Gilded Age Actress Maude Adams on Dressing the Part
By Kathryn Pritchett
August 30, 2022

Maude Adams as Peter Pan


Maude Adams was the preeminent American stage actress of the Gilded Age and Broadway’s original Peter Pan. She owned multiple residences in and outside of New York City and traveled the globe during the off-season. But the town that remained dear to her heart was her birthplace, Salt Lake City.

Every year she would return to perform in a touring production. One of my great-great-grandmothers was a seamstress at the Salt Lake Theater where Maude Adams performed and said it was an honor to do some costume work for her.

In my WIP, To See the Love-Light, I’ve created a fictional Salt Lake City-based costumer named Early Green McVay who befriends Maude Adams. Here’s an interview between the two characters about their shared hometown and love of costume design.

E: You were born in Salt Lake City and now visit it once a year when you’re on tour. It must seem so provincial now.

M: I have very tender memories of this valley. It has always been ‘home’— an anchor in my ever changing, roving life. Also, I began my career here.

E: As an infant, yes? Tell me about that first performance.

M: My mother was an actress, you know, and so sometimes she would have the maid or my father bring me to the theater and we would all walk home together. They say I adapted to her schedule and slept in the day to keep such late hours.

On that particular evening there was a melodrama called “The Lost Child” being performed. A prop doll usually played the part of the child. However, that night, the stage manager wanted a real child to play the part and waded into the audience to obtain a two-month-old baby who lasted through the first half and then wailed so loudly that it was necessary to find a replacement.

My mother suggested me and as part of the farce I entered stage left on a platter born by the actor playing a waiter. Now mind you, I was nine months old at the time, decidedly bigger and older than the earlier baby. The audience roared with laughter at the obvious change, and I waved and smiled in response. They say I was a smashing success in my first role.

E: And then you went on to become a child actress in San Francisco?

M: Yes, we moved there when I was five-years old. It’s my second favorite place after Salt Lake City. My father was opposed to my going on stage, but mother was adamant that I shouldn’t turn down the opportunities that came my way. Poor papa died not long after my debut and mama took me on the road with her. That’s when I learned how to sew a bit myself. In those days we often took care of our own costumes. My mother was very adept with a needle.

E: But now you have the likes of the famous painter Mr. John Alexander White designing your clothing?

M: What a gift! And his wife Elizabeth, of course. It’s very collaborative. We’re all good friends from our summers spent in upstate New York. I have a lovely home there and they often visit Onteora, a nearby artists’ colony.

E: They designed your Peter Pan costume with the delightful little collar that’s all the rage, yes?

M: Yes—when Peter Pan first blew over my horizon and called for human habiliments, I was at a loss. But then I thought of John Alexander—he was an extremely busy man, but he loved the theater. I boldly asked, and he answered in the affirmative.

E: How did the collaboration between the three of you work?

M: We’d discuss ideas and then John would draw and redraw possible designs. For example, he’d revise the lines of a headdress until it gave exact expression to the face under it. Then Elizabeth would follow, inch by inch, with her scissors, often doing the actual work of sewing and finishing herself so there would be no mistake. John knew the lines the material should take, and Elizabeth knew how to get them.

E: What role does a costume play in a performance?

M: Every production detail is important and interactive. My greatest interest is the lighting necessary to achieve a desired effect. But the costume must work in conjunction with the lighting apparatus. Some fabrics absorb light, others reflect it.

E: I hope you don’t mind my mentioning this, but your everyday clothing is rather drab—a worn brown coat that doesn’t seem to absorb or reflect light. I’d be happy to design something more befitting your luminous talents.

M: Oh, my dear, if I could, I’d wear a cape of invisibility that would allow me to disappear as soon as I’m off the stage. My privacy is of utmost importance. But alas, that’s one of the necessary evils of my profession.

E: Then perhaps you’ve created the ideal costume for an actress keen to stay out of the limelight when she’s not performing.

M: Indeed!

Kathryn Pritchett

Written by Kathryn Pritchett

Kathryn Pritchett writes about strong women forged in the American West. To interact with her and the other Paper Lantern Writers, join us in our Facebook group SHINE, on Instagram, and Twitter.

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