The Boston Bakers: 100 Years of Forgotten Best Sellers

american-theater-wprThe Baker family influenced popular culture in America for more than one hundred years, through newspapers, plays, books, short stories, and film. They were best-sellers in their time, known on the street, in the theater, and at the publishing house. But who remembers them now?

Albert Baker was first.  His father was a sail-maker in Portland, Maine but died when Albert was young.  Instead of learning the family trade, Albert became a printer, moved to Boston, and was an original founder of the Boston Herald newspaper.

His son, George Melville Baker, authored over ninety plays, including “Among the Breakers,” the top-selling amateur drama of all time. He wrote two novels and a selection of poems, appeared on stage in comedic sketches, wrote material for other actors, and gave public readings. That was in his spare time.

During the day, he was the principal acquisitions editor for Lee and Shepard publishers, specialists in publishing for the masses, who published such popular 19th Century authors as Oliver Optic and Sophie May. George Baker was responsible for the very first book of “base ball” and the first American edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. 

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Still in business after all these years

George’s brother Walter ran Baker’s Plays, a publishing house which George Baker started in the late 1860s. Walter took over the business and managed it until his death in 1929.  The 145-year-old company still supplies plays for amateur productions.

George Melville Baker’s children were all significant writers.

Rachel Baker Gale wrote plays for women, among them, “Mr. Bob,” second only to her father’s “Among the Breakers” in all-time popularity. An 1880s college graduate, she wrote scathingly funny suffragist plays to benefit social causes.

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A smash hit in 1902!

Robert Melville Baker wrote musical comedies for Broadway, vaudeville and silent film. His hugely famous “Foxy Grandpa” comedies had people collecting pillows, coin banks, and dolls of his spectacled character. A Lambs’ Club member, Baker wrote “Girls Will Be Girls,” “Miss Pocahontas,” “Arms and the Girl,” and adapted George Barr McCutcheon’s novel Beverly of Graustalk for the stage. His novel, The Conspiracy, was made in to a Hollywood movie, and he wrote silent scripts for Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.

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Story by Melville Baker

Robert’s son, Melville Pratt Baker, followed his father to the silent screen and then wrote for sound film, including scripts for such popular actors as Jimmy Stewart, Basil Rathbone, Tyrone Power, Grace Kelly, Shirley Temple, and Joan Crawford. His long list of credits includes “The Swan,” “The Last Days of Pompeii,” “Seventh Heaven,” “Above Suspicion,” and Jimmy Stewart’s film debut, “Next Time We Love.” Mel Baker was the best man at Humphrey Bogart’s third wedding, which made sense, since the event was held at Mel Baker’s house.

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Reliable best-sellers

And then, there was Emilie Baker Loring, whose thirty novels have sold more than thirty-five million copies. She appeared with Margaret Mitchell, Upton Sinclair and Pearl Buck on the best-seller lists, and Little, Brown publishers kept her on throughout the depression when less profitable authors were dropped. One of her books, The Solitary Horseman, earned best-seller status not only at original release but also upon re-release forty years later.

Emilie wrote thirty finished novels, sixteen partially-finished manuscripts, over forty short stories and articles, a prize-winning play, and books on homemaking and motherhood. Full-page ads in the New York Times announced her latest book, and she was a frequent speaker at literary meetings.

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on stage in Wellesley Hills

A good laugh, a compelling plot, and the best language used with wit and precision were Baker trademarks. From Albert Baker in the 1840s to Emilie Baker Loring in the 1940s, they sought to raise people’s spirits, that they might see ahead more clearly and tackle the challenges of their age with optimism.

Can you name another family as prolific? How in the world have the Bakers escaped notice in modern times?!

Let’s change that.

Fortunately, older works are becoming easier to find.  You’ll be amazed when you look at the list of George Melville Baker’s works, here.  I recommend “Among the Breakers.”  There are enough twists and turns to keep you glued to the page all evening.  Better yet, get family and friends to act it out in your living room sometime.  PLEASE send photos of the hilarity, if you really do this!

Robert Melville Baker’s The Conspiracy can be read here, and more of his plays can be found by a simple search.  Rachel Baker Gale’s works are the same.  One of my favorites is “No Men Wanted,” here, in which a group of women swear off men in a sign of feminist unity but secretly find boyfriends anyway.  A list of Mel Baker’s films is here; look for them on your favorite movie channel.

If you’re ready for a treat, look here for Emilie Baker Loring’s 1919 short story, “Kismet Takes a Hand.”  You may recognize scenes that were later used in Hilltops Clear.

 

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3 thoughts on “The Boston Bakers: 100 Years of Forgotten Best Sellers

    1. The Bakers’ home life must have been incredible. I can imagine the old sets, audiences brought by horse and carriage, and the spirit of farce humor. Fun!
      “The Swan” with Grace Kelly was already a favorite; I was glad to find an Emilie/Baker connection.

      Like

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