Maude Adams: The 'First' Peter Pan

The Cenacle Retreat Center lies in one of the most serene areas of Long Island. It is run by the Sisters of the Cenacle, a French religious order founded by St. Therese Couderec who died in 1885. Located just north of the Long Island Expressway in Ronkonkoma, the Retreat Center provides retreats, spiritual direction and human development programs for the laity. It is also the site where Maude Adams lies buried.

Maude Adams? The Maude Adams of PETER PAN fame? Wasn’t she a Morman? What is she doing buried among Catholic nuns?

Sister Madeline Birmingham of the Cenacle Sisters resides at the Ronkonkoma Center and has done an enormous amount of research on Maude Adams, having read book after book about the actress and has plowed through tomes of material about her. Meeting with Sr. Madeline and Jim Rennert, the Province Director of Development for the Sisters, on a dreary Monday afternoon proved to be very enlightening. Sitting in the very comfortable “Maude Adams Room” of the newly re-constructed and eco-friendly building:--a building that has a clear view of the nearby home that Maude Adams lived in-- Sr. Madeline proved to be a veritable font of information about the Broadway Legend.

The actress was born in 1872 to a mother who was an actress. Sr. Madeleine explains: “It was her mother who urged her to become involved with acting, although she probably would have become successful in her own right because she was a very talented lady. The youngster Maude was standing with her mother offstage during some play and there was a baby onstage in one of the scenes. The baby suddenly burst into uncontrollable screams and was immediately pulled off but couldn’t be quieted. The stage manager was running around like mad wondering what he was going to do. He saw Maude and picked her up and put her on a tray (it was a farcical comedy) and sent her into the scene. The audience screamed with laughter because the howling child who was taken off the stage, and Maude--who hurriedly replaced her were remarkably different in size.  The original child was an infant and Maude was nine months old.  Maude reacted with sheer delight and the climax was that the infant lost the part and Maude replaced her."

James Henry Kiskadden, her father, was not favorably inclined toward his daughter's becoming an actressbut bowed to Maude who was the proverbial "apple of his eye." Mr. Kisdadden died when Maude was about 11 years old.  She grieved his death but then felt much freer to pursue her desire which became the passion of her life.  She toured the country (a difficult and arduous life in those days) and performed in over two dozen Broadway productions.

  Adams starred in THE LITTLE MINISTER written by James M. Barrie and the author was so taken by her that he re-wrote some of the scenes specifically for her talents.  In the course of rehearsals for THE LITTLE MINISTER, Barrie decided that she would be his Peter Pan.  Sr. Madeline is quick to point out that Maude Adams was not the first actress to play the role of Peter. “There was another actress who originated the role in London for about a year.  It was thought that Americans would never understand PETER PAN and felt it was a foolish idea to bring the play to New York.  Barrie, however, re-wrote much of it with Maude Adams in mind.”  The show played an out-of-town try-out in Washington DC where it received a critical drubbing.  Once it moved to New York, it became very successful and Adams played the part on Broadway and on tour for about 3,000 performances.  Needless to say, it is the role that she is most closely associated with, although she did play Shakespeare’s Juliet and Saint Joan to audience acclaim.

One of the most famous scenes in PETER PAN is when Tinker Bell is dying. Maude Adams was the one who added the bit where the audience is asked to clap if they believe in fairies—thus bringing Tinkerbell back to life. “It wasn’t in the original script,” explains Sr. Madeline, “It was something added by Maude. It just occurred to her and it was added to the production at her suggestion.” That scene has remained in every production of PETER PAN ever since.

At some point in her life Maude Adams had a breakdown. “Historians can’t decide whether it was a physical breakdown or a mental one,” says Sr. Madeleine. “I think it was physical”. She was in Paris at the time and she asked her secretary, Louise Boynton, to see if someone could find a place for her to stay. She mentioned an Augustinian convent because she’d heard about it. She went there and stayed a few months. She lived the life of a nun in that she ate with them and slept in one of their cells. For the time she was there she lived a staid, quiet life. She was so taken with the Sisters that when she came back to the States and was starting to feel pulled down again, she asked if they could find her a place. What happened at the end was that Boynton went to the Cenacle at St. Regis in New York City and asked if they could put her up. The Sisters agreed. Other convents had turned her down because she was an actress and women on the stage were not considered acceptable.”

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Joe Panarello is one of those people who have most certainly been born with theater in their blood. As an actor, Joe has played such varied roles as Harry Roat in Frederick Knott's Wait Until Dark, Jimmy Smith in No, No Nanette and Lazer Wolf in Fiddler on the Roof a vehicle he's performed in several times and designed the sets for on one occasion. He's also directed productions of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park and Henrich Ibsen's Peer Gynt. Joe is a respected author and although his latest work, The Authoritative History of Corduroy won't be published until this summer, it is already being translated into several different languages by a group of polyglot nuns in Tormento, Italy.. The proceeds from their labors will go to the restoration of the nearby Cathedral of Gorgonzola.