©2006

Percy G. Williams, 1857-1923


See also page regarding John B. Williams, Percy's father.


Introductory Remarks

At the end of May 1999, while doing online research about the "Smock" side of my family genealogy, I did a search for "Percy Williams", my great great grandfather, on www.ancestry.com.  I knew little about him and have always wanted to know more.  This led me to some reference books, which I was able to locate at the National Library of Canada here in Ottawa.  These books in turn led me to additional books, which then led to further sources.

The last of these sources, arriving via Inter Library Loan, was the "Encyclopedia of Vaudeville", which offered me two important pieces of information that indicate my work is not yet finished.  These were:   his death date, as well the tip that Howard University in Washington, D.C. holds a "Percy G. Williams Collection."  With his death date I was able to obtain his obituary.  Unfortunately, Howard University was unable to track down any such collection.  I wrote to the author of the Encyclopedia of Vaudeville and was advised that he had reviewed his notes and could find nothing.  I hope to recontact Howard University in the future and will post anything new.

I would like readers to keep in mind that the information presented below may not always be entirely factual for the sources reviewed contained some discrepancies and were for the most part entirely unreferenced – unsubstantiated recollections of former vaudevillians for instance (he sold his theatres for five, no six, no seven million, for instance).  That being said, however, I found much consistency in the biographical information about Williams.  The biggest shortcoming of the sources reviewed was their scant information about his familial background.  It is hoped that this information will come to light in further research. 

The diary of Percy’s father, John B. Williams, was also reviewed and contained some interesting information about Percy.

Enjoy, bearing in mind that this is a draft.

Tara

May 2001 (with updates in 2006)

 


Percy G. (Garnett) Williams

Percy G. Williams, "or P.G. as he was affectionately known," was born May 4, 1857 in Baltimore, Maryland.  He died on July 21, 1923 at East Islip, NY. [1]  He was an actor and a manager, but known most as the latter.[2]

While most of the sources reviewed described the evolution of his career, particularly his theatre acquisitions and eventual sales, they also spoke about his character and the kind of man he was.

Well-respected film and theatre historian Anthony Slide described Williams as:

An important figure in vaudeville management in the early years of the twentieth century, Percy G. Williams was one of the few in his profession who was well liked by the vaudevillians he hired.  Williams was a kind and gentle man, and when he died, he left his thirty-acre estate at East Islip, Long Island, as a home for aged and indigent performers.  In his will, he wrote, "I made my money from the actors; I herewith return it to them."[3]

Another writer described him as:  "One of the most colorful and ethical independent vaudeville magnates."[4]  Joe Laurie wrote:

Like most really big showmen, Percy G. Williams cared little or nothing for self-popularity.  He was in the business of selling shows on their merits and he felt that the glamour of his name meant little to the man that was seeking amusement.  As a result, the number one showman of the golden era of vaudeville is less known than the lesser lights with bigger bumps of egotism.  To Williams, showmanship was procuring the best possible programs and selling them to the greatest possible advantage.  He excelled in both these things.

Seated in a crowd, Williams would never have been picked out as a leader or a showman.  He had a retiring modest personality and was soft-spoken.  Slightly under average height, he did not stand out.  He was well informed and very seldom used "I" in his conversation.  He seldom bragged about what he had accomplished, unless it had a humorous angle.  He gave personal attention to all booking matters and saw that each act contributed to the general effect of a good show.  He wore "quiet" clothes and, instead of the regular manager's diamond ring, he wore an Egyptian scarab.  He never bragged about the money he accumulated, but one time when he was giving bond for a friend taking out letters of administration, he was asked what security he had to offer.  He drew from his pocket a list of some twenty or thirty properties.  "Take any one you like," he said.  "None of them is mortgaged."[5]

  

Show Business Beginnings

Percy arrived in Brooklyn when he was still a young man and became interested in amateur theatricals.  Later, he ran travelling medicine shows and appeared as a black-face performer.  He created a resort at Bergen Beach, NY in 1893 which featured a dance hall, concessions, rides and a pier.  He was backed financially in this project by Thomas Adams, Jr. (Adams Tutti Frutti Gum).  He added a casino to the resort three years later, holding both vaudeville and musical comedy shows.  The following year he took over the Brooklyn Music Hall (Gotham) and then bought the Novelty, a vaudeville house in Brooklyn.  He built his first theatre in 1901, the Orpheum, located  in Brooklyn.[6]

Below is a photo of the "Orpheum Company", which included Percy:

Percy acquired the Circle in Manhattan in 1906, as well as the Colonial and Alhambra.

In 1908 he built the Greenpoint and took over the Crescent, both in Brooklyn.  His son Harold Williams (my great grandfather) was the business manager for Greenpoint:

In 1910 he opened the Bushwick.  He then built the Bronx Opera House and purchased vaudeville houses in Philadelphia and Boston.[7]   Below is a photo of opening night at the Bronx:

 

In 1907 Percy sued the city of New York over the Blue Laws, legislation which prevented theatre productions from taking place on Sundays.

