Before there was Andrew Lloyd Webber, there was Victor Herbert, Fritz Kreisler, Rudolph Friml and Manuel Penella.
Before “Evita” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” there were operettas like “Glorianna,” “Apple Blossoms,” “Princess Pat,” “Irene” and “The Wildcat.”
And, before there were stars like Elaine Paige and Madonna (“Evita”) and Emmy Rossum and Sarah Lawrence (“The Phantom of the Opera”), there was Lillian McMillan (also known as Dorothy South), who starred in lead roles on Broadway and made several international tours. Lillian (1884-1964) had dreamed of the stage and, in her early 20s, left East Tennessee to pursue her dream in Boston and New York.
Lillian McMillan was born in the Beverly section of Fountain City on June 20, 1884, the daughter of Thomas T. McMillan (1857-1925), a wholesale grocer living on Tazewell Pike, and Mamie Heavener McMillan (1861-1923). Their Folk Queen Anne mansion was just east of the palatial homes and horse farms of Judge A.C. Grimm, longtime Circuit Court judge, and Sol H. George, owner of George’s Department Store on Gay Street and partner in the Fountain Head Hotel and the Fountain Head Railroad.
Lillian came of age in Knoxville when Peter Staub’s 2,000-seat theater was featuring symphonies from Boston and New York and stars like the Barrymores, Sarah Bernhardt, James O’Neill and George M. Cohan.
Although the movie musical would not arrive until Warner’s release of “The Jazz Singer” in 1927, nascent silent films were reaching Knoxville and may also have ignited the flame that propelled Lillian into a career on the stage.
She left home in 1904 to study with William Whitney, famous Boston voice coach, before launching her professional theatrical career in 1915, adopting Dorothy South as her stage name. Her beauty, her vocal abilities and her stage presence made her a natural for the operetta, a shorter and usually lighter form of opera that sometimes contained spoken dialogue.
The operetta had become one of the most popular forms of theater in the early decades of the 20th century. Famous composers like Irish-born Victor Herbert (1859-1924), Austrian-born Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962) and Czech-born Rudolph Friml (1879-1972), contributed to its popularity and made Dorothy South’s career possible.
She performed in Herbert’s “Princess Pat,” composed in 1915; Friml’s “Glorianna” composed in 1918; and Kreisler’s “Apple Blossoms,” composed in 1919.
The Knoxville Sentinel (Nov. 20, 1921) reported, “Miss South only recently returned from Australia and New Zealand where she played a six-month engagement as (the) leading role of ‘Irene.’ En route home she came through the Suez Canal and by way of Paris and London. In the latter city she was urged to accept a long engagement in an English company presenting ‘Irene,’ but she declined, preferring to come back to her native land.”
Perhaps Dorothy South’s most famous role was that of a Spanish senorita, Solea, in composer Manuel Penella’s tragic operetta, “The Wildcat,” which had shown about 2,700 times in Europe in its Spanish version and came to New York to be performed in English.
The operetta premiered in Atlantic City and then went to Washington, D.C., where President Warren G. and Florence Harding and the Spanish ambassador were present for the first performance. Penella was ecstatic about Dorothy, praising her wonderful voice, magnetic personality and winsome stage presence.
When it arrived in New York, it was reviewed by The New York Times (Nov. 19, 1921). “(It is) the liveliest and ‘horsiest,’ if not the ‘bulliest,’ representation of a bull-ring scene since Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ came to town,” the paper of record said.
It is the story of Rafael, a toreador, who plans revenge on Juanillo, an outlaw mountaineer, who plotted to kill him on sight for the love of Solea, his gypsy sweetheart. They agree to settle the contest in the ring. In one scene the brass band plays the familiar toreador theme while the two rivals march into the ring in their flamboyant traje de luces (suit of lights).
After her stage career ended, Lillian wrote a novel, “Hidden Roots” (Exposition Press, New York, 1964). It was the crowning achievement of a distinguished career.
Lillian McMillan Stuart passed away in New York on Oct. 31, 1964, survived by her son, Martin Lewis Stuart of Washington, D.C., and her brother, John A. McMillan of Knoxville. Husband Frank Stuart had died earlier. After graveside services, she was interred in the family burial plot in Old Gray Cemetery.
Author’s note: Thanks to Dan Brewer, Kevin Mallory, Jenny Ball of the McClung Historical Collection and Sarah A. Nelson of the University of Tennessee School of Music Library for their assistance with the research for this article. Interestingly, El Gato Montés [“The Wildcat”] was revived and performed widely in 1994 with Chilean soprano Veronica Villarroel as Solea and Spanish tenor Placido Domingo as Rafael.