David Warfield (November 28, 1866-June 27, 1951) was one of the greatest stage actors of his generation. His career spanned the Gilded Age to the Prohibition Era and Warfield gained a national reputation for popular comedy and dramatic parts that played on his hidden immigrant roots. Warfied was a Lamb for five decades; his generosity earned him a well-deserved place on the list of Immortal Lambs.
He was born David Wohlfeldt in Darmstadt, a city near Frankfurt in southwest Germany, although he always maintained to biographers he was born in California while shaving a few years off. As a boy he and his parents, Augustave and Louisa Wohlfeldt, settled in San Francisco. The family changed their name to Warfield. He never went to high school and worked to help support his family as the oldest of five.
Warfield broke into acting on the ground floor: as a teen-age usher. Gradually he built up a repertoire of accents and impressions picked up from the immigrants around him. His career took off by portraying tramps, hard luck characters, and newcomers. His reputation was cemented with a long-standing relationship with director/manager/producer David Belasco that started in 1899. Warfield was onstage nearly continuously for 35 years, wrecking his health along the way from overwork.
He was elected to The Lambs in 1901 and served on its council. In 1924 Warfield left the stage as one of theater’s biggest box office draws of all time. Warfield never worked in motion pictures or radio, continually turning down offers from the new mediums. For the last 25 years of his life he travelled, played cards at The Lambs, and collected art.
Warfield retired to The Langham, 135 Central Park West. By the time he died at 84—and his true birth year would have made him about 87 years old–Warfield was blind. Among the scores of charities he left his fortune to (see below) was the New York Community Trust to assist the blind. Warfield’s final resting place is Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.
From The Lambs Script, January-February 1953
One of the most noteworthy of that memorable group known as Immortal Lambs is David Warfield. His history in the theatre is well-known to a great part of the public in general, and certainly to all Lambs. His antecedents, however, are not so clear. Warfield’s parents lived in San Francisco, they were not in especially affluent circumstances, and they were definitely not in favor of a theatrical career for their eldest son–that much is certain. They lived only a few doors from the family of David Belasco, and the families knew each other. Belasco is said to have first met Warfield when he came down from his room to see what the urchin on the soap-box was doing to cause such amusement among the passerby in the street before his home. He asked, “Who are you?” and the answer was, “Dave Warfield”; and that’s apparently all there was to it, until years later in New York.
Warfield wrote that he received comparatively little formal education, and was considered a bad boy by his teachers–mischief was always more attractive to him than sober intellectual pursuits. At 14 he had spent so much time amusing his school-mates with dialect stories and imitations, and decided that he would be happy if only he could work in the theatre. Accordingly, he got a job as an usher and program seller in the Standard Theatre, at four dollars a week. The following year saw a promotion–or at least a change of scenery. He accepted a similar post at the Bush Street Theatre, but fails to mention any reason for the change.
However, during this period David Warfield made his first stage appearance–as a super in Siberia. By 1888, he had progressed to his first speaking part; that of Melter Moss in The Ticket of Leave Man in a repertory company playing Napa, California. Two years of varied engagements on the Coast prepared him for New York, and in 1890 young Warfield was giving a music hall monologue when not entertaining in what he describes as a “Lower 8th Avenue Saloon” in New York City.
A year later marked his debut in a metropolitan production as “Honora,” an Irishwoman, in O’Dowd’s Neighbors at the Windsor Theatre. Like so many of the early ‘burlesque’ comedians, Warfield played ‘dames’ as well as dialect parts. On February 27, 1893, he appeared in the part of George Washington Littlehales in A Nutmeg Match at the 14th Street Theatre, and a year later almost to the day, with the Casino Company in About Town as Waldorf Metropole, a wealthy butcher. Of this engagement he says,
I was disappointed to find that there was really no part for me in the show. All I had to do was my specialty in the second act, with only an entrance as one of a crowd at the theatre in the first act. Knowing that I must make an impression early in the show, I got myself an old evening suit and a blonde wig and decided to make for myself a definite characterization. Although I had not a word to say, and just sat there throughout the act, every eye was upon me, and I received favorable notices.
Warfield went on to play in The Merry World, In Gay New York, The Whirl of the Town, and The Belle of New York with this company.
In 1899 Warfield married Mary Bradt. The same year saw his first association with Weber and Fields, which was to bring him for a second time to the attention of David Belasco. With these noted comedians he played in Barbara Fidgety, The Girl From Martin’s, and Catherine. The part he played in the latter ‘burlesque’ led to his first great success.
