Auburn theatrical legend John Heisman put on, starred in play to save Auburn football

Auburn finished the 1897 football season 2-0-1. And $700 in the red. Coach John Heisman knew what he had to do.

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Handbill for the A.P.I. Dramatic Club’s 1897 production of “David Garrick” starring John Heisman. Produced and directed by John Heisman. (He also made the handbill, so the typo’s on him.) Photo courtesy Alabama Heritage. Click to enlarge.

He had to break a leg.

In a straight up fascinating story in the latest issue of Alabama Heritage magazine, local Auburn historian Ralph Draughon Jr. (junior to that Ralph Draughon, so you know it’s good) documents an aspect of Heisman’s Auburn career  “completely omitted from the annals of the college*”—stage actor, director, producer, and founder of Auburn’s first theatrical group The A.P.I. Dramatic Club, whose first performance was billed as a “BENEFIT OF THE FOOT BALL DEBT!” and “under the Direction of Professional Actor.”

That professional actor was Heisman, who had been involved with Manhattan’s celebrated Herald Square Theater before coming to Auburn. The play was “David Garrick,” a popular nineteenth-century comedy based on the real life of an eighteenth-century theater maven (who happened to be pals with “Deserted Village” author Oliver Goldsmith). Heisman produced and directed it, as well as starred in the lead role… to rave reviews from the press and from Auburn street name royalty.

The playbill, which Heisman prepared… also solicited testimonials from local professors. George Petrie (history) described the play as ‘[d]ecidedly the most successful event of its kind in Auburn.’ B.B. Ross (chemistry) declared it unsurpassed as an amateur performance. Particularly complimenting the star’s rendering of the drunken scene, Charles H. Ross (modern languages) found it in turns both humorous and tragic. The Opelika Post also complimented the play and Heisman’s performance: “He was naturalness itself, and there was not a single place in which he overdid his part. His changes from drunk to sober and back again in the drunken scene were skillfully done, and the humor of many of his speeches caused a roar of laughter. He acted not like an amateur but like the skilled professional that he is.”

Did Heisman’s “David Garrick” raise the $700? Draughon told me he thought it came close, at least close enough for Auburn to feel OK with fielding a team in ’98.

“Of course,” he said, “it [the debt] may have just been an excuse to put on the play.”

The next year he put another, Victorien Sardou’s “A Scrap of Paper.”

“Carrie Samford, the daughter of a future governor of Alabama, played the romantic lead opposite Heisman,” Draughon writes. “No reviews of the performance have been located, but Heisman, who was playing an urbane character just returned form the Orient, probably created a sensation at his first entrance on stage. He was dressed all in white and carried a Chinese parasol and a paper fan.”

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“Gentlemen, it is better to have died as a small boy than to fumble your lines”—Heisman with the 1896 Auburn team on the steps of Samford Hall.

Heisman’s thespian tendencies aren’t a secret. Most bio blurbs typically mention his being a Shakespearean-trained actor. He actually left Auburn (with tears in his eyes, voice, and even his “trembling hand”) ostensibly to once again pursue acting full time, but rather quickly traded the stage for the gridiron after Clemson threw a bunch of money at him (he still landed occasional roles in productions across the south). But thanks to Draughon, we now know just how hard he channeled the Bard while on the Plains.

Regarding the Shakespearean monologues he regularly gave to Auburn’s literati, the Columbus Enquirer wrote, “As an elocutionist he has few superiors, and he shows… a thorough understanding of Shakespeare and an appreciation of the… beauties of the poet’s writings.”

You can purchase the Spring 2013 issue of Alabama Heritage here.

 

* Sadly, Auburn’s institutional memory ain’t the greatest. Draughon told me he stumbled across Heisman’s theatrical exploits by chance in a scrapbook kept by Mrs. Patrick Hues Mell, wife of Auburn chemistry professor P.H. Mell. “The drama department at Auburn considers the Footlight Club of 1914 to be the first drama group of the college,” Draughon writes, “but Heisman’s A.P.I. Dramatic Club preceded it by seventeen years.”

Related: John Heisman’s goodbye letter to Auburn students.

Keep Reading:

* Toomer’s Drugs is too fancy for you
* Auburn cup spotted on ‘Hoarders: Buried Alive’
* Aubie throws a grenade
* An Auburn coed and her machine gun

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