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Superba! The Hanlon Brothers in Cohasset

Richard Small

Reproduced, with permission, from Treasury of Cohasset History, ed. J. M. Dormitzer (Town of Cohasset, Mass., 2005), pp. 138-140.

Imagine. It’s 1890 or maybe 1891, and you dwell, like most Americans, in one rural community or another . . . Your primary form of (nonsporting) entertainment is reading and the occasional performances by either local theater groups or traveling, minstrel-like repertory companies. Occasionally you visit the big city to see the lights and absorb the latest in popular culture. You have seen some of Shakespeare’s plays and have even heard opera. But nothing—nothing has prepared you for Superba, a Hanlon Brothers production.

As you sit transfixed in your theater seat, amid its opulent nineteenth-century murals and gilding, before your eyes is a presentation that stirs your imagination beyond all experience. For the five Hanlon brothers make magic on the stage that we will latterly call—special effects. You witness an actual train wreck on stage—a real smoke-snorting locomotive has exploded by the footlights; horse-drawn carriages have crashed with passengers scattered, apparently broken and torn; convicted felons have been beheaded before your eyes; a waterfall has flowed on the stage; the Hanlons have soared out beyond and above the audience on trapezes and ropes—with somersaults, catches, and tosses; quick-change pantomime scenes follow one another with no apparent relation except the wondrous imagination behind them.

For three hours you have been entranced by a traveling show with music, peopled by elaborately costumed characters from myth, fable, and legend (sprites, nymphs, and heroes) and dancing girls, but no words. The handbills and posters did not lie—“Nothing like it before seen here.”

. . . The five Hanlon brothers used Cohasset as their summer base from 1888 until their final tour in 1905. Here with their specially constructed rehearsal studio and design center (long since torn down, the unique combo-two/three-story structure was located at the corner of Depot Court and Ripley Road), they brought more glamour to an already flourishing actors’ colony at this beautiful rocky-shored town.

Originally there were six Hanlon brothers . . . born to the Irish Shakespearean actor Tom Hanlon and his Welsh wife, Ellen Hughes, in England . . . The Hanlon parents gave the boys into the care and training of Dr. John Lees, who was originally their tutor and then their business manager. Lees noticed the natural athletic ability of his charges and soon helped establish them as a traveling troupe of acrobats, tumblers, aerialists (especially trapeze—all without safety nets), and pantomimists. They traveled the world’s capitals from Paris to Moscow—from the Follies Bergeres to the czar’s Winter Palace.

. . . One of the brothers, Thomas, suffered a severe head wound as a result of a fall during their famous “Leap for Life.” He slammed thirty or forty feet into a metal bracket. Because of the fall, he was brain damaged and not long after took his own life. The Hanlon brothers reacted by inventing safety nets that are still in use today in the circus. Furthermore, they developed the fire safety nets that are used by urban fire departments. They gave the patent for the latter to the New York City Fire Department.

Aside from these safety devices, the imaginative Hanlons invented scenery braces that are used to this day in theaters around the world—Hanlon braces. Their genius extended into scenery and special effects. Superba and Fantasma, their two Cohasset-designed and manufactured productions, were set on vast rotating stages, moved by swiveling wheels mounted on train tracks.

Many Cohasset residents were employed at all levels of production, from designing to carpentry and metal casting and forging. Colorful scenery was painted on linen screens and constructed from papier mache, as were many of their detailed costumes. The ten weeks of Cohasset summer were a chance to refit and design anew one or the other Superba or Fantasma. The shows were revised and touted as “completely new” for each year’s tour.

These productions toured the United States and all the cosmopolitan centers around the world. Some historians of the theater have called the Hanlons the fathers of musical comedy. They were certainly in the forefront of elaborate productions and stage settings . . . When Edward and George Hanlon (the driving force of the troupe) died, the children of the brothers abandoned the productions because of the expense and the rise of vaudeville.

From Richard Small, “Nothing Like It Ever Before Seen Here,” South Look (a supplement to the Mariner Newspapers), January 20-21, 1992. Reprinted by permission of the Cohasset Mariner