In 1907 New York's Mayor George B. McLellan decided to order strict enforcement of the laws.  All theatres promptly closed in protest.  Restaurants were crowded, streets overflowed with New Yorkers who had no place to go.  Broadway itself was deserted.  After a few weeks of this, blistering public protest forced Mayor McClellan to call off his dogs.  Producer Percy Williams sued the city to win greater freedom under the Sunday Concert laws.  To Broadway's jubilation, the State Supreme Court gave him the verdict .[8]

British actor Charlie Chaplin got his start in American theater at the age of 21 by appearing in a production which ran at Percy William's theaters beginning in October 1910.  The show, called The Wow-Wows, was staged at the Alhambra, Bronx, Orpheum, Greenpoint and Colonial Theatres.  Chaplin went to Hollywood a few years later.  Another English actor who arrived in America and appeared with Chaplin in The Wow-Wows was Stanley Laurel (real name Arthur Stanley Jefferson), of Laurel and Hardy fame.  It would be interesting to conduct further research on the other productions that were staged at the theaters.  [See http://members.aol.com/chaplinonstage/newyork.html, which includes a poster of the Alhambra show; see also http://cla.calpoly.edu/~rsimon/Hum410/Chaplinbio.htm; http://nebrot.tripod.com/lauhard5.html]

 

Sale of Theaters in 1912

Percy Williams sold all of his theatres in 1912 for $6,000,000 (these were the Gotham, Orpheum, Colonial, Bushwick, Alhambra, Greenpoint, Crescent, and Bronx).  The purchaser was his competitor, B. F. Keith.

After the sale, his employees made him an album complete with stories and photos of the theaters and this closing letter of gratitude:

The home for aged and retired actors which had opened after Percy's death in East Islip, Long Island, merged with The Actors' Fund Assisted Living Care Facility in 1975.  That home had opened in 1902 on Staten Island, then moved to the former mansion of millionairess Hetty Green in Englewood, New Jersey in 1928. With the 1975 merger, the Percy Williams Wing was constructed at the Assisted Living Care Facility.  The facilities were expanded in 1988 with the addition of a 50-bed Extended Care Nursing Home.  Also in 1988, the Edwin Forrest Wing was created at the Nursing Home after a merger with the Edwin Forrest Home of Philadelphia.  In 1993, a wing was named in honor of film and television star Natalie Schafer, who left over $1.5 million to The Actors' Fund through her estate.   [source (unfortunately link appears to have lapsed since research was done):  http://www.actorsfund.org/human/nursing.html ] .

 


[1]               Slide, encyclopedia of v, p. 559.  John Williams’ diary indicated the month and day of Percy’s birth.

[2]               Sherman, p. 422.

[3]               Slide, Encyclopedia of Vaudeville, p. 559.

[4]               Bordman, p. 716.

[5]               Laurie, p. 353.

[6]               Slide, p. 559.

[7]               Slide, p. 559.

[8]               Laurie & Abel, p. 14

 

Bibliography

Bordman, Gerald.  The Oxford Companion to American Theatre.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1984.

Laurie, Joe, Jr.  "Percy G. Williams."  In Vaudeville:  From the Honky Tonks to the Palace.  New York:  Henry Holt, 1953, pp. 353-359.

Sherman, Robert L.  Actors and Authors with Composers and Managers who helped make them famous.  A chronological, record and brief Biography of Theatrical Celebrities from 1750 to 1950.  Chicago:  Robert L. Sherman, 195[?] .

Slide, Anthony.  The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville.  Westport, CT:  Greenwood Press, 1994.

Spitzer, Marian.  The Palace.  New York:  Atheneum, 1969.



Obituary of Percy G. Williams

New York Times, Sunday, July 22, 1923

  Percy G. Williams, Long Ill, Dies at 66

Vaudeville Head Who Sold His Theatres to Keith for More Than $5,000,000.

BEGAN CAREER AS ACTOR

Theatre Builder Brought Many Famous European Variety Stars to His Local Circuit

  Percy G. Williams, who in April, 1912, sold to the Keith interests his chain of local vaudeville theatres for more than five million dollars, died at 9 o’clock yesterday morning at his home in East Islip, L.I., of cirrhosis of the liver complicated by heart disease.  His death was not unexpected, for in April, while at Palm Beach, where he was accustomed to spend the Winter with his invalid wife and his sister, he was reported so critically ill that other members of his family were summoned.  He recovered somewhat and soon after was able to make the journey north in a special train.  His improvement did not continue.  He died with his family at his bedside.  Funeral services will be held at the East Islip residence at 11 o’clock Tuesday morning.

