Little Visits with Great Americans
by Orison Swett Marden
Marshall P. Wilder, Prince of Entertainers, Entertainer of Princes
A score of years ago, seated on a bench in Bryant Park, a hungry lad wept copious tears over his failure to gain a supper or a night's lodging. A peddler's outfit lay beside him. Not a sale had he made that day. His curiously diminutive body was neatly clad, but his heart was heavy. He was dreadfully hungry, as only a boy can be. "Oh, see the funny little man!" exclaimed a quartet of little girls, as they trooped past the shrinking figure. "Mamma! Come and buy something from him!" Down the steps of a brown stone mansion came a young matron, curiosity shining out of her handsome eyes. The boy looked up and smiled. The lady did not buy anything, but her mother's heart was touched, and before she hurried home with her little girls, she gave him five cents. Last winter, two members of the Lamb's Club were about to part on the club steps. One was "The Prince of Entertainers and the Entertainer of Princes," Marshall P. Wilder. The other was a distinguished lawyer.
"Come and dine with me tonight, Mr. Wilder," said the latter. "You have never accepted my hospitality, but you have no engagements for tonight, so come along."
Ten minutes later, the great entertainer was presented to the wife of his host and to four beautiful young women.
A curious thrill passed over the guest as he looked into those charming faces. They seemed familiar. A flash of memory carried him back to that scene in the park. He turned to the hostess: — "Do you remember," —his voice trembled, —"a little chap in the park years ago, to whom you were kind, — 'a funny little man,' the children called him, and you gave him five cents?"
"Yes, yes, I do remember that, —and you—?"
"I am the funny little man."
It was indeed true. The hungry boy had not forgotten it, though wealth and fame had come to him in the meanwhile. In a little private diary that no one sees but himself, he has five new birth dates marked, those of the mother and her four daughters. "Just to remember those who have been kind to me," is the only explanation on the cover of the book.
What a brightly interesting story is Wilder's, anyway! Who else in all this great, broad land has made such a record, —from a peddler's pack to a fortune of one hundred thousand dollars, —and all because he is merry and bright and gay in spite of his physical drawbacks. His nurse dropped him when he was an infant, but for years the injury did not manifest itself. At three he was a bright baby, the pride of the dear old father, Doctor Wilder, who still survives to enjoy his son's popularity in the world of amusement-makers. It was no fault of the doctor that Marshall was obliged to go hungry in New York. Doctor Wilder lived and practiced in Hartford, where his son ought to have stayed, but he didn't. At five he was handsome and well formed, but at twelve he stopped growing. The boys began to tease him about his diminutive stature.
"I don't think I've grown very much since, —except in experience," he said the other day in the course of a morning chat in his handsome bachelor apartments. "I thought, by leaving home, I might at least grow up with the country."
"But you didn't grow, after all ?"
"No, I haven't found the country yet that can make me grow up with it. I guess I'll have to be satisfied with being a plain expansionist." [Mr. Wilder is nearly as broad as he is long.]
"How did you happen to choose the amusement profession?" I asked.
NATURE'S LAW OF COMPENSATION.
"I was always a good mimic," he replied, "and I found my talents lay in that direction. I created a new business, that of story-teller, imitator of celebrated people, and of sleight-of-hand performer, all without the aid of costumes, depending solely on my facial expression to give point to the humor. Nature had certainly tried to make amends for her frowns by giving me facial power, —the power to smile away dull care. There is a niche in life for everyone, a place where one belongs. Society is like a pack of cards. Some members of it are kings and others are knaves, while I, —I discovered that I was the little joker."
Mr. Wilder is a bubbling fountain of wit, whose whimsicalities are no less entertaining to himself than to his hearers. As he quaintly expresses it, they are "ripples from the ocean of my moods which have touched the shore of my life." His disposition is so cheery that children and dogs come to him instantly. Eugene Field has the same trait.
HOW HE TOOK JOSEPH JEFFERSON'S LIFE.
