By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer
Continuing over two weeks, The Blade is looking at significant events and people of the past 100 years. This is one of a series of profiles about influential Toledoans of the 20th century.
On March 13, 1912, a traveling play from Chicago, entitled Louisiana Lou, debuted at the Valentine Theatre.
With characters such as “Lansing Bright, an adventurer,” “The Duke De Lune, a fortune-seeking imposter,” and “Nixon Holme, an enemy of slumber,” theatergoers likely expected an exciting, fulfilling night on the town.
According to Robinson Locke – nationally known theater critic and one of Toledo’s most influential men at the turn of the century – they didn’t get it.
“Louisiana Lou had its first performance in Toledo last night at the Valentine,” Mr. Locke, then The Blade’s theater critic, wrote. “It is hoped that the first will be the last.”
His acid pen continues, jab after jab: “There is a chorus, but oh ye gods, what an aggregation! The women are fat and ungainly, with voices like buzz saws; the men are gawky and awkward and can neither sing nor dance. The costumes look as though they had been rented at a second-hand masquerade costumers. Altogether, the show is a pitiful display of the gentle art of bunk.”
Mr. Locke finishes his review with a flourish: “With such a troupe of third-raters as that seen here, it should go into cold storage instantly.”
Robinson Locke had much more flattering words about most plays that came to Toledo, but it was his honest language that made him a nationally known figure.
He was well known in New York, home of Broadway; when he died in 1920, The New York Times ran his obituary.
But the best evidence of Mr. Locke’s accomplishments are in his hometown of Toledo. He played crucial roles in founding the Toledo Museum of Art, the Toledo Symphony, and the Maumee Valley Historical Society.
He spent most of his adult life as owner and editor of The Blade, but most of his energies went into the arts, not journalism.
And his collection of theater memorabilia, now enshrined at Lincoln Center in New York, is the greatest the world has ever seen.
“He’s my hero,” said Bob Taylor, curator of the theater collections of the New York Public Library and overseer of the Robinson Locke collection.
“It’s just amazing what he did.”
Robinson Locke was born to be in newspapers. His father was David Ross Locke, the famed 19th-century satirist whose anti-slavery writings under the pen name Petroleum V. Nasby gained him national attention. Not long after Robinson was born, in 1856 in Plymouth, O., President Abraham Lincoln became a fan of “the Nasby letters”; he reportedly read some of the elder Mr. Locke’s writings to his cabinet members just before signing the Emancipation Proclamation.
David Ross Locke came to Toledo in October, 1865, to be editor of The Blade; a few years later, he bought the newspaper.
Mr. Locke set about making the paper into a national force. When he arrived in Toledo, The Weekly Blade had a circulation of about 2,000; while he was editor, subscriptions were sent to 200,000 across the country, with readers in every county of every state.
The elder Mr. Locke spent considerable time training his favorite son, Robinson, to take over the family business.
He wanted to make sure that Robinson had opportunities he had not had as a young man, and sent Robinson for schooling in Paris and Zurich, Switzerland, where he studied German, French, and music.
Father and son traveled around Europe together extensively; Robinson wrote sections of his father’s book on their travels, Nasby in Exile.
When in Toledo, Robinson Locke worked as a reporter at The Blade, focusing on the coverage of the arts. His father had been one of Toledo’s first art patrons, founding the Toledo Academy of Fine Arts in the early 1880s.
Robinson followed his father’s lead, becoming the paper’s theater and music critic.
“Without knowledge, life becomes mere existence, no matter how magnificent the surroundings,” he said in a 1915 speech.
“And in this scheme of universal knowledge the fine arts play a most important part. Take away music, painting, drama, sculpture, and architecture, and all the material glory of the world would not be compensation.”
The son also followed the father’s lead in taking a pen name; Robinson’s was “Rodney Lee.”
In 1883, President Chester A. Arthur named Robinson Locke the United States’s consul at Newcastle-on-Tyne, England. Mr. Locke served for two unmemorable years, and was pulled back when Democrat Grover Cleveland was elected president.
When David Ross Locke died in 1888, 29-year-old Robinson took over the business. He decided to shift the focus of the company’s energies from the Weekly Blade, which had always been known as “Nasby’s Paper” to its national audience, to the daily paper, then called the Toledo Blade, which usually had only four pages.
