Source: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
BLAKE, WILLIAM RUFUS, actor and theatre manager; baptized 5 Dec. 1802 at Halifax, N.S., first child of William Blake and Charlotte Herring; m. in August 1826 Caroline Waring, née Placide, an actress, and they had one son; d. 22 April 1863 at Boston, Mass.
Born of Irish parents, William Rufus Blake was known for his rich humour and raconteur’s skill. His widowed mother is said to have encouraged him to take up a medical career, but Blake determined upon a stage life. He first played on the Halifax stage from 1817 to 1819 with a troupe of visiting American actors which included Thomas Placide. The company’s internal disputes and financial collapse as well as Blake’s indifferent press notices can hardly have been encouraging. By 1824 he had nonetheless acquired sufficient stage skill to obtain a début at the newly opened Chatham Garden Theatre in New York City. During the next seven years the young actor appeared in several New York playhouses, travelled on tour for a short time, and was stage manager for the opening seasons of Boston’s Tremont Theatre in 1827 and the renovated Walnut St Theatre in Philadelphia in 1829. In the summer of 1831 he and his wife starred with Vincent DeCamp’s company in Montreal and Quebec before he returned to his native town to fit up a theatre and organize a company of actors.
In Halifax Blake leased the city’s only theatre, a three-year old building known simply as “The Theatre.” There, after renovation, he offered a broad selection of comedies, melodramas, and farces from the London and American stages. The members of his small but versatile company were all Americans, though officers of the British army garrison and transient actors joined them occasionally. Talent, enthusiasm, and high-priced tickets made the theatre both respectable and successful at first. Further remodelling of the building and an expanded company of which “the female department” was rated “equal to that of any company in the U. States” marked the opening of the second season. Blake himself was acknowledged by the Boston Gazette to be “favorably known to the public as a first rate genteel comedian.”
Yet, despite high prospects, the theatre failed. Not enough townsmen were willing to support theatrical entertainments. Moreover, attendance dropped in the face of the threat of cholera spreading from the United States and the onset of a new economic depression in the winter of 1832–33. Blake’s extravagant management of the theatre, as illustrated by his elaborate new productions, also contributed to its demise. After the theatre closed in June 1833, “a large quantity of splendid scenery . . . and an extensive wardrobe of Elegant dresses” were offered for sale; one stage set was said to have cost £85. Blake’s extravagance appeared again in the interior embellishments of New York’s Olympic Theatre, built for him and Henry E. Willard in 1837, and described as “a parlor of elegance.” Blake managed this theatre from September 1837 until February 1838.
Except for British tours in 1839 and 1840, which included an unsuccessful appearance on the London stage, Blake confined the remaining years of his career to the United States. In Boston, New York, and Philadelphia he was both actor and stage manager, notably at the Walnut St Theatre again (1845–48) and at Burton’s Old Broadway Theatre in New York (1848–52). Abandoning management in the last decade of his life, he played in the most famous American companies of the day – Wallack’s and Laura Keene’s – reputedly at some of the highest salaries on the New York stage. One of the foremost comedians of his age, Blake was acquainted with most important theatrical personalities in America during his 40 years of playing.
As a young man, slim and handsome, Blake played the gamut of leading male roles in genteel comedies. By the late 1830s, however, increasing corpulence led him to the study of old age. Several contemporaries considered his sentimental and comic old men – “Geoffrey Dale” in The last man, “Jesse Rural” in Old heads and young hearts, “Lord Duberly” in The heir at law, “Old Dornton” in The road to ruin, and “Sir Peter Teazle” in The school for scandal – as unsurpassed, and regarded Blake himself as “a positive epitome of fun and humor.”
[For Blake’s years in Canada newspapers are virtually the only reliable sources. His early role is lightly covered in the 1817–19 issues of the following Halifax newspapers: Acadian Recorder, Free Press, Halifax Journal, Nova Scotia Royal Gazette, and Weekly Chronicle; his Halifax theatre is treated more fully in the 1831–33 issues of the town’s Acadian and General Advertiser, Acadian Recorder, Halifax Journal, and Novascotian. The Montreal Gazette and Quebec Mercury record and comment upon his Canadian tour of July to September 1831. His experiences in London can be traced through the Age (London), April to July 1839. An obituary can be found in the Acadian Recorder, 2 May 1863. s.b.]
St Paul’s Anglican Church (Halifax), register of baptisms, 1791–1816 (mfm. at PANS). DAB. T. A. Brown, A history of the New York stage, from the first performance in 1732 to 1901 (3v., New York, 1903). W. W. Clapp, A record of the Boston stage (Boston and Cambridge, Mass., 1853; repr. New York and London, ). J. N. Ireland, Records of the New York stage from 1750 to 1860 (2v., New York, 1866; repr. 1966). S. B. Smith, “The Walnut Street Theatre, 1809–1834” (unpublished ma thesis, University of Delaware, Newark, 1960), 72–74. Lester Wallack, Memories of fifty years (New York, 1889). A. H. Wilson, A history of the Philadelphia theatre, 1835 to 1855 (Philadelphia and London, 1935; repr. New York, 1968). [Joseph Jefferson], “The autobiography of Joseph Jefferson,” Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine (New York), XXXIX (1889–90); XL (1890).