Agnes Cain Brown

Family Find for June

Agnes Cain Browne
Agnes Cain Brown, circa 1904

Agnes Cain Brown

Singer, actress, theatrical manager and mother, Agnes Cain (1879-1946), started out as one of eight children of Joseph M. Cain (1847-?), son of Irish immigrants, and Katherine (“Kate”) Hughes Cain (1855-?) of Cincinnati, Ohio. As a child, Agnes showed uncommon intelligence, determination, and an advanced talent for music. At 19, she was living apart from her parents and working as a concert vocalist.

While attending the Cincinnati College of Music, Agnes met Lowell Trump Brown (1879-1902), an aspiring tenor from nearby Mansfield, who shared her dream of performing grand opera. The couple married in 1901, and set out to make their careers in New York. A few months later, with bookings just beginning to roll in, Lowell fell ill with Bright’s disease. The shattered newlyweds returned to Mansfield, where Agnes and her in-laws did what they could to ease Lowell’s suffering. He died, July 18, 1902, at the age of 23.

Eventually, Agnes returned to Cincinnati and resumed work as a vocalist. About 1903, she met the popular comic opera players, Henry C. Barnabee and William H. MacDonald, who invited her to sing for their company, The Bostonians. Although Agnes lacked acting experience, she accepted the offer – and landed the coveted role of lead soprano.

Billed as “the new prima donna” and “Cincinnati’s leading vocalist,” Agnes traveled with the company to Boston, New York, Seattle and other cities across the country. Along the way, she perfected her acting skills and alternated with other cast members to sing lead roles in “Robin Hood,” “Maid Marian,” “The Serenade,” and other large-scale productions. About 1905, after The Bostonians disbanded, Agnes worked with various well-known showmen, including George Primrose, Henry W. Savage and, most notably, Harry P. Girard (1875-1952).

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, and known for his baritone singing voice, Harry was a second-generation vaudeville actor whose résumé included composer, choirmaster, organist, pianist, music teacher, grand opera performer, and Yale University graduate. He and Agnes first appeared and sang together in 1907, in “The Alaskan,” a comic opera with songs he had written especially for her. With an ensemble cast of 75, excluding orchestra, the show played across the United States and parts of Canada. Growing in fame and mutual affection with each curtain call, Agnes and Harry married about 1909.

Harry Girard and Company was constantly on the road and, due to ever-increasing operating costs, frequently in debt. In 1913, between the births of their children – Katherine (1912-1974) and Harry, Jr. (1914-1993) – Harry declared bankruptcy. A few years later, when he was unable to engage a road manager for an extended tour, Agnes quickly stepped up to the challenge. Pledging to “manage the act as well as any man,” she proved to be a shrewd negotiator of transportation and production costs – and still had time to continue her stage career, produce local shows, participate in community events and prepare for the arrival of her third child, Louis (1919-2010).

By the mid-1920s and early 1930s, vaudeville shows started losing audiences to motion pictures and other forms of entertainment. To stay afloat during the transition, the Girards taught music classes and performed in concerts. They also presented music and dance revues and other small-scale productions.

The family’s prospects changed in 1932, when Harry accepted an invitation to direct the first Houston Grand Opera. A short time later, he also served as organist for the city’s Christ Church Cathedral. Before their move, Agnes and Harry had been to Houston at least twice, in 1917 and 1918, with Harry’s “The Wail of an Eskimo” at the Majestic Theatre. They probably never dreamed then that, one day, they would return to The Bayou City as exemplary parents, historical contributors or even permanent residents.

In 1940, Louis, who had grown up at the piano with his parents, wrote lyrics for the “The Rice Fight Song.” Seven years later, he and former classmate, Dr. Bill Ross, composed “The Rice Hymn with music written by Harry.

After Harry and Agnes passed away, Louis entrusted Harry’s original handwritten scripts and notes for “The Alaskan” and an earlier work, “The Maid of Manalay,” to Rice alumnus, John F. “Grungy” Gladu. Subsequently, and most generously, Gladu donated copies of the documents to Rice University. They are now part of the Harry P. Girard Music Manuscripts Collection, 1906-1910.

While it is only one of many shows Agnes and Harry performed together, “The Alaskan” represents some of Harry’s most popular, imaginative and endearing musical numbers. Perhaps the best are those he wrote for, and sang with, the woman he loved.

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