Fans might recognize his name from season 3 of the HBO series “Deadwood,” but for most, Jack Langrishe is an historical personality that time forgot.
In their 2016 work “Comedian of the Frontier: The Life of Actor/Manager Jack Langrishe, 1825-1895,” Charles and Margaret Lauterbach rescue the details of Langrishe’s life and work from obscurity in a biography that is the first of its kind.
An entertainer once hailed as “funny enough to make a horse laugh” and whose career included building theaters throughout the West with side-gigs as a gold prospector, newspaper editor and an Idaho state senator, Langrishe’s theatrical adventures include everything a reader could want in a tale about the Old West.
Born in Ireland in 1825, Jack Langrishe came to the United States and made his New York theatrical debut in 1845. Through his professional travels he met and married the talented actress Jeannette Allen in 1849, and together they embarked on a lifelong journey entertaining thousands across the country with acting troupes hired and managed by Langrishe.
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As the “Father of Theatre in the West,” Langrishe toured extensively and built theaters in burgeoning Western cities. With notable long-term residencies in Wisconsin, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota, the Lauterbachs’ research reveals the substantial impact Langrishe and his company had on the lives of the citizens and the cultural development of the West. In the midst of the civil war and the gold rush, newspapers regularly praised their performances that offered artistic excellence and were “acceptable to all classes.”
The lure of a gold strike in Coeur d’Alene brought Langrishe to Idaho in 1885, and his career quickly took a turn: Within a year he was named justice of the peace, and the Langrishes settled permanently in Wardner in 1887.
Although he claimed he had never sought a nomination, Langrishe was elected to serve as the first state senator for Shoshone County after Idaho became a state in 1890. The highlights of Langrishe’s senatorial career include serving on the committees that selected Idaho’s state flag and seal.
When Langrishe died suddenly at home in Wardner in 1895, his obituary appeared in newspapers from coast to coast. Widely regarded for his theatrical accomplishments, Langrishe was ultimately remembered for his personal character, as noted by the Denver Republican: “Among the pioneers of Colorado, none achieved greater popularity, both in public and in private, than John S. Langrishe and his estimable wife. ‘Genial Jack’ as he was termed by those to whom his house and purse were ever open, ‘Honest Jack’ by those who had business connections with him, and ‘Jolly Jack’ as he was styled by the thousands who have laughed at his comical stage impersonations.”
As a performer who earned his fame before the invention of moving pictures, Langrishe reportedly lamented near the end of his life that, “An actor makes no lasting reputation … his fame is writ in water. It dies with the generation that witnesses his triumph. Of all artists he alone leaves no mark behind.”
Undoubtedly, Langrishe would be incredibly grateful that Charles and Margaret Lauterbach — a retired Boise State professor of theatrical arts and an Idaho Statesman gardening columnist, respectively — have uncovered and preserved his story. Based on a “research odyssey” spanning more than 50 years of coast-to-coast investigation, the Lauterbachs’ book is an entertaining read with humorous anecdotes and fascinating connections between Langrishe’s career and major historical events during his lifetime.
As a follow up to Charles Lauterbach’s 2013 work, “Pioneer Theatre” in the Boise Basin and his 2015 book, “Jolly Della Pringle: Star of the Western Stage,” the Lauterbachs continue making important contributions to our understanding of the artistic history of the American West.
Gwyn Hervochon is an archivist and librarian in Special Collections and Archives at Boise State University’s Albertsons Library.