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The Man Who Lit Lady Liberty: The Extraordinary Rise and Fall of Actor M. B. Curtis

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As the Statue of Liberty stood unlit and unloved by American politicians in 1886, one of her saviors was creating a theatrical sensation at New York's Fourteenth Street Theatre. Actor M. B. Curtis, who had achieved overnight success in Sam'l of Posen, a groundbreaking play that transcended the common stereotypes of Jewish characters current at the time, was basking in publ As the Statue of Liberty stood unlit and unloved by American politicians in 1886, one of her saviors was creating a theatrical sensation at New York's Fourteenth Street Theatre. Actor M. B. Curtis, who had achieved overnight success in Sam'l of Posen, a groundbreaking play that transcended the common stereotypes of Jewish characters current at the time, was basking in public accolades at every curtain call, when he came to Lady Liberty's aid. Curtis's rise to the top of his profession and his resulting fall from grace is a dramatic arc that rivals anything created for the stage. Actor, producer, real estate developer, promoter, hotelier, benefactor, and murder suspect, M. B. Curtis's life encompassed the highs of celebrity and fame, as well as the lows of failure, illness, and a faltering career. The Man Who Lit Lady Liberty rescues M. B. Curtis's story from the dusty archives of forgotten history and reexamines an actor whose creativity and cultural influence still resonate today.


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As the Statue of Liberty stood unlit and unloved by American politicians in 1886, one of her saviors was creating a theatrical sensation at New York's Fourteenth Street Theatre. Actor M. B. Curtis, who had achieved overnight success in Sam'l of Posen, a groundbreaking play that transcended the common stereotypes of Jewish characters current at the time, was basking in publ As the Statue of Liberty stood unlit and unloved by American politicians in 1886, one of her saviors was creating a theatrical sensation at New York's Fourteenth Street Theatre. Actor M. B. Curtis, who had achieved overnight success in Sam'l of Posen, a groundbreaking play that transcended the common stereotypes of Jewish characters current at the time, was basking in public accolades at every curtain call, when he came to Lady Liberty's aid. Curtis's rise to the top of his profession and his resulting fall from grace is a dramatic arc that rivals anything created for the stage. Actor, producer, real estate developer, promoter, hotelier, benefactor, and murder suspect, M. B. Curtis's life encompassed the highs of celebrity and fame, as well as the lows of failure, illness, and a faltering career. The Man Who Lit Lady Liberty rescues M. B. Curtis's story from the dusty archives of forgotten history and reexamines an actor whose creativity and cultural influence still resonate today.

31 review for The Man Who Lit Lady Liberty: The Extraordinary Rise and Fall of Actor M. B. Curtis

