NC native made waves with revue
Tully’s ‘The Bird of Paradise’ gave Hawaiian music a national stage
Richard Walton Tully was born in Nevada City in 1877 at the 449 Broad Street house that was built in 1856 by former U. S. Senator Aaron Sargent. When still a toddler, however, the family moved to Stockton, where Tully attended public schools before enrolling at the University of California.
As a university student, young Tully developed an interest in theatre –– writing, directing and starring in a student farce that drew rave reviews from Bay Area newspaper critics.
Tully had his first Broadway credit in 1906 as co-author of a musical drama “The Rose of the Rancho.” But his most important (and controversial) stage play was the melodramatic romance “The Bird of Paradise,” which opened on Broadway in January 1912.
Although it enjoyed a relatively brief run of only 112 performances, the play had a major impact on American pop culture and music. And when the play was taken on the road and later staged by local stock companies, it earned huge royalties for playwright Tully and Broadway producer Oliver Morosco.
Designed as a cross-cultural romantic drama set in Hawaii in the early 1890s, the production included an erupting volcano, hula dancing and authentic Hawaiian music –– something few American audiences had previously been exposed to. To ensure authenticity, Tully and Morosco brought the renowned Hawaiian Quintette from the Islands to Broadway.
Members of the quintette, including steel guitar pioneer Walter Kolomoku, assumed roles in the extravagant production and periodically gathered together on stage to sing and play Island music. Their performances of a new kind of music –– a new sound featuring the steel guitar and ukulele –– were so popular with audiences that the quintette recorded the play’s incidental music for Victor records, and suddenly people across the nation were strumming ukuleles and singing “Aloha Oe.”
While the play’s popularity grew and stock companies mounted their own productions, rights money flowed in to Tully and Morosco. But as Christopher Balme, professor of theatre studies at the University of Munich has observed, “It made both its author and producer a fortune, which they lost and partially regained in the course of one of the most protracted and inﬂuential trials on plagiarism in U. S. judicial history.”
The claim of plagiarism was brought by California schoolteacher Grace Fendler, who accused Tully of taking her play, “In Hawaii,” and reconstructing it as “The Bird of Paradise.” To complicate matters, Morosco, who produced Tully’s stage play, admittedly received a copy of Ms. Fendler’s script a year before “Bird” opened on Broadway, but he chose not to produce the schoolteacher’s play.
The initial verdict in 1924 awarded Ms. Fendler $780,000 as her share of royalties from Tully and Morosco –– an indication of the play’s commercial success and value. But in 1930 the verdict was reversed by the New York State Court of Appeals in a benchmark decision, noting “(T)here may be literary property in a particular combination of ideas or in the form in which ideas are embodied. There can be none in the ideas.”
Based on that 1930 appeals court ruling, the U. S. Copyright Office now advises applicants what Ms. Fendler learned when she was ordered to repay Tully and Morosco $780K: You cannot copyright ideas.
And the next time Grass Valley’s talented Dan Scanlan (a/k/a Cool Hand Uke) has a local show, be sure to drop by and hear the kind of music that swept the nation 100 years ago when a Nevada City native son unveiled his innovative, groundbreaking stage play.
Richard Walton Tully was born May 7, 1877, in the big white house at the top of Broad Street. He died in New York City on Feb. 2, 1945.
Steve Cottrell is a historian, a former city councilman and mayor, and a longtime Nevada City resident. He now lives in St. Augustine, Fla. He can be reached by emailing email@example.com