The renowned stage actress brought professionalism and panache to the Winter Park cultural scene. But her life was marred by physical illness and emotional turmoil. Meet the woman for whom the beautiful theater is named.
In the shadows, you can almost see her: a delicate figure gently leaning forward from a distant balcony seat. You can certainly feel her presence and sense her energy emanating from the walls of this historic theater on the Rollins College campus.
Annie Russell, for whom the Annie Russell Theater was named, was a celebrated, Irish-born stage actress who, in her heyday early in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, packed Broadway theaters and provincial playhouses in throughout the U.S. and Europe.
Disappointed in love and weakened by illness, she relocated to Winter Park in 1929. There she was recruited by Rollins president Hamilton Holt to join the faculty and bolster the college’s fledgling performing arts program.
Several years later she would give her final public performance in a beautiful new theater paid for by a wealthy friend. That theater celebrated its 80th season this year.
But who, exactly, was Annie Russell? She was a somewhat reluctant ingénue — she derisively referred to her more frothy roles as “anniegénues” — who seemed to choose unfortunate husbands and was prone to work herself into states of exhaustion.
Yet, even in old age, she retained the ability to charm. In 1934, a Winter Park resident name Irving Bacheller wrote an ode to the city’s resident celebrity:
A shining star that led a host from toilsome weary ways,
Enchantment in its light that eased the worry of our days!
But better than the world’s acclaim and trumpeted renown,
Is this great thing our lady knows — the love of a little town.
Russell was born in 1864 — although she sometimes gave the date as 1869, making her neither the first nor the last actress to fudge about her age — in Dublin, Ireland to poor, but hardworking parents, John and Jane Russell.
Although some sources give Russell’s birthplace as Liverpool, England, it appears that the family, including a younger sister and brother, didn’t move to Liverpool until Annie was 5 years old.
John Russell died shortly thereafter and the family relocated to Canada, where Annie found work as an actress in a Montreal theatre. At the age of 7, she debuted opposite Philadelphia-born actress Rose Eytinge, who counted President Abraham Lincoln among her fans, in a play called Miss Moulton.
Eytinge, according to theatrical lore, wanted an undersized adult to play Jeanne, the role for which Annie was angling. “I didn’t tell you to get me a child,” the actress complained to her manager. “Go out and scour the town, if necessary, but bring me someone who can act the role of Jeanne.”
Annie began to sob and Eytinge agreed to allow her to audition. The youngster won the role and, ultimately, the seasoned actress’ respect. “I was a timid little girl, and have always been very timid, so timid that they used to call me the startled fawn,” Russell later recalled. “But I was never afraid of an audience, and I did very well on the first appearance.”
After the run of Miss Moulton, Jane moved the family to New York so her daughter could pursue a career in the American theatre. In 1879, the 15-year-old was cast in a juvenile production of H.M.S. Pinafore, first as a member of the chorus then as Josephine, the female lead.
Next Russell toured the West Indies with a theatrical company headed by Edward A. MacDowell, a popular composer and pianist. During the seven-month stint she played a variety of roles, including boys and older women. “I learned more in that time than I could have gained in five years of work in a city theater,” Russell said.
In 1881, after fooling a director into believing she was older, Russell appeared at the Madison Square Theatre in Esmeralda, playing the title character. She would reprise the role more than 900 times in her career.
As she was cast in increasingly high-profile roles, reviewers fell under Russell’s spell. Amy Leslie, one of the few female drama critics of the day, wrote: “Annie Russell, without a ray of intention illumining her way, really created a new school, a distinct type of ingénue, frosty, sagacious, piquant, dewy, with girlish pathos and fateful youth.”
While on tour in Albany in 1884, Russell married Eugene Wiley Presbrey, a successful playwright and stage manager. But her groom was physically abusive, and after six years of marriage, her health collapsed.
“At the moment when fortune seemed smiling upon me, and when all that I had missed of youth and happiness in my childhood seemed about to be granted to my hungry heart, the storm clouds of physical and soul disaster broke over my girlish head,” she wrote. “My health was wrecked, my career cast asunder.”
Three prominent theater companies staged a testimonial that raised $3,000 to help defray Russell’s medical expenses. By 1891, she had recovered sufficiently to leave Presbrey and sail for Italy. She would divorce him in 1897 and rarely spoke of the marriage again. However, the physical and emotional hardships helped her to define her acting style.
