Burnside, R. H. (Robert Hubberthorne), 1873-1952

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Showman R.H. Burnside was born in Glasgow to a theatrical family.

By the age of twelve he had twice run away from home to join the circus. His career began at London's Savoy Theatre in the 1880s where he worked backstage for the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company on its original productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. After moving to America, Burnside staged over 200 shows during his career, including many musicals for which he wrote music, librettos and lyrics. He was most closely identified with his direction of the popular musical extravaganzas at N.Y.'s Hippodrome Theatre, a vast playhouse where he mounted circus-sized spectacles with casts of hundreds between 1908-1923. After the Hippodrome's heydey, Burnside acquired all its costumes and equipment and began a theatrical rental business, R.H. Burnside Productions, while continuing to stage theatrical productions in a variety of venues.

From the description of Guide to the R.H. Burnside Collection, ca. 1905-1952. (New York Public Library). WorldCat record id: 610055519

Showman Robert Hubber Thorne Burnside (1870-1952), known as 'Burney' and 'Zipp', was born in an apartment over the Gaiety Theatre in Glasgow, where his father was manager. His mother, the actress Marguerite Thorne, brought two year old Robert to the U.S., where she played a role holding her son onstage. After they returned to England, he was educated in Brighton and Yarmouth, and by the age of twelve had twice run away from home to join the circus. Burnside soon followed the Edward Terry theatre company to London. There he found work as a call boy at the Savoy Theatre when the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company was making history with their original productions of Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas.

In 1894, serving as producer and director for Lillian Russell, he relocated to the U.S., continued his directing career, and began writing musicals. Sergeant Kitty (1903) and The Tourists (1906) were the first scripts that he wrote. In 1908, after directing 19 shows at various Broadway venues, Mr. Burnside began his long association with the Hippodrome Theatre, where he was to enjoy his greatest success.

Located on the east side of Sixth Avenue, where it occupied the entire block from 43rd to 44th Street, the Hippodrome was a "national treasure," and was advertised as the largest playhouse in the world. Lee Shubert, who was then managing the Hippodrome, hired Mr. Burnside to experiment with an entertainment formula that would fit the huge playhouse, which had a seating capacity of 5,300. Burnside mounted circus-sized spectacles, his success due in large part to his choreographic imagination, and the precision and order he brought to directing an immense cast and staff. There were 525 staff members working offstage, and up to 500 cast members working onstage -- they were trained like a "well disciplined army." The wide stage accommodated two circus rings, a water tank and hydraulic lifts; the backstage area housed an ice rink and barns for livestock that appeared in the spectacles. Chorus tableaux, pageants, ice skating scenes and ballets (including one choreographed by Anna Pavlova and Michel Fokine) were included in the shows. Aquatic numbers featured diving girls who magically disappeared into the water tank at the shows' finale. There were specialty acts by Harry Houdini, Will Rogers, and vaudevillians DeWolf Hopper and Fred Stone. Powers Performing Elephants were a favorite and frequent attraction, and John Philip Sousa was often on hand to arrange the music.

Burnside's colleague Charles Dillingham assumed control of the Hippodrome arena in 1915; Burnside and Dillingham worked successfully as associates for a total of 16 years, both at the Hippodrome and the Globe Theatres.

After the Hippodrome's heydey ended in 1923, Burnside acquired all of the theatre's costumes and equipment to start a theatrical rental business called R.H. Burnside Productions. The shop on W. 47th Street supplied complete scores, orchestra arrangements, costumes, props, technical equipment, and various accessories for operas, ballets, revues, parades, historical pageants, fashion shows, minstrel shows, exhibitions and more. The slogan was "We Furnish Everything" and the brochure stated: "Can supply 1-10,000 costumes within 24 hours." Resident designers for the enterprise were Will R. Barnes for costume design and Mark Lawson for scene design.

Burnside's stint in Hollywood was limited to one film: in 1924, working with the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation (part of Paramount Publix), he directed Manhattan starring Richard Dix and Jacqueline Logan.

Having clearly established his reputation as a creator of popular large-sized projects, he landed a job in 1926 writing and staging a huge history pageant at the Sesquicentennial in Philadelphia. Entitled Freedom the pageant boasted a cast of 2,700.

In 1933, he again worked with the Paramount Publix film company, this time directing stage presentations at the N.Y. Paramount Theatre; these played between the newsreels and the screen presentations. In 1936, a super-spectacle film glamorizing the association of Dillingham and Burnside was planned by Universal Studios, to be titled Hippodrome . Spencer Tracy was to play Burnside, with Fredric March as Dillingham; sadly the project fell through.

In 1939, Burnside served as technical advisor to the entertainment division of the New York World's Fair. In the 1940's, he returned to the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, in hopes of developing a permanent G. and S. repertory company. He organized the Boston Comic Opera group for that purpose, and the company toured major cities in the Northeast. In 1944, The Gilbert and Sullivan productions arrived in N.Y., playing in repertory at the St. James and Ambassador Theatres. The G. and S. revivals were deemed "historically correct," but received mixed reviews, and the project was abandoned.