Belasco’s message to the young actor simply stated that he wanted to see Warfield at 5:30 the next day. As he tells it, Belasco said, “You’re a great actor, Dave. You don’t know it, but you are!” And Warfield replied,”Oh, yes, I know it. But I didn’t think anybody else knew it.” This wasn’t the only point upon which the two disagreed. Belasco thought that Warfield’s mission should be to make people laugh–but Warfield said, “Comedy is fine, but people like to weep, when the tears are sweet.” And that proved to be just what his audiences liked to do, all through his long and successful career.
The first play Belasco had written for him was The Auctioneer, and at the Bijou in September 1901, David Warfield entered the hearts of the American public as Levi, the character he had created in burlesque. Three years later he created another character that was to prove his greatest: Herr Anton Von Barwig in The Music Master at the Belasco on September 26, 1904. He played it in New York and on the road for a period of three years–a total of 1,007 performances.
In 1907 a new vehicle, A Grand Army Man, provided Warfield with a role which lasted another three years in New York and on tour, but it wasn’t until 1911, with The Return of Peter Grimm, that he repeated his earlier personal successes. In 1913 Belasco revived The Auctioneer, and again it ran two seasons on the road. One season with a new play, Van Der Decken, then five more seasons with The Auctioneer and The Music Master, both in New York and on tour–and finally another season with The Return of Peter Grimm in 1921 at The Belasco again–and Warfield had become virtually a legend in the American theatre.
As well as a very wealthy man. While he was drawing high salaries, he bought real estate, and his shrewd investments paid off. He loved art treasures, and his home was filled with beautiful paintings and objects d’art.
In December 1922 Belasco finally gratified Warfield’s greatest ambition by presenting him in a spectacular version of Shakepeare’s The Merchant of Venice. The production, including a special scene added to provide Warfield an opportunity to bewail the loss of his daughter, almost wholly in pantomime, was perhaps a little too tremendous. It practically overshadowed Warfield’s restraint of characterization–but it ran until 1924. Then Warfield retired from the stage at 58, still in a blaze of glory.
He was often importuned to revive his unprecedented successes–but his gentle humor expressed itself in his invariable reply– “I would rather be asked, ‘Why did you stop acting?’, than ‘Why don’t you stop acting?’.”
Warfield died June 27, 1951, at his home in New York; private services were held at the Riverside Memorial Chapel. The Lambs had awarded him a gold medal for Distinguished Service in the Theatre, because of “the high honor he brought to the Theatre” and his “unceasing courtesy and gentle kindness to all of us.”
He spent much time in the Fold during his later years, playing pinochle with old friends at first, then kibitzing, and finally just watching the play of others. It was said that one could always tell when Dave was in the card room at the rear of the second floor–his soft black hat hung on his bronze bust, where he tossed it as he came in. I have often seen it there, and watched his sparkling eyes as he enjoyed making comments on his cronies’ play. And the story of how and why that bust was brought across the street from the Belasco would fill another page!
I never ventured to speak to David Warfield and tell him how much I had enjoyed seeing him in The Music Master and The Return of Peter Grimm and The Merchant of Venice. I had missed The Auctioneer, unfortunately. I was too unimportant a youngster to bother such a genius by even venturing to speak to him. Sometimes I regret than an older sense of decorum prevented a more brash approach such as is often the custom with our newer generation of extroverts in the Fold. But the more gentle dignity of a conservative time may have its compensations.
At least, I was present at a distance on the memorable occasion when a Hollywood magnate approached Warfield with an offer to star him a movie version of The Music Master at a salary of one million dollars for the picture. The old man looked up quizzically, smiled his slow, rather pathetic smile, and remarked gently, “But I have a million dollars.” And that ended the discussion.
He left an estate well over $1 million. His art collection was sold for many thousands. Besides bequests to relatives and friends, Warfield bequeathed $100,000 to the Actors’ Fund, $50,000 each to the Catholic, Episcopal, and Jewish Actors’ Guilds, and $10,000 to The Lambs.
An editorial in the June 29, 1951, New York World-Telegram said in part, “As an actor he must be cherished in the living memories of the many who laughed and cried with him in The Music Master, which he made one of the most popular plays–seen by over four million people–a fabulous achievement.”
Warfield’s whole life was a fabulous achievement–from the $4 a week usher of San Francisco to the millionaire gently turning down another million from the film capital of his native state–from the burlesque comedian of Weber & Fields days to the Shakespearean star in the firmament of the equally fabulous Belasco! And through it all, the kindly, courteous gentleman, with the twinkle in his old eyes that held more than a hint of the pathos that brought back memories of the “sweet tears” which were his stock in trade.
David Warfield truly is an Immortal Lamb.