R. H. Burnside (August 13, 1870-September 14, 1952) was born in Dumbarton, Scotland, where his father was manager of the Gaiety Theatre. His mother, Margaret Thorne, had been, and for some time at least, continued to be an English actress; for he stated in one interview, “I was brought to this country when I was two by my mother, but shortly afterward went to England (supposedly still accompanied by his mother) where I was at school at Brighton and Great Yarmouth.” Other sources state that “at two, he appeared on stage in his mother’s arms as Wilkins Micawber, Jr. in Little Emily.”
From The Lambs Script, March-April 1953
In spite of the fact that both of his parents were of the theatre, young Richard (a name he never used professionally, and later refused to divulge) must have been thwarted in his theatrical ambitions as a youth. He ran away from home twice, according to his own admission, to join a circus. Twice he was apprehended, but he must have succeeded in appearing on the stage at some time before the age of 12. We are told that he had a gold piece which he valued very highly. It was given him by the Prince of Wales, afterward Edward VII of England, on the occasion of a command performance in which he appeared as a small boy. That is, he was a small boy, but actually appeared as a dog in a production of The Bohemian Girl.
His family apparently gave up at last, and he became a call boy at the Savoy Theatre, London, home of the well-remembered Gilbert and Sullivan productions of that time. By the age of 18 he was serving as assistant stage manager at the Alhambra in London, and here it was that he was first called “Mr. Burnside,” a thrilling experience which set him up no end, according to his own statement.
A few years later Lillian Russell played England, and must have been impressed by “Mr. Burnside’s” ability, for in 1894 she brought him back to New York to act as her producer and director. He later served in the same capacity for such stars as Eddie Foy, Fay Templeton, Virginia Earle, Julia Sanderson, DeWolfe Hopper, and Fred Stone.
The first play of his authorship of which we find record was Sergeant Kitty in 1903. There were many more, including The Pied Piper (with Austen Strong) in 1908, Chin, Chin (with Anne Caldwell) and Hip-Hip-Hooray in 1914, Jack-O-Lantern, Stepping Stones, Tip Top, and Criss Cross–and the latest on record, Here and There in 1929, over 30 in all. He also did an adaptation of Robin Hood in 1944.
In addition to his plays, or extravaganzas, as they were often known, Burnside wrote songs. He was a charter member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. Perhaps his best-known effort in the musical line is “Poor Butterfly,” written with Ray Hubbell and John Golden, although there were a number of others.
R. H. Burnside became a Lamb in 1897, just a few years after his arrival in this country. He was an active Lamb from the first. In 1917 he became Recording Secretary, was elected Shepherd in 1918 and served in that capacity until 1921. In 1925 he was Boy with Thomas Meighan as Shepherd, and again in 1926 and 1927 with Thomas A. Wise. He produced many of our public and private Gambols over a long period of time, and was a valued asset to the Club. In fact, when he tried to resign as Shepherd on February 24, 1920, Rennold Wolf, in the New York Telegraph, said, “To know him intimately, he is a kind, generous, wholly rational and charitable associate, and if he insists upon his resignation The Lambs will suffer a real bereavement.”
With his wife, Kathryne, they had three daughters: Catherine, Helen, and Beatrice. They resided on North Maple Avenue in the Village of Ridgewood, New Jersey.
Some bickering over our Shepherd’s attitude toward the Equity strike of the period is said to have prompted him to resign–sympathizers with the Actors’ Fidelity group claimed he had donated $1,000 to Equity–and they didn’t like it–but whatever the cause, he was persuaded to remain in office for another year, all ended happily.
In 1905 the New York Hippodrome was built on Sixth Avenue, extending from 43rd to 44th street. It was a stupendous theatre–the setting for extravaganzas with elephants, water ballets, and spectacular productions such as had never before–or since–been produced in theatrical history. And this was the type of operation for which R. H. Burnside had seemingly been trained. Within a few years of its opening, the direction and production of a series of spectactles had been placed in his hands, and as season followed season, the names of R. H. Burnside and The Hippodrome became almost synonymous. Annette Kellerman and the girls who dived and marched into the gigantic stage tank of water–and never came up! Elephants on the stage–with actresses riding them–choruses of 90 on invisible stairs in rainbow settings that changed color and form before the eyes of a gasping audience. There were all products of the fertile brain and indefatigable directorial drive of R. H. Burnside. They nicknamed him “Zipp” because it’s said that at any time of the day or night he’d be zipping down 44th Street, and all over the Hippodrome stage. He was called “Job’s Only Rival” and “Battling Burnside”–and he once told his choruses that R. H. really meant Rough House. But the choruses he trained until they thought they would drop in their tracks, gave him testimonial dinners and presents because they “loved him in spite of his mean disposition.”
His disposition wasn’t mean, but he knew the perfection he wanted, and he would spare no one, least of all himself, to achieve it.
The Hippodrome was razed to be replaced by a parking lot, in 1939. Now, in 1953, a combination covered parking space and office building is almost completed on the former site. But it will be a long time before The Lambs will forget R. H. Burnside or The Hippodrome. “Zipp” Burnside produced, staged, and wrote nearly 200 musical shows–most of them of the Hippodrome type. He produced and staged revivals of Gilbert and Sullivan in New York, and toured them, as late as 1945, when he was 75.
Although his home was in Ridgewood, New Jersey, he lived at The Lambs until ill health forced him into the Middlesex Nursing Home in Metuchen, New Jersey, shortly before his death on September 14, 1952. He was 83.
His obituaries referred to R. H. Burnside as “producer, playwright, director, and songwriter”–and every one of them mentioned The Hippodrome.
Brother Burnside was a Mason of long standing in St. Cecile Lodge No. 568, the “Daylight Lodge” of New York in which so many actors and Lambs claim membership, and of which I have the great honor of being the present Master. He was made a Master Mason on Feb. 2, 1904–a year before The Hippodrome was built. His Masonic funeral services were conducted by our Lodge.
Mementoes of his life and work, as well as valuable historical records of The Hippodrome were given by him to the New York Public Library scarcely a month before his death.
He is survived by a daughter–and by memories in the hearts of all who associated with him as Brother Lambs and Masons, whether they knew him in his heyday at the “Hipp,” or in later years as he sipped his glass of sherry in the Fold.
No more fitting words could have been written of Immortal Lamb R. H. Burnside than those of our own Joe Laurie, Jr., in Variety: “He had kindness, simplicity, respectability, and talent. He died as modest as he lived. His services to the theatre will never be forgotten in the minds and hearts of the public and profession that knew him.”