Rollins Theater Is Named To Honor The Ethereal Actress Respected For Her Talent And Drive
Walking through the campus of Rollins College is like walking through a large outdoor museum. Many of the buildings represent more than beautiful architecture. They are part of the school’s rich history, evoking memories of men and women who defined the college. The Annie Russell Theatre is named for the woman who helped launch the theater department.
Annie Ellen Russell was born in 1864 in Liverpool and moved to Canada as a child, making her first stage performance in Montreal at the age of 8. She had her New York debut at 14 and soon toured the Caribbean and South America playing Josephine in H.M.S. Pinafore.
Her most memorable role while a teenager was as the title character in Esmerelda, a play by Frances Hodgson Burnett and William Gillette. But at age 19, after 900 performances in the role, Russell wanted to be seen as more than the “perfect ingénue,” according to Rollins College archives, and she “was already frustrated by playing roles known as ‘Annie Russell parts.’ In other words, even in 1883, being a household name wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, especially when one’s talents and intelligence stretched beyond the imagination of one’s producers.”
Fragile health forced Russell to take a break from the daily grind of a major role. In 1883, she joined an acting company at the New York Fifth Avenue Theatre along with her mother, Jane, and her younger brother, Tommy, performing the title role in Hazel Kirke. After a few months, Russell left the role to marry playwright and stage manager Eugene Wiley Presbrey, and together they formed a new theater company. Recurring illness caused her to take another break, but she returned to the stage in 1885 to perform in New York at the Madison Square Theatre and then Philadelphia.
In 1886 she was Maggie McFarland in Engaged, prompting a New York Times reviewer to write that Russell “imparts the charm that belongs to her delicate beauty.” Later that year she appeared in several productions on New York stages.
A starring role in Elaine prompted one reviewer to write, “The Elaine of Annie Russell was the ethereal being that a breath might have blown away, and who looked as if she might indeed fade away to death as her heart broke.” Following another bout of illness, she returned to the Madison Square Theatre company, joining a tour that took her as far west as San Francisco to perform in Partners. In 1889 she appeared in Captain Swift before illness forced another hiatus. For nearly five years, Russell endured chronic pain, and it was not known if she ever would return to the stage. In 1891, a benefit performance was held by three stage companies to raise funds to help offset her medical expenses.
A Busy Career
She regained her strength and resumed acting in New York in The New Woman and, once again, in Esmerelda. By 1895, she was appearing in an increasing number of plays in the United States and in Europe. After her 1896 divorce from Presbrey, she appeared in the United States in Bret Harte’s Sue and in several plays in London until she fell ill in 1899 and returned home to America to rest.
After a lighter schedule, she resumed her regular performances in 1902, and one of her better-known starring roles was in Mice and Men. In 1903, while starring in The Younger Mrs. Parling in Boston, she met English actor Oswald Yorke. They married the following year. Russell returned to London in 1905 to perform in George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara. Then it was back and forth between New York and London for the next few years.
Russell was much more than a performer. In 1912, she organized the Olde English Comedy Company and served as its director, as well as a featured performer in many plays. Her company occupied the intimate 299-seat Princess Theatre in New York and offered special matinees for children on Fridays and Saturdays until 1918.
Retire to Florida?
It wasn’t long before Russell decided it was time for another break from acting; not just a brief rest, but a true retirement. She was ill with influenza in 1917 and announced her decision to leave the stage and move to a home she already owned in Short Hills, N.J. By 1923, she decided that Florida was a better place to be and moved to St. Petersburg. In 1929, she divorced Yorke and, looking forward to a quiet retirement, bought a large home at 1420 Via Tuscany in Winter Park from Judge Leonard Hackney. However, her plans were changed by two strong-willed individuals.
One was Hamilton Holt, who had taken over as the president of Rollins College in 1925. In addition to the many changes he had made in the college curriculum and the faculty’s teaching methods, Holt wanted to add famous names to his faculty, and Russell certainly qualified.
The other person who influenced Russell was her close friend, Mary Louise Curtis Bok, the wife of the man responsible for the construction of the Bok Tower in Lake Wales. After her husband died in 1930, Bok married renowned violinist Efrem Zimbalist.
Mary Bok was a generous patron of the arts. In 1917 she donated $150,000 to Philadelphia’s Settlement Music House, which provided musical instruction to young immigrants. Seven years later she established the Curtis Institute of Music, which she named for her father, and by the time she died in 1970, her gifts to that school amounted to $12 million.
Theater Honors Russell Name
Bok encouraged Annie Russell to get involved with the dramatic arts program at Rollins College and agreed to fund the $100,000 construction cost of a campus theater if Russell would head the program as long as she was able. Russell agreed, and in 1931 construction of the theater named for her was begun. It was designed by the local architectural firm of Kiehnel & Elliot.
Originally, there were to be two theaters: the main indoor auditorium (which is in use today) and an open-air theater. Plans were changed, and the site of the proposed outdoor venue became the Chapel Gardens, located between the Annie Russell Theatre and Knowles Memorial Chapel.
Russell attended the laying of the theater’s cornerstone on Jan. 11, 1932, helping to cement it in place. The next month the college presented her with a Doctor of Humane Letters degree, and shortly after that she organized the Annie Russell Company of performers.
On March 29, 1932, she came out of retirement and performed in the Annie Russell Company production of In the Balcony, a play by Robert Browning. It was a fitting way to dedicate the theater named for her, with her first stage appearance in nearly 15 years. It was not her final performance. She instituted The Professional Artists Series with one or two student productions each year in her theater and played the lead in The Thirteenth Chair. Others she directed included Hedda Gabler and One Day of Spring. Her last appearance on stage was as Mrs. Malaprop in The Rivals.
A Driving Force
Annie Russell died on Feb. 24, 1936, and later that year the campus series of student plays was renamed the Annie Russell Series to honor the woman who was the driving force in establishing a quality program. She is buried in St. Stephen’s Cemetery in Milburn, N.J., beneath a stone that is engraved:
The curtain falls on a beloved player of many parts.
Another stone in her honor was dedicated two years ago on the Rollins College Walk of Fame. Her legacy of excellence of performance lives on in the beautiful theater that bears her name.
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