In the 32 years before his own death, the daily’s circulation leapt from 10,000 to 90,000.
The book History of Northwest Ohio, published during Mr. Locke’s time as the newspapers’ owner, calls him “one of the best known newspaper men in the United States …for fully half a century the name Locke has been closely identified with the fortunes and with the development of the Toledo Blade, which in many ways stands second to none as an influential paper in the United States.”
As would be expected of a newspaper editor at the turn of the century, Mr. Locke was active in local politics. In those days, the Toledo Blade was Toledo’s Republican newspaper, and its major rival, the Bee (later the News-Bee), was the Democratic paper. Mr. Locke was a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1900 and promoted the party in his editorials.
But politics were never foremost in Mr. Locke’s mind. His years in Europe had given him an eye and ear for the arts, and he spent much of his time as a civic organizer of the arts.
His most notable contribution is the Toledo Museum of Art, the city’s cultural jewel.
Mr. Locke was one of the museum’s seven co-founders, and some accounts say it was a conversation between him and Edward Drummond Libbey that sparked the idea for a museum.
Not much is known about the museum’s formation, according to Julie McMasters, the museum’s archivist, so it is unclear exactly what role Mr. Locke played in the founding.
“But he certainly played a very significant part,” Ms. McMasters said.
Mr. Locke was one of the seven men who formally incorporated the museum in 1901, and he was elected the organization’s vice president at the museum board’s first meeting. While it is impossible to know if it was really a discussion between Mr. Locke and Mr. Libbey, the founder of Toledo’s glass industry and the museum’s first president, that led to the museum’s founding, it would make sense: Mr. Locke was the city’s leading arts patron.
He had his hands in nearly every cultural and artistic creation of the century’s first two decades:
* He was president of the first Toledo Symphony Orchestra League, founded in 1897. Mr. Locke so wanted it to succeed that he personally paid for most of the players’ instruments. That orchestra eventually failed financially, but at the time of his death, Mr. Locke had just organized another orchestra and was about to be named its president.
* He was one of the founders in 1918 of the Northwest Ohio Historical Society, which in 1963 became the Maumee Valley Historical Society. At the time of his death, he was vice president of the Ohio Historical Society and an active member of the Museum of Natural History in New York.
* Mr. Locke was a rare-book collector (he owned every edition of every Shakespeare play ever published), and he was one of the largest early contributors to the Toledo public library, which eventually would become today’s Toledo-Lucas County Public Library. In 1899, he was named president of the Ohio Library Association, and he was a member of Cleveland’s Rowfant Club, an organization for book collectors.
* He founded the Civic Music League, a group dedicated to spreading music appreciation; the Toledo Insitute of Musical Art, a music school, and the Toledo Art Loan Association, a group that put on what may have been Toledo’s first art exhibition in 1898.
Today, it’s easy for Toledoans to look around their city and see many of Mr. Locke’s accomplishments.
Mr. Locke was an active, 33rd-degree Mason, holding several national offices in the organization; the Robinson Locke Lodge in West Toledo is named for him.
(He once edited a book on the Masons burdened with the verbose title The Jubilee Year of the Supreme Council of Sovereign Grand Inspectors-General of the Thirty-Third and Last Degree of the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry for the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction of the United States of America. At the time the book came out in 1918, he was the national Masons’ “marshal of the camp.”)
But theater lovers around the world can flock to a room at Lincoln Center in New York City to see his greatest gift, his collection of theater memorabilia.
Throughout his life, Mr. Locke was fascinated by the theater and all the work that went into creating a show.
“The theater today is one of the world’s great institutions,” he said at a speech in 1913. “In all the realms of art, there is nothing to compare with the effort that is being put forth in the theater, and, much as the fact is to be deplored, there are but few commercial enterprises enlisting more capital, energy, and aggressiveness.”
He even married into a theater family. His second wife, Mabel Dixey, was the sister of Henry Dixey, one of the first heartthrobs of the stage, who created a national stir by appearing in Adonis wearing white tights.
Mr. Locke’s first marriage, of eight years to Kate King, ended with her death in 1894. His second wife outlived him by nearly 50 years and was a regular visitor to Toledo, even though she lived most of her life in New York. Neither marriage produced children.
