Actor and Theatre Manager
William Harry Walker was better known as Harry Williams, Actor and Theatre Manager. Born in Baltimore in 1841, Williams spent his boyhood working in a grocery store with his mother but knew early on that he was meant for the stage. His childhood friends included Edwin Booth, with whom he would put on plays of various sorts in the backyards of their neighbors. By age 15 he had joined a traveling theatre company, which is the point at which he changed his name.
Williams spent the next ten years touring the country in “variety” shows, which is how he made his first stop in Pittsburgh sometime in the 1860s.
In 1866, Williams was brought to Pittsburgh to act as stage manager for The Academy of Music. The 25 year old Williams seemed to be the Go To man for such work as he was shortly engaged to manage both Trimbles Variety, and the Old Drury, also known as The Pittsburgh Theatre.
After three years as a full time theatre manager in Pittsburgh, Walker let his leases expire, resigned his positions and headed east. He spent the next eight years acting in and managing theatres in New York, Boston and Philadelphia. By the time he returned to Pittsburgh in 1877, Walker had become a major player in the American Theatre. The connections he brought with him to Pittsburgh allowed him to engage the best of the American stage in a town not usually considered a first-run sort of place.
Upon his return, Williams leased Trimbles Variety but the theatre burned down shortly thereafter. Less than 24 hours after the fire he had leased The Academy of Music, which quickly became known as The Harry Williams Academy of Music. The Academy was a brick structure with seating for 2,400. In his book, All Sorts of Pittsburghers, Arthur Burgoyne explained, “The house had previously been in bad hands, and it required Herculean efforts on the part of Mr. Williams to change its unsavory reputation and make it a source of profitable enterprise.” The illustrated guide and handbook of Pittsburgh and Allegheny, describing and locating the principal places of interest in and about the two cities...illustrated by maps and cuts of 1887 described the theatre as, “devoted principally to a lighter class of plays and is well patronized by those wishing to see the serio-comic side of life portrayed” Williams did all his own booking for the Academy, drawing heavily on his connections in New York, Baltimore, and Boston. Write-ups about him in the years after his death credit him with bringing Vaudeville to Pittsburgh.
Williams married actress Lucille Clifton in 1861, at which time she retired from the stage. The couple had celebrated their 43rd anniversary at their North Side home with a party at the beginning of September, 1904. Williams died from complications of a stroke on September 30 of that year.
The funeral for Harry Williams was well attended by theatre people as well as members of the many fraternal societies to which he belonged. Floral tributes from The Benevolent Protective Order of the Elks and The Improved Order of Heptasophs shared space with those from The Imperial Burlesquers and The Cracker Jack Company. Hundreds of telegrams were received, including condolences from Joseph Jefferson, Tony Pastor, Gus Hill, and Williams’ earliest partner on the boards, Edwin Booth.