A man described in his time as
“America’s Greatest Character Actor” was born to Owen and Francis Kelly Keenan
at their home on Cleveland Avenue in Dubuque in April 8, 1858. James “Frank” Keenan was first attracted to the stage as a youngster watching the entertainment brought to town by the showboats that docked at the Jones Street levee. His father Owen came to Dubuque in 1856 from Boston with two brothers, James and Patrick. Together they operated the Keenan Brothers wholesale grocery business between First & Second on Main Street. As good Irish Catholics the family attended the Cathedral built a few years before by Father Mazzuchellli. For several years the family lived in Elkader where Owen Keenan owned a farm. When family moved back to Boston in 1874 Frank enrolled at Boston College where he first appeared on stage. His ability led quickly to minor roles in the Boston Museum Stock Company.
Keenan marked the beginning of his professional career in support of the veteran stage star Joseph Proctor in 1880. His stage presence and acting ability soon took him to New York with roles in “The Capitol,” “A Poor Relative,” and other contemporary hits. A noted critic of the era, Austin Brereton wrote: “He has a career of exceptional brilliancy before him, and granted that he has the right conditions for his work and the energy to make use of them, he will become a conspicuous figure on the stage.”
Keenan’s portrayal of the cynical Cassius in a Washington, DC production of Julius Caesar elevated him to the status of “celebrated Shakespearean actor” and gave him top billing for decades. He later specialized in King Lear and Macbeth.
In 1900 Keenan added “director” to his credits and staged original productions of “The Christian,” “The Kings Musketeers,” and dozens of others at his own Lyceum Theater. As a turn of the century matinee idol Keenan went “on the road” performing in theaters coast to coast, including a few stops in Dubuque including April 24-25 1900 in the popular Broadway hit, “A Poor Relation.” A review in the Dubuque Herald was predictably flattering. “In the part of Noah Vale, Mr. Frank Keenan, a native of Dubuque and fine actor, gives a masterful interpretation of that loveable and tenacious genius, Noah Yale.”
As he continued honing his craft the rave reviews became common. When “The Honorable John Grigsby” opened March 1, 1902 one critic wrote: “The appearance of Frank Keenan at the Lyric last night will be one of the great treats of the theatrical season. So profound an impression did Mr. Keenan make in New York that Harper’s Weekly devoted an entire page to his work.”
That review reads in part: “We should say in these days of many stars, Keenan belongs among the planets for he is immeasurably the superior of the vast bulk of well-dressed and graceful mediocrities who are decorating the dramatic firmament with their fire-fly talents. His appeal is to the intellect and to the heart. It is character, not physical attributes that he impresses upon the mind.”
“Girl of the Golden West,” a four act melodrama set in the gold rush days of California was another major stage success for Keenan. The David Belasco production opened in November of 1905 and ran for 224 performances and then toured nationally. Keen played Sheriff Jack Rance. When the show moved to Chicago critics raved: “his acting will liner longer because of his saturnine humor, quiet power and wealth of unobtrusive but striking detail. It was an impersonation: genuine, deep founded, compelling acting and every moment and every turn of it absorbing.”
During a 1909 interview with a Chicago newspaper Frank Keenan described how he prepared for his unforgettable role in “The Warrens of Virginia” at 1907 Broadway hit in which he co-starred with the young Mary Pickford. “When Mr. Belasco gave me this role of Buck Warren, I spent money in finding out things, and finding them out right. The stage has never been fair to the Confederate soldier. It has given him the accent of a levee roustabout and a weak backbone, when he was a man of the greatest virility and sentiment with a soul of fire and hand of steel. I obtained letters that would carry me into the homes and into the intimacies of the men who were part of that great struggle – who made its history. I went to them frankly and told them what I wanted to know. They received me with the greatest cordiality and opened their hearts to me. I spent weeks in Virginia with these men – intimates and rand hands of Lee and Stonewall Jackson. I studied their accents. I caught their very phrasing and sentiments of today and those of yesterday. Only two classes cannot forget the war and abide by its results – the women and the men who didn’t fight. The others, without losing their love for their old flag, have renewed their loyalty to the old one. I got the genuine Southern point of view in this way. I had to get it to make the people who sit out in front every night can understand and sympathize with those men. My Southern friends appreciated to the full what I sought to do.” He went on to describe how he met with Stonewall Jackson’s black servant who was then 91 years old and spent two hours visiting with him. Keenan was an actor who seriously prepared for his roles.
