In Part I, we looked at the history of the time period and what lead up to the strike, including some of the real-life individuals involved. Where our story diverges from the history books lies in many of the other characters from the show. Here we’ll take a look at the real people that served as the primary inspiration for the show.
Jack Kelly and Davey
When they finally had enough of the price increase, newsies throughout the neighborhoods and boroughs of New York began to cause trouble... Mild acts of violence broke out. Angry newsies overturned newspaper carts. Anyone caught still selling the boycotted papers was attacked and their papers destroyed. Eventually, these smaller groups began to organize and soon leaders surfaced from within their own ranks. Two notable names arose as union leaders: the charismatic boy with an eye patch, Louis “Kid Blink” Baletti (Ballett*) and 21-year-old, long time newspaper seller, and amateur prize-fighter, David Simons. However, their time in the spotlight was short lived after both Kid Blink and David were forced to step down as union leaders when rumors spread that they were taking bribes from the newspaper executives. That departure left lesser known Maurice (Morris) Cohen as the union president. While Kid Blink first inspired the newsies to strike, it was Cohen held them together. Together, they were the inspiration for the character Jack Kelly. Likewise, the real-life David Simons served as the basis of the character Davey. Simons started selling papers at age 8, and at 21, he was a natural voice for the newsies. Not only did he stay in school while selling papers, he eventually employed other newsies to help sell with him.
* Louis “Kid Blink” Baletti often used the last name “Ballett”, especially when being interviewed by reporters. Back then having an Italian last name brought with it a great deal of prejudice, and Louis (Kid Blink) wanted to be taken seriously.
At the time, female journalists did little reporting beyond fashion, gardening, and society pages. In contrast, Nellie Bly (the pen name of Elizabeth Jane Cocharan) was a serious journalist, traveling to Mexico as a foreign correspondent for the Pittsburgh Dispatch at age 21, and later going undercover to investigate brutality and neglect in a New York women’s asylum while working for Pulitzer’s New York World. Ten Days in the Madhouse quickly made Bly one of the most famous journalists in the United States. That drive for serious journalism in spite of the social pressure to remain in a lesser role is the basis of Katherine Plumber’s character rising beyond the fluff pieces on entertainment and flower shows.
Aida Overton Walker’s talent for dance was obvious at an early age and her parents made certain she received formal training. In 1895, at the age of only 15, Aida joined John Isham's Octoroons, a touring group of black performers. Later, she performed as a member of the very successful Black Patti Troubadours run by Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones, an African-American soprano. Soon after, Aida was considered one of the premiere African-American women artists of the turn of the century, she popularized the cakewalk and regularly performed in white venues in New York. Through her talent, she broke stereotypes both as an African American and as a female musical performer in vaudeville and musical theater. Though there was no clear connection between Aida Overton Walker and the newsboy strike, the character of Medda Larkin was imagined with her as the inspiration.
The Bottom Line
On the surface, theatre’s primary goal is to entertain. Deeper down, though, it’s about communicating with an audience on an intellectual and emotional level. It is a powerful way to present the human spirit through the live depiction of a time long past. Though ultimately fictional, Newsies is a show filled with historical references woven into the story through its characters and songs. Most importantly, it provides the audience insight. It paints a picture of the life and energy of the real New York City at the end of the 19th century, all the while giving us all a lesson in American labor, journalism, and social history at the turn of the 19th century. This is best summed up by Medda Larkin’s own line from the show, "Theatre's not only entertaining, it's educational."
It’s not too late! Go to KVTA.org and get your tickets! Showtimes are Saturday October 6 @ 7:00pm and Sunday October 7 @ 2:00pm.