Winchell Smith (5 April 1871 – 10 June 1933) was a successful playwright and producer in the first decades of the 20th century. Smith co-wrote two major Broadway hits, Brewster’s Millions (1906) and Lightnin’ (1918), that not only made him rich, they gave work to hundreds of professionals for many years. Smith was a kind-hearted and generous Lamb, who bequeathed a portion of his wealth to help members of the Club pay their dues in tough times. For his devotion to The Lambs and his beloved members of the theatre world, he was named an Immortal Lamb.
Smith was born in Hartford, Connecticut, on 5 April 1871, to William B. and Virginia Thrall Smith. His mother started the first free kindergarten in the state and was a pioneer in helping unwed mothers. Smith attended local schools and maintained a lifelong connection to the Nutmeg State. Smith started working in show business as a teenager for his uncle William Gillette’s theater company. Gillette was an actor, playwright, producer, and member of The Lambs. Smith broke into the business in the property department and worked as a supernumerary.
When he was 20, Smith moved to New York and listened to Richard Mansfield, who urged him to work harder at acting. In 1896 Smith made his debut, as the telegraph operator Lt. Foray, in Secret Service. Three years later, Smith was elected to The Lambs, in 1899. He was a working actor for about ten years, appearing in such plays as Under Two Flags (1901) and The Girl From Kay’s (1903).
Smith moved into the business side of theatre working with Arnold Daly in 1903. They were among the first to produce the plays of George Bernard Shaw in America, including Candida (1903), John Bull’s Other Island (1905), and the play that led to the cast and manager’s arrests, Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1905).
Smith then launched a playwriting career with the help of his Brother Lambs. Smith was working as an assistant to Frederic Thompson, a fellow Lamb, who owned Coney Island’s Luna Park and the Hippodrome Theatre. Thompson was rehearsing an adaptation of the novel Brewster’s Millions, by Lamb George Barr McCutcheon. It wasn’t working, and other authors at the club, including George H. Broadhurst and Augustus Thomas, said the book couldn’t be turned into a play. Smith disagreed, saying it “would make a swell play.” He was given the job of rewriting the play, which he did with the help of another Lamb, Byron Ongley. It opened New Year’s Eve 1906, at the New Amsterdam Theatre, and was a smash. Smith even co-directed it with Thompson.
Smith usually collaborated with other playwrights. In his three-decade career he wrote only one original play, but was the script doctor or adapter of scores more. In 1913 Smith and Victor Mapes staged an updated version of The Henrietta, Bronson Howard’s 1887 success. The New Henrietta starred William Henry Crane and Douglas Fairbanks. Smith wrote or co-wrote The Fortune Hunter (1909, with John Barrymore), The Boomerang (1915), Turn to the Right (1916), and Lightnin‘ (1918), all of which were great successes on Broadway. Smith joined forces with the young songwriter-turned-producer, John Golden, who he knew from The Lambs. Smith’s Turn to the Right, produced by Golden and first staged in August 1916, helped to launch Golden’s career.
Lightnin’ was co-written by Smith and Frank Bacon and produced by Golden. Frank Bacon was 55 years old when he met Smith, a journeyman actor from California in stock shows, who by some accounts had played more than 700 different roles. Bacon wrote Lightnin’ as a side project, but had never been able to interest a producer in his dog-eared copy. It was a lighthearted comedy about a rustic character who ran a hotel straddling the Nevada-California border that catered to lovebirds and divorces. He is lazy, often drunk, and a spinner of entertaining yarns. Smith saw the potential of the story. He agreed to rewrite it and stage it at the Gaiety Theatre in partnership with Bacon and Golden. With Bacon as Lightnin’ Bill Jones, the comedy opened in August 1918, a comic relief from the darkest days of World War I.
Dorothy Parker wrote in Vanity Fair:
“I went to see Lightnin’ with dread in my heart. I knew that Winchell Smith and Frank Bacon wrote it, and I knew it was so successful that Tyson planned retiring on the advance sale of seats for it, but I distrusted it nevertheless. I had heard it was one of those homely plays, and I suspected it of scenes in which Mother would place the guiding lamp in the settin’-room winder, and in which Nellie would lay out supper on the red and white tablecloth. I knew, too, that the principal character was an old man, and I was firmly convinced that bits of rustic philosophy would be recited in age-cracked accents; and I fully expected an abundance of quavered optimisms about everything’s always turning out for the best, if we just do what the Good Book says.
Well, I was all wrong.
It grieves me deeply to find out how frequently and how violently wrong I can be—it doesn’t seem reasonable, somehow.
Lightnin’ wasn’t what I expected it to be at all. From the moment I entered the Gaiety Theatre, it kept my mind off the war and my bills, and I’m deeply indebted to the author, and to Frank Bacon’s performance of the title rôle, Lightnin’ Bill Jones.”
