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 Murders a Roman Emperor

Ursula poses in costume for a photographer ostensibly taking publicity pictures for  "Nero," a Roman tragedy produced by the English Club at UC Berkeley around 1922

Ursula poses in costume for a photographer ostensibly taking publicity pictures for “Nero,” a Roman tragedy produced by the English Club at UC Berkeley around 1922

As a junior at UC Berkeley, Ursula danced and played the poisoner Locusta in the English Club's play "Nero,"  a tragedy by Stephen Phillips

As a junior at UC Berkeley, Ursula danced and played the poisoner Locusta in the English Club’s play “Nero,” a tragedy by Stephen Phillips

In an earlier post I mistakenly noted that Ursula played the wife of the Roman emperor Nero in a college production of the English dramatist Stephen Phillips’s tragedy, “Nero.” In reality, she was cast in the small role of Locusta, the infamous poisoner who, according to ancient historians, supplied the toxin to murder the fourth Roman Emperor, Claudius, at the behest of his wife, Agrippina. (Agrippina wanted Nero, her son from a previous marriage, to become emperor of Rome.)

From the San Francisco Chronicle, April 28, 1922

From the San Francisco Chronicle, April 28, 1922

In addition to that role, Ursula, our “Mystery Dancer,” danced with other young women in a scene featuring a great banquet held during the burning of Rome — “the most spectacular part of the play,” according to the Blue and Gold yearbook. Produced by the English Club during Ursula’s junior year and performed in the Greek theater, the play “set a new standard for campus drama, and added another achievement to [the club’s] splendid record.”

At some point during the play’s production, a photographer took pictures of Ursula and the other dancers in costume under the pretext that the photos were to be used for publicity. The women, who had given their consent for this use, were upset upon learning that the photographs actually were intended for publication in the Blue and Gold yearbook.

According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Ursula headed the group in protest and demanded that the photos not be printed. She and the other dancers felt that the poses arranged by the photographer, while apparently acceptable for publicity shots, “were such that they were not proper for the formal yearbook.” As a result, Dean of Women Lucy Stebbins called a meeting between Ursula and the yearbook publishers, and it was agreed that the pictures would be kept out of the yearbook.

I am thankful that, while not deemed suitable for the yearbook, the photograph of Ursula in Roman dress did make it into the antique photo album! It is one of my favorite pictures, and contributed to my desire to buy the album and discover and share Ursula’s story.

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