“My ideals,” she explained, “were simplified, and I learned to know what I want — to be natural, and feelingly to express the truth, generally sad, of life.”
Russell returned to the New York stage, drawing rave reviews. “She is the same insubstantial, delicate, exquisite Annie Russell,” wrote one critic. Another noted: “Miss Russell is half celestial. She looks out from somewhere beyond, and always there is in her presence a suggestion of a tread that scarcely touches earth.”
In Sue, a successful Wild West romance, Russell played a young girl who marries a man she doesn’t love in a desperate attempt to escape her father’s brutality. Plaintive and sad-eyed, she was clearly credible as a tragic heroine.
Again, it was Leslie’s florid prose that most vividly described Russell’s ability to wring pathos from every line: “Miss Russell’s genius is as delicate, pliable and responsive as the sensitive strings of a harp. She is all force and emotion, all tears and fierceness, if called upon to reveal the intimations of misery; she is tender, timid, cool, innocent and arch if necessary.”
Plaintive looks and fragile sighs were, without a doubt, Russell’s forte.Yet, when called upon to play comedy, she rose to the occasion. In The Mysterious Mr. Bugle, she was “a daring flirt, all delicious abandon and mischief, saucy dash and quick wit.”
Russell’s ability to master a range of roles, and her visceral connection with audiences and critics, helped to make her one of the most sought after and highest-paid actresses of the Gilded Age.
One of her signature roles was that of Puck in a 1906 production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Dressed in animal furs and flying through the air, Russell “rose and floated about in the air with all the grace and ease of a veritable fairy elf in the woods,” wrote a critic. Although Russell loved playing Puck, her favorite role was as Viola in another Shakespeare production, Twelfth Night.
In 1902, at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, Russell discussed her craft with students, presaging her work at Rollins more than 25 years later.
“Keep steadily at work with a high purpose; get at the soul of the thing you are interpreting; keep it well in mind while you are on the stage that you typify an individual; never drop character because you are not speaking lines nor immediately concerned in the action. Work, work, work! Creatively, if you can; intelligently, always. An actor is born, then made.”
In 1904, while touring in England with Of Mice and Men, Russell married British actor Oswald Yorke. That marriage, too, was an unhappy one. Yorke proved to be a philanderer, although the couple didn’t divorce until 1929.
Following another health-related hiatus, Russell returned to the stage in The Stronger Sex, which debuted in New York and then toured the country. But her mind was on creating her own production company.
In 1910, she joined The New Theatre Company, which was financed by J. Pierpont Morgan and other wealthy New Yorkers to present plays “which might not be afforded if the field were left solely to be occupied by those who were compelled purely by commercial considerations,” according to Gov. Charles Evans Hughes, who spoke at the dedication ceremony for the company’s new auditorium.
The New Theatre Company had alternating performing and producing units, so Russell was able to act and hone her production skills. In 1912, she organized the Olde English Comedy Company and served as its director as well as a featured performer.
Her company, which occupied the intimate 299-seat Princess Theatre in New York, attracted a variety of patrons, but none more important in Russell’s life than Mary Louise Curtis, daughter of publishing magnate Cyrus H. K. Curtis, founder of Curtis Publishing Company.
Curtis saw Russell in The Stronger Sex and was mesmerized. She later met the actress through her fiancé, Edward W. Bok, editor in chief of her father’s flagship magazine, Ladies Home Journal. For the rest of her life, Russell would regard the meeting as “the beginning of the dearest friendship I have ever established.”
For years afterward, the bond between Russell and the Boks flourished. She and her family, including her mother, brother, sister and nephew, even bought property in Rockport, Maine, close to property owned by the Boks. This seaside retreat provided Russell, often accompanied by Yorke, the opportunity to relax and enjoy some rare carefree times.
In 1917, during a Chicago production of The Thirteenth Chair, Russell’s health took another turn for the worse, forcing her into retirement. For the next 12 years, she lived in New Jersey and later settled in St. Petersburg, where the warm weather lifted her spirits.
In 1929, after Russell broke her hip and finally divorced Yorke, the Boks encouraged her to move to Winter Park. Her friends, who had a summer home in Lake Wales and were in the process of developing Bok Tower Gardens, thought the small but sophisticated city would be an ideal place for the ailing actress to rejuvenate herself.
Russell bought a beautiful Spanish-style home at 1426 Via Tuscany and made new friends among Winter Park’s affluent social set. But she was foundering. After a lifetime of working, her days now held little to distract or interest her. Her passion was the theater, and the theater seemed to have passed her by.
