee Ave Theater. From: “The Romance of a Western Boy” by Gertrude Andrews

Interior of theater, Illustration: Brooklyn Eagle, 1900

Corse Payton’s theater. 1901. Photo: Museum of the City of New York

Portrait from Corse Payton’s biography, by Gertrude Andrews.

Gold washed statue of Etta Reed. Photograph: “The Romance of a Western Boy” by Gertrude Andrews

Corse Payton, obituary photo, New York Times, 1934

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