Last week I wrote about Ben J. Ely Jr. who became a professional artist even though many thought, at the time, that he would become an actor on Broadway or the screen. During high school and for eight years after, Ben was very involved in dramatic production under the direction of Charles R. Edwards. It is hard to estimate the influence Edwards had on him and many other young people and the culture of this whole community. The box of photos given to the Edwards County Historical Society contained rare cast publicity shots of two plays produced by Edwards in Kinsley in 1924.
Charles Rufus Edwards was born December 6, 1881 in Kinsley. He was the nephew of W. C. Edwards, the man for whom Edwards County had been named. He was the son of R. E. Edwards, the biggest rancher, retail merchant, banker, and “richest man in Kinsley as well as Western Kansas,” In 1911, his sister, Marion, would marry Jouett Shouse who became both a Kansas and U.S. congressman and Washington political appointee. You may remember from last week that right after graduating from high school in 1916, Ben J. became secretary for Congressman Shouse’ in Washington, D.C. during WWI.
It was reported in Charles’ obituary in the Kinsley Mercury that he “Gave a play” at age six. A review of Kinsley’s third Shakespearean festival in the Kansas City Star (6 August 1916) mentions that “as a high school boy (he) wanted to be in and to produce plays” and that “the members of his class supported Mr. Edwards in putting on all the plays he would get up for them.”
Charles left Kinsley before graduating from high school to study at the Dillenback School of Oratory in Kansas City. After graduating in May, 1899, he went East. He reported in 1908, just before his 27th birthday, that he had had the opportunity to be “something of a theatre-goer” – one who had “seen most of the RISQUE plays presented during the past ten years…”
Charles came back to Kinsley in 1907 to become the editor of Kinsley Mercury until 1910. He directed high school plays and began working with Gilmor Brown and his community Shakespearean productions. Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1912), As You Like It (1914) and Twelfth Night (1916) were produced by hundreds of Kinsley citizens and performed outside to audiences of one to two thousand. Ben J. acted in these and in the high school plays. After graduating in 1916, he would continue to spend his summers in Kinsley to be in Edwards plays’ and to construct scenery.
Edwards pursued his career in acting in Kansas City, New York, Dallas, Tulsa, and elsewhere. He was one of the best-known producers of pageants and amateur plays in the country. He directed the big Shakespeare Festival in Okmulgee Oklahoma 1920 and 1921.
In 1920 he returned to Kinsley to direct a play performed by the Kinsley Collegians, a cast made up of those talented alumni. In 1923, Edwards again came back to reform the Collegians and produce two WWI plays, Billeted and Three Live Ghosts. Ben J. acted in both. In the latter, he portrayed “Spoofy who suffers from shell-shock and dons an expression that brings down the house” (Mercury, 31 May 1923).
In the summer of 1924, Edwards would form the Kinsley Players and direct three plays. He engaged Don Cook, a member of the Kansas Community Players, to play the lead role in the second one, Clarence, by Booth Tarkington.
Cook was talented and handsome. One can only imagine the effect he had on the female population of Kinsley. He was described in the Graphic as having a voice filled with tones and delightful resonance.
Cook was enticed to stay on for the September production of Mollusc by Henry Davies. Edwards would return to the stage and play a major role in this comedy.
All three plays featured a talented local actress, Sue Bidwell. It was rumored that she might have been Charles Edwards secret love, but I’m going to save her most interesting story for next week.
Unfortunately, the next year on New Year’s Eve in 1925, Charles Edwards would give into the demons of loneliness and commit suicide by poison in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The notes he left are very poignant and tragic. His mother and sister would bury him in Kansas City.
On a happier note, Don Cook would go on to have a very successful Broadway and screen career. He is best known for his roles as Steve in Show Boat(1936), as Mike Powers in The Public Enemy (1931) and as Stevens in Baby Face (1933). He acted in 58 movies, 20 Broadway plays, and 10 episodes in television dramas.
Cook was married to Princess Gioia Tasca di Cuto in 1937. They remained married until his death of a heart attack in 1961 at age sixty while rehearsing the lead role in a new play, A Shot in the Dark. Walter Matthau was hired to replace him.
Don Cook has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and is buried where he grew up in Portland, Oregon.