Born at Baltimore, Md., in 1857, Percy G. Williams was the son of Dr. John B. Williams, physician and editor of the Baltimore Family Journal.  It was the parental design that he, too, should be a doctor and after leaving Baltimore College the son did begin the study of medicine, but only to abandon it for the stage.  He made his debut as an actor at Colonel Sinn’s Theatre in Baltimore and in 1875 he moved to the same managers Park Theatre Company in Brooklyn.  After two seasons in Brooklyn he returned to Baltimore as leading comedian of the Holliday Street Theatre Stock Company.  But something, distaste or a secret conviction that great success did not there await him, led Williams in 1880 to give up the stage for business.

For a time he manufactured electrical goods, and, it is said, profitably, too, but again he changed his field of action, moving to Brooklyn and engaging in realty operations in partnership with Thomas Adams Jr.  Among their projects was the suburban property, Bergen Beach.  Then Williams returned to the world of the theatre, not entering this time through the state door, however.  He first acquired the old Brooklyn Music Hall, now known as the Gotham, in East New York.  There he did so well with a variety show that he purchased the Novelty Theatre, and later built the Orpheum, which is still on of the finest theatres in Brooklyn.  And he did not confine his success to building and house direction, but venture far afield as a theatrical manager, personally ransacking European music halls for acts that would prove attractive novelties to a New York audience.  Among the foreign stars with whom he signed contracts were Vesta Victoria, Vesta Tilley, Alice and Marie Lloyd.

In those days the organization of vaudeville in America was in an intermediate stage, the big interests manoevering for a final consolidation of powers, a rearrangement of conflicting circuits.  Percy Williams, independent, daring, original, controlling a group of profitable houses in the great theatrical center of the country, was a power.  Money finally achieved his retirement from the field, the amount being estimated as high as $6,000,000; Williams, himself, said it was “not less than $5,000,000.”

During much of his residence in Brooklyn Mr. Williams lived in the house on Eighth Avenue later bought by Mayor Gaynor, who occupied it while Mayor.  He was twice President of the Amaranth Society of Brooklyn, a thirty-second degree Mason, a member of the Montauk and Lambs Clubs, and for time was grand treasurer of the Elks for the United States.

E. F. Albee, President of the B. F. Keith Vaudeville Circuit, which took over the theatrical holdings of Mr. Williams when he retired from active business, paid him the following tribute:

“While Percy G. Williams’ death was expected, nevertheless it was a shock to theatrical people.  He was a real showman from the ground up – fearless, intellectual and generous in giving the public entertainment of rare merit.  He was a very capable man and accumulated a very large fortune solely on his own merits.”

 

Williams—Percy G., age 66, died Saturday, July 21, at his home, East Islip. L.I.  Funeral from his late home, Pineacres, East Islip, L.I., Tuesday, July 24, at 11 A.M. Interment Greenwood Cemetery.  Automobile cortege.

________________

New York Times, July 24, 1923

Services for Percy G. Williams.

Services for Percy G. Williams, retired theatrical man, were held at 11 o'clock yesterday morning at his home, Pineacres, East Islip, L.I.  Dr. Philip A. Brennan, Past Exalted Ruler of Brooklyn Lodge 22, read the Elks' ritual, and eulogies were delivered by the Rev. Dr. William H. Garth, rector of St. Mark's Church, Islip, and Wilton Lackaye.  At the burial in Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn, in the afternoon Dr. Garth delivered a prayer.  A hundred Brooklyn Elks and a still larger number of Lambs made the journey to East Islip in a special train.  Among the theatrical men present were E.F. Albee, F. F. Proctor, Hal Forde, J. J. Murdock and Pat Casey.

______________________

Greenwood Burials

Below is a photograph of the entrance gate to Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn, taken in 1907. 

 

A search of Greenwood's online database of burials shows that Percy was interred at Greenwood Cemetery on July 24, 1923 in Lot 27649, Section 166.

Ida E. Williams, Percy's widow, was interred on the Williams lot on July 13, 1927.  Percy's father John B., mother Sarah and brother Reginald were also interred at Greenwood.  Percy's son Victor Garnett Williams was buried in 1913.  He was listed with Percy on the 1910 census (age 32, i.e. born c. 1878), occupation theater manager, wife Louise B., age 29.  Apparently Victor died with no heirs.  Harold G. Williams (my great grandfather) was interred at Greenwood on March 14, 1962.

Ida and Percy married circa 1877, as the 1900 US Federal Census states that they had been married 23 years.  Victor and Harold appear to have been their only children, born circa 1878 and 1885 respectively.  (1900 US Federal Census, NY, Kings, Brooklyn Ward 32, District 572).  Ida was born in ___ in Ohio.  Her father was born in Scotland, her mother Maryland.


Links

East Islip Historical Society http://www.eastislip.org/Pages/Estates/Percy%20Williams/percy_williams_estate.htm and their link to Percy Williams Article from The Saturday Evening Post, June 1909