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History's Headlines: The "Divine Sarah" Bernhardt graced the stage of Allentown's Miller Symphony Hall 112 years ago

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Dec 24 2013 05:12:54 PM CST
Updated On: Dec 18 2013 04:59:56 PM CST

History's Headlines: Sarah Bernhardt

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

Long before Max Hess was bringing them, major stars were coming to Allentown on their own. But the year 1910 was particularly favored when Sarah Bernhardt, the internationally known French actress, came to Allentown.

That she was roughly at the end of her career and spoke only French seemed to have been no problem for the capacity crowd that filled the Lyric Theater- now Miller Symphony Hall- to watch her perform. The star, universally known as the “Divine Sarah,” had a long stage career and since 1900 had been making silent films. Just having such a figure come to the Lehigh Valley at all was considered a cultural coup.

Sarah Bernhardt did not travel lightly. It was 10:00 am on December 1, 1910, that “The Bernhardt Special,” as her private train was known, arrived in town. It consisted of two Pullman cars, a day coach and four baggage cars. Traveling with her was her own touring company. As they made their way uphill to the Hotel Allen, where they would spend the night, Bernhardt waited in an automobile at the Lehigh Valley Railroad freight station near Gordon Street to greet the adorning fans who waved at her from across the street, exchanging air kisses. On that cold day the star was dressed in a full-length Russian sable coat. Pinned on it were two faded silk roses.

Her open car sped up Hamilton Street while the actress took in the view. Bernhardt had apparently read up on the city. Later that afternoon through a translator she noted to a reporter how she had seen many cement mills as she approached the city that morning. “I also note that you have plenty of fine homes and people,” she added, “and have many silk mills and a big fair also.” Her next stop was the Lyric, where she checked to see that everything was in readiness for her performance that night, which was to include a variety of acts from some of her best known works.

Among them was “La Dame Aux Camelias,” better known simply as “Camille,” “Joan of Arc” based on the life of the French saint, and “L’ Aiglon” the “Eaglet,” a trouser role that required Bernhardt to play the son of Napoleon Bonaparte.

All of this acting came naturally to Bernhardt, born in 1844 to a poor Jewish family whose father had abandoned them. But her skills as an actress were clear from the start and she took Paris by storm in a variety of roles in the 1870s and 80s, even traveling as far as Cuba.

In 1899 she took over a theater in Paris. Named “Theatre Sarah Bernhardt,” it was here she played a variety of roles that included classic French drama and modern works. It was also here she earned the title the “Divine Sarah.” She also pursued a career as a sculptor and artist, many of her works winning awards.

Among the most interesting aspects of her trip to Allentown was her insistence on stopping at the Pergola Theater, then located where the PPL’s tower building is today. Its owner, James Bowen, had recently managed to install a new color movie process that he had purchased in England. D. Ellsworth Knorr, who managed the theater, would recall many years later his experience of escorting Bernhardt to her seat for the showing of the film. Bernhardt’s interest in the film was no doubt genuine. In 1900 she had appeared in a two minute long film debuting as Hamlet that included some sound, among the first films to do so. She understandably had an interest in the new medium.

After the film Bernhardt went to the Lyric to prepare for her performance that night. When all was ready, theater orchestra leader Martin Klinger raised his baton and the stains of the Marseillaise, the French national anthem, burst over the assembled crowd.

For the next three hours, speaking only French, the actress held the audience speechless by her gestures and the sound of her voice. “Perhaps it was the witchery of her golden voice that had been the wonder of the half a century,” one newspaper said, that held them.

“More delicate than any stringed instrument, the voice vibrated and sang…All at the command of the wonderful woman, who does not merely act the part, but thinks them, lives them, feels them,” the press concluded.

With applause ringing in her ears, Bernhardt left the stage for her waiting railroad car, where she spent the night. Shortly after the show a reporter for the Morning Call was allowed in for a brief interview. He found the Pullman decorated with oriental rugs and Bernhardt sitting on a large chair while several maids waited on her. Bernhardt was “sipping a quantity of medicine from a solid gold cup of exquisite make.”

A well-dressed young man acted as translator for Bernhardt as she played with her little dog Peter Pan on her lap. She said she was pleased with the audience’s reaction to her performance. Asked if she would return to the Lehigh Valley she said she hoped to but, “I can make no promises, for you see I am old and do not expect to live long.” Would she ever perform in English?  “No. I am sorry” she said in halting English. “You hear I speak English very poorly.”

Bernhardt was to live on until age 78. On the evening of March 26, 1923, a maid’s hand appeared at the window of her sick room where a waiting crowd had gathered, and quickly drew closed the drapes. Although a doctor would confirm her death minutes later everyone knew at that moment that the “Divine Sarah” had taken her last curtain call.