“It is endlessly exciting to have a professions which seems like play,” wrote Hamburg’s-own celebrated George Abbott, describing life in the theater.
A 1907 graduate of Hamburg High School, Abbott left the place he called his “hometown,” in 1913 to land himself one of the most successful working-lives on the American theatrical stage.
Not unlike the rest of us who yearn to love our life’s work, Abbott celebrated his good fortune when he wrote: “To have a job which comes into your head with pleasurable excitement the first thing in the morning and haunts you all day long.”
His first acting job was as the drunken college student, Babe Merrill, in a play called “The Misleading Lady.” That was in 1913, shortly after leaving Hamburg and though it was an early jump-start, it took another 10 years of hard knocks before things would fall in into place for the aspiring professional.
Years of good times followed the 1920s, and by 1965 Abbott’s career had earned him more than sumptuous kudos from colleagues and audiences --- a Broadway theater was named in his honor.
His family and roots were always a source of pride. He once said “My mother taught school in Hamburg and my father was the town supervisor from 1918 to 1938,” an incredibly long run for both politics, and the theater.
Although the Hamburg area was definitely home for the large Abbott clan, George’s family did a fair amount of moving around before his Hamburg High School years.
Born in Forestville, near Gowanda, with his elementary school years spent in Salamanca (where his father was the mayor), they spent time living in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
About school in Hamburg, Abbott claimed that he “wasn’t popular in high school.”
However, the evidence leans toward the contrary: he was captain of the football team and everyone’s choice as “leading actor.”
During those same years, Abbott was tempted to permanently quit school and nearly took a job as a laborer at the steel plant in Lackawanna.
But thank goodness for the high school principal, Mr. Estes, who persuaded the future celebrity to return to school and managed to secure a football scholarship for the young George to the University of Rochester.
After graduation, it was off to New York City, where he immediately fell in love.
“I arrived on a sunny morning and the tall buildings, those fingers of hope reaching up toward the sku, thrilled me beyond description,” he once said.
This was the start of an incredible career as actor, director, producer and writer.
George Abbott’s productions, ones which may appear familiar even today, include: “On The Town,” “Damn Yankees,” “Pajama Game,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” and “No Strings.”
“Fiorello” was his Pulitzer Prize-winning play about New York’s flamboyant Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.
Writing about the world which he was to proclaim as his “oyster,” he was convinced early-on of his destiny in New York.
“I would succeed. I was exalted.” A prediction of 100 percent accurate.
George Abbott died on Jan. 31, 1995, he was just five months short of being 108 years old.
As Abbott might have remarked, borrowing a line from the theater, I had an incredible, long run. Photos– historian files
This column was written by long-time local Hamburg resident and history buff Ed Beck.
Anyone wanting to submit photographs and/or materials can call the historian’s office in the Hamburg Town Hall on either Wednesday or Thursday between 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. at 649-6111 ext. 2400.
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