LITTLE HAMS — Letting their imaginations run wild, the kids must’ve had a blast! Cowgirls, lady bugs, toy soldiers, and little drummer boys: They’re all depicted in photos that probably came from the Bagaley Juvenile Theatre. This institution appealed to the River City’s youngest performers.
The Bagaley Theatre could trace its roots to the 1920s, starting as a local kindergarten. By the early Fifties, the institution offered “dancing, dramatic art, singing, primary school, kindergarten, and first grade.” By 1960, Bagaley advertised itself for “children 3 – 18,” providing instruction for “dancing, musical comedy, tap dance, acrobatic ballet, dramatic art, (and) singing.”
Some former Bagaley students made names for themselves in the entertainment world. One alumni was Jo-Ann Campbell, a raspy-throated singer and former Fletcher High drum majorette whose hits included “Rock and Roll Show” and “You’re Driving Me Mad.” Other Bagaley performers included model Toni Wallace, who appeared (1956-1965) on the original “The Price Is Right.” Jack Sheldon also passed through the Bagaley Theatre. Sheldon was a comedian and trumpet player on “The Merv Griffin Show,” and he also provided the voice for the train engineer on “Conjunction Junction,” a much-beloved episode in the educational cartoon series “Schoolhouse Rock.” Yet another alumni was Alice Nunn, a busy actress who starred as a regular on “The Tony Orlando and Dawn Show.” She may be best remembered today as “Large Marge,” the ghostly truckdriver who terrified Pee-wee in “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.”
NATURAL BORN TEACHER — And so, who was the driving force behind the Bagaley Theatre? Many young people got to know its proprietor, Katherine Bagaley. For more than a half century, she taught primary school and dancing in Jacksonville. Born in 1894, Miss Bagaley originally hailed from Palmer, located in Alachua County, Florida. She and her family moved to Jacksonville in about 1904, and she graduated from Duval High School in 1911. (The downtown school building still stands near the Cathedral Towers and now houses apartments for the elderly.) Early on, Miss Bagaley worked as an aide in the office of principal Mattie V. Rutherford of Fifth and Hubbard School (today’s Mattie Rutherford Alternative Education Center). After serving as an elementary school instructor in Jax for a number of years, Miss Bagaley opened her own kindergarten. The venture was first listed in the 1929 city directory, operating at its owner’s long-time Springfield home at 312 East 7th Street.
During the late 1920s, Miss Bagaley shared this residence with her mother, Luna, an Indiana native who also worked as a kindergarten teacher. Miss Bagaley’s father, William, was an English immigrant. He had performed with a Gilbert and Sullivan opera troupe, and Luna had also appeared on stage. During the early 1900s, William was employed in Jacksonville by the Montgomery Amusement Company and as an accountant with the Florida Oldsmobile Company.
By the mid 1930s, the Bagaley Kindergarten had turned into the Bagaley Juvenile Theatre, a Riverside enterprise at 2512 Park Street. By 1946, the school maintained two branches, one in West Jacksonville (1662 Stockton Street) and the other in South Jacksonville (1624 Felch Avenue). The institution still had the Stockton address during the Fifties, but the second branch operated at 3349 St. Augustine Road in South Jacksonville. It was housed in the Old Philips Congregational Church, built in about 1887. The branch on Stockton Street continued longer than the other, but it finally closed its doors in 1977.
Miss Bagaley stayed limber and spry even after her retirement. She could still execute a sharp forward kick and then touch her toes at 83 years old. Following the academy’s closure, Miss Bagaley wrote and published a book entitled “Mr. Easy Teaches Phonics.” It starred a chubby, tuxedoed elf in a top hat. The author had drawn the colorful illustrations several generations before when she opened a private school in 1921. Miss Bagaley lived to the ripe old age of ninety-two, passing away in Jacksonville in 1986.
It’s interesting to note that Miss Bagaley rarely appeared on stage during her life — She was too shy! Except for a high school play (a comedy that she wrote herself), she never performed before an audience.
CARRYING ON THE NAME — For most of her life, almost everyone called Miss Bagaley “Mrs.” How did this come about? She had adopted a foster son during a time when single people rarely did so. Therefore, many residents just assumed that the spinster had once been married. Through her lawyer’s legal wrangling, Miss Bagaley gained custody of a seven year old named Earle, whose mother had abandoned him. Before leaving, she had packed Earle’s things in a bag and wrote a note telling him to go live with Miss Bagaley, one of his friends.
Little Earle possessed a fine singing voice and displayed a rare gift for comedy. He played a part in a local radio show called “Cracker Comedy Kids.” During the early 1930s, Miss Bagaley even took him to Hollywood in an abortive attempt to break into films. After Earle served in World War II, he followed in Miss Bagaley’s footsteps and set up a local dance academy, as well as one in Brunswick, Georgia. The Jacksonville operation was called the Earle W. Bagaley Studio of Dance, situated on the Southside at 3823 Hendricks Avenue. Exclaimed its Yellow Pages ad, “Why not include your child in the wonderful world of dancing!” In the mid 1960s, Earle W. Bagaley preceded his foster mother in death, but left her with two grandsons.
Reconsider the photo of the little boy above: Could it depict a young Earle doing a Charlie Chaplin impression at Miss Bagaley’s academy?
-written by Glenn Emery