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Wallack, John Lester (1820-1888)

Actor, Playwright, Theatrical Manager

Born in New York City on New Year’s Eve in 1820, John Lester Wallack was christened John Johnstone Wallack; he later adopted Lester John Wallack as his professional name. He first became interested in drama while being schooled in England at private schools; Wallack admits that he “hesitated long before [he] made up [his] mind to become an actor" (Memories of Fifty Years 24). Wallack made his first professional appearance in Tortesa the Usurer; he used the alias “Allan Field,” so as not to rely on the draw of his father’s name. He next appeared as “John Lester” and soon played at theaters in Dublin, Southampton, and Manchester before earning the chance to appear at the Haymarket in London.

In 1847 he traveled to America where he made his debut at the Broadway Theatre as Sir Charles Coldstream in a farce titled Used Up. He used the name “John Wallack Lester,” appearing in Shakespearean dramas, before gaining his big break as Don Cesar de Bazan in July 1848; he followed up with a successful run as Edmond Dantes in Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. Perhaps inspired by this success, Wallack presented his own well-received plays based on Dumas’ material: The Three Guardsmen and The Four Musketeers, or Ten Years After; Wallack is also credited with the authorship of the short-lived comedy First Impressions which only ran for four nights, co-starring Pfaff’s frequenter E.A. Sothern (Odell 6:530). In addition, Wallack claimed authorship of The House with Two Doors, played in Central Park, and laid disputed claim to Lady Lee’s Widowhood (Odell 7:542).

Wallack's level of involvement in the Pfaffian circle is uncertain. Francis Wolle claimed that in the pre-war days Wallack frequented Pfaff’s with O’Brien (Wolle 50). William Winter does substantiate the idea that Wallack and O'Brien are friends; however, Wolle remains the only source directing connecting Wallack to frequenting Pfaff's (Winter 76). Neverthless, Wallack was known to the major theater personalities, actors, dramatists, and critics of the day, many of whom had connections to Pfaff's including: Laura Keene, John Brougham, Joseph Jefferson, E.A. Sothern (who served as an usher at his funeral), and Rose Eytinge (New York Times, Sept. 9, 1888, pg. 5). For example, Wallack was added to Burton’s company in the 1850-51 season where he acted under Brougham’s direction (Odell 6:52). Wallack also shared a close professional relationship with Rose Eytinge, whom he offered the position of the leading lady for a season at his theater and also encouraged to return to acting after her return in 1873 to New York from traveling and living abroad (Eytinge 88, 215).

Wallack’s success as an actor was crowned when he became both player and stage manager once his father took over Pfaff’s regular, John Brougham’s Lyceum in September 1852. Here he played comic and romantic parts alongside actors associated with Pfaff’s including Laura Keene, John Brougham, and E. A. Sothern. Wallack continued his dual role as stage manager and actor when Wallack’s Theatre opened at Broadway and Thirteenth Street in 1861. Wallack’s theater became the leading New York (and possibly American) theater in the 1859-60 season. (Odell 7:206). Wallack began appearing as “Lester Wallack,” a name he kept through the opening of the new Wallack Theatre until his retirement in 1887. Wallack’s memorable performances include roles in Pfaffian John Brougham’s A Decided Case as well as Night and Morning, Playing with Fire, The Game of Life, and The Game of Love. He also appeared in Stephen R. Fiske’s My Noble Son-in-Law (T. Miller 104).

Upon this retirement he enjoyed a well-received benefit, in which famous actor and occasional visitor to Pfaff's, Edwin Booth starred as the lead in Hamlet (Martin 56). Four months after this event, Wallack died, leaving behind his wife and four children as well as his memoir, Memories of Fifty Years which was published posthumously in 1889. Theater historian George Odell describes him as "undoubtedly the handsomest and most popular leading man on the American stage" (Odell 6:17).