In 1931, Russell attended a Rollins Players production of George Bernard Shaw’s Candide. Following the performance, which was staged in the college’s Recreation Hall, she and another arts aficionado, Rev. B.J. Thomas of All Saints Episcopal Church, discussed the need for a top-notch theatre in Winter Park.
Thomas, noting Russell’s enthusiasm for the idea, contacted Mary Louise Bok, who agreed to donate $100,000 for construction of an intimate but ornate performance space on the Rollins campus if her friend would agree to direct plays and teach theater arts.
Holt, the innovative president who sought to build the college’s reputation with celebrity faculty members, agreed enthusiastically. “Now we can go ahead and have the most perfect Little Theatre in the world, given by the most perfect donor, and under the direction of the most perfect director,” he wrote in a 1932 letter to Russell.
On Jan. 9, 1932, Russell helped place the theater’s cornerstone, which contained such items as photographs of Russell in various roles, current issues of local newspapers, and a copy of the Program of Cornerstone Ceremonies.
A Western Union telegram from Mary Louise Bok stands out. It reads: “Regret infinitely my inability to be with you today for the laying of the cornerstone of the Annie Russell Theatre. The building is just my loving tribute to you as woman and artist and dear lifelong friend, but you will give it soul. Your spirit and knowledge and artistic integrity will be the inspiration for the youth of Rollins College privileged to work under your guidance. My love to you and God Speed to the project.”
The ceremony offered Russell the opportunity to express her appreciation for Bok’s generous gift and to affirm her commitment to making the project an enduring success.
“I hope it is significant,” Russell told the gathered crowd, “that the initials of the name of the theatre spell ‘art.’ And so I devote my art and soul to Rollins College and her beloved President Holt.” The following month the college presented her with a Doctor of Humane Letters and the Annie Russell Company was formed.
Despite continuing health problems and the stress inherent in completing a new facility, Russell plunged ahead with preparations for Robert Browning’s In A Balcony, which would open the theater and mark Russell’s return to the stage in the role of the queen.
Opening night, May 29, 1932, was an unqualified triumph. Russell and her troupe earned a “deafening” standing ovation from the packed house, and several observers noted that while Russell was onstage, the years and the cares seemed to fall away.
A student performance of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet followed, after which Russell recuperated at her Maine retreat before returning to Winter Park for the 1933-34 season. She directed and acted in The Thirteenth Chair then staged Hedda Gabler.
Russell, and her students, treasured the informal discussion groups the actress would host in the theater’s green room. “I think of you in that exquisite room of yours, looking up to greet me and putting out your hand the way you always did,” wrote one student. “Nobody ever used her hands the way you do!”
But one aspect of the season would mar Russell’s reputation for future generations.
Thanks to the actress’ fame and the beauty of the theater over which she presided, many traveling companies sought to bring their productions to the Rollins campus. One such production was From Sun to Sun, written by legendary African-American folklorist Zora Neal Hurston, who had Eatonville roots, and featuring an all-black cast.
Even at an enlightened college with a president known for his progressive ideas, there was resistance. W.R. Wunsch, an English professor, pled with Holt to open the facility to Hurston’s troupe.
“Break the ground, as it were, to make the students sensitive to the lyric beauty of swamp and citrus grove,” he wrote, challenging Holt’s reticence. “I can think of no better way to introduce the students to the honest-to-the-soil material at their own doorsteps than to present it to them in a program of folk songs and dancers, a group of Eatonville negroes, headed by Zora Hurston.”
Holt allowed the performance to take place, but in the Recreation Hall, not the Annie Russell Theater, where blacks weren’t allowed. And even in the Recreation Hall, black and white attendees were segregated.
“Of course we cannot have negroes in the audience, unless there is a separate place for them,” Holt wrote in his response to Wunsch, adding, “I do not think I would advertise it very much outside our own faculty and students.”
Russell’s opinions on race are not well documented, but the fact, that her theater prohibited both black audiences and theatrical troupes reflects poorly on her. And Holt’s unwillingness to take a stance likewise tarnishes his otherwise stellar legacy.
By June of 1934, Russell was growing increasingly discouraged with what she perceived as a lack of financial support for her productions, despite continued contributions from the Boks, and a lack of theatrical professionalism at Rollins.
