26 Jan John H. Wise – Noblesville Playwright
John H. Wise – Noblesville Playwright
By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian
With the creation of the new Noblesville Cultural Arts District, it’s good to look at the history of some of the different kinds of arts in town. There has been quite a variety – in fact, over a century ago, Noblesville even had its own playwright. His success depends on how you define it, but he did make an impact.
John H. “Johnnie” Wise (1860-1941) was born on a farm near Carmel and came to Noblesville in 1873. He married in 1882 and had one child. In 1888, he started a newsstand and stayed in that business for the rest of his life. Apparently, he never had many financial problems. His mother-in-law inherited a large sum of money in 1891, which presumably came down through the family. He had a nice house on Clinton Street and a farm on North Cumberland Road. When he died, he left an estate of $13,000.
He was also in the theater business. He started the Home Theater on Logan Street in 1906, which was supposedly the first movie house in Noblesville, (although the Wild Opera House had been showing short films with plays for several years). The theater later became the Vaudette and had live acts to go with the films. Wise eventually sold that theater and worked with other businessmen in 1919 to create the Olympic theater, later renamed the Diana.
A biographical article in 1928 pointed out that there were two sides to his character – the solid businessman and the idealistic writer. He started writing early in his life and had a short story published in a Chicago paper in 1881. His playwriting career began in 1897 when he wrote and copyrighted Forsaken: An Emotional Play. A production was mounted at the Wild Opera House on November 2 and the cast was:
Vivian Vane, the country girl who is forsaken – Leota Fodrea
Gerald Wayne, the false lover – Charles W. Craft
Edith Reid, the city girl and unloved wife – Marie Dold
Eva Vane, Vivian’s sister – Maude K. Wise (the playwright’s daughter)
Sam Patch, the farm hand – Hugh G. Brock
Gypsy Madge, an old fortune teller – Daisy Fariss
Mrs. Vane, Vivian’s mother – Florence E. Ross (the company manager’s wife)
Mary, Edith’s maid – Maude K. Wise (doubling)
A city thief – Hugh G. Brock (doubling)
The company manager was William Ross. Thirty years later, Leota Fodrea would be remembered as one of the most beautiful and talented girls in town and it was said that she did a “wonderful portrayal” in the play. According to both of the newspapers in town, her acting and singing carried the show, despite the fact she had never been on stage before and had only graduated from high school in May. Her life would take some bizarre twists in later years, but that’s another blog post.
The show was a huge success – it sold out almost immediately and a second night was added. On the opening night, the playwright was called out for a speech at the end of the second act and a large floral tribute given to him. The cast had a photo taken and the manager talked about taking the show on the road. This never materialized
The sequel to the play, Forgiven, was written and copyrighted in 1898. The two plays were then performed together at the Opera House – Forsaken on Tuesday, November 15, and Forgiven on Wednesday, November 16. The cast members were many of the same people who had performed the year before. This time, the house was only about half full for each show, but the actors did a good job. Ernest Carey and Fred Johnson were pointed out. There was backstage drama as well. William Ross and Daisy Fariss, abandoned their respective spouses and ran off together. The newspaper made the comment “And so this will be a sequel to ‘Forsaken’ that will not be ‘Forgiven’”. This led local ministers to preach about the “wickedness of theater”. In the end, ticket receipts covered the production expenses, but not payment to the actors.
In 1902, Wise combined the two plays, rewrote them, and retitled the final product Man’s Work. He had the Gentry Stock Company, a professional troupe performing at the Opera House in April 1903, mount a production. (I don’t know if he paid them or convinced them.) Despite having only a few hours of rehearsal, the local paper said it was an enjoyable show.
Wise revived the play in 1908 with a three-week tour around Indiana. He hired professional actors from Chicago and rehearsed them at the Vaudette. The show opened in Martinsville on September 5, then went to Greencastle (Sept. 11), Lafayette (Sept. 14), and Noblesville (Sept. 19). The Martinsville production got a short promotional piece in Billboard magazine. Despite a good reception back in Noblesville, the Indianapolis Star said that the audiences were small and the tour became unprofitable.
The plays are typical melodramas of the time and would be considered too over-the-top for modern audiences. The plot is too convoluted to go into detail here, but it’s about a married man who falls in love with another woman, but doesn’t want to give up his wife. He abandons the other woman and (spoiler alert) she dies. He is eventually forgiven and marries her sister after his wife dies.(!) Even though Man’s Work was called “the great woman’s play”, the attitude towards women is not up to today’s standards.
There is a copy of the two plays, Forsaken and Forgiven, in the Indiana Room. However, you can actually read Forgiven online.
If you’re really interested, you can order a copy from Amazon.