Minnie Ashley (1875-1945) American Actress
Minnie Ashley is a little Southern girl who has won her way into the hearts of the theater-going public by her pretty face, ability, work and personality. She is the bright, particular star of “The Country Girl.” ( from The Burr McIntosh monthly 1903)
Artless girlishness, remarkable personal charm, and skill as an imaginative dancer scarcely equalled on the American stage, account for Minnie Ashley’s sudden success in musical comedy. Aside from her dancing, which is artistic in every sense, she is by no means an exceptionally talented young woman. Nature was indeed good to her when it endowed her with a most fascinating personality, a pretty, piquant face, and a slim, graceful figure, but it was by no means lavish with other gifts most desirable. Miss Ashley’s range as an actress is decidedly limited; she is not to the slightest degree versatile, and she has no notion at all of the art of impersonation. Her singing voice is more of an imagination than a reality, although one is sometimes deceived into believing that she can sing in a modest way by the admirable skill with which she uses the little voice that is hers. She has a due regard for its limitations, and she delights one by the clearness of her enunciation and the expressive daintiness of her interpretation of the simple ballads that show her at her best.
Nothing could be more exquisitely charming than her art in such songs as “The Monkey on the Stick” and “The Parrot and the Canary” in “The Geisha,” “A Little Bit of String” in “The Circus Girl,” and “I’m a Dear Little Iris” and “This Naughty Little Maid” in “A Greek Slave.” These songs are all of the same class,—little humorous narratives, or, better yet, funny stories set to music. Miss Ashley seems almost to recite them, so perfectly understandable is every word, yet she keeps to the tune at the same time. Not a point in the story is overlooked, and every phase of meaning is captivatingly illustrated in pantomime. Miss Ashley’s pantomime, like her acting, is limited in quantity; so limited, in fact, that it suggests, after one becomes familiar with it, the fear that it is all mannerism. Even at that, I doubt if any one can escape its persuasive appeal, can remain absolutely cold and unresponsive before those eyes so full of roguish innocence, those lips smiling a challenge, and that pretty bobbing head shaking a negative that means yes.
However, if he be unmoved by Miss Ashley’s singing, he surely cannot resist her dancing. It is as an illustrative dancer that Miss Ashley is supreme. She is the one woman who comprehends dancing as something more than violent physical exercise, who appreciates the art of dancing in its classic sense as a means of symbolic and poetic expression. Minnie Ashley dances with her whole body moving in perfect unity and in perfect rhythm. She is the personification of grace from head to foot, and there is vivacity and joy and fulness of life in the saucy noddings of her head, the languorous sway of her form, the sinuous wavings of her arms and hands, and the bewildering mingling of billowy draperies and flashy, twinkling feet. When Minnie Ashley kicks, she does so delicately and deliberately,—kicks that end with a shiver and quiver of the toe-tips.
It has been Miss Ashley’s good fortune in most of her parts to be permitted to dance in long skirts. As Gwendolyn in “Prince Pro Tem,” however, she wore the conventional soubrette skirt of knee length. It was surprising what a handicap it was to the full effectiveness of her dancing. Miss Ashley is not a whirlwind dancer; she does not sacrifice grace for speed, nor dignity for astounding contortions of the body. Knowing full well the value of the artistic repose and the crowning fascination of suggestion, she handles her draperies with that rare skill which makes them seem a part of herself. Their sweeping softness destroys all crude outlines, and they are at the same time tantalizing provokers of curiosity. The short skirt—blunt, plain-spoken, and tactless—compelled the substitution of abandon for sensuousness, and consequently a sacrifice of coquetry and suggestiveness.
Minnie Ashley was born in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1875. Her family name was Whitehead. When she was very young her father and mother separated, her mother going to Boston and taking Minnie with her. The mother afterward was married to a man by the name of Ashley, and it was as Minnie Ashley that the dainty actress was always known during her girlhood in Boston. She lived and went to school both in Roxbury and the South End; and she learned her first dancing steps, as thousands of city children do, by tripping away on the sidewalk to the grinding music of the hand-organ.
Her first appearances in public were made at the children’s festivals on Washington’s birthday in the old Music Hall, Boston. The first year she was the Queen of the Fairies with a number of other school-children as subjects; and the next year, after demonstrating that she could dance, she was promoted to the position of solo dancer, and a feature of the entertainment was her exposition of the intricacies of “The Sailor’s Horn-pipe.” Her native talent, so prettily shown at these children’s festivals, attracted the attention of a teacher of dancing, who took Miss Minnie under her charge and gave the child the instruction that was necessary to develop her gifts to the best advantage.
During the summer the teacher took her promising pupil to the summer resorts in the White Mountains. There the guests were charmed, and the boys and girls of ambitious parents were instructed in the art Terpsichorean. This lasted until Miss Minnie came to the conclusion that she was doing all the work while her companion was reaping most of the profits. So they quarrelled about it and separated, Miss Ashley returning to Boston firmly resolved to go upon the stage as a professional dancer.
