It’s time to celebrate George Spelvin!

All playbills courtesy

Many of us were on the sidelines during the holiday season last year, so getting in shape for 2021 celebrations may be in order. Luckily, your next chance to practice canape making and creative mixology is just around the corner. Monday, Nov. 15, is George Spelvin Day.

Who is George Spelvin and why are his achievements worth celebrating? Quite simply, he was the most prolific stage actor in American theater history. In terms of overall talent, he might not rank up there with Edwin Booth, John Barrymore, or Laurence Olivier, but Spelvin racked up more than 10,000 Broadway performances during his career. (That’s the equivalent of doing eight shows a week every week for 24 years without a day off.)

It’s true that most of George’s roles had a name that began with “A,” “An,” or “The.” He specialized in such parts as A Gendarme, An Officer, and The Streetcar Conductor. Occasionally Spelvin got to stretch his wings a bit as Other Medicine Man, Fourth Reporter, or Dolly’s Footman. His occasional named roles included Mr. X, “Silent” Ransom, and Schwartz.

Spelvin’s Broadway debut was on Dec. 31, 1906, as The Steward in a play called Brewster’s Millions. It ran for 163 performances, a long run by Spelvin standards. Most of his plays closed before the 100-performance mark. He fared better in musicals, including Music in the Air, a Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II show in which he played A Priest for 342 performances, and High Button Shoes, in which he played A Betting Man 727 times.

There was even a George Spelvin Award, created by a Hollywood-based actors’ club called The Masquers. The 1949 inaugural award went to Milton Berle; Harold Lloyd, John Huston, Laurence Olivier, Fred Astaire, Jack Benny, and Broderick Crawford were among the other recipients.

Searching the Internet Broadway Database for Spelvin’s credits reveals a surprising anomaly — during the 1920s and 1930s, he was sometimes in two or three productions simultaneously. There weren’t multiple actors with the same odd name. In fact, there wasn’t even one: his moniker was a pseudonym used by many different actors for many different reasons.

They include disguising the fact that one performer is playing two roles or to assuaging an actor’s ego when he thinks a role is beneath his talent level. Producers used it to throw audiences off track in murder mysteries by giving one character multiple identities or creating an expectation that a character listed in the program will eventually arrive with important impact, which never happens. And many a corpse was played by George Spelvin, who was often the stage manager pulling double duty.

No one knows exactly why the theater world adopted the pseudonym and used it so zealously over the decades. It went from being a subterfuge to an open secret to not-at-all a secret, especially when producers started creating spin-off characters like Georgette Spelvin and George Spelvin Jr. (who was sometimes in the same play with his father), and ethnic variants like Giorgio Spelvino and George Spelvinsky.

Today the best-known Spelvin is “Georgina,” the pseudonym of Shelley Bob Graham, who starred in the 1973 X-rated film The Devil in Miss Jones. Georgina differed in one important respect from her titular predecessors: she had genuine acting talent. In his Chicago Sun-Times review of the film Roger Ebert wrote, “There burns in her soul the spark of an artist, and she is not only the best, but possibly the only, actress in the hard-core field.”

Other professions and other countries also have created their own versions of Spelvin. In Hollywood, the name Alan Smithee was used by directors who wanted to disown their participation in a film due to creative control issues. The British equivalent is Walter Plinge, who has almost as many stage credits as our George, as well as a BBC career stretching from 1925 to 2018.

George Spelvin hasn’t made a Broadway appearance since 1987. Still, a performer never knows when a Spelvin alter ego might come in handy. A few years ago, a pit band member in a Michigan production of The Full Monty used the name to keep his fellow church members from finding out he was in a show about male frontal nudity. Georgina would have been proud. 

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