RICH, HARRY (Harry William), actor, singer, vaudeville and minstrel performer, stage-manager, elocution teacher, and talent agent; b. in England, probably in the mid 1840s; m. first c. 1867 Lizzie —, and they had one son; m. secondly Annie O’Connor, and they had two sons and two daughters; d. 6 May 1914 at the Toronto Free Hospital for Consumptives in Weston.
As ambitious young actors, Harry and Lizzie Rich left Britain’s overcrowded theatrical scene for greater opportunities abroad, and by 1873, following seasons in India and Australia, they were acting in New York City. When theatrical business there was ruined by the onset of a major economic depression, they joined a stock company recruited for the opening in September 1874 of a new Toronto theatre, Mrs Morrison’s Grand Opera House, managed by Charlotte Morrison [Nickinson*].
In Toronto Harry and Lizzie found appreciative audiences and a rare period of domestic stability. Harry drew favourable reviews in a wide range of comic roles, including that of Touchstone in As you like it, and at the season’s end a successful benefit affirmed the couple’s local popularity.
Toronto theatres, however, were losing money in the continuing hard times, so in 1875 the Riches returned to the United States, finding separate places in touring shows, which were then replacing stock companies. When Lizzie died in March 1880, Harry was with the Widow Bedott company, starring Neil Burgess, a celebrated female impersonator, and during the following winters he travelled extensively with Burgess and other American stars. In 1887 and 1890 he managed his own minstrel shows at minor New York theatres.
The growing trend to outdoor entertainment brought Harry back to Toronto with increasing frequency during the summer. In 1883 he appeared with George W. Holman’s Holman Opera Company [see Sarah Holman*] at the Zoological Gardens, and in 1885 he joined it again for a season of light opera at the Horticultural Gardens. The following year he sang the role of Sir Joseph Porter in H.M.S. Pinafore at Doty’s Island Theatre. By the late 1880s he had married a Toronto woman, Annie O’Connor, and firmly established his base in that city.
Throughout the 1890s Rich frequently worked with a partner, W. E. Ramsay, co-managing summer vaudeville programs at Hanlan’s Point Roof Garden. In winter, his professional aid was occasionally enlisted by amateur groups such as the Lacrosse Club Minstrels. In 1898, when officers of the 48th Highlanders sponsored the production of a military drama, One of the best, he served as stage-manager, winning Saturday Night’s accolade: “To his experience and direction is the artistic excellence of the play very largely due.”
When rising transportation and hotel costs made touring attractions less affordable than local shows, many theatres reverted to the stock system, and in late 1898 Rich joined William E. Phillips’s company at Montreal’s Théâtre Français for a season as leading “fun-maker.” After returning to Toronto, he was engaged by Robert C. Cummings’s company at the Princess Theatre, where he appeared during the 1899–1900 season in roles as diverse as those of a French duke and an American milkman.
In 1903 Rich was seriously ill with locomotor ataxia, and a benefit concert was given for him at Massey Music Hall, which proved barely large enough for the many admirers of “one of Toronto’s most popular and happiest entertainers.” Rich’s 12 year-old son, Harold, who played and sang on this occasion, later became a well-known band leader.
Although Rich’s illness confined him permanently to a wheelchair, he set up the Harry Rich Entertainment and Concert Bureau in late 1903 to give “tuition in dramatic gesture, elocution and mime” and to book professional engagements throughout Ontario for aspiring performers. His most famous pupil, comedienne Beatrice Lillie*, would perpetuate his fun-making for decades after his death, in hilarious skits inspired by the quaint gestures and sentimental songs in which he had drilled her.
Evening Star (Toronto), 1897–1900, esp. 5 June 1897, 24 July, 21 Nov., 19 Dec. 1899. Evening Telegram (Toronto), 30 May, 18 June 1883; 28 July 1885; 20 July 1886; 19 Jan. 1894; 5 June 1897; 7 May 1914. Gazette (Montreal), 1898–99, esp. 3 Jan. 1899. Globe, 1874–75; 1897; 12 Jan., 20, 23 Feb. 1903. Globe and Mail, 15 Aug. 1949, 6 Dec. 1963. Mail (Toronto), 17 Nov. 1874; 20 March, 28 May 1875. Toronto Daily Mail, 15 Feb. 1892. Beatrice Lillie et al., Every other inch a lady; aided and abetted by John Philip; written with James Brough (Garden City, N.Y., 1972). New York Clipper, 1874–81. G. C. D. Odell, Annals of the New York stage (15v., New York, 1927–49), 9–11. Saturday Night (Toronto), 16 April 1898.