His first appearance on any stage was made in "Rip Van Winkle," when he was a boy. Joseph Jefferson carried him on his back as a dwarf. The great "Rip" has remained his steadfast friend ever since. Only a few years ago. Wilder left New York to fulfil a church entertainment engagement in Utica. He got there at three in the afternoon. Mr. Jefferson's private car was on the track, containing himself, William J. Florence, Mrs. John Drew, Viola Allen, and Otis Skinner. They hailed him instantly and induced him to pass the afternoon in the car and to take dinner with them. His church engagement was over at half past eight, and at Mr. Jefferson's invitation he occupied a box at the opera house. The house happened to be a small one, while the church had been crowded to the doors. After the theater, the Jefferson party again entertained the humorist in the car, keeping him until his train left, half an hour after midnight. As Mr. Wilder was leaving, Mr. Jefferson pretended to get very angry and said: 'What do you think, my friends? Here we have entertained this ungrateful young scamp all the afternoon, and invited him to dinner. Then he goes up to town and plays to a big audience, leaving me only a very poor house. Then he comes down here, partakes of our hospitality again, and before leaving takes my life!" Suiting the action to the word, Mr. Jefferson handed the young man a copy of his "Life and Recollections."
His first attempt at wit was at a little church in New York, where he was one of the audience. A tableau was being given of "Mary, Queen of Scots," and in order to make it realistic they had obtained a genuine butcher's block and a cleaver. As the executioner stood by, the lights all turned low, and his dreadful work in progress, a shrill voice arose from the darkened house: —
"Save me a spare-rib."
His readiness in an emergency was shown at Flint, Michigan, when he was before an unresponsive audience. As luck would have it, the gas suddenly went out.
"Never mind the gas," he called to the stage manager." They can see the points just as well in the dark." After that he was en rapport.
The greatest gift God ever made to man, he admitted to me in strict confidence, is the ability to laugh and to make his fellowmen laugh. This more than compensates, he adds, for the reception he gets from some of the cold audiences in New Jersey.
I asked him what was the funniest experience he had ever had.
"In a lodge room one night with Nat Goodwin," he replied. "It was, or ought to have been, a solemn occasion, but there was a German present who couldn't repeat the obligation backward. Nat stuffed his handkerchief into his mouth. I bit my lip trying to keep from laughing. I knew what an awful breach of decorum it would be if we ever gave way to our feelings. We had almost gained perfect control of ourselves, and the beautiful and impressive ceremony was half over, when that confounded Dutchman was asked once more to repeat the oath backward. He made such work of it that I yelled right out, while Nat had a spasm and rolled on the floor. Did they put us out? Well, I guess they did. It took seven or eight apologies to get us back into that lodge."
Equally funny was his experience in London. It was on the occasion of the visit of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery, of Boston. A big dinner was to be given, and the American ambassador and the Prince of Wales were to be there. I asked Wilder to tell me the story of his visit.
"I received an invitation," he began, "through my friend, B. F. Keith, who was a member of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery, and who happened to be in London. The uniforms were something gorgeous. The members stood in two long lines, awaiting the coming of the prince, who is always punctual. I was dressed in my usual boy-size clothes, a small American flag stuck in my Tuxedo coat. I walked around restlessly. The major-domo was a very grand personage, with a bearskin hat on one end and long boots on the other. He must have been eight or ten feet high. He chased me to the rear of the room several times, —evidently not knowing who I was, —but every time he turned his back I would bob out again, sometimes between his legs. The prince came, and almost the first thing he did was to walk across the floor to me and say: 'Hullo, little chap. I am very glad to see you.' I had met him before. Then Henry Irving bore down on me and shook my hand, and so did Mr. Depew and others. By this time the major-domo had shrunk in size.
"Who the Dickens is that little chap, anyway?" he asked.
" 'Sh! He belongs to the American army,' was the answer. 'He's a great marshal or something over there!' "
Wilder is big-hearted. "The biggest fee I ever received," he stated in reply to my inquiry, "was the satisfaction I saw depicted on a poor man's face. It was on a railway train. A life-prisoner was being taken, after a long man-hunt in Europe and America, out to Kansas City. I never saw so dejected a face. I devoted four or five hours to brightening him up, and when I left he was smiling all over. I had succeeded in making him forget his misery for at least four hours!"
A wealthy gentleman of New York pays Mr. Wilder a stated sum every year to "cheer up" the inmates of hospitals and similar institutions.