Biographies for Children
oseph, or as he was always called, Joe Jefferson was a great actor. And there is never much talk of theaters, actors, and plays but some one is apt to say: "Ah, but you should have seen Joe Jefferson in Rip Van Winkle!" All Americans are very proud of the fact that this man was born in the United States; that he lived and died here. There have been four actors in the Jefferson family by the name of Joseph, but it was Joe Jefferson Number Three who played the part of the queer old Dutchman, Rip Van Winkle, for thirty years, whose life is told of now.
Joe was born in Philadelphia, but his parents went to Washington soon after. They lived in a house whose back hall led right into the side entrance of a theater. As soon as he could walk about by himself, little Joe used to run through this hall and play all day long in the empty theater, behind the scenes. Out in that part of the old building there were all kinds of stage settings piled up behind the wings. There were large pieces of canvas painted to look like an Italian lake, or an English garden, or a Roman palace. There was a tiny cottage, with a real door just big enough for Joe to squeeze through and slam behind him. He used to pretend that he owned this cottage. There were throne chairs for the make-believe kings and queens to sit in, a robber's cave, and a lovely board and canvas bank, covered with moss and flowers. Two or three children often joined Joe here, and they gave plays which they made up themselves. Oh, it was such an odd, exciting place to play in!
In the dressing-room of this old theater was a large mirror, and Joe loved to stand before this and act little bits of certain plays which he had heard his parents recite. His mother was a singer, and his father both an actor and manager, so Joe, being just across the hall, was often carried on to the stage when some play called for a baby or small child. Then, too, some evenings he would escape from his nurse, and, in his night-dress, peep in through the door of the dressing-room and watch the actors making up for their parts.
When Joe was four, a friend of the family was making a great success of a negro part called "Jim Crow." A good deal of dancing and singing went with it, and it was no time at all before little Joe could copy the man perfectly. This made Rice, the friend, pleased enough, and he insisted that Joe should go through the part in public. Rice was more than six feet tall, and Joe was a tiny four-year-old child. You don't wonder, I am sure, when the two stood on the stage, side by side, dressed exactly alike, that the audience shouted with laughter. First the big Jim Crow would sing a verse and dance, and then the tiny Jim would do the same. The people in the audience kept clapping their hands for more and threw silver coins on to the stage for the child, until stage hands, after the curtain went down, picked up twenty-four dollars and gave them to Joe.
In spite of Joe's being most carefully trained by his parents to tell the truth and say his prayers, he did, when he was small, let his fancy run away with him sometimes, and to a dear old lady, always dressed in stiffly starched frills, black gown and mitts, who kept a book and notion store, he told stories of horrors that never really happened. No doubt he liked to see her hold up her hands in dismay as he described some imaginary runaway accident, and no doubt he liked to have her run to bring him a nice, cool drink to "steady his nerves after such a shocking sight!"
Belonging to an actor's family means, of course, living in many different cities. Joe had known Philadelphia, Washington, and New York well when the Jefferson family went to Illinois. As Springfield was the capital of that State, and the men attending the legislature would swell the audiences, Joe's father decided to build a theater there. Just as it was finished, the ministers of the place began to preach against allowing a theater there at all. They preached to such good effect that the city council put a tremendous tax on the building, so big a tax that poor Mr. Jefferson could not begin to pay it, for he had used every dollar he had in building the theater. While he was wondering what he would do, a young lawyer of Springfield came to him and said that, as he thought the tax was out of all reason, he would agree to bring the matter before the council, free of charge. Well--this lawyer made such a strong plea, and got the members of the council into such gales of laughter with his funny stories, that the tax was removed, and Mr. Jefferson opened his playhouse and made a good deal of money.
The young lawyer's name was Abraham Lincoln!
Tennessee proved an unlucky State for the Jeffersons. At Memphis there had been a money panic, and people had no heart for theaters. Joe's father had always known how to paint scenery, and now he advertised to paint signs, but did not get many orders. Joe heard that a law was passed that all carts, drays, and carriages in the city of Memphis must bear numbers. He went to the mayor's house and rang the bell. "Please, Mr. Mayor," he said, "I'm Joe Jefferson's son."
"Oh, yes, my boy; I've seen both you and your father on the stage."
"Well, Sir, my father can paint signs as well as act, and now that the theaters are closed he is glad of outside work. Couldn't you please give him the contract to paint the numbers on your city carriages?"
The mayor's eyes twinkled. He was pleased with the business-like way of the boy and granted his request. The money from this work was a help, and right after that a rich man hired Joe's father to paint Scottish scenes on the walls of his reception hall, so they were getting on quite comfortably when poor Mr. Jefferson was taken ill and died. This meant that Joe and his sister must leave school and go to work. Mrs. Jefferson opened a boarding-house, and the two children joined a traveling theatrical company. They did fancy dancing and sang comic duets, and ever so many times when they pretended to laugh, they were so tired and homesick that they wanted to cry. Sometimes Joe would be given a few lines to speak in some play. It seemed as if he would never get a chance to show what talent he really had. But he studied all his spare time and watched great actors carefully, because he intended to win a high place on the stage some day.
By and by Laura Keene, an actress who had a theater of her own in New York, let him try a leading character in a play that ran one hundred and fifty nights. There was not one of these performances at which the audience did not applaud young Joe Jefferson and say they wanted to see him in something else. And when they did see him in Dickens's Cricket on the Hearth, as dear old Caleb Plummer, and as Bob Acres in The Rivals, they exclaimed: "This young man is a wonder! Why, he knows the whole art of acting!" But Joe Jefferson did not think he knew half enough. He kept on studying for he meant to improve still more.
Finally, after he had become quite famous in half a dozen different parts, in this country, in England, and Australia, he began giving the most wonderful play of all--the one always called his masterpiece--"Rip Van Winkle." In a few years he had all the fame, wealth, and praise that a man could ask for. The little fellow who, at four years of age, was blacked up to dance "Jim Crow" and gathered twenty-four dollars for his queer antics, forty years later could easily count on a thousand dollars for one night's appearance in Rip Van Winkle. But we must not forget how hard and patiently he had worked for this. We must not forget what he had actually done. He had educated himself so that he had friends among the most cultivated people in the world; he was quoted as one of the most polished and finished actors in America; and he had earned enough money to bring up his own children in luxury.
Joe Jefferson had a lovely old age. He bought a large southern estate, where he spent the winter months, and he owned a summer home at Buzzard's Bay, Massachusetts, where he fished and painted pictures to his heart's content, and where he entertained many distinguished people. After he stopped playing, except once in a while, and intended to retire from the stage, every now and then there would be such a call for him that he would consent to give "Rip Van Winkle" just once more. He must have been about perfect in this play, else how is it that old theater-goers look so happy and satisfied when they say: "Ah, you should have seen the great Joe Jefferson in Rip Van Winkle!"