University of the Arts lauds Mae Desmond


“I can’t tell you the number of times I heard my grandmother say ‘I’m an actress, not a housewife,’” Dr. Mari Kathleen Fielder said Tuesday at the University of the Arts’ Ira Brind School of Theater Arts.

The Center City location will help a new generation of theatergoers to appreciate her relative by staging “Leading Lady” Feb 3 to 5. The musical will examine the early yet prolific career of Mae Desmond, a figure whose heritage, looks and moral nature scored her acclaim nearly a century ago.

An adjunct professor, Glenside’s Fielder has served as a consultant to composer and lyricist Charles Gilbert, Brind’s director, for two years, helping the resident of the 1800 block of South 12th Street to shape the tale of Desmond, born Mary Veronica Callahan in 1887. His 28-song creation, with author P. Seth Bauer’s accompanying book, will join four other works in his institution’s inaugural New Play Festival.

“Mari mentioned Mae in passing, and I set out to see if I could find enough material for a musical,” the East Passyunk Crossing resident, whose work has won him three Barrymore Award nominations, including recognition for the South Philly-set “Gemini the Musical,” said.

Gilbert, whose 1979 work “Assassins” served as the source for Stephen Sondheim’s likewise titled Tony Award-winning composition, became engrossed in studying Desmond, who grew up on the 600 block of South Randolph Street and later called the 1700 block of Ritner Street home, to encapsulate her as a triumphant odds defier whose resilience knew no limits.

A member of a large Irish Catholic household, Desmond sought to bolster her clan’s material existence and relied on father Michael Callahan’s skills in teaching her the arts of storytelling and oration to incite an acting interest. Fielder penned the musical program’s notes, which include a description of her grandmother’s securing resident ingenue status at the Chestnut Street Opera House. Voicing its take on the complex elements of Irishness, management renamed her Mae Desmond.

The facility’s stock company united the actress and Frank Fielder, its juvenile, or young romantic lead. He desired Broadway renown, as did Desmond, who captured his heart immediately, leading to their first child’s birth in 1910.

Landing leads for Brooklyn’s Gotham Players took them to New York City, where Desmond attempted to earn rave reviews in “The Daughter of Mother Machree,” which producers saw as a likely hit. When exalted status eluded the work, she and her partner regrouped and decided to craft a company in accordance with their artistic vision.

“And that was the birth of the Mae Desmond Players,” their granddaughter said of the ’17 formation in New York.

Her notes state her grandparents yearned to “climb up the stock company markets, from hinterland to small city, eventually back home to that closest-to-the-top urban market, Philadelphia.”

“They knew Philadelphia was a different animal than New York City,” the educator said.

Time in Schenectady and Elmira yielded to the lure of North Philly, including its Metropolitan Opera House. Desmond and her beau enjoyed their greatest financial and popular success while running Kensington’s aptly dubbed Desmond Theatre, according to the Cambridge Guide to American Theatre. Its productions catered to German and Irish Catholics, with Desmond’s “Irish beauty, Catholic morality and fashionable correctness” keying great returns and a sense of intimacy with the audience.

“Repertory companies were very popular during my grandparent’s era of greatest popularity,” Fielder said.

Geography promoted the establishment of companies in numerous areas, Gilbert said. Shifts in neighborhood focus doomed many troupes, leading to the ongoing Center City onslaught that has even bred his school’s Caplan Studio Theater. Territorial tastes, however, did not jeopardize the Desmond Players.

“My grandmother did not want to invest but eventually listened to my grandfather, and they lost money during the Great Depression,” Fielder said of the Stock Market Crash of ’29.

Gilbert addresses their triumphs and travails in his undertaking, seeking to explore enough experiences over a two-decade period to foster a sense of bravado, love and patience.

“It is certainly a story of Mae’s coming into her own and acquiring local fame,” he said. “I found so many aspects so intriguing that I had to cover as many as possible.”

Gilbert began the work in summer ’10, with a surplus of responsibilities making mapping its parts a sporadic yet thrilling experience.

“I continued to write here and there,” the musician said, “and when we decided last year to have ‘Leading Lady’ be among the works in the festival, I increased the pace of the writing.”

As he will present the project as a workshop, Gilbert will be gauging receptivity to the story to devise a timeline for the work’s ultimate look. He is hoping to see if eager students can find kindred spirits in Desmond and Frank Fielder, whose artistic and romantic identities continued to blossom long after the initial taste of fame and fortune had dissipated.

“It really struck me to tackle Mae and Frank as partners in life and in business,” Gilbert said of his subjects’ bond, which resulted in 72 years of marriage.

As no relationship escapes conflict, the composer imagines disagreements to intensify the passionate personalities.

“My grandparents remained in the business until their 80s,” Fielder said of Desmond and Frank Fielder, who died at 95 and 96, respectively, and who broadened their theatrical scope by establishing the Mae Desmond Children’s Theatre in Willow Grove.

Their tirelessness has inspired Gilbert to be similarly vigilant, as rehearsals and discussions have increased for next week’s performances.

“My grandmother had a working-class mentality,” Fielder said of an attitude that won Desmond plaudits in Queen Village, especially, but also most places she displayed her talents.

A Center City shoe salon in 1921 named a shoe after Desmond, the Mae-Belle, according to Fielder’s notes.

“For a generation, Mae Desmond embodied the optimistic surety that the hard-working life in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods opened to a richer, wider world,” her circular ending says. “For a time, nothing seemed finer, especially to the young women of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, than to walk in Mae Desmond’s shoes.”

Contact Staff Writer Joseph Myers at or ext. 124.