The French folktale about Bluebeard, a pirate who murdered his
many curious wives, is not one that most parents today would
read to their children as a bedtime story. In 1901, however, the
Drury Lane Bluebeard production followed centuries of British
theater renditions and was viewed as much a part of children and
family Christmas theater entertainment as Nutcracker is
In 1903 Klaw & Erlanger increased the silliness and added aerial
dancers, hundreds of performers and costumes, popular songs,
spectacular lights and scenery. The response from drama critics
to the chaotic result was begrudging. The pretty girls,
comedians and theatric components were acceptable individually,
but there was too much of everything except a storyline
connection between the skits. The conventional Bluebeard
storyline altered almost beyond recognition and there was too
much hawking of products. More than one observer remarked that
Klaw & Erlanger's Mr.
a feast for the eyes with insufficient reward for the ear.
Children might have disagreed. For adults, Harry Gilfoil's
Bluebeard was moderately amusing but his trademark mimicry,
after a decade of performances on the American stage, had become
tiring. For children, his animal sounds, whistles and machine
noises were 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
probably saw him as an adult who didn't act like one.
Harry Gilfoil (1865-1918) was in real life Franklin
B. Graff, the family name shortened from Von Graff.
The son of Mary Ann and Jacob B. Von Graff, the
minister of the First Presbyterian Church in
Washington, DC, Harry ran away from home as a
teenager. Around 1879 he joined Haverly's
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
followed by the stationmaster in A
Hole in the Ground.
His celebrity status grew around an 1897 role as an
inebriated old gentleman about town, Baron Sands,
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
sounds. Among those for which he was best known:
fizzing soda fountain, approaching automobile,
screaming locomotive, buzzing bee, sawmill, scissors
grinder, dog and catfights. Gilfoil was sometimes
billed as "the man with a hundred voices." In the
role of Bluebeard in Mr.
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
Other productions with which he was associated
Trip to Chinatown, The
Liberty Belles, A
Yankee Girl, A
Wall Street Girl.
In Iroquois publicity stories, it was inaccurately
reported that Gilfoil was one of three Chicago
natives amongst Mr.
actors, including Eddie Foy and Bonnie Magin. He was
born in Washington, D.C.
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. It was some of his first
work since the death of Charles Hoyt.
Fourteen years later, Harry died of heart and kidney
disease. His obituary stated he had been off the
stage for several years before his death, but that
was inaccurate. Newspaper stories about his
appearances did not end until January of that year.