Burnside was a charter member of ASCAP and wrote the popular song "You Can't Beat the Luck of the Irish." He became a member of the Lambs Club in 1897, was shepherd of the Lambs from 1918 to 1921, and staged many of the Lambs' public and private Gambols between 1921 and 1941.

Burnside's wife, Kittie, the former Kathryne Hyland, served occasionally as his co-writer and assistant stage director. The couple were married for thirty years, had three daughters, and owned a home in Ridgewood, N.J. After Kittie's death in 1940, Mr. Burnside left his home in Ridgewood to live at the Lambs Club on W. 48th Street. (The collection continued to be stored at the Ridgewood house.) Three months before his death, he moved to the Middlesex nursing home in Metuchen, N.J. where he died at age 82.

From the guide to the R. H. Burnside collection, circa 1905-1952, (The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Burnside, R. H. (Robert Hubberthorne), 1873-1952. Costume designs for an unidentified Burnside production, 19-- New York Public Library System, NYPL
creatorOf R. H. Burnside collection, circa 1905-1952 The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.
creatorOf Burnside, R. H. (Robert Hubberthorne), 1873-1952. Set designs for unidentified Burnside productions, 19-- New York Public Library System, NYPL
creatorOf Burnside, Robert H. Babes in the woods [microform] : automobile scene / by Robert H. Burnside and Lee Shubert. University of Missouri -- Columbia, MU Libraries; University of Missouri; MU; Ellis Library; University of Missouri Columbia
referencedIn Lawson, Mark. Set designs for Hermits in Italy, 19-- New York Public Library System, NYPL
creatorOf Sloane, A. Baldwin (Alfred Baldwin), 1872-1926. "Sergeant Kitty" [microform] : an opera in two acts / book by R.H. Burnside ; music by A. Baldwin Sloane. University of Missouri -- Columbia, MU Libraries; University of Missouri; MU; Ellis Library; University of Missouri Columbia
creatorOf Burnside, R. H. (Robert Hubberthorne), 1873-1952. Here and there designs, 1929. New York Public Library System, NYPL
referencedIn Lawson, Mark. Set design for Burning to sing, 191- New York Public Library System, NYPL
referencedIn Byrne, John F. Portrait of R. H. Burnside, 1922. New York Public Library System, NYPL
creatorOf Burnside, R. H. (Robert Hubberthorne), 1873-1952. Guide to the R.H. Burnside Collection, ca. 1905-1952. New York Public Library System, NYPL
referencedIn Lawson, Mark. Set designs for The Big Show by Mark Lawson and Dash, 1916. New York Public Library System, NYPL
creatorOf Burnside, R. H. (Robert Hubberthorne), 1873-1952. Hip-hip-hooray designs, [1915]. New York Public Library System, NYPL
creatorOf Kerker, Gustave, 1857-1923. "Their last appearance" [microform] : a very grand opera in one act / libretto by R.H. Burnside ; composed by Gustave Kerker. University of Missouri -- Columbia, MU Libraries; University of Missouri; MU; Ellis Library; University of Missouri Columbia
creatorOf Kerker, Gustave, 1857-1923. Fascinating Flora [collection] : a musical comedy in three acts / book by R.H. Burnside and Jos. W. Herbert ; music by Gustav Kerker. University of Wisconsin - Madison, General Library System
creatorOf Kerker, Gustave, 1857-1923. Fascinating Flora / music by Gustave Kerker ; [text by R.H. Burnside and J.W. Herbert]. University of Wisconsin - Madison, General Library System
referencedIn Lawson, Mark. Set designs for Everything, a musical revue, 1918. New York Public Library System, NYPL
referencedIn Hermits in Mexico designs, 1923. New York Public Library System, NYPL
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Barnes, Will R. person
associatedWith Byrne, John F. person
associatedWith Cook, Marie person
associatedWith Cook, Marie. person
associatedWith Dillingham, Charles B person
associatedWith Dillingham, Charles B. person
associatedWith Frohman, Charles, 1860-1915. person
associatedWith Hubicki, Margaret person
associatedWith Keith-Albee's New York Hippodrome. corporateBody
associatedWith Kerker, Gustave, 1857-1923. person
associatedWith Lambs (New York, N.Y.) corporateBody
associatedWith Lambs (Theatrical club : New York, N.Y.) corporateBody
associatedWith Lawson, Mark person
associatedWith Lawson, Mark. person
associatedWith Lovell, Katharine. person
associatedWith MacGeachy, Cora person
associatedWith MacGeachy, Cora. person
associatedWith Matthews, William Henry person
associatedWith Matthews, William Henry. person
associatedWith McQuinn person
associatedWith McQuinn. person
associatedWith Monkhouse, Gladys person
associatedWith Monkhouse, Gladys. person
associatedWith O'Kane, H. M. (Helen Marguerite), b. 1879. person
associatedWith Shubert, Lee. person
associatedWith Sloane, A. Baldwin (Alfred Baldwin), 1872-1926. person
associatedWith Wilhelm, Carl person
associatedWith Wilhelm, Carl. person
Place Name Admin Code Country
New York (State)--New York
Subject
Revues
Theaters
Theater
Theater
Theater
Costume design
Drama
Musicals
Occupation
Librettists
Activity

Person

Birth 1873-08-13

Death 1952-09-14

Information

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SNAC ID: 62012333