When “The Warrens of Virginia” went on the road a review in the Pittsburgh Daily Post on November 29, 1908 read in part: “This was such a perfectly rounded portrayal, so accurate in its development and treatment that one was constrained to believe that Mr. Keenan had fortunately hit upon a role that suited his personality rather than one that permitted him to manifest his histrionic ability. Mr. Keenan is an actor of distinction, his experience has been varied, his native talent as a delineator of character has been perfected by a schooling under the best of players and directors. As an actor in support of a star, as a director, as a star himself and as player in a company where the drama was presumed to be strong enough to carry itself, and also as a featured member of the cast, he has given the best that was in him, consistently and commendably.”
A Sunday March 9, 1909 article in the Telegraph-Herald tells how he and a group of other New York actors were discussing their early days before success on the stage. Keenan recalled that while at Boston College he worked part time as a book agent, insurance salesman and a police court reporter for a Boston newspaper.
The legitimate stage was home for Frank Keenan but he also ventured into the less prestigious field of vaudeville. Most think of “the peoples’ theater” as jokes, juggling and comedy skits, but many of the better vaudeville theaters also featured presentations of shorter duration than the typical 3-4 act dramas. One such sketch was “The Oath” which gave Keenan “an equal vogue in vaudeville.” Another was “Man to Man”, a one act sociological drama by Oliver White which tells of a fight between laborer and capitalist. It debuted in Washington, D.C. on February 10, 1911. A review in the Washington Post the next day states, “Mr. Keenan has found time to cast and stage the new piece while playing “the Oath”, engaging a new company for that sketch, rehearsing his daughter, Miss Hilda Keenan, rehearsing Miss Julie Herne in a new sketch and to take part in the “full Dress Rehearsal of the Green Room Club.” He was obviously a man of boundless energy.
In June of 1912 while touring “Man to Man” with his daughter Hilda in Seattle, Washington, the lovely teenager met a young comic, Ed Wynn, who was part of the vaudeville bill at the Orpheum. A romance developed and the young couple courted via mail and chance meetings when they were both playing in the same towns. Two years later from their home on Long Island, Frank and Katherine Keenan announced the wedding of 20-year old Hilda to the 28-year old Wynn in 1914. Wynn had landed star billing in the “Ziegfield Follies of 1914” and Hilda was to star in “The Salamander” that season. She bowed out of the role to marry – a union that lasted 22 years and resulted in the birth of a son, Keenan Wynn, who went on to his own a very successful show business career.
Hollywood came calling in 1915 when Keenan made his screen debut under the direction of Reginald Barker in “The Coward.” During the next 11 years he made more than 3 dozen silent films and directed 4 others. Although he earned a fortune in film, he often returned to his first love – the stage.
Keenan created his own production company in Hollywood and produced a number of very successful films released by Pathe’. In 1919 he took on the subject of union strikes and the creeping threat of Socialism and Communism when he wrote, produced and starred in “The World Aflame.” A review in the LA Times described the film as “a grippingly intense and vital drama dealing with work and workers with capitol and capitalists. Keenan plays the part of Carson Burr, the new Mayor who learns a lesson when he breaks a general strike and by bringing employers and workers together at a Union Hall meeting, lays the foundation for permanent industrial peace. The picture aims to show that alien radical agitators do not reflect the attitude of the rank and file of the workers, and employers may avoid strikes and turmoil by director appeal to legitimate trade union officials.”
Frank’s domestic life was considered ideal. He married Katherine Agnes Long from New Brunswick, Nova Scotia in 1890. They had two beautiful daughters who also became thespians. Katherine always traveled on the road with Frank and their off-seasons were spent in the Adirondacks or at their spacious home on Long Island. After moving to Hollywood she became actively involved in charity work including the Disabled Veterans Home in Sawtelle and The Women’s Post War Service League. Frank and Katherine were both practicing Catholics and deeply devoted to each other.
Tragedy struck April 26, 1924 when Katherine suffered a cerebral hemorrhage as she joined in the applause for Frank while in the audience premier of a new comedy, “Fame” at the Writers Club in Los Angeles. A stage manager quietly summoned him off-stage where he rushed to his wife’s side. She never regained consciousness. After 44 years of marriage he was so distraught that he was unable to attend the funeral at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament on Sunset Blvd. Newspaper accounts described Frank “in a state of complete collapse and was ordered by his physicians to remain in bed.”
