A Nervous Master of Comedy Finds A Place to Relax in the North Country

June 19, 2020

By Maury Thompson

Actor Edward HortonActor Edward Horton

In his six-decade career in show business, actor Edward Everett Horton played the role of Henry Dewlip in the Benn Levy comedy “Springtime for Henry” more than 3,000 times. He brought Henry to Army bases and military hospitals during World War II and to Broadway for a revival in 1951.

Aging Baby Boomers may recognize Horton as the character Roaring Chicken in six episodes of the situation comedy “F Troop,” or as the narrator for the “Fractured Fairytales” segment of “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,” though those are among the less monumental moments in a stage, screen, radio and television career that spanned from the early 20th century to 1970. Horton appeared in more than 125 silent and talking films, mostly in the 1920s and ’30s, but he preferred the stage.

Born in Brooklyn in 1886, he was a frequent summer visitor to Lake George, where his mother had owned a cottage at Kattskill Bay since 1916, a cottage the son later owned and rebuilt in 1965, after a fire about five years earlier.

When he died, The New York Times praised Horton as a “master of comic befuddlement.”

 “Edward Everett Horton, on the stage, the screen and on tele vision, made an institution of the Nervous Nellie character. He was instantly recognizable as the jittery, worrying fuss budget who could utter a mild “Oh, dear” and make it sound like the end of the world.’’

Horton was among many celebrities who visited Lake George throughout the 20th century, including Broadway actress Frances Starr, violinist Leopold Auer, opera’s Marcella Sembrich, artist Georgia O’ Keeffe, television’s Ed Sullivan, Ronald Reagan, Lucille Ball and Andy Rooney.

Horton struck up a friendship with Arthur P. Irving, the legendarily affable longtime publisher of The Glens Falls Post-Star and Glens Falls Times, who often brought the actor to Glens Falls during his Lake George visits. Indeed, in 1952, The Glens Falls Times called Horton “one of Glens Falls’ favorite neighbors as well as one of its favorite actors.”

On July 15, 1938, Irving was among a group of family and friends the actor treated to lunch at The Queensbury Hotel in Glens Falls, which Horton praised as “one of the finest” hotels he had ever visited.

After the luncheon, Irving brought Horton to the newsroom for a photo-op, recreating a scene from the 1931 movie “The Front Page,” a “great drama of newspaper life” in which Horton appeared.

“From The Queensbury the movie comedian went to the newspaper editorial rooms, where he laid aside his coat, donned the traditional green eyeshade, and went to work on a batch of copy, all for the benefit of George P. Sauter’s camera,” the Glens Falls Times reported. “While a score of (Glens Falls) Post Company employees watched, he was photographed in several poses and then good-naturedly gave his autograph to dozens of employees and others who flocked to the editorial rooms upon learning of the comedian’s presence.”

Horton had a bit of newspaper man in his heritage. His father was a typesetter for The New York Times.

Horton returned to Glens Falls on Aug. 3, 1939, to speak at a weekly meeting of The Glens Falls Rotary Club at The Queensbury Hotel.

Irving, the club’s past president, presided at the meeting and introduced Horton.

“Living up to his reputation of being one of the foremost entertainers in the world, Mr. Horton kept his audience literally ‘in stiches’ during his contribution to the day’s program, relating many of his interesting experiences as an actor and telling several humorous stories, augmented by his famous comic gestures and poses,” the Glens Falls Times reported.

More than 50 guests of club members attended the meeting, including actress Marjorie Lord of San Francisco and actor Gordon Richards of London, who were appearing with Horton in a production of “Springtime for Henry” at the Spa Theatre in Saratoga Springs.

“Today’s meeting of the club was one of the most successful ever conducted, and the guest list was by far the largest in history,” the newspaper reported.

Irving was master of ceremonies on April 13, 1945, when Horton appeared at “All Star Night” at the Knights of Columbus hall on Warren Street, a vaudeville charity show to benefit Temple Beth-El, a Jewish Reform congregation in Glens Falls.

Irving was the consummate public speaker, a fact not lost on Horton. “Mr. Horton related to the attentive audience his secret ambition to become a public speaker for the pure love of being the center of attraction,” reported Patricia Spellman of The Post-Star.

Broadway comedy actress Molly Picon and a company of 40 entertainers from the Scaroon Manor resort at Schroon Lake also participated. David Bines, a producer for RKO Pictures, directed the show. A capacity crowd of about 1,200 attended.

“Throughout the evening the enthusiasm and appreciation of the audience was matched only by that of the actors who repeatedly commented on the fine reception.”

That summer, Horton was spending four days a week at Lake George and three days a week in New York City, where he was guest host for 13 weeks on the “Kraft Music Hall” radio program, during Bing Crosby’s vacation.

Earlier that summer, Horton had visited Glens Falls’ Empire Theatre on South Street, where, early in his career, he appeared in October 1910 with Louis Mann’s traveling vaudeville show.

“Mr. Horton … went back stage to view the theatre’s collection of autographs and pictures of old-time stage shows pasted on dressing room walls,” the Lake George Mirror reported on June 29, 1945.

Years later, Irving arranged for Horton to speak again at a Glens Falls Rotary Club meeting at The Queensbury Hotel on Aug. 20, 1970.

“I’m going to give myself ten more years, and if I don’t amount to something, then I’m going in for handball or lacrosse,” he quipped.

Horton would not have ten more years, or even ten more weeks. On Sept. 3, he was admitted to Glens Falls Hospital.

He regained strength enough in a few days to be flown to his primary home at Encino, California where he collected antiques, grew rare trees and shrubs, and made up his own tennis rules whereby he always won.

It was grand place, 17 rooms sprawling over three stories.  “Another picture – another room,” he had once joked.

 On Sept. 29, the 84-year-old actor died from cancer at his home in Encino.

He was survived by a sister, Hannabelle, who also frequently visited Lake George, and brothers George and Winter.

“Because true comedy is always another aspect of tragedy, he helped to make life more bearable for a great many people during his long career by teaching them to laugh at themselves,” The Post-Star said of Horton in an Oct. 2, 1970, editorial.

Horton’s speech to the Glens Falls Rotary Club was his last public appearance but not his last appearance on screen.

The movie “Cold Turkey,” in which he appeared with Dick Van Dyke, and an episode of the NBC television show “The Old Timers,” in which he appeared, were released after his death.

Horton fulfilled his goal of working in his chosen profession his whole life.

Asked once if he might retire, Horton told The Post-Star, ‘Never. An actor retires only when there’s no further interest in his work.” 

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