The relationship between Russell and Holt, usually warm, became at times contentious, particularly when Russell demanded more than the college was able or willing to give. A letter from Bok to Holt shortly after Russell’s death hints at the discord.
In discussing possible replacements for Russell, Bok wrote that professionalism was crucial. “This single point, although I doubt if you realize it, was the basis of whatever unhappiness Annie knew in her work at Rollins,” she scolded. “That the difference between amateur and professional was not clearly understood.”
The 1934-35 season brought Russell to the stage one last time as Mrs. Malaprop in The Rivals. She then directed, but did not act in, One Day of Spring. But she was wearing down, and contracted double pneumonia. Friends feared that she wouldn’t survive the winter and Holt, among many others, visited and sent good wishes her way.
Responding to a note from Holt, Russell expressed a desire to get back to work. “Your precious Christmas letter has brought me much comfort and courage,” she wrote. “I’ve read and reread it. I have never needed help and courage more than I do now. My situation seems a bit hopeless just now. I just can’t make headway. You have been so good to me—so patient—and I must get well to prove my devotion to you.”
But it was not to be. On Jan. 16, 1936, with Bok at her bedside, the remarkable Annie Russell died.
From around the world, all those who adored Russell spoke of her with admiration and love. In Winter Park, Holt eulogized his friend and colleague.
“As actress, producer, teacher, and neighbor she has been the delight and inspiration of this community,” Holt said. “And ever maintaining the highest professional and personal artistic standards, she has set an example to faculty and students alike of what good acting, and a good actress, should be. Her loss would be irreparable, did we not know that each generation renews itself and somehow, some way, the past blooms in the future.
The original version of this story was written by Kimberley T. Mould for the Winter Park Historical Association through a grant from the Florida Humanities Council Scholar/Humanist Fellowship. It has been revised and updated with information from other sources for this publication.
Captured on film nearly a century ago, a smartly dressed couple and their frisky hound take a leisurely stroll along the rocky grounds surrounding a shingled coastal cottage. The pair are chatty and animated, yet seemingly heedless of the camera.
As they pause before the front porch and pursue a newspaper, the woman peering over the man’s shoulder and seeming to comment on the day’s headlines, it’s almost as though they’re acting out a scripted scene.
Of course there’s no sound, so it’s impossible to discern what’s being said. Is a story being told? Or is this flickering footage nothing more than an upper-class New England family’s ho-hum home movie, remarkable only for its age and its pristine condition?
Margie Compton, an archivist at the University of Georgia’s Walter J. Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection, wondered who these obviously aristocratic but oddly flamboyant people could be.
“They seemed ‘actory’ to me,” says Compton. “It looked like they knew what they were doing in front of a camera.”
As it turned out, they did indeed know what they were doing. That reel, along with two others in different locations, turned out to be the only known moving images of stage actress Annie Russell and her husband, Oswald Yorke, an actor of considerably less renown. Together, the three reels last all of three minutes.
How did long-hidden footage of Russell, an iconic Winter Parker, end up in a Georgia archive? The films are part of the Pebble Hill Plantation Film Collection, which includes Georgia’s earliest home movies. The collection was donated to the Brown Archives last year.
Pebble Hill, a plantation located just outside Thomasville, was bought in 1896 by Howard Melville Hanna of Cleveland, Ohio, as a winter home. In 1901, he gave the property to his daughter, Kate Hanna Ireland, and her children Livingston and Elizabeth “Pansy” Ireland.
Pebble Hill’s trustees donated the films in order to preserve their unique scenes of the family and property. They also donated an assortment of printed records, including a privately published history, written by Kate, in which she chronicled the comings and goings of the family’s famous visitors.
“I remembered reading about an actress named Annie Russell who would visit Pebble Hill,” says Compton. “I just had a feeling that the woman in the film might be Annie. So I started Googling images of her.”
Outside the context of Pebble Hill’s archives, Compton had never heard of Russell. Few have, since her heyday as an actress was prior to the ascendancy of motion pictures. But the archivist found an online image that resembled the woman in the film, and read about her later connection to Winter Park and Rollins College.
The rugged coastal setting added to the likelihood that the mysterious footage was of Russell. Compton knew from Kate’s book that the actress and her husband had a summer home in Maine, which was later bought by Kate’s brother, Livingston.