Through his travels to New York and elsewhere, Mr. Locke befriended many people in show business. At the time, the Weekly Blade was distributed nationally, and Mr. Locke’s writings on theater and music became nationally known.
As one national music publication wrote in 1910:
“Thanks to Mr. Locke, the dramatic and musical departments of The Blade have long since been looked upon as the very finest in that section of the country, and those artists are few who do not ardently aspire to its good graces. Mr. Locke is a critic who has no fear of attacking the unworthy in music or drama in a most scathing manner.
“Being asked once whether he was as severe in his musical as in his dramatic criticism, he replied: ‘There is not as much bad music as there is bad drama.'”
His reputation helped to bring the finest traveling shows to Toledo, in particular, to the Valentine Theatre downtown. Actresses such as Ethel Barrymore and Lillian Russell played the Toledo stage.
And while he could be bitter in his reviews, Mr. Locke was an unabashed fan of theater, and it shows in his memorabilia collection. For decades, Mr. Locke subscribed to every newspaper and magazine he could find across the country and had members of his staff scan through them to find any articles about the theater.
They were cut out and glued into scrapbooks, alongside old playbills, autographed photographs, and other items of interest. Over the years, the collection grew until it filled an entire room in The Blade Building.
Mr. Locke, known to the theater world as Rodney Lee, would become the arbiter of theater disputes far and wide; when shows would come to town, actors would often go into the newspaper and ask the critic who starred in some obscure 1878 production to settle a bet.
At his death – he is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery – his will gave the collection to the New York Public Library, which now maintains it as the Robinson Locke Collection. (At least one published report after his death said that he offered the collection to the Toledo public library first, which refused to accept it. But New York, with its Broadway tradition, is a natural home for it.)
“He was one of the first groupies,” said Mr. Taylor, the curator. “He was one of the few, if not the only person who attached any kind of value to fan magazines, movie magazines, articles in newspapers about theater people, and so forth. So he saved it when other people just thought it was ephemeral. Now, there’s no other resource like it in the world.”
To this day, theater researchers go to the Locke collection to learn about stars from the big names like Sarah Bernhardt to minor players like Victor Morley (who played Nixon Holme in that awful Louisiana Lou).
“He somehow managed to find even the smallest, seemingly most insignificant gossip items buried in the back of some small-town newspaper,” he said.
“The phrase obsessive-compulsive comes to mind.”
A few years after the Locke collection reached New York, the New York Morning Telegraph wrote about it: “It is the foundation of drama in America … It is the greatest contribution that has ever been made to the American theater.”
In 1995, New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley called it “an extraordinary testament to one fan’s fanaticism … There is nothing else quite like it in the world.”
Mr. Taylor said the library often gets calls from people curious about a bit player from theater’s past. “A lot of the queries we get here are ‘my great-great grandmother appeared on the stage for 15 minutes back in 1889, and we don’t know anything about it.’ And very often, the Robinson Locke Collection is the only place with any information.”
The sheer size of the collection is daunting: about 500 bound volumes of clippings and photos; several thousand clippings mounted on acid-free boards; and hundreds of thousands of loose clippings organized by artist in envelopes.
“It’s colossal,” Mr. Taylor said. “It’s one of the few collections we have that is used on a daily basis.”
The collection is housed outside Lincoln Center while its permanent home undergoes renovations. But it faces a continuing threat from the passage of time. The hundreds of thousands of loose clippings rapidly are deteriorating, and unless the library receives money to preserve and digitize the collection, it might not last much longer.
Mr. Taylor said it might take up to $500,000 to preserve the collection. “If we had that much money, it’d be the first thing I’d do,” he said.
But whatever happens to the New York collection, Mr. Locke’s contributions to Toledo, through the museum, library, symphony, and historical society, will survive well into the 21st century. He was Toledo’s pre-eminent man of arts and letters at the turn of the century.
His legacy survives at The Blade, as well.
Six years after his death, his estate sold the newspaper to Paul Block, who had been the paper’s national advertising representative. When Mr. Block’s son, Paul Block, Jr., had twin sons in 1954, he asked Mr. Locke’s widow, then living in New York, if he could name one of them after Mr. Locke. She approved, and that son, John Robinson Block, is now the paper’s co-publisher and editor-in-chief.