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Dr. Cook at the Front of the Stage

Written on February 12, 2012

Today is the one-hundred-first anniversary of Frederick Cook’s first appearance in Vaudeville.
On February 12, 1911, Cook appeared on the stage of Oscar Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera House as an “added” feature to a six-part vaudeville card directly after the Panklebs, an act billed as “Comedy Clay Modelers.” Herbert Bridgman, the secretary of the Peary Arctic Club, hired a stenographer to get a running account of the whole thing.
Cook said he was appearing gratis in exchange for the opportunity to place his story before the public. This statement was viewed with some skepticism by the audience, which greeted it, as they had his appearance, with a mixture of hisses and catcalls mingled with some cheers. The doctor then displayed the fruits of his recent Chicago venture, showing a set of “historically accurate” motion pictures dramatizing episodes of his polar experiences, entitled “The Truth About the North Pole.”
In the opening scene the “Arctic Trust,” a “nefarious body in active operation,” was shown as it is thrown into consternation when it learns that Dr. Cook has started for the pole. Meanwhile, at the box-house in Annoatok, Dr. Cook, playing himself, leaves “Franke” in charge of his belongings and sets out on his journey north. In the next tableau, Franke, ill and despairing, starts on a desperate trip south. In due course, the “Roosevelt” arrives and stirs new hope in the fever-stricken Franke. With true melodramatic instinct, “Peary,” depicted, according to the stenographer, as a “very, very bad man,” ruthlessly extorts Cook’s property from a starving Franke as the price of his return to America, then seizes Cook’s stores and places his henchmen in charge. During the unfolding of the events at Annoatok, Dr. Cook was shown in a split tableau struggling northward until the great goal is reached and his sextant shows the position as 90 degrees north.
Upon his return, travel-weary and worn out, he is denied entrance to his own house by the brutal bo’sun “Murphy.” Dr. Cook then entrusts to “Whitney” his instruments as he departs. When Peary reappears, he is furious at the news that Cook has returned, and “the sole owner of the North Pole” orders Whitney to remove all of Cook’s belongings from his effects in spite of his pleas for fair play.
When the Arctic Trust learns of Cook’s success, one of their agents is seen on the way to Tacoma for the purpose of bribing Ed Barrill into swearing Cook never climbed Mt. McKinley. In the final scene, Cook’s welcome at Copenhagen was shown on half the screen as the backers of Peary, depicted as “a ghoulish lot of old dried up scientists, who hesitate at nothing,” are thrown into confusion and anger on the other, followed by a depiction of the impotent rage of the author of the “Gold Brick” dispatch.
During the showing of the film, one loud protestor had to be forcibly removed from the theater. But though the stenographer was impressed by an occasional “really remarkable scene,” most of the audience seemed “seized with an uncontrollable desire to snicker and laugh outright at Dr. Cook in the Arctic regions.”
In his talk that followed, Cook denounced Peary and his backers in no uncertain terms. Bridgman’s stenographer took down his lecture word for word:

“Now, Ladies and Gentlemen, I have tried to maintain patience. I have tried to show the attitude of fairness and manliness. My faith in human nature was such that I counted on meeting gentlemen in a public question, but I find I am dealing with dogs. . . . Today I will throw off the mantle of diplomacy and seek with a knife the brutes who have assailed me. . . .
. . . For three months mud-charged guns from every point of the compass were directed at me, all the world blushed with shame. The ‘Arctic Trust’ in the meantime bribed men to sell their honor and mind. . . . Cook must be downed at all cost! . . . What chance for fair play have I, all alone, a mere man, against such a combination? It is all a shame- faced underhanded battle, and to meet it we have made the moving picture, and I am here to see that the picture is started around the world on its eye-opening mission.”

At first, the audience listened patiently, but as he went on, they became restless, and their intermittent clapping and hissing seemed unrelated to the words heard from the stage. At one point an urchin in the highest balcony shrieked, “Git der Hook!” and sent the entire audience into convulsions of laughter, but the doctor only smiled and went on to the finish:

“I have reached the pole. What is my reward? . . . I have simply sought to be credited with the fulfillment of a personal ambition. This the Arctic Trust refused. It is little enough to seek—an empty ambition perhaps, for I only ask that my footprints be left in the polar snows. . . . Will you deny me that? . . .
. . . I challenge each and all to answer. If this is not the underhanded effort of a lot of thieves, let them explain.”

Bridgman forwarded the stenographic report to General Hubbard, who passed it on to Peary with his comments: “It is rather laughable, although venomous. The way in which he was treated by the audience shows that the address did not have much effect, except to cause laughter. Very likely Cook is inviting legal proceedings—a libel suit, or something of the sort—in order to pose more effectively as a persecuted man. I think he should be let alone.”

There is no record that Cook ever repeated this performance. Instead he went on the more respectable Chautauqua lecture circuit.
At the time Cook and Peary was being written I discovered Bridgman’s transcript in the National Archives documenting Cook’s completely forgotten film. I conducted a search to see if The Truth About the North Pole still existed in any of the several collections of early films held around the United States. All inquiries came back empty. Then, in 2000, the BBC, while preparing their film Mountain Men, located a copy in a film-footage dealer’s holdings that it had acquired in the purchase of a large private collection in California. But the BBC’s attempts to get a copy were answered by the company with a statement that the film was “lost” and could not be located in the company’s holdings. The BBC’s producer asked me to see what I could do, and my efforts were rewarded by a new search that located the film’s only print. At that time the whole film could only be seen in a “time stamped” copy used to sell clips by the second. But within three years a copy appeared for sale along with other unrelated “Arctic” shorts on a homemade DVD on eBay. I purchased a copy and posted it on the Google hosting website. This link was subsequently taken down when Google changed its hosting policies, but the film can now be viewed at an unassociated site in a larger format than the one I used.

You can see the entire film Cook showed that evening at the Manhattan Opera House by pressing Contol while clicking this link:


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