  1. 5 out of 5

    Chris Walker

    Before Airplanes, Cars and Social Media, there was a forgotten time when Trains, Newspapers and the Theater shaped modern life. This is the backdrop for Richard Schwartz’ new book “The Man Who Lit Lady Liberty”, a true story about M B Curtis, an immigrant actor who stumbles on the role of a lifetime, catapulting him to fame and fortune. M. B. Curtis, an experienced impressionist, had seen a street vendor in San Francisco, which he said was one of the most comical men he had ever met. He began pe Before Airplanes, Cars and Social Media, there was a forgotten time when Trains, Newspapers and the Theater shaped modern life. This is the backdrop for Richard Schwartz’ new book “The Man Who Lit Lady Liberty”, a true story about M B Curtis, an immigrant actor who stumbles on the role of a lifetime, catapulting him to fame and fortune. M. B. Curtis, an experienced impressionist, had seen a street vendor in San Francisco, which he said was one of the most comical men he had ever met. He began performing this character in a one act play at the Bohemian club which was always sure to get raucous laughter. In 1880 the young Curtis brought an outline of a play with this character to a playwright to be fleshed out into a full length play. This breakthrough character of a sympathetic Jewish street vendor “Sam’l of Posen” brought down the house with tears of laughter in every theater across the country, softening even his harshest critics. Curtis’s mannerisms would later be seen in the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Jack Benny. Curtis instantly became a national star and then national hero when he financed the lighting of the torch of the newly erected statue of liberty. Curtis himself knew how important the sight of New York’s harbor was to the weary traveler looking for a new start. For he had witnessed the very same when he was 6 years old, emigrating from Budapest with his family. Thirty years later the newly dedicated Statue was being unveiled to hundreds of thousands of spectators, without a lit torch! because somehow Congress had not gotten the proper theatrical direction. (Translation: they didn’t want to pay for it!) In comes Curtis, a man of the theater playing a fantastically successful immigrant character, now compelled to do something on the world stage. Curtis announced that he would pay for the light! Now his actions were speaking louder than words. Congress eventually saw the light too! , and paid for it, thanks to Curtis. Richard Schwartz’ impeccable eye for detail and character lets us peer into the fantastic journey of M. B. Curtis, as he becomes a developer, a philanthropist, starting countless theater companies and touring the world. He even stars in one of the very first movies ever produced, entitled “M.B. Curtis”. A young Berkeley California is at the heart of this story as it is transitioning from Gold Rush settlement to a modern city. In walks Curtis, the impresario, the booster, a mover and a shaker, with a flair for the theatrical and a Utopian vision of wonderland. Curtis embodied the optimism of the times, when it seemed that anything was possible. Curtis builds a Moorish castle- one of the largest hotels west of the Rockies. He finances a Hansel and Gretel style railroad station named after his character “Posen”. He builds a visionary development for an artist colony, and while he is busy naming streets after his beloved characters, he also pays for Berkeley’s first street lights. But against this seemingly fairy-tale backdrop, Curtis is accused of murdering a San Francisco policeman. And similar to today, the full weight of the police force and the judiciary set about trying to frame M. B. Curtis. Suddenly, Curtis was fighting for his life, with all of the twists and turns of a gritty crime novel filled with betrayal, bribing of witnesses, crooked cops, and public grandstanding. As the old adage goes, what goes up must come down, and so it was with M. B. Curtis. But then again his old friend and alter ego, Sam’l of Posen was there to break his fall. Mr. Schwartz has uncovered a heartfelt gem of a story that lets us envision a simpler time. When eccentrics like M. B. Curtis could make a difference, and steer our communities into the fantastical. To me Curtis is living proof that Berkeley somehow attracts the dreamers, people who are always willing to take a risk, always willing to help out for the greater good. Just as illuminating, “The Man Who Lit Lady Liberty” shines a light on an era where it was still not too late to change course, with clues as to how our society went wrong, before the onslaught of industrialization and world war that defines us today. The story of M.B Curtis, the man and the times he lived in, will undoubtedly make a wonderful theatrical production. I can hardly wait, all aboard!

  2. 4 out of 5

    Judy

    Interesting read. A bit of a slow start. Was not expecting the murder trial. From there on out, it was fairly good. I thought it would talk a little more about him lighting the Statue of Liberty, but it is more of a biography of his life.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Leah Angstman

    This is a bit overlong and a bit dry, overdoing it on the tedium (exact dates, every single review of every single show, etc.), but it is a very interesting look at celebrity status in a time and place in our past that can never be repeated: the changing of times at the turn of the 20th century. Rich detail, and well-researched, and I even teared-up at the end.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Faina

  5. 4 out of 5

    Heather

  6. 5 out of 5

    Richard Schwartz

  7. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan

  8. 4 out of 5

    Jasper Starbow

  9. 5 out of 5

    Nissa

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan

  11. 5 out of 5

    E

  12. 5 out of 5

    GT

  13. 5 out of 5

    Margery

  14. 4 out of 5

    Sara

  15. 5 out of 5

    Kate

  16. 5 out of 5

    Lizanell

  17. 4 out of 5

    Kimberly

  18. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

  19. 4 out of 5

    Linda Phillips

  20. 4 out of 5

    Eugenia

  21. 5 out of 5

    Paul

  22. 5 out of 5

    Ramona

  23. 4 out of 5

    Shelbs

  24. 5 out of 5

    Burl Willes

  25. 4 out of 5

    Rebby

  26. 4 out of 5

    Ed Erwin

  27. 5 out of 5

    J9

  28. 5 out of 5

    Julie

  29. 5 out of 5

    NormaJean

  30. 4 out of 5

    Meghan

  31. 5 out of 5

    Gabby Greer

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