Lightnin’ played for 1,291 performances on Broadway, a record at the time. After Lightnin’ closed, the cast led 10,000 people on a parade from the theater to Pennsylvania Station, where they boarded a train for a national tour. The parade was headed by Mayor John F. Hylan, Frank Bacon, and Winchell Smith, making front page news. Lightnin’ played around the world, making Smith, Golden, and Bacon wealthy.
In 1919 Smith was part of the powerful theatrical group that included producers Golden, Archibald Selwyn, L. Lawrence Weber, Flo Ziegfeld, and Fred Zimmerman. The Producing Managers’ Association was obstenabily formed to fight ticket scalpers, censorship, and poaching box office stars. What it really amounted to was a challenge to the Actors Equity Association. Winchell Smith was on the wrong side of history, and at the wrong time: Lightin’ was the first big show to close during what became known as the Actors Strike of 1919. His friend and fellow Lamb, Augustus Thomas, would settle it a month later. Even though he lost a fortune, Smith continued to work with John Golden.
Smith decided that The Wisdom Tooth, a comedy by Marc Connelly, should be staged at the Little Theatre in February 1926. When it was tried out in Hartford and Washington, it flopped in both cities. However, Golden sent Smith a telegram, “We have had plenty of successes. Let’s have a failure for a change. The Little Theatre needs a tenant. Try it out for a week or two there.” The Wisdom Tooth was a hit, and played for 160 performances. Later that year Smith’s Two Girls Wanted was a bigger success.
Smith was also a success with silent pictures. The Saphead (1920) was presented by Golden and Smith in partnership with theater owner Marcus Loew, a Brother Lamb. The film was based on The New Henrietta, the 1913 stage hit Smith had co-written. It was made by Metro Pictures, which had recently been acquired by the Loews. The plan had been for William Henry Crane and Douglas Fairbanks, the stars of the 1913 stage production, to also appear in the film. Fairbanks was committed to United Artists, so Buster Keaton was given the part instead. Smith was credited as producer and as co-director with Herbert Blaché.
Many of Smith’s other plays were made into films, with Smith given screenplay credits and royalties. The 1925 film version of Lightnin’ was directed by John Ford, with a screenplay by Frances Marion based on the play by Smith and Bacon. In 1925 Golden produced the film Thank You, adapted from a play by Smith and Tom Cushing, directed by John Ford and starring George O’Brien. Lightnin’ was remade in 1930 as a talking picture with Will Rogers, earning Smith more accolades and money.
Smith had other ventures well underway, besides motion pictures. He and his wife, Grace Spencer, a former newspaper reporter, bought property in Farmington around 1912 and built a 10,000-square-foot Georgian-style mansion. As a boy, he had camped on the same property. When The Lambs replaced the big iron gates on the Forty-fourth Street clubhouse, Smith purchased them and installed them on his property, much to the chagrin of his friends. He nicknamed his estate Lambs Gate, but another local millionaire had a mansion he called Old Gate. So Smith renamed it Mill Streams (today it remains one of the most expensive homes in the region). The couple did not have children, and spent the 1920s on the French Riviera or entertaining at their mansion.
Smith persuaded D.W. Griffith to film Way Down East (1920), starring Lillian Gish, at his house. His grist mill, dating to the Colonial Era, appears in the film. At the time, Smith was a promoter of Connecticut grain, and invested in expensive machinery for harvesting rye, wheat, and buckwheat during WWI. The venture didn’t pan out, but photos of the playwright clad in overalls and playing the part of the gentleman farmer show him happy.
Smith was semi-retired in 1930 after a string of illnesses and he and his wife spent parts of the year traveling in Europe. In October 1932 tragedy struck Smith when Grace died while visiting Monte Carlo. She was 58. A distraught Smith stayed abroad for five months, in Cairo, returning to Connecticut in February 1933 with his wife’s remains. Charles Laite, a Brother Lamb who acted in many of Smith’s plays, accompanied him on the return trip. Smith was suffering from arteriosclerosis when he died at Mill Streams on 10 June 1933. He was 62. He is buried next to his wife in Riverside Cemetery in Farmington. Today Winchell Smith Drive and historic Winchell Smith Grist Mill carry on his name in Farmington.
But his legacy lives on in other ways. Smith died at the height of the Depression, when many in show business were out of work or struggling. He structured his will to address the needs for generations to come. He donated 15 percent of his estate to the Actors Fund of America. Smith left a lasting memorial to his name as well as a perpetual source of benevolence to his fellow Lambs known as the Winchell Smith Trust Fund.
The Fund itself is not managed by The Lambs, the funds are distributed in accordance with Smith’s will and overseen by a financial institution in Hartford. Disbursed funds are held by The Lambs in a dedicated account and may only be used in accordance with Smith’s will. Primarily, the funds may be used to help a member pay dues to The Lambs (for theatrical members only) at a time when they cannot afford to do so. However, there are some restrictions. Each year The Lambs must report all disbursement activity of the dedicated account. The Trust maintains the right to audit at any time.