A Classic Player: Otis Skinner, 1858-1942

Updated: Aug 17, 2019


By C. CLAIBORNE RAY


When Otis Skinner died in 1942 at the age of 83, The New York Times called him "dean of the American stage" and said he was reputed to be one of the wealthiest members of his profession. His fortune, which included valuable real estate, went mostly to his daughter, the famed monologist and humor writer Cornelia Otis Skinner. But he did leave $1,000 (about $15,000 in today's dollars) to his home away from home, The Players.


Here he was a popular member for 52 years, serving as vice president since 1927 and probably working on more committees than anyone else. When John Drew was president, Skinner often filled in for him on Founders' Night. After his retirement from a distinguished stage career, he spent even more time at the club.


According to A Certain Club by John Tebbel, Skinner presided over the ceremony for Edwin Booth's birthday a few weeks before his own death, recalling "the man who had been his friend and early patron." His last visit to the club came just a month before he died, presiding over a meeting of the board of directors in the absence of Walter Hampden, then president.


In Skinner's long and ubiquitous career, he shared the stage with not only Booth, but also John Drew, Ada Rehan, Maude Adams, Mrs. Fiske and Madame Modjeska. It was his face that the Encyclopedia Britannica photographed to illustrate the entry on "Stage Makeup." Besides playing more than 325 roles, including 16 by Shakespeare, he owned shares in popular stage productions and produced and directed at least 33 plays. He also wrote successful books, including Footlights And Spotlights and Mad Folk Of The Theater.


Born Otis Augustus Skinner in Cambridge, Mass., to a Universalist minister and his wife, he decided on an acting career after a brief and boring stint as a commission house clerk. His first stage appearance was in Philadelphia in 1877, playing "an old Negro in Woodleigh." He soon joined the acting troupes of Booth, Modjeska and Joseph Jefferson. He played Shylock opposite Maude Adams's Portia and was versatile enough to portray Falstaff, Hamlet, Richard III and Romeo, not to mention Sancho Panza. His signature role was Hajj the Beggar in the nonmusical version of Knoblauch's Kismet: beginning in 1911 on Broadway, he performed it on stage for more than two decades and made movie versions in 1920 and 1930.


His last stage appearance was reading the foreword to a Players revival of George M. Cohan's hit Seven Keys To Baldpate in 1935. His marriage to the actress Maude Durbin ended with her death in 1936.


C. Claiborne Ray retired in 2008 as deputy obituary editor at The New York Times and still writes the Science Q&A column for Science Times. She has used the Players as her drawing room since 2014. 

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