Toast To Olde Tymes – Giles Cain
Giles Pendleton Cain began writing for The Independent in 1911. His column focused on the theater. It was originally titled “Little Stories of Plays and Players,” later shortened to “Concerning Plays and Players” and finally to “Plays and Players.” He would also write other columns, such as “Petticoat Lane Levities” and “This, That and the Other.” Giles remained with the magazine until his death in 1947.
Prior to The Independent, his byline had appeared in the Kansas City World and the Kansas City Journal. Readers of Town Topics, a society magazine in New York, were also familiar with his work. He had offers from other publications, but turned them down. However, that was only half of Giles’ career. He worked for the Kansas City Gas Company (and its predecessor firm) for 50 years, at one time serving as chief clerk. Giles maintained a desk there until the end of his life, long after he had completed any official responsibilities. In an editorial eulogizing him, the Kansas City Times noted, “No one knew exactly when he did his writing.”
Giles was born on October 21, 1862, either in Kentucky or Texas (records vary). In any case, he spent at least part of his childhood in Texas, although his speech in later years had what to Midwestern ears sounded like an English accent. According to Giles’ obituary in The Independent, “His first name was a paternal inheritance passed down from William Branch Giles, an early senator of the United States and a governor of Virginia.”
The Times described him as “a retiring man of scholarly appearance,” but information about his education is elusive. What brought Giles to Our Town is unknown. The Times and the Kansas City Star tracked some of his activities during the years prior to his employment with The Independent. In 1889, Giles studied stenography at Professor Dickson’s Shorthand School, and was promptly hired to teach there. It had taken him only 10 weeks to complete the course, while the other students, all female, needed another two weeks. Did Giles have a background in business, which gave him an advantage? He was past 25 then – had he already attempted another career, perhaps on the stage? These are questions for which there are no ready answers. One Times article states that Giles had lived in New York prior to moving to Kansas City. During the 1890s, he was a member of an all-male chorus, known as the Apollo Club, which began allowing women to join shortly before the turn of the century. The fact that Giles was the only man in the stenography class is intriguing, given that it foreshadows his time at The Independent.
Giles had to testify in court in 1894. He was working then as the interest clerk for the Lombard Investment Company. Montgomery H. Lewis, the firm’s former auditor, was accused of forgery, and attempted to blame L.K. Russell, the firm’s former treasurer. Complicating matters was the fact that the two men had similar handwriting. “It was shown by Cain that he had permitted his name to be used in carrying an account for Lewis, but he was not aware of there being anything wrong about that, it being simply a matter of accommodation. He was also examined on the methods of the investment in conducting its business and identified credit and debit slips as being in the handwriting of Lewis,” the Star noted. A few days later, however, Montgomery H. Lewis was acquitted. At some point after this, Giles accepted employment with the gas company.
Giles was in his late forties when he began writing for The Independent. He was a dapper man and steady in his habits. For many years, his life followed certain patterns. Giles preferred to sit on the aisle in the third row on opening nights. His travels frequently took him to New York, where he was often a guest at the West 44th Street headquarters of The Lambs Club, whose membership was composed of professionals from the theatrical world. During the years between the wars, Giles made numerous trips to Europe. His adventures served to enhance his writing – and his conversation. Not surprisingly, he was a sought-after guest for dinner parties. In Kansas City, Giles lived in a series of residential hotels. (At the time, that was not an unusual choice. However, in the later years of the 20th century, many of these places fell into disrepair and developed unsavory reputations.) As our scribe wrote in his obituary, “In accord with his cosmopolitan way of life he maintained bachelor quarters in the downtown hotel district. His apartment in the old Hotel Savoy was filled autographed photographs of prominent stage figures of yesteryear and today. Art objects from [all] over the earth decorated his rooms and his library reflected the discriminating taste of a connoisseur.”
Excerpts from Giles’ columns:
From December 2, 1911:
“Every adjective in one’s vocabulary might be skillfully employed in an effort to describe the rare beauty of the picture dances with their impressively dramatic and compellingly poignant stores, illuminated by Gertrude Hoffman and her artists at the Shubert Theatre this week… After an absence of several years Anna Held returned to the Willis Wood Theater this week, with her well-cured success, ‘Miss Innocence.’ Billowy bosoms in unobscured and healthy evidence; backs, arms and adjacent territory as bare as if cloth were a prohibitive luxury…”
From September 1, 1917:
“The opening of the big vaudeville house [the Orpheum] was a good thing. It seemed to reassure us in spite of the chaos everywhere, caused by battle and its hideous consequences, that somewhere in this favored land of ours the sun still shines.”
From October 13, 1917:
“If you were not an impregnable castle of carefully guarded emotion, you know you cried when the gentle old music master smothered his long lost daughter with caresses and called her his little baby. The ladies in the audience made no bones about getting out their handkerchiefs, but the men for the most part pretended that there was a slight itch in the left corner of the right eye and surreptitiously poked an index finger underneath a drop of water that would not stay put… The Music Master is a bulwark of the present-day stage, unfortunately none too secure from burlesque goths and movie vandals.”
From October 4, 1924:
“About ten o’clock Fannie Brice walked in looking as girlish in a rich dress and bob as if she were a 1924-25 flapper… Perhaps one of the several reasons for Miss Brice’s enduring vogue is that she can sing… Her ample range allows every liberty with the score necessary to the end she would accomplish. As an actress, the characters she elects to assume are perfect replicas. Without much risk of fracturing fact, it may be assumed that she is the empress of vaudeville.”
From May 14, 1938:
“We hear a great deal these days about Orson Welles who seems to be the liver and lights of the Mercury Theatre’s adventures in New York where a production of ‘Julius Caesar’ recently attracted attention—some irreverent mortal giving vent to the opinion that it was due chiefly to lack of scenery… At the Gate Theatre in Dublin they jested that he could drown the thunderous blare of any actor in Ireland… the group at the Mercury is rated one of the most spectacular that ever invaded Broadway. Whether the enterprise is merely a prolonged flash of lightning or a really invincible spark which neither time nor circumstance can extinguish, remains to be demonstrated.”
The columns Giles wrote showcased his wide variety of interests. In August 1947, his topics included stories of theatrical luminaries and productions, speculation about international celebrities, and brief biographical sketches of prominent early-day Kansas Citians. During the years he wrote for The Independent, Giles was never known to miss a deadline until his health declined. He had an operation in September and was still in the hospital in the middle of October. Giles died on November 30, 1947, at the age of 85. The Star stated, “Giles Cain was a definite personality who will be missed in the city’s cultural life. He was a character to add color to our social history.” Our scribe bemoaned a more personal loss: “For at The Independent the daily round, without the scintillating presence of Giles Cain, lone male member of the editorial staff these past 36 years, is hardly the same.”
Originally featured in the April 3, 2021 issue of The Independent.
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