March 7, 1906: The “Duke of Duluth” makes it Zenith City debut at the Lyceum Theatre

The cover for sheet music of the 1905 Broadway musical “The Duke of Duluth.” (Image: Zenith City • Click to enlarge)

On this day in Duluth in 1906, “The Duke of Duluth” held its first performance in Duluth at the Lyceum Theatre. Written by George H. Broadhurst with music by Max S. Witt, the musical opened in August at McVicker’s Theater in Chicago and went to New York in September, running for 24 performances at Broadway’s Majestic Theatre. Outside of its title, the play had nothing to do with the Zenith City, but it did have “fifty pretty girls” and the songs were “extremely catchy.” The plot was thin: After falling asleep in a “submarine boat,” hobo Darling Doolittle finds himself in the land of Wot, which is inhabited by “dancing girls and singing lovers.” A case of mistaken identity causes the people of Wot to believe Doolittle is not a tramp but a duke, the Duke of Duluth, no less, who came to protect the land of Wot from a threatening enemy. The play includes an Irish military instructor and a “bogus Italian consul and his colored servant,” likely just so the actors could employ comic accents popular at the time. There was no real mention of Duluth; the play was just an excuse to get the star and some lovely young ladies on stage in elaborate costumes to sing silly songs. Nat M. Wills played the titular Duke. He was a very popular stage and vaudeville performer who, like others of his time, performed in blackface and used comic accents of various ethnic groups in his act. He was best known for his “tramp” persona and inspired many future comic performers, including Red Skelton, who often performed as the lovable tramp “Freddy the Freeloader.” The Duluth News Tribune welcomed news of the play, saying it would accomplish what the Commercial Club had been chasing after for years: a way to make the name “Duluth”—which the newspaper said “has a strange sound in the ears of people who are not familiar with it”—better known throughout the nation. You can read much more about the 1905 stage play and the many, many other Dukes of Duluth here.

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