Convinced that she had uncovered a rarity, Compton traveled to the Winter Park and showed the film to Olin Library archivists Wenxian Zhang and Darla Moore as well as to theater professor Jennifer Cavanaugh, who had co-authored a biographical play, Stage Fright, based on Russell’s life.
The trio confirmed that the couple in the film was Russell and Yorke, probably in the summer of 1917 or 1918, at Russell’s Maine home. They had never seen moving images of the woman whose name graces the campus’s beautiful and historically significant performing arts facility.
“Seeing this footage is tremendously exciting for those of us at Rollins who have heard so much about the legendary Annie Russell’s talent and charm — a quality that definitely comes through in these films,” says Moore.
A second reel shows Russell visiting Boxhall Plantation, five miles from Pebble Hill, and a third shows her at Pebble Hill with Pansy Ireland and her stepfather, Perry Harvey, along with hunting dogs and dog handlers at the plantation’s kennels. Those were likely shot in 1919, according to Compton.
As to the theatrical flair of the films, Compton thinks she has a simple explanation, apart from the fact that its subjects are actors. Taking home movies was not a casual undertaking in the early part of the 20th century, when few had the means to own cameras and projectors.
“When people in that era took home movies, they were usually serious about it,” she says. “There wasn’t a lot of horsing around. They took a thoughtful approach.”
Camera companies even sold title cards so people could shoot films around a plot and later insert displays showing exposition and dialogue, as in commercial features prior to the advent of talkies. However, Compton doubts that Russell and York were working from a script — they were simply actors being actors.
As to the condition of the reels, Compton says that 28mm film, which was the format typically used for early home movies and educational films, holds up better than the 16mm format that supplanted it.
Russell would surely have appreciated the timing of the discovery, which came just as her namesake theater was winding up its landmark 80th season. And she certainly would have enjoyed the opportunity to revel in one more Winter Park curtain call.
The University of Georgia facilitated Russell’s beyond-the-grave comeback by donating a copy of the film to the college. It was then shown for the first time publically in April, at the Annie Russell Theater, just prior to a student performance of She Stoops to Conquer.
It could only be kismet that the perennially popular Oliver Goldsmith comedy of manners, written 1773, toured the country 99 years ago and starred a 50-year-old, Irish-born stage actress named Annie Russell.
— Randy Noles
The Annie Russell Theater is said to be one of the most haunted places in Central Florida. According to believers in the paranormal, the actress for whom the theater is named was unwilling to take a final bow when she died in 1936, and remains a spectral backstage presence.
Is there any evidence? Not at all, beyond vague reports of unexplained noises and unexpected electrical surges.
Intriguing but ultimately unprovable sightings of an elderly woman wearing a Victorian-era purple dress have also made their way into local theater lore.
Still, would-be ghostbusters continue to try and quantify the alleged haunting. Last October, WOFL-Channel 35, the local Fox affiliate, sent a film crew and a team from an Orlando-based organization called American Ghost Adventures to make contact with the theater’s other-worldly residents, if any.
The Ghost Adventures contingent brought along an array of gadgets, including devices that are meant to measure electromagnetic activity, thought by some to be an indicator of paranormal activity.
While a breathless WOFL reporter attempted to bring drama to the proceedings, nothing particularly remarkable happened. A flashlight appeared to become brighter and dimmer in response to shouted questions, but it was hardly a jaw-dropping display.
Still, that didn’t deter the intrepid investigators from insisting that the haunting had been confirmed.
“I, along with the team from Fox 35 and American Ghost Adventures, came away from the experience convinced,” wrote Justin Braun, a Rollins community relations staffer who led the production crew. “Though the ghost of Annie Russell didn’t reveal herself, I want to believe that her passion for her theatre lives on. I’m no longer a skeptic. I’m a humbled and terrified believer.”
Results were similarly underwhelming in 2005 and 2006, when U.K.-based White Light Investigations and Gainesville-based Peace River Ghost Tracker visited the Rollins College campus. Each team declared the theater haunted nonetheless.
“There is obvious paranormal activity within the walls of the Annie Russell Theatre,” reported White Light. Peace River agreed, and claimed to have filmed Annie’s supposed favorite balcony seat unfolding as though it were being occupied by an invisible spectator.
Now that would be genuinely difficult to explain. Can we have a look? Well, no.
“The Annie Russell was a wonderful investigation and we experienced some great stuff,” according to the group’s website. “Unfortunately we had a very long weekend doing two investigations and by accident the theater video/audio evidence was deleted.”
— Randy Noles