The French folktale
about Bluebeard, a pirate who murdered his many wives, is not
one that most parents would read to their children as a bedtime
story. The 1901 production at Drury Lane was one of
centuries of British theater depictions of the story as a
musical comedy fit for children and Christmas season
entertainment. Klaw & Erlanger amped up the silliness and
added aerial dancers, hundreds of dancers and costumes, popular
songs, spectacular lights and scenery. The response from drama
critics to the chaotic result was begrudging. The pretty
girls, lights, flying dancers and comedians were acceptable
individually but there was too much – of everything – with too
little connection between the skits. The conventional
Bluebeard storyline was stretched and altered almost beyond
recognition and there was too much hawking of products.
More than one observer remarked that Klaw & Erlanger's Mr.
Bluebeard was a feast for the eyes with insufficient reward
for the ear.
Children might have
disagreed. For adults, Harry Gilfoil's Bluebeard was
amusing but his trademark mimicry had been the stuff of theater
comedies for over a decade in America. For children, however, his
animal sounds, whistles and machine noises would have been new
and rollicking good fun. In this "everything but the
kitchen sink" production, he may have been cast primarily
because he was a funny man with box office appeal.
Children may have seen him as an adult who didn't act like one.
Harry Gilfoil (1865-1918)
was in real life Franklin B. Graff, the family name
having been shortened from Von Graff.
The son of Jacob B. Von Graff, the minister of the
First Presbyterian church in Washington, DC, Harry
ran away from home as a teenager and around 1879
Haverly's Minstrels, beginning his thirty-five
year career on the stage.
While on the road with the
Minstrels,* Harry met producer playwright
Charles H. Hoyt and snared a job. It was
the beginning of a sixteen-year association with
Hoyt. Harry's first role of note was as Rats
in A Tin Soldier, followed by the
stationmaster in A Hole in the Ground. His
celebrity status was secured in 1897 with the role
of the inebriated old gentleman about town, Baron Sands, in A Stranger in New York, a
part Hoyt wrote specifically to showcase Harry's
abilities.† It was a role he would play for over two
Harry was best known for whistling
and mimicking the sounds of various animals, a
fizzing soda fountain, approaching automobile,
screaming locomotive, buzzing bee, saw
mill, scissors grinder, dog fight, cat fight, etc.
and was sometimes billed as "the man with a hundred voices."
In the role of Bluebeard in Mr. Bluebeard‡ he is known to have imitated a
frozen pump and a phonograph. An unlikely
story was reported that he mastered mimicry as a
young child because he was born
without tonsils and unable to talk until age five.
Other productions with which
he was associated included A Trip to Chinatown,
The Liberty Belles, A Yankee Girl,
A Wall Street Girl.
In Iroquois publicity stories
it was reported that Gilfoil was one of three
Chicago natives amongst Mr. Bluebeard's principal
actors, including Eddie Foy and Bonnie Magin, but
that was inaccurate. He was born in
Washington, D.C. his
obituary reported he was born in Washington, D.C.
and I found his family there when he was five years
old. He would continue living with his father and
siblings until at least 1900. He lived on Long
Island at the time of his death.
The son of Mary Ann and Jacob B. Graff, Harry was married to Louise
De Rozas Graff. I didn't find evidence of
children but didn't look thoroughly.
In the years after the fire
A year after the Iroquois
Theater fire found Harry in vaudeville, working the
Baron Sands character, then described as a satire of
old age. In 1912 he briefly took the
first role in many years that did not involve
mimicry. He played the part of a broker in a
production with Blanche Ring, The Wall Street Girl.
In an interview with the Courier-Journal in
Louisville it was reported that it was some of his
first work since the death of Charles Hoyt.
Fourteen years later Harry died of heart and kidney
disease. In his obituary it was stated that he
had been off the stage for several years prior to
his death but that was inaccurate. Newspaper
stories about his appearances did not end until
January of that year.