As an eager high school thespian and a lifelong lover of theater, I was so excited to discover an interesting group of Official US Army photographs that are among the tens of thousands in The Mariners’ Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation World War II collection. I really wondered what stories these wartime images could tell. So, sit back and enjoy what I learned.
Imagine. You are Margalo Gillmore. Respected British actress of stage and screen, coming from four generations of actors and artists. Here you are, standing next to Katharine Cornell – a dynamic woman whom you have worked with twice prior to this venture, both times on Broadway. Her stoic, stern demeanor and arched eyebrows are somehow calming. You are not nervous, but the weight of the situation is heavy. But it is only a simulation. A drill to prepare for the possibility of being subjected to those vicious chemicals being used in the war. The reality is: this is a daunting task. She looks at you, smirks, and straps on her gas mask turning toward the door of the gas chamber behind you.
Katharine Cornell is a tenacious and passionate performer, regarded as one of the leading ladies on Broadway. She earned the nickname “The First Lady of the American Theater” by critic Alexander Woollcott. Getting her start in minor roles and failed acting auditions for the Washington Square Players, Cornell eventually went on to find success as part of a touring company. With her acclaimed performance as Jo March in a London production of Little Women, Cornell established herself as a leading lady.
She was even one of the three women to win the first-ever Tony Award for Lead Actress (Dramatic). She is unabashedly theatrical, perfect for the stage. She made an entree into television later in her career and her only film credit was a two-minute bit in Stage Door Canteen, where she played herself, handing out food to soldiers during World War II.
How Cornell and Gillmore came into contact with a gas chamber is pretty simple yet fascinating. In order to bring enjoyment to the troops – without being as potentially provocative the way a USO show can be – leading actors and actresses from the American Theatre Wing in New York banded together to create a theater company for the Allied troops during the Second World War.
The stage is set: The Barretts of Wimpole Street. The audience: troops stationed in Italy. All the cast needed to do was go from being Broadway performers to military-trained thespians!
Training began with an early morning wake up at Camp Patrick Henry (present-day Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport), breakfast, military training involving hiking and scaling abandoned-ship drills, and concluding with rehearsals for the play. The usual day for a thespian-in-training in this wartime troupe.
Katharine and her troupe would soon land on the Italian war front. Initially, some actors were nervous that the war-weary troops would not want to listen to a three-hour drama about poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, for example, but rather prefer a USO show with lots of dancing and little-to-no plot. As the legend goes, during one performance, the audience started to become rowdy. A few actors were worried the audience would walk out. Cornell, on the other hand, stayed in character, waiting for the ruckus to subside. She continued with the performance, and the audience was so enraptured with her they gave the cast a standing ovation at the play’s conclusion.
Cornell would return to Broadway a year after the war ended, appearing in the 1946 production of Antigone and the production of Candida a few months later. She would refrain from moving to television and film until her television appearance in 1956 in The Barretts of Wimpole Street.
Ennis, Thomas W. “Margalo Gillmore, An Actress on Stage and on the Screen.” The New York
Times. July 2, 1986. https://www.nytimes.com/1986/07/02/obituaries/margalo-gillmore-an-actress-on-the-stage-and-on-screen.html.
“Katharine Cornell: Biography.” IMDb.com. 2023.
“Katharine Cornell (Performer).” Playbill. Accessed February 22, 2023.
Whitman, Alden. “Katharine Cornell Is Dead at 81.” June 10, 1974. The New York Times.