Helen Redmond: Theater Star from Port Henry (Part 2)

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NRedmond 2A NYHShow biz can be heady stuff, and some things never change. Quirky stories and celebrities’ habits have long been the subject of great attention. Helen Redmond was certainly not immune to it, and as always, the attention was a press agent’s dream. Nothing is or was ever too silly for stars to indulge in.

In 1899, the latest fad was to walk one’s pet in public, using a harness (some even included a bit). In Helen’s case, the harnesses were “made of the finest silver chains, with tiny bells jingling at every movement.” She hired a boy to care for her three famous pets.

And why would any of that seem eccentric or excessive? Because the pets were turtles.

Yes … dozens of New Yorkers harnessed their turtles, walked them daily, and let them (while still in harness) swim in ponds. They were carried to different locations using “silk-lined manila baskets shaped like tiny hampers.” Some turtles were described as “wrapped in embroidery blankets, with their names outlined in gaily colored silks. These blankets have a tiny ring and silken card attached.” Sounds a little crazy, sure, but what the heck … we had Pet Rocks in the 1970s.

Celebrities always seem to have some kooky thing happening to them, and Helen Redmond’s best story was a doozy. There’s nothing funny about someone being stalked, and there’s nothing new about it either. Helen’s adventure describes something funny that happened because of a stalker, one who so resembled Redmond physically that she was often referred to as Helen’s double. The woman became obsessed with Redmond and even followed her performances on tour.

When The Ameer was performed in New York, Helen’s double booked a room in the same place where Redmond was staying. She sat in the front row for each show, and apparently began to believe that she was actually Helen Redmond. This behavior had long been of great annoyance and concern to Helen, but it now escalated to the point where the woman showed up at rehearsal as the show’s star, demanding that she be allowed to sing (her voice bore no resemblance to that of the prima donna’s).

The woman’s family consulted with authorities and a doctor, together concluding that placement in an asylum was the best option. To avoid alerting her to the plan, and since she now believed she was Redmond, they booked a carriage for transportation to the theater. Actually, the vehicle would be operated by personnel from the asylum, where she would be taken for treatment.

The carriage, appearing much the same as Redmond’s own, pulled up at the hotel. But at just that inopportune moment, Helen herself stepped from the building, uttering the single word “Theater” to the driver as she quickly climbed in―and discovered she wasn’t alone. Accustomed to riding solo, Redmond demanded identification from the carriage’s other occupant. “I’m the manager of the Ameer company,” he said. In reality, he was the asylum superintendent.

NRedmond 2B NYHThe New York Morning Telegram described what happened next: “Concluding him a stage-door Johnny who had slipped into her carriage in some way, Miss Redmond promptly determined to rid herself of his presence. Being an unusually robust and athletic young woman, she opened the door, intending to push him out with one fell shove. The superintendent, thinking his companion was demented and trying to escape, grabbed her. A tussle ensued, and before the contest was concluded, the sanitarium was reached.”

Ignoring Helen’s comments and protests, the asylum staff attempted to quiet her, but when she finally broke into song and beautifully rendered the show’s lyrics, they were shaken. The superintendent accompanied her back to the theater, where everyone was in a tizzy, wondering what could have happened to the show’s star. Everyone except her double, that is, who was having a ball until the real Helen arrived. The imposter was hauled away, and everything soon returned to normal.

It wasn’t Helen’s only brush with “celebrity news” items. About a month later, in January 1900, Redmond missed a performance, but according to her press agent, it was for good reason. Helen’s unusual daily regimen of icy cold baths in a very cold room had nearly done her in. Normally, she turned the warm water on after a lengthy soak, but the baths gradually became longer and longer, and on this occasion, it appeared that hypothermia (not yet a recognized clinical condition) had overtaken her.

While soaking, she wasn’t thinking clearly, delaying the decision to turn on the hot water. When she finally tried, the water line had frozen. An attempt to climb out of the water failed, and when she was finally discovered, ice was said to have been forming on the tub and the bathroom walls. A doctor was called, and Helen soon recovered, but he refused to let her take the stage that night.

One skeptical reporter supposed it might have been a story concocted by the press agent, but there were two strong arguments against that proposal. One―Helen Redmond was a daily headliner, hardly in need of more publicity, and Two―the cold-bath scenario sounded normal for a person who regularly harnessed and walked her pet turtles.

In 1901, a headline story noted that the barbaric practice of tattooing was suddenly the “in” thing. Offered as evidence: none other than actress Helen Redmond had recently obtained one in San Francisco. She was also involved in a public contract squabble regarding her box-office worth. [It seems the show-biz headline stories of today are much like those generated a century ago.]

Next week: The conclusion―Stardom and love.

Photos: Helen Redmond (1898); 1897 Ad―Redmond on Broadway at age 19

This essay is part of The New York History Blog’s project to highlight the history of women in New York State for Women’s History Month. Have a story to contribute? Find out how.

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