By The Greater Astoria Historical Society

Known to the world as John Barrymore, stage and screen star John Sidney Blyth was born in Philadelphia Feb. 15, 1882. His English father, Herbert Arthur Chamberlayne Blyth, was a dashing leading man on the late 19th century stage, and his mother, Georgie Drew, was also an accomplished actress.

After making his stage debut in Chicago in 1903, the young Barrymore quickly became a stage presence on Broadway, peaking with his sinister portrayal of the protagonist in Shakespeare’s “Richard III” in 1920. The acting great’s film career spanned nearly 30 years and some 60 films, from early, now lost silent productions to powerful roles opposite leading ladies of the day in talkies.

By the late 1930s, Barrymore’s talent and versatility began to wane. After decades of heavy drinking, his screen appearances were a mere shadow and caricature of his former self. He died at age 60 in Los Angeles, leaving behind a personal life as tempestuous, mercurial and controversial as his acting legacy. He is also the grandfather of actress Drew Barrymore.

In his early years, the scion to the Barrymore legacy rebelled against the inevitable path that awaited. At 16, he was expelled from Georgetown Preparatory School for immoral behavior and later tried his hand at drawing cartoons and newspaper reporting. Soon, however, he found himself inevitably drawn into the family business.

After his 1903 debut, he was soon treading the boards on Broadway and in London two years later. Aside from his dark portrayal of Richard III, on stage he is also remembered for his rendition of the brooding, melancholy Danish king in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”

Since his youth, his powerful stage presence was matched only by his propensity for wild, alcohol-fueled carousing and social scandal. Before his acting career, he briefly courted the infamous showgirl Evelyn Nesbit. Then in 1906, Barrymore found himself in a San Francisco hotel when the earth shook and fires engulfed the city by the bay. Choosing to exploit the tragedy to build his own fame, while on a drinking binge he wrote a series of later published letters to his actor sister Ethel fabricating scenes of suffering and destruction he claimed to have witnessed.

Barrymore first appeared on screen between stage appearances, but the former Bayside resident soon left the Great White Way to work full time in film. Barrymore debuted in silent films, including the 1920 production of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “Don Juan” six years later. With the arrival of talking pictures, his stage-trained voice enthralled viewers of the new entertainment medium.

At the peak of his run on the silver screen, Barrymore starred opposite such leading ladies as Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn and Jean Harlow.

At the start of the 20th century, Bayside saw an influx of people associated with the theater and movie industries, and Barrymore was among them. Rumors ran wild through the acting community that Bayside would be the location of a new movie and production studio. When this studio never materialized, Barrymore and his colleagues left Queens to follow the industry out to Hollywood.

By the late 1930s, however, the stage lights were growing dim. Already on his fourth marriage, years of alcohol abuse and his self-destructive, unsettled life began to take a toll. He frequently forgot his lines during filming and needed cue cards to keep going. His rousing soliloquy from Hamlet in the 1941 comedy “Playmates” is remembered by fans as Barrymore’s swan song and a tragic reminder of the man’s faded acting greatness and ability.

On May 29, 1942, he collapsed during an appearance on Rudy Vallee’s radio show and died a short time later.

Some claim his last words were, “Die? I should say not, dear fellow. No Barrymore would allow such a conventional thing to happen to him.”

For more information, call 718-278-0700 or visit astorialic.org.

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