Percy Garnett Williams (1857-1923) was an American actor and an Immortal Lamb. He rose from starring in travelling medicine shows to owning scores of theaters by the late 19th century. Williams developed real estate and an amusement park in rural Brooklyn, and he was an early supporter of the Actors Fund of America. Upon his death in 1923 he bequeathed his fortune to the Actors Fund, and donated his Long Island estate as a retirement home for aged actors. Williams was elected to The Lambs in 1909 and was wisely made treasurer.
Williams was born May 4, 1857, in Baltimore. He was the son of John B. Williams, a doctor and editor of the Baltimore Family Journal. Percy Williams was expected to also become a doctor, and after graduating from Baltimore College he studied medicine. However, he was fascinated with theater. He played at the Front Street Theatre and Colonel Sinn’s Theatre in Baltimore, then moved to Brooklyn in 1875, where he performed with Colonel Sinn’s Park Theatre. He spent two seasons in Brooklyn, then returned to Baltimore and was the leading comedian in the Holliday Street Theater stock company. He performed in a traveling production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that received good reviews.
In 1880 Williams launched a travelling medicine show, hawking “liver bags.” These contained various herbs plus a charged battery attached to a belt. Williams would enlist a local citizen in each town he visited to try wearing a liver bag, and to then tell the public how much better he felt. At first the show was just a blackface song and dance routine of Williams accompanied by a banjo player. Williams began organizing other acts to sell the liver belts; eventually he had sixty acts working for him.
Williams began investing in New York real estate in the 1880s. He partnered with Thomas Adams, a chewing gum magnate, to buy what is now Bergen Beach, Brooklyn. This was 300 acres of marshland on Jamaica Bay. At the time the land was called Bergen Island (it was connected to the mainland by landfill in 1918). Williams and Adams planned to build homes, but decided to emulate the successful Coney Island. They converted Bergen Island into a resort, accessible via the Flatbush Avenue streetcar. The resort opened in 1893 with a dance hall, concessions, rides and a pier. The Percy Williams Amusement park opened in June 1896; it was later renamed Bergen Beach.
Williams bought the Brooklyn Music Hall in 1897, later changing its name to the Gotham. He also ran the Novelty in Williamsburg, sometimes shuttling acts by carriage so they could play both theaters on the same day. The Vaudeville Managers Association (V.M.A.) was formed in 1900 in an attempt to contain the salaries paid to performers. Williams refused to join. He believed in paying well and giving performers good conditions. Performers found him a modest and approachable man, and enjoyed working for him.
Williams’ third theatre was the Orpheum in Brooklyn, opened in 1901 on a plot of land he had bought in 1895. At the time it was thought to be the most beautiful theater in the world.
Percy Williams continued to expand his operation, partnering with wealthy and well-connected men who could overcome problems with permits and licenses. He built or leased the Greenpoint, Crescent, and Bushwick theaters in Brooklyn, the Bronx Opera House, the Circle, and Colonial theaters in Manhattan, the Alhambra in Harlem, a theater in Philadelphia and another in Boston. As of 1905 the theater owners who booked through the William Morris Agency seemed likely to become dominant in the vaudeville industry. They included Williams, Frederick Freeman Proctor, Timothy Sullivan, and Willie Hammerstein. However, E.F. Albee was building up the Keith-Albee circuit into the largest vaudeville chain east of the Mississippi. Albee created the United Booking Office (UBO) to coordinate and regulate vaudeville, and became the UBO general manager. Williams resisted joining the UBO, but was eventually persuaded to become the UBO business manager. He was pushed into this move by competition from A. L. Erlanger and Lee Shubert.
The city of New York had “Blue Laws” that banned theatrical performances on Sundays, but did not enforce them strictly. Mayor George B. McClellan ordered their enforcement in 1907. In protest, the theaters closed down until the mayor was forced to ease up. Williams took the city to court over the laws, and won his case before the New York State Supreme Court.
William’s Orpheum Company advertised “Clean Shows in Clean Houses.” In 1907 Mae West performed at the Gotham Theatre as a child actor in Hal Clarendon’s stock theater company. Williams looked for acts in Europe, and signed contracts with Vesta Victoria, Vesta Tilley, and Marie Lloyd, among others.
In 1909 Williams joined The Lambs, and was later elected treasurer. In 1910 Williams staged a production called The Wow-Wows at the Alhambra, Bronx, Orpheum, Greenpoint, and Colonial Theatres. Players who appeared in this show included Lamb Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel. In 1910 Williams was managing more vaudeville theaters in New York City than any other. He had two in Manhattan and one each in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens.
By 1912 Williams was financially involved in eight highly profitable theaters in New York City. He was sick, suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, and lived in Florida part of the year. Both Albee and Martin Beck of the Orpheum Circuit wanted these theaters, Albee so his circuit would gain a dominant position in New York, and Beck so his circuit would become the first coast-to-coast vaudeville operation in the USA. Albee bid highest, and acquired Williams’ theaters for $5.25 million (about $135 million today).
Percy Williams died July 21, 1923, at his estate Pineacres in East Islip, Long Island. He was 66. Williams was interred in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn; scores of fellow Lambs took the train to the burial service. In his will, Williams said “I made my money from the actors; I herewith return it to them.” He bequeathed his 48-acre property as a home for aging and destitute actors, with a fund for the maintenance and upkeep. Terms of his will required that six members of The Lambs and six members of the Actors’ Fund of America be elected to supervise the operation of the home. The Williams estate and property was sold by the trustees in 1973 to three developers. The funds were used to expand the Actors Fund Home in Englewood, New Jersey.