Eddie Dowling

Inducted: 1966
Born: 1889 - Died:

Eddie Dowling was an actor, director, playwright, screenwriter, composer, and theatrical producer. He was one of the all-time greats of the American Theatre. Dowling succeeded in every phase of show business – vaudeville, musical comedy, serious drama, producer, director, and playwright. He won four New York Drama Critics Awards, and his accomplishments ranged from dancing in the Ziegfeld Follies to producing Shakespeare. Above all, though, Broadway is indebted to him for improving its aesthetic standards. “It has been obvious for some time now that if our stage hopes for anything approaching dramatic delicacy and beauty, it will have to look largely to a one-time soft-shoe hoofer and songwriter, of all people, to supply it. For if there is another producer like Eddie Dowling, who is willing to risk plays like “Shadow and Substance,” “The White Steed,” “Time of Your Life,” and “The Glass Menagerie,” wire me his name, and I’ll write a blurb about him. I can think of no other present producer whose honest and closest desire is to bring to our theatre that type of drama that possibly departs the security of the box office for a brave flight into those upper reaches of a human spirit far removed from Broadway.” George Jean Nathan, author and drama critic, wrote those words in a 1959 article in Esquire.

The same urge that made Eddie Dowling run away from home to join the theatre at age 10 stayed with him his whole life. He never played it safe, with the result that he made and lost fortunes in trying to bring to the theatre challenging and unorthodox works of new, young playwrights like Paul Vincent and Tennessee Williams. His productions won four New York Times Critics’ Awards and two Pulitzer Prizes. “Eddie has enriched the American theatre with his imagination and his integrity. He has dared to take a chance on dreams,” Broadway legend Lee Schubert said.

Joseph N. Goucher was born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, on December 11, 1889, the 14th of 17 children born to immigrant parents, Bridget Dowling and Charles Goucher. He feared his surname was too French and would keep him from working with people who were not, so he adopted his mother’s maiden name to form his professional surname, Eddie Dowling. The boy grew up in Woonsocket and Lincoln, R. I., and earned pennies singing Irish ballads outside barroom doors. He was self-educated after grade 3 and took a job at age 11 on the Fall River Line as a cabin boy. He later served that same role on the Mauritania and Lusitania. He then joined the boys’ choir of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. “My mother, God bless her, never knew until she was dying that it was a Protestant church,” he told an interviewer many years later.

Dowling began his career in vaudeville with the Homan Stock Company at the Scenic Temple Theatre in Providence, RI. He appeared on stage for many years, including in the Ziegfeld Follies. His theatrical career was highly varied. He appeared in vaudeville and made his Broadway debut in 1919 in “The Velvet Lady.” Although Victor Herbert had written the score, the young Dowling was allowed to sing two songs he had written himself. He also appeared in the “Ziegfeld Follies” of 1919, which starred Will Rogers and Fannie Brice. That was only his first brush with great names in the theater. Among the stars he later worked with were Kate Smith, Dorothy McGuire, Celeste Holm, Jessica Tandy, Margaret Webster, Eva Le Gallienne, Barry Fitzgerald, Maurice Evans, Gene Kelly, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Bob Hope, and Walter Huston. Among playwrights, he worked with William Saroyan on the production of “The Time of Your Life,” which won a Pulitzer Prize, and Paul Vincent Carroll, Sean O’Casey, Tennessee Williams, and Philip Barry.

In 1922, after a period in Hollywood and two more editions of the “Ziegfeld Follies,” Dowling collaborated with Cyrus Wood on the musical comedy “Sally, Irene, and Mary,” which he co‐produced, co‐directed and starred in. “A fresh little comedy of New York manners with screamingly funny lines and a flavor as sure as three‐star Hennessey,” said The New York Times. The little comedy ran a season on Broadway, two more on the road, reportedly earned its producer a million dollars and was sold four times to Hollywood. But while drawing accolades for his comedies, Dowling was interested in doing serious drama. In 1937, he produced Shakespeare’s “Richard II.” It was his own first significant directorial effort and the first professional appearance of Margaret Webster in the United States. At that time, the leading actor, Maurice Evans, played only one Shakespearean role in American theater. The production received rave reviews. This was followed in 1938 by a production of Paul Carroll’s “Shadow and Substance,” a play about the clash between classical Catholicism and liberalism in Ireland. Cedric Hardwicke was the star. That same year, in Philip Barry’s “Here Come the Clowns,” Dowling made his successful debut as a dramatic actor.

Dowling formed a great friendship with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom he met through Gov. Alfred E. Smith. For a while in 1932, Dowling left the theater to work on the Roosevelt Presidential campaign, and he wrote a campaign song, “Row, Row for Roosevelt.” He campaigned in the Midwest and was reportedly a spellbinder on the stump, a master of all the Irish arts of bringing tears to the eyes of his hearers when he told of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s great heart. Dowling was unsuccessful in bidding for the Rhode Island Democratic nomination for Senator in 1934.

He was the national chairman of the stage, screen, and radio division of the Democratic National Committee from 1932-36 and again in 1940. Joining ASCAP in 1927, his chief musical collaborators included James F. Hanley, J. Fred Coots, Victor Herbert, and Bernie Wayne. He wrote or co-wrote such songs as “The Little White House at the End of Honeymoon Lane,” “Dreams of You,” “Half a Moon,” “Jersey Walk,” “Headin’ for Harlem,” “Mary Dear,” “Wherever You Are,” “Little Log Cabin of Dreams,” Did God Die in Dixie?,” “May God Keep You In the Palm of His Hand,” “Logic,” “Suzie from Sioux Ci,” and “High Up On a Housetop.”

In 1936, Dowling produced “Richard II,” the first time it had been played in America since the days of Edwin Booth, introducing Maurice Evans and Margaret Webster to Broadway. He brought Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Sara Allgood to America for “Shadow and Substance.” He produced “The Time of Your Life,” the first play to win the Pulitzer Prize and the Drama Critics Award. In 1946, he directed Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh.”

Once, though badly in need of money, he turned down a contract for a play that seemed a sure commercial success because he preferred a script by an unknown playwright named Tennessee Williams. The year was 1945, and the play was “The Glass Menagerie,” the story of an aging Southern belle and her lame daughter. Critics instantly acclaimed it as one of the best plays to appear on Broadway in years. Laurette Taylor and Eddie Dowling, co-producer, co-director, and narrator, played the leading parts.

In a 1950 interview in Variety, Dowling explained his method of play selection: “I produce what I like. And what I like are plays that don’t have an answer. Plays that continue to haunt and disturb and perplex. That’s what Hamlet had. That’s what the Greeks had, and O’Neill, and all the great dramatists – the reaching out for the meaning of life, the searching. That’s the thing – the search. It is always a spiritual thing, this searching, whether the writers are conscious of it or not.” Dowling was active in the theater until the early 1960’s.

Dowling married actress and stage performer Rachel Dooley in 1919. He said his marriage was the best thing he ever did. They had two children, Jack and Maxine. Jack Dowling was killed in a plane crash in Brazil in 1955 when he was Time magazine’s Buenos Aires bureau chief.

Dowling was president of the USO Camp Shows and held honorary degrees from Boston College, Providence College, Mount St. Mary’s College, and the Catholic University of America. The Rhode Island Department of Transportation named the “Eddie Dowling Highway” after him in 1960. He was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1966.

Eddie Dowling died on February 18, 1976, at 86.

Productions produced, directed, or acted in by Eddie Dowling;

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