Grismer, Joseph R.

Joseph R. Grismer (3 November 1849 – 3 March 1922) was an actor, writer, producer, and manager. He became wealthy by producing hit melodramas that played across the United States at the end of the 19th century. He was elected to The Lambs in 1893. As 12th Shepherd of The Lambs, he was on the scene as the Club expanded past 900 members. For his dedication he was named to the list of Immortal Lambs.

He was born in Albany, New York, as Joseph Rhode Greismer to German immigrants Valentine and Adelaide Greismer. Rhode was his mother’s maiden name. As a young man he dropped the extra vowel from his surname. He grew up on the family farm and went to local public schools and later a business college. Some accounts say Grismer served in the Civil War as a teenager fighting for the Union; no records have surfaced to back that up.

In 1871 he began acting at the Trimble Opera House in Albany. In the 1880s he turned to writing his own plays and managing. In 1882 he wed Welsh actress Phoebe Davies in San Francisco; he was 32 and she was 18. They performed together for decades. In 1886 they had a son, Conrad Valentine Grismer.

During the 1890s he wrote and produced a number of successful melodramas of the era. His first original play was The New South, written in collaboration with fellow Lamb, Clay M. Greene, in 1893. It played at the Broadway Theatre with Grismer starring as Capt. Henry Ford. Two years later he wrote, produced, and starred in Humanity. It also toured the country. For the rest of the decade he launched hits nearly every season, always collaborating with brother Lambs.

In 1897 Grismer was the play doctor on an otherwise unworkable tear-jerker set in New England by Lottie Blair Parker, Way Down East, billed as “a story of plain people.” Produced in New York by the powerful William A. Brady and the rising impresario, Florenz Ziegfeld, it opened at the Manhattan Theatre in 1898 and was a smash. His wife Phoebe played Anna Moore in the show; she would go on to perform the role in New York and with touring companies for more than 4,000 performances.

Way Down East was one of the great moneymakers of the Gay Nineties. Although melodramas of its kind have gone out of favor, it is considered a classic of the genre. Its 375th performance at the Academy of Music in March 1900 was commemorated with pink satin souvenir programs. In 1900 Grismer recycled it as a best-selling romance novel that went into multiple printings. It was later made into both a silent and talking picture.

Grismer had met longtime Lamb and Shepherd Clay M. Greene in San Francisco in the 1880s, when Grismer and his wife acted in Greene’s theatrical company. Twenty years later the men bought adjoining estates in Bayside, Queens, on Little Neck Bay. These were the scene of annual raucous and spirited Lambs’ “washings.” At the 1908 all-day summer event, a burlesque of “As You Like It’ (“As You Like Not”) was held with Grismer as narrator, followed by a clambake.

The annual Lambs’ election of 1910 was among the most decisive and bitter in the history of the Club. As head of the regular ticket for Shepherd, Grismer, as a manager, was one of the most fractious figures in its history. But he was also one of its most capable. The Lambs were about to embark on a huge fundraising campaign to build an addition to the 1905 clubhouse on 44th Street. Many liked the Club favorite Grismer, with his hard-boiled business and management background. However, a group of actors including veterans John Drew and David Warfield felt that an actor should head an actors club. They put forth musical stage star Digby Bell on an independent ticket. Both men had served on The Lambs’ Council: Bell as Boy and Grismer as treasurer. Seldom were serious challenges mounted to the regular ticket once it was announced by the nominating committee. Newspapers covered the contest like a national election. On October 10, 1910, Grismer won the election 256-203. The following year Grismer retired from producing and divided his time between his Upper West Side townhouse at 319 W. 106th Street and his summer residence.

During Grismer’s tenure as Shepherd the Club made plans to commence fundraising to expand the clubhouse; membership numbers were swelling. Grismer’s first term was 1911-1913. He took a break to care for his wife during her long fatal illness. Grismer stayed active in club affairs and entered the financial services business. Actor William Courtleigh served as Shepherd from 1913-1917, when Grismer was persuaded to run again. He beat out challenges from DeWolf Hopper and Nat Goodwin. During his second term as Shepherd, 1917-1918, Grismer led the Club through World War I and many successful war bond rallies.

Following the death of wife, Phoebe Davies, after a long illness in 1912, he married actress Olive Emily Chamberlain in 1914. The following year they had a daughter, Gail Grismer.

During his later years Grismer served as a director for the Commercial Trust Company and treasurer of the Gulf Fisheries Company. He was a president of the Actors’ Order of Friendship and vice-president of The Actors Fund. Grismer was a member of The Players, American Dramatists’ Club, Green Room Club, Bohemian Club (San Francisco), the Manhasset Bay and Larchmont Yacht clubs.

Grismer saved the Club from financial crises by advancing more than $30,000 (about $780,000 today) without security. Grismer remained a member of the Council of The Lambs until the end of his life. On March 3, 1922, he was crossing Broadway at 106th Street to go to a movie. Grismer was struck by a streetcar and died of a skull fracture hours later at the Knickerbocker Hospital. Grismer was 72 years old. He–and his first wife and son–are interred in a beautiful mausoleum in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx.

In 1933 Joseph Rhode Grismer was the second club member named to the list of Immortal Lambs.

Portions of this biography are adapted from research by past club historian Lewis J. Hardee, Jr. Additional research by librarian Kevin C. Fitzpatrick.