One of Katherine’s close friends, was a music teacher and budding actress from Palo Alto, California. 28-year old Margaret Whyte, recently divorced from a Los Angeles financier, visited the aging actor often and within several months The Los Angeles Times announced their engagement to be married. “The young woman, a graduate of Southern California University where she studied with Leopold Stokowski, was an intimate friend of the late Mrs. Keenan and frequent visitor to their home.” The paper said they planned a 6-month honeymoon traveling by steamship from San Francisco to Honolulu and on to the Orient. Frank Keenan was 68. She was 28. What could possibly go wrong?
Upon their return the couple embarked on what the LA Times called “a lecture tour of the principal coast cities. Keenan will speak on the relation of drama on stage and screen. He’ll return to Hollywood in four weeks to resume his picture career. His wife is expected to present piano recitals at various cities along the way.” His next picture, “The Heart of Dixie” for MGM was warmly received. “The horse race finish isn’t the only thing that will make “Heart of Dixie” a favorite. Frank Keenan does a Kentucky judge that will renew his fame as a character actor.”
Author Oliver White wrote a new stage play for Keenan, “Smiling Danger” which debuted August 31, 1925 in Los Angeles. “The veteran actors sonorous voice and fine artistry will give power to this new production,” wrote the LA Times. “The fine skill in tense drama, ancient and modern, which has characterized the wonderful playing of Shakespeare, the classics and recent plays of note by Mr. Keenan since 1874 are shown here.” Among the cast members was Margaret White Keenan.
Keenan’s success on stage and in the movies continued. The 40-year age difference in the marriage was another story. On October 7, 1927 Margaret White Keenan filed for divorce. The LA Times reported, “whatever the shortcomings of veteran actor Frank Keenan has as a husband, his wife’s maid says he was a mighty good customer of his bootlegger.” In divorce testimony the maid stated he bought three bottles of scotch at a time and a bottle usually lasted only a day. “Besides excessive intoxication, Mrs. Keenan complained that he had persuaded her to abandon a profitable career as a musician to marry him upon a promise to settle valuable properties upon her, and then after marriage he failed to do so.” The marriage lasted less than two years.
Some sources say his drinking continued but it didn’t stop him from embarking on yet another stage tour of vaudeville theaters featuring the one act drama/comedy “The Second Performance” by Nancy Bradford. The exhausting tour took him from New York to Burlington, Vermont, Winnipeg, Canada, Milwaukee, Chicago, and Denver. Co-starring with him was 39-year old Leah Mae, whom Frank had known since she was a girl in Boston playing juvenile parts. The reviews were all excellent including the words of New York Times critic Percy Hammond: “Keenan, as usual, is typically American. Energy, commanding forcefulness, swiftness and sureness of decision and action, fearless – are all characteristics of his work. And a sense of humor ever lurks in the background – humor that is all the more relished because of the contrast with actor’s usual sternness of visage and attitude.” “Vaudeville,” says the actor, “is the most effective element in bringing to the so-called legitimate stage the absence of ‘blah’.”
The nationwide tour of “The Second Performance” continued as an unlikely romance between the 70-year old actor and his 39-year old leading lady began to blossom. While playing the Orpheum Theater in Denver they married on October 11, 1928. There was no elaborate Honolulu honeymoon for this marriage. When the toured ended the couple returned to his Hollywood home at 1554 Poinsettia Place. In late February of 1929 Keenan developed a bad cold which turned to pneumonia. February 25, 1929 The Los Angeles Times wrote: “One of the original portrayers of Rip Van Winkle on the stage went to his final sleep yesterday. Frank Keenan, 70-year old veteran of stage and screen succumbed to an attack of pneumonia after an illness of about 5 days. Frank Keenan was well known throughout the country ad had appeared I stage productions in nearly every city of the United States. He was a star of the first magnitude and ranked among the foremast stage artists until he came west and took up motion picture work, in which field he also occupied a prominent position.” “He is said to have had one of the largest personal followings of any actor in the late 19th and early 20th century. He entered motion pictures in the early days of the industry and is said to have amassed a large fortune.”
Frank Keenan had a brilliant stage career, great success on film and, through his daughter Hilda’s marriage to Ed Wynn, left a lasting memory of his name through Keenan Wynn who appeared in hundreds of films and television series between 1934 and 1986. Keenan had two sons, actor and writer Ned Wynn and Tracy Keenan Wynn, is a screenwriter whose credits include The Longest Yard and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and The Deep. The Keenan legacy lives on – and it all began in Dubuque, Iowa.