H.M.S. Pinafore Sails in Prescott Once Again

By Tom Collins

Pinafore poster, 1878. Courtesy Pictures Now/Almay.

The comic operetta “Pinafore” has been a favorite with Prescottonians ever since December 1879, when the nationally renowned burlesque star, Miss Pauline Markham, rumbled into our territorial capital on the stagecoach from Tucson. Pauline was celebrated for her beauty, her shapely legs, her velvet voice and her broadly publicized horsewhipping of a Chicago critic who branded her and her fellow British Blondes as harlots.

Pauline Markham as Ralph Rackstraw, 1870-1890. Courtesy of Tom Collins.

Pauline brought with her a very small supporting cast of professionals that included three male talents: Harry Carpenter (in the 1890s a Republican representative from Yuma), Joseph Dauphin (a light opera character actor in San Francisco) and Frank Roraback (a nationally experienced light opera tenor). She relied on local Prescott amateurs to build the deck of Her Majesty’s Ship Pinafore on the stage of the Prescott Theatre on Alarcon Street, and she required them to recruit the chorus of sailors (Fort Whipple soldiers) and “the sisters and the cousins and the aunts” of Sir Joseph Porter. Pauline played Josephine, “the lass that loved a sailor”; Carpenter was Captain Corcoran, Josephine’s father; Roraback sang his heart out as Ralph Rackstraw, the sailor who falls for “the fairest flower that ever blossomed on ancestral tree”; and Dauphin personated Sir Joseph, Ralph’s preposterous rival. It is unclear who played Little Buttercup, a dockside vendor infatuated with Captain Corcoran.

The show opened on Christmas Day, 1879, accompanied by Fort Whipple’s 12th Infantry Band, and it proved such a hit that it played at least twelve more nights. Nearly every man, woman and child in our town of 1,836 people attended the show two or three times each. Never expecting to remain in Prescott for more than a week, Pauline formed fast friendships with the local amateurs and stayed until June 1880, performing light operas and comedies. When Frank Roraback left the troupe for a gig in California, Pauline donned a sailor’s costume and played Ralph. She cast Annie Carpenter as Josephine, and the two of them warbled the lovers’ tunes to Arizona’s territorial governor, John Charles Fremont, and his daughter, Lily, in January 1880.  Lily wrote in her diary that the show was “right well given and we were quite entertained.”

Harry Carpenter, 1870s. Courtesy Sharlot Hall Museum (SHM Call # 1700-1264-0000)

“Pinafore” enjoyed numerous revivals in Prescott. In January 1882, Dauphin staged the show with local soprano Jessie Stephens (Josephine) and Dude Hose Co. fireman J.E. “Baldy” Brown (Ralph). Dauphin brought down the house as Sir Joseph. Professor Ludwig Thomas (conductor) and Dauphin (director) led an amateur cast in a four-night revival in October 1891 for the grand opening of Bashford’s newly renovated opera house in Howey’s Hall. The matronly soprano, Minnie Cline, sang the lead. Hedrick Aitken, V.P. of the Bashford-Burmister store, filled the role of Capt. Corcoran, and dashing dentist Dr. Fred Waite replaced Brown as Ralph. The Elks Lodge of Phoenix brought their production to Prescott in March 1908. Gary Davis and Beverly Hallstrom staged a superbly sung “Pinafore” for the Prescott Fine Arts Association (PFAA) with piano accompaniment in May 1989 with a cast that included Mark Burkitt (Ralph), Karla Burkitt (Cousin Hebe), Dana Nichols (Sir Joseph), Liz McKinney (Josephine), Denis Young (Capt.) and Katherine Gosney (Buttercup).

Fans of H.M.S. Pinafore will be thrilled to learn that the NY Gilbert & Sullivan Players will bring this immortal comic operetta to the stage of the Yavapai College Performing Arts Center on February 3, 2023, at 7:00 p.m.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.archives.sharlothallmuseum.org/articles/days-past-articles/1 .The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles and inquiries to dayspast@sharlothallmuseum.org Please contact SHM Research Center reference desk at 928-277-2003, or via email at archivesrequest@sharlothallmuseum.org for information or assistance with photo requests.

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