At that time Edward E. Rice was organizing a company to produce the R. A. Barnet spectacle, “1492,” and to him Miss Ashley applied. She succeeded in getting a place in the chorus. When DeWolf Hopper brought out “El Capitan” in Boston in 1896, she was still in the chorus, although she was permitted to understudy Edna Wallace Hopper. Miss Ashley, however, had developed since the days of “1492,” and although she was in the chorus, she was by no means of the chorus. Her individuality was so pronounced, her magnetism so potent, that the largest chorus could not conceal her. She literally stood forth from the group, a graceful and beautiful figure, animated, interesting, and pertly captivating. She had something of the spirit of France about her, or at least what we think is the spirit of France; and it was not altogether strange, therefore, that her first engagement outside the chorus should have been to act a French girl. This occurred in a musical comedy called “The Chorus Girl,” which was brought out at the Boston Museum after the close of the regular season in 1898. “The Chorus Girl” was pretty poor stuff, but Miss Ashley’s personal success was considerable.
The following season J. C. Duff put “The Geisha” and “The Circus Girl” on the road, and Miss Ashley played Mollie Seamore in “The Geisha” and Dolly Wemyss in “The Circus Girl.” In May, 1899, when “Prince Pro Tem,” a musical comedy by R. A. Barnet and L. S. Thompson, which has never played a successful engagement outside of Boston, was revived, Miss Ashley appeared as Gwendolyn. Those who heard Josie Sadler sing “If I could only get a Decent Sleep” in “Broadway to Tokio,” may be interested to know that this touching ballad was originally one of the chief hits of “Prince Pro Tem.” “Prince Pro Tem,” with its numerous deficiencies, had one thoroughly artistic character, Tommy Tompkins, the showman. Fred Lenox acted the part; and a capital bit of comedy it was, too, deliciously humorous in its depreciating self-sufficiency, wonderfully clever as a loving and sympathetic caricature, and thoroughly convincing as a sincere study of human nature, a Thackeray-like creation, which was worthy of a more pretentious setting than it received in Mr. Barnet’s show.
When “A Greek Slave” was produced in New York in November, 1899, that city discovered Minnie Ashley and forthwith shouted her name from the housetops. “A Greek Slave” was not a success, but Miss Ashley’s Iris was. As the “New York Telegram” said:—
“And there is Minnie Ashley. A slim, graceful, attractive young woman, with scarcely the suggestion of her wonderful magnetic power in her slender outlines. Two minutes after she had made her entrance, the house was hers and all that therein was. She couldn’t sing in the same country with Dorothy Morton. She couldn’t act in a manner to warrant attention on that score—and she knew it, and didn’t make any harrowing attempts to reach what was beyond her. She knew herself. There was part of the secret. She didn’t endeavor to gather in impossibilities. She simply came out and played with that audience as a little child would play with a roomful of kittens. ‘You may purr over me and lick my hand and look at me with your great, appreciative eyes,’ she told her kittens, ‘and in return, I will stroke you and soothe you, and charm you.’
“And she certainly did charm that house. She has a pleasing little voice which she uses with utmost judiciousness. She has an innate grace and refinement that are most telling accomplishments. As she informed us in her opening song, ‘I’m a Dear Little Iris,’ a slave girl, who knows how to drape herself and how to execute the steps of the airiest, fairiest dances. There have been many times at the Metropolitan Opera House when great singers have been overwhelmed by the fierce applause of an emotional audience. Then the bravos have been shouted and the enthusiasm has reached a fever pitch. But before last night these scenes have formed no part of the programme at the Herald Square. Miss Ashley changed that old order, and changed it with the lightness and lack of perceptible effort which characterized her whole performance. The house simply went wild over this practically unknown girl. Her name was called again and again, and the encores of her pretty little songs stretched the opera out far beyond its legitimate length. The house admired the daintiness, the womanliness, and the suggestion of the thorough-bred in this young girl. The poise of her head, the poetical motion of her body, the total lack of self-consciousness, these were constant delights.”
“To Minnie Ashley,” declared the “Boston Transcript,” a few weeks later, when “A Greek Slave” was played in Boston, “fell nine-tenths of the honors of the performance, and she gave another impersonation fully as charming as those with which she has been associated in ‘The Geisha,’ ‘The Circus Girl,’ and ‘Prince Pro Tem.’ She was a dainty little slave, demure as was befitting the character, but with a way that was certainly irresistible. She is a real comédienne, and each of the points in the few funny lines that fell to her lot was capitally brought out. Especially clever was the song about ‘The Naughty Little Girl’ in the second act, where she made the hit of the evening. Nature never intended her to be a prima donna, but it gave her the power to sing a song like that in a way that leaves nothing to be desired, and when she dances—well, it doesn’t matter in what language she dances; Latin, Japanese or Yankee, the result is just the same.”
While she was with De Wolf Hopper, Miss Ashley was married to William Sheldon, a half-brother of Walter Jones, from whom she was afterward separated. (from Lewis C. Strang, Famous Prima Donnas 1906)