Raymond Hitchcock was born in Auburn in 1865, and as the saying goes, "He ran away with the show."
He was the son of Charles and Celestina Hitchcock. On his paternal side he was a Mayflower descendant. His father, who was a barber, had a shop over the post office, and later became a portrait painter. His uncles were all local blacksmiths. The Hitchcock family lived just off North Street on Park Avenue. Perhaps in later years, when asked where he grew up, no doubt "Hitchy" replied, "On Park Avenue, of course!"
At 17, after graduating from Auburn Academic High School, Raymond toiled selling shoes at Fero Brothers on Genesee Street. Strutting down North Street, on his way to work, he might have sung popular songs of the day, such as "Camptown Races." Aching to be on the stage, he saw all the shows that came into town. He was a regular at every stage door.
Strangely enough, Hitchy was discovered locally by Maurice Murphy, the bookkeeper for the Auburn Water Department. Mr. Murphy was a member of the Auburn Philharmonic Opera Club. One evening he saw young Raymond perform a comic monologue at the Old Academy of Music. On stage he was clever and confident, and held the audience in his hand. The next week, Murphy cast him as Ko-Ko in "The Mikado." Other local amateur theatricals followed. When a chorus part opened in a touring professional show, Hitchy, ready at the stage door, auditioned — and was in show business for good.
Or so he thought. The show closed in Philadelphia and he went to work at Wannamaker’s selling shoes. But shoe business was no substitute for show business, and he quickly returned to the stage in another Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, playing the part of Sir Joseph in "H.M.S. Pinafore." While playing "Pinafore" in New York, critic Alan Dale characterized him as "America’s foremost operatic comedian."
Over his career, Raymond Hitchcock produced, wrote, directed or starred in over 30 Broadway musical productions. His most famous was "Hitchy-Koo," where he teamed up with a young Cole Porter. This show toured the country and played in Auburn at the Auditorium Theater to great success. Hitchy brought many of his shows back home to play the Auburn stages.
Raymond also headlined the 1921 "Ziegfeld Follies" with Fanny Brice and W.C. Fields. His raspy voice and folksy charm were a prelude to Will Rogers. Hitchy’s trademark tag line with the Follies was "Sufferin’ sassafrass!" Now you know how Warner Bros. gave Daffy Duck and Sylvester their "Sufferin’ succotash!"
Moving to California to work in silent films, he co-starred with John Barrymore, Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett and Fatty Arbuckle. At one point his weekly salary was $2,500. Not too shabby when compared to the paltry $500 that Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Norman made weekly.
Like most silents, these shorts and films were lost. However, "Upstream," made in 1927, starring Raymond Hitchcock and directed by novice John Ford, was recently discovered in a film vault in New Zealand. Locked away for over 80 years and in mint condition, this hilarious story of an actor’s boarding house was the opening film for the 2011 San Francisco Silent Film Festival. It has played with great success at other recent silent film festivals, and last November was featured on TCM. It is now available on DVD.
In addition to making headlines on the arts pages of newspapers, Raymond made front-page news with bankruptcy and scandal leading to jail time. Always needing an influx of cash, Raymond, an opportunist like George M. Cohan, worked with Moxie Soda. His promotional wooden figurine was found in many soda shops and hotels across the country.
In 1929, just as talkies were coming in, Hitchy suddenly passed away in Beverly Hills. He had declared motion pictures "an eternal monstrosity!" Raymond Hitchcock is buried in Canandaigua’s Woodlawn Cemetery. His headstone simply reads, "Actor." He was married twice. First to Freda Bowen, then to his beautiful co-star Flora Zabelle, who survived him. There are no known children. His obituary in The Citizen read, "There was no equal and there can be no successor. There was a time when Hitchcock cherished the belief that he could succeed in serious drama and though hard to believe he even thought seriously of taking Shakespearean roles. We recall one occasion when he discussed this ambition with the late Thomas Mott Osborne (note: Osborne had died in 1926) and though the latter and others present at first thought that Ray was merely having another joke, they discovered he was thoroughly in earnest. Soon after, he did star in one or two serious plays where his part was not that of an entertainer or comedian, but Hitchcock soon discovered that he was unsuited and never again attempted more serious roles."
This Fourth of July, when you are back home from a picnic in the park and you settle in to watch "Yankee Doodle Dandy," stay tuned until the end of the movie. As the film is winding down and James Cagney, playing George M. Cohan, is sitting in his Broadway office reflecting on his career, take a good look at the scene. There is an inside homage to our star. On the set, in the background, there is a floor-to-ceiling poster of "The Red Widow" — starring Auburn’s own Raymond Hitchcock!