New Drama for Ursula Back in the States

Ursula Cheshire

Ursula in costume for “The Sin of David,” a play by Stephen Phillips (Los Angeles 1926)

As befitting a young woman whose life had thus far largely centered on the theater, Ursula experienced plenty of personal drama in the space of just over one year. Between May 1924 and mid-June 1925, she graduated from the University of California at Berkeley; studied at a castle in France with famous opera star Emma Calvé; toured parts of Europe with her fellow students; began an Italian romance, got engaged and married; separated from her new husband; and returned to California with her mother.

In the year between her homecoming (June 1925) and the issuance of her divorce decree (August 1926), Ursula returned to her steadfast love: the theater.

Gamut Club

1926 photo of the Gamut Club (Los Angeles), where Ursula acted in “The Sin of David.”

Both Ursula and her mother acted in the United States premiere of The Sin of David, a play by Stephen Phillips, who was the author of “Nero,” the college production in which Ursula danced and played the poisoner Locusta. Produced by Ursula’s esteemed childhood Shakespeare teacher Florence A. Dobinson, the play opened on May 17, 1926 at Los Angeles’s Gamut Club, a men’s musical and arts society.

Ursula Cheshire

Ursula in costume for “The Sin of David”; photo taken on Browning Blvd, Los Angeles, 1926

Set in the seventeenth century during the English civil war between Charles I. and the Parliament, The Sin of David is based on the Biblical story of King David and Bathsheba. (In a nutshell: From his rooftop, David spies on Bathsheba bathing, summons her, has sex with and impregnates her [his “sin”], and sends her husband to his death. David and Bathsheba marry; their son dies in infancy. They conceive a second son, Solomon, who eventually succeeds David as King of Israel.)

I don’t know whom Ursula played in Sin of David. The principal female character strums a mandolin towards the beginning of the drama, but even though Ursula was photographed in costume holding some sort of mandolin (in the outdoor photo), she did not play the lead role (Miss Mary Isabelle Alpaugh had that honor).

While L.A. Times drama critic Edwin Schallert offered a less-than-stellar review of the play, he did note that the actors included “the youngster Ursula Cheshire, whom the audience enjoyed exceedingly.” Go, Ursula!

The Sin of David play review

“L.A. TImes” review of “The Sin of David,” May 19, 1926

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Ursula’s Teachers: The Best in the West

Ursula, age 11

At age 11, Ursula was a student at the Egan School of Drama in Los Angeles

I couldn’t contain my curiousity any longer, and finally paged through the entire album to get a sneak peek of the clues to come. While I didn’t read all the newsclippings or the penciled photo captions, I became even more intrigued and eager to keep going on this historical adventure.

In the last post, we learned about Frank C. Ego (I mean, Egan), the director of Ursula’s drama school. In this post, we meet Ursula’s other esteemed instructors, starting with dramatic teacher Florence A. Dobinson, the “best Shakespeare coach on [the] Pac[ific] coast,” according to the inscription on the back of the Russian dancer photo.

Described in the LA Times as “a pioneer in the study of drama and its allied arts,” Mrs. Dobinson joined the Egan School faculty in 1911. Prior to that, she taught at the Dobinson School of Expression, established by her husband, George A. Dobinson, probably around 1908. Mr. Dobinson, LA’s “dean of local dramatic critics” and a real estate pioneer, died after a short illness in 1910. The Dobinson school sebsequently closed, and Mrs. Dobinson then taught at the Egan School, possibly until 1915, when she established a school for training of the speaking voice, called the Florence Dobinson Studios of Expression and Dramatic Arts. Apparently, Mrs. Dobinson taught Ursula well. From the inscription, we learn that Ursula played Ophelia in the “mad scene from Hamlet…on every dramatic program of the Egan Dramatic sch[ool] at 11 yrs [old].” (What I would give to have seen that; guess I’ll have to settle for YouTube snippets of modern performances like this one by Maria Gale on BBC.)

Ursula also sang in Thomas Taylor Drill’s Children’s Choir. Head of the school’s music department and Ursula’s opera coach, Drill was born in England and grew up in New York City, where he was an accomplished young choral singer. When he was a young man living in Minneapolis, according to a book published in 1895, he was “known better than any other vocalist west of Chicago [where he later resided], and being but a young man, his many admirers anticipate for him a career of unusual success and renown.” They were not wrong. By 1911, when he moved to Los Angeles to head the vocal department of the Egan School, he was described by the press as “the foremost American vocal authority” and “one of the most interesting additions to the Los Angeles music colony this year.”

Senora Matildita in 1906, San Francisco

Senora Matildita in 1906, San Francisco

Ursula learned dancing under the tutelage of Spanish dancer Senora Matildita. In 1895, publicity for a burlesque piece called “The Black Crook-Up-to-Date,” in which Matildita performed the headline act, noted that she was “actually the premiere danseuse to the Court of Spain.” In 1904, Matildita was teaching dance in San Francisco at Paul Gerson’s School of Acting. In 1907, The San Francisco Call newspaper published a hilarious article about Matildita teaching Spanish dance to “society girls.” As of 1913, she had joined the Egan School. I found a 1940 article in the Las Cruces Sun-News mentioning Matildita as having “trained many movie stars.”

“Herr Müller from Heidleburg,” who taught Ursula fencing, remains a mystery; I was not able to find any information about him.

Until next time…

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