Lillian Russell Makes Her Debut At Tony Pastor's Theatre

On November 22, 1880 Lillian Russell made her debut at Tony Pastor's Theatre in New York City.

Within weeks, the beautiful blonde added a prominent role in The Pie Rats of Penn Yann to her stage credits. This spirited "travesty" of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Pennzance made Lillian Russell an instant star. For the next 35 years, Russell maintained her position as one of the first ladies of the American stage.

Born Helen Louise Leonard in 1861, "Nellie" was raised in a middle class home. Trained in music and foreign languages, in the late 1870s she moved with her mother from Chicago to New York in order to receive advanced voice instruction. Soon, she met Tony Pastor, the vaudeville impresario who transformed the slightly seedy variety format into respectable family entertainment. Billed as "Lillian Russell, The English Ballad Singer" she was seen at Tony Pastor's by almost everyone in New York—except her mother.

Lillian Russell (December 4, 1860 – June 6, 1922) was an American actress and singer. She became one of the most famous actresses and singers of the late 19th century and early 20th century, known for her beauty and style, as well as for her voice and stage presence.

Russell was born in Iowa but raised in Chicago. Her parents separated when she was eighteen, and she moved to New York with her mother. She quickly began to perform professionally, singing for Tony Pastor and playing roles in comic opera, including Gilbert and Sullivan works. She married composer Edward Solomon in 1884 and created roles in several of his operas in London, but in 1886 he was arrested for bigamy. Russell was married four times, but her longest relationship was with Diamond Jim Brady, who supported her extravagant lifestyle for four decades.

For more than a month I succeeded in appearing in Tony Pastor's every night, without my mother receiving so much as an inkling of my new occupation. This was easier than it sounds because mother was a busy woman…But one night at dinner I had a sudden premonition that something was wrong. I raised my eyes and found the glance of a newspaperman who lived in the same house…"Mrs. Leonard," he said, "do you know that there is a girl named Lillian Russell, who sings at Tony Pastor's Theatre, who looks enough like your little Nellie to be her sister?"”

— Lillian Russell, American Vaudeville As Seen By Its Contemporaries, (New York: Random House, 1984) page. 11-12.