Print / View Finding Aid as Single Page

© 2011 New-York Historical Society logo

Guide to the James T. and Rachel Booth Powers Collection
[1864]-1948, undated
  PR 105

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
Phone: (212) 873-3400


© 2011 New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Sandra Markham

This finding aid was produced using the Archivists' Toolkit on January 05, 2012
Description is in English.

Biographical Note

Rachel Booth and James T. Powers were stars of theatre at the turn of the twentieth century. Powers, a talented comedic actor and singer, was perhaps the better known of the two, and had a lengthier career on the stage than his wife. Booth and Powers appeared in productions billed as comic operas and operettas, light operas and, in the case of "The Old Homestead," a rural drama with comic roles, all of which were immensely popular with the middle class in the 1880s through the early 1900s.

"Jimmie" Powers was born James T. McGovern in New York in 1862 and raised on West 12th Street, a second-generation Irish-American whose maternal grandfather was the first mineral water manufacturer in the city. Powers' father, an alcoholic, walked away when Powers was a youngster, leaving the family to live in poverty. It was his father, however, who introduced Powers to the theatre in 1872 when they attended a performance of Dan Bryant's Minstrels. Powers' own stage debut was made with a minstrel show just a few years after. Following a short-lived partnership with Jay Fagan (as "Fagan and McGovern: The Acrobatic Micks"), he performed on the vaudeville circuit for two years as half of the comedy song and dance duo Kearney and Powers, a venture that chose its name from a neighborhood saloon trade sign and broke up by June 1879. Powers played small parts in stock productions in New York until 1883 when he moved to London. There he appeared in variety of roles and toured around England for two years, returning to New York in 1885. Notable for his red hair and remarkably expressive face, Powers worked thereafter in theaters around the Northeast where he specialized in characters with broad comic roles.

Powers met actress Rachel Booth in 1885 while they were both playing in the Boston production of Charles Hoyt's "A Tin Soldier." Booth was born in 1862 and raised in Rochester, New York, the daughter of Ansel Leander Booth, a printer; her mother Cecelia was, according to James Powers, "a beautiful and cultured woman," and her two sisters were an accomplished writer and a schoolteacher. Booth's stage career began at the age of 2 when she appeared as Harry in a Rochester production of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (see Box 1, folder 20). She was a literate and charming beauty whose roles primarily consisted of the comic figure in otherwise dramatic productions. Whenever his path crossed Booth's in New York in the following years, Powers took all opportunities to court the actress, as well as conducting a mail campaign for her hand when she was touring in other cities. Eventually she gave in to his persistent ardor, and they were married in Rochester on May 19, 1892. Afterward, Booth and Powers worked and toured together in several productions, including two turns in blackface for skits in "A Runaway Girl" and "The Messenger Boy."

During his lengthy career, James Powers wrote a number of song lyrics and short comedy sketches, several of which are in the collection of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Powers and Booth are featured on the cover of the published sheet music for "Dem White Pants at a Swell Cake Walk," a tune with lyrics by Powers, that they performed in "The Messenger Boy." In addition to his work on the legitimate stage, Powers was a regular in the numerous benefits regularly held for theatrical and other charity causes.

James Powers left the stage in 1935, and spent his retirement years writing his autobiography, Twinkle Little Star: Sparkling Memories of Seventy Years(New York: G. P. Putnam, 1939) in collaboration with his wife. He was an active member of The Players from 1889, and spent many of his days in the club's rooms on Gramercy Park; at the time of his death he was the association's oldest member. The Powers lived in the Ansonia Hotel in New York City, but also had homes in Richfield Springs, New York, and on Cape Cod during their lifetime. James T. Powers died at their home in New York City on February 11, 1943. Rachel Booth retired from the stage in 1920 and died at the Ansonia on July 23, 1955.