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In the shadows, you can almost see her: a delicate figure gently leaning forward from a distant balcony seat. You can certainly feel her presence and sense her energy emanating from the walls of this historic theater on the Rollins College campus. Annie Russell, for whom the Annie Russell Theatre is named, was a celebrated, Irish-born stage actress who, in her heyday early in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, packed Broadway theaters and provincial playhouses throughout the U.S. and Europe. Disappointed in love and weakened by illness, she relocated to Winter Park in 1929. There she was recruited by Hamilton Holt, the president of Rollins, to join the faculty and bolster the college’s fledgling performing arts program. Several years later, she would give her final public performance in a beautiful new theater paid for by a wealthy friend. That theater celebrated its 84th season this year. But who, exactly, was Annie Russell? She was a somewhat reluctant ingénue — she derisively referred to her more frothy roles as “anniegénues” — who seemed to choose unfortunate husbands and was prone to work herself into states of exhaustion. Yet, even in old age, she retained the ability to charm. In 1934, Irving Bacheller wrote an ode to the city’s resident celebrity. Bacheller, a bestselling novelist and Rollins trustee, was fulsome in his praise: A shining star that led a host from toilsome weary ways, Enchantment in its light that eased the worry of our days! But better than the world’s acclaim and trumpeted renown, Is this great thing our lady knows — the love of a little town. A STAR IS BORN Russell was born in 1864 — although she sometimes gave the date as 1869, making her neither the first nor the last actress to fudge her age — in Dublin 72 LIVING IN WINTER PARK The Annie Russell Theatre today is one of the most beautiful performing arts venues in Central Florida. to poor but hardworking parents, John and Jane Russell. Although some sources give Russell’s birthplace as Liverpool, England, it appears that the family, including a younger sister and brother, didn’t move to Liverpool until Annie was 5 years old. John Russell died shortly thereafter, and the family relocated to Canada, where Annie found work as an actress in a Montreal theater. At the age of 7, she debuted opposite Philadelphia-born actress Rose Eytinge, whose many fans had included President Abraham Lincoln, in a play called Miss Moulton. Eytinge, according to theatrical lore, wanted an undersized adult to play Jeanne, the role for which Annie was angling. “I didn’t tell you to get me a child,” the actress complained to her manager. “Go out and scour the town, if necessary, but bring me someone who can act the role of Jeanne.” Annie began to sob, and Eytinge agreed to allow her to audition. The youngster won the role and, ultimately, the seasoned actress’ respect. “I was a timid little girl, and have always been very timid, so timid that they used to call me the startled fawn,” Russell later recalled. “But I was never afraid of an audience, and I did very well on the first appearance.” After the run of Miss Moulton, Jane moved the family to New York so her daughter could pursue a career in the American theater. In 1879, the 15-year-old was cast in a juvenile production of H.M.S. Pinafore, first as a member of the chorus, then as Josephine, the female lead. Next, Russell toured the West Indies with a theatrical company headed by Edward A. MacDowell, a popular composer and pianist. During the sevenmonth stint she played a variety of roles, including boys and older women. In 1881, after fooling a director into believing she was older, Russell appeared at the Madison Square Theatre in Esmeralda, playing the title character. She would reprise the role more than 900 times in her career. As Russell’s career gained momentum, reviewers as well as audiences fell under her spell. Amy Leslie, one of the few female drama critics of the day, wrote: “Annie Russell, without a ray of intention illumining her way, re- PHOTO BY WINTER PARK PICTURES


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