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DUANE JOSEPH FIKE, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Frank Mayo was one of the few native-born American actors who rose to fame in the last half of the nineteenth century. He became best-known across America as Davy Crockett in a drama that perpetuated the nation's myth about the frontier spirit. Besides acting from the age of sixteen to his death at fifty-seven, Mayo also served as a theatre manager on several occasions and adapted several novels into dramas. Born in Boston on April 18, 1839, Frank Mayo moved to San Francisco in about 1853; after deserting the gold fields, he became an actor at the American Theatre. Following his position as "leading man" at Maguire's Opera House in San Francisco, Mayo moved to the East Coast in 1865, settling first in Boston, where he was leading man at the Boston Theatre. He next began a "starring" tour, and by the late 1860's was touring with his own company, playing his specialty role of Badger in The Streets of New York. In August, 1872, Frank Mayo became manager of the Rochester Opera House, and retained that position for nine months. It was while in Rochester that Mayo played the role of Davy Crockett for the first time on September 15, 1872. After that success, Mayo formed a touring company of forty members in 1882 and attempted to present Shakespearian and other dramas, but that venture placed Mayo heavily in debt. He next wrote several plays in the 1880's: Nordeck, The Royal Guard, and The Athlete. Public reception of these plays varied, but in general they did not have a broad appeal. From about 1891 to 1893, he had few engagements, and eventually withdrew from the American stage for ten months. Finally, in April, 1895, he brought out an adaptation of Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson. The play was an instant success and he immediately began a national tour. At the close of the 1895-96 season, while he was on his way to a final engagement in Omaha, Frank Mayo suffered a heart attack and died on June 8, 1896, while aboard a train in central Nebraska. He was buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Frank Mayo's success on stage was dependent upon dramas which had sentiments that could be considered both universal and American. Romantic love, chivalry, bravery, and compassion were part of Davy Crockett, as were the American ideals of justice, frontier strength, and a firm resolution "to do what is right." Mayo was at his best when he was dealing with such American themes, and even his last play, Pudd'nhead Wilson, was strong in promoting Yankee individualism. All of these elements contributed his status as a "star." However, Frank Mayo was known in his time not only as a leading actor, but as a kind and compassionate individual, considered a gentleman by all his associates. His generosity is best seen in the innumerable charity performances he took part in. One contemporary writer summed up the man this way: "He was gifted with many of the qualifications of a successful actor, a handsome face, a commanding figure, a strong and musical voice, and possessed, besides, an unyielding resolution to succeed." Frank Mayo's success was the result of hard work, and while he may not be as well-remembered today as Edwin Booth, for instance, he represents a popular actor who well-entertained his middle-class audiences. His achievement was that he performed well what he saw as his life's work; and his talent was unique enough that no other actor was capable of recreating the roles he had perfected.

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Recommended Citation

FIKE, DUANE JOSEPH, "FRANK MAYO: ACTOR, PLAYWRIGHT, AND MANAGER" (1980). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI8018666.