Superba! The Hanlon Brothers in Cohasset
Reproduced, with permission, from Treasury of Cohasset History,
ed. J. M. Dormitzer (Town of Cohasset, Mass., 2005), pp. 138-140.
Imagine. It’s 1890 or maybe 1891, and you dwell, like most Americans,
in one rural community or another . . . Your primary form of (nonsporting)
entertainment is reading and the occasional performances by either local
theater groups or traveling, minstrel-like repertory companies. Occasionally
you visit the big city to see the lights and absorb the latest in popular
culture. You have seen some of Shakespeare’s plays and have even
heard opera. But nothing—nothing has prepared you for Superba,
a Hanlon Brothers production.
As you sit transfixed in your theater seat, amid its opulent nineteenth-century
murals and gilding, before your eyes is a presentation that stirs your
imagination beyond all experience. For the five Hanlon brothers make
magic on the stage that we will latterly call—special effects.
You witness an actual train wreck on stage—a real smoke-snorting
locomotive has exploded by the footlights; horse-drawn carriages have
crashed with passengers scattered, apparently broken and torn; convicted
felons have been beheaded before your eyes; a waterfall has flowed on
the stage; the Hanlons have soared out beyond and above the audience
on trapezes and ropes—with somersaults, catches, and tosses; quick-change
pantomime scenes follow one another with no apparent relation except
the wondrous imagination behind them.
For three hours you have been entranced by a traveling show with music,
peopled by elaborately costumed characters from myth, fable, and legend
(sprites, nymphs, and heroes) and dancing girls, but no words. The handbills
and posters did not lie—“Nothing like it before seen here.”
. . . The five Hanlon brothers used Cohasset as their summer base
from 1888 until their final tour in 1905. Here with their specially
constructed rehearsal studio and design center (long since torn down,
the unique combo-two/three-story structure was located at the corner
of Depot Court and Ripley Road), they brought more glamour to an already
flourishing actors’ colony at this beautiful rocky-shored town.
Originally there were six Hanlon brothers . . . born to the Irish Shakespearean
actor Tom Hanlon and his Welsh wife, Ellen Hughes, in England . . .
The Hanlon parents gave the boys into the care and training of Dr. John
Lees, who was originally their tutor and then their business manager.
Lees noticed the natural athletic ability of his charges and soon helped
establish them as a traveling troupe of acrobats, tumblers, aerialists
(especially trapeze—all without safety nets), and pantomimists.
They traveled the world’s capitals from Paris to Moscow—from
the Follies Bergeres to the czar’s Winter Palace.
. . . One of the brothers, Thomas, suffered a severe head wound as
a result of a fall during their famous “Leap for Life.”
He slammed thirty or forty feet into a metal bracket. Because of the
fall, he was brain damaged and not long after took his own life. The
Hanlon brothers reacted by inventing safety nets that are still in use
today in the circus. Furthermore, they developed the fire safety nets
that are used by urban fire departments. They gave the patent for the
latter to the New York City Fire Department.
Aside from these safety devices, the imaginative Hanlons invented
scenery braces that are used to this day in theaters around the world—Hanlon
braces. Their genius extended into scenery and special effects. Superba
and Fantasma, their two Cohasset-designed and manufactured productions,
were set on vast rotating stages, moved by swiveling wheels mounted
on train tracks.
Many Cohasset residents were employed at all levels of production,
from designing to carpentry and metal casting and forging. Colorful
scenery was painted on linen screens and constructed from papier mache,
as were many of their detailed costumes. The ten weeks of Cohasset summer
were a chance to refit and design anew one or the other Superba or Fantasma.
The shows were revised and touted as “completely new” for
each year’s tour.
These productions toured the United States and all the cosmopolitan
centers around the world. Some historians of the theater have called
the Hanlons the fathers of musical comedy. They were certainly in the
forefront of elaborate productions and stage settings . . . When Edward
and George Hanlon (the driving force of the troupe) died, the children
of the brothers abandoned the productions because of the expense and
the rise of vaudeville.
From Richard Small, “Nothing Like It Ever Before Seen Here,”
South Look (a supplement to the Mariner Newspapers),
January 20-21, 1992. Reprinted by permission of the Cohasset Mariner