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McKnight Kauffer: the early years

Updated: Feb 3, 2022

McKnight Kauffer Musings

Frank Bacon caricature, 1907

The Early Years...

Today, I am posting two stories about McKnight Kauffer – the early years.

In his seminal monograph E McKnight Kauffer: a designer and his public, first published in 1979, the author Mark Haworth-Booth was fortunate to have met and corresponded with people who were friends with Kauffer himself. When I set out on my PhD I checked out every endnote in Mark’s book, admiring the rigour shown in researching the book over a 12-year period. My aim is to demonstrate the same level of rigour, but to share new information not revealed or published elsewhere. This may not be very exciting for the general reader, but for those interested in the life and work of E McKnight Kauffer the posts will add a new dimension to the existing narrative.

From an early age it becomes clear Edward Kauffer was destined for celebrity or pre-eminence of some kind. In my research I found the first mention of his name in a local Evansville newspaper in 1907 when he was sixteen years of age. In a critique of an exhibition of artwork from various schools in Evansville Edward Kauffer was one four schoolchildren whose work was picked out by the critic.

Edward Kauffer has a drawing in pen and ink of birds with the natural colors in water color. It was drawn from stuffed models and shows wonderful technique and true coloring

He had left school by the time the above newspaper article was published. It was probably drawn when he was 13 or 14 years old – he left school in the eighth grade. At the time of the article he was working as a scene painter for the Wayne stock company at the Grand Theatre in Sycamore Street, Evansville. In the Autumn of 1908 he was with the Burford stock company at the Burford Theatre in Omaha, Nebraska, some 600 miles from Evansville, scene painting and helping out in general. He even gets a mention as an actor. Appearing in The Professor’s Love Story, a comedy by J.M Barrie, and directed by Frank Bacon, Kauffer is cast as Joseph, a servant, getting a backhanded mention in as newspaper critique of the play:

Lloyd Francis and Edward Kauffer are allotted the thankless roles of liveried servants and carried two lunch baskets with skill, which was all they had a chance to do

The stock company put on a series of highly popular comedies during the Autumn and Winter season at Omaha’s Burford Theatre.

The Devil Forever preceded The Professor's Love Story at the Burwood Theatre.
The photograph and this press advertisement give a good idea of the popularity of Frank Bacon's productions

They were all directed by the character actor and playwright, Frank Bacon – Bacon who was to have considerable latter day success with a hit play, Lightnin’, he not only co-wrote but starred in when it was staged on Broadway. It was later made into a silent film, directed by John Ford. Frank Bacon was obviously taken with Edward Kauffer, and invited him out to his ranch at Mountain View, Santa Clara County in California. Bacon was a celebrated figure in California, and put on a number of productions at theatres in San Francisco and Oakland in the summer of 1909. Kauffer probably travelled with him to California at the same time. In Bacon’s production of The Hills of California a half a dozen chickens and a cockerel from his ranch “contributed to the atmosphere of the farmyard scene”.


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