About Elizabeth Lancaster (Roberts)
..it was Elizabeth [Burt Lancaster's mother] who taught Burt to be honest. As an adult, he vividly recounted the time she gave him a quarter, asked him to go to the store to buy a quart of milk, and then whipped him when he got home for failing to notice the extra nickel that the grocer had given him in change. After the spanking, she sent him back to the store to return the money...
Elizabeth was as generous as she was honest. "Bums were forever knocking at our door for handouts," Burt recalled. "First my mother owuld bawl them out. Then she'd feed them." And she lacked prejudice, instilling in her son a lifelong tolerance for people from different races and faiths. "I saw the way she treated black people who lived in the neighborhood," he said. "She would invite them in for tea and coffee and talk to them, the way she related to the Jewish people there. Now, we as children, my two brothers, my sister, and myself, we saw all this. It was expected that we would do these kind of things. This was our Bible of our upbringing."
In 1916, when Burt was three... Burt made his acting debut in the Christmas pageant at the Church of the Son of Man. This small nondenominational Protestant chapel on E. 104th Street was operated by the Union Settlement House, and the Lancasters were part of its largely Irish and German congregation. During the performance, in which Burt played an angel, he discovered that a piece of gum had stuck to the bottom of his shoe, and his efforts to remove the offending confection brought the house down. His budding career was not ruined, however; for years, he and his brothers played the Three Wise Men in the church's Nativity observance.
Fishgall, page 17:
When Burt [as a child] was not losing himself in books, he was escaping at the movies. His hero was the king of the swashbucklers, Douglas Fairbanks. "When the Mark of Zoro played the Atlas Theatre in our neighborhood [in 1920], Burt was there when the doors opened at eleven," his father remembered. "He was still there at eleven that night, forgetting all about lunch and dinner." Once again poor Willie had to fetch him home. For days, thereafter, the seven-year-old bounded around the livingroom furniture, imitating Fairbanks' feats of derring-do.
Despite such antics, Burton had no interest in becoming an actor. In fact, he wanted to be an opera singer. Until he was fifteen, he sang soprano in the choir at the Church of the Son of Man. Then he entered puberty, his voice changed, and his dreams of singing career came to an end. Concert pianist was also out; he took piano lessons, but he never developed an aptitude for the instrument.
Still, music remained his passion.
Fishgall, page 19:
What saved [young Burt] Lancaster from the city's mean streets [East Harlem, New York City]--aside from his family--was the Union Settlement House.
The settlement movement, which began in Great Britain in 1884, sought to improve the conditions of lower-class communities throug a combintation of activities and social action and to help menial laborers advance through training and education.
Sponsored by the Union Theological Seminary, a nondenominational Protestant institution, the Union Settlement House began modestly in a tenement on E. 96th Street in May of 1895 but soon mooved to larger quarters on E. 104th Street, between Second and Third Avenues. By 1915, when Burt was two years old, it boasted about thirty resident workers, and its facilities included an assembly hall and a gym, and a boys camp on Lake Stahahi in Palisades International Park. It sprogram included the first kindergarten in East Harlem, the first public bathhouses, and the first playground for small children. Indeed, youngsters were a particular focus. For them, the Settlement House was a treasture trove of fun and exciting things to learn--arts and crafts, foreign languages, dramatics, sports, woodworking.
On both his father's side and his mother's side, Burt Lancaster was descended from Irish Protestants. From: Kate Buford, Burt Lancaster: An American Life, Alfred A. Knopf: New York (2000), pages 11-12:
By the second half of the nineteenth century, the Lancasters and the Roberts family, his [Burt Lancaster's] mother's Belfast people--working-class Northern Irish Protestants--were poor and trapepd by the island's limitations. His paternal grandfather James emigrated to New York in the mid-1860s, more than a decade after the Great Famine... James had two key advantages as an Irish Protestant: he was educated enough to read and he was a skilled worker, a cooper... He settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, at 40 Essex Street...
By 1880 the next great wave of immigration filled New York's Tenth Ward around Essex Street with Eastern European Jews fleeing pogroms and starvation. James [Burt Lancaster's paternal grandfather] married Susannah Murray, another Irish immigrant... and they had five children, including James Henry (Jim), Burt's father, born December 6, 1876. James Sr. moved the family uptown to... between East Thirty-fifth and Thirty-sixth Streets... just south of today's Queens-Midtown Tunnel...
...The Roberts family left Norwalk for Manhattan shortly after 1880...
Buford, page 15:
That $112 plus interest [an inheritance from the death of then four-year-old Burt Lancaster's maternal grandfather] as waiting for him was another indication to Burton [Burt Lancaster]--like his blond hair, blue eyes, Anglo name, property-owning parents, and Protestant faith--that he was different from the poorer, foreign people he lived among...
As he approached the age of seven, the raggedy, dissonant city that defined him was growing up too. The U.S. census of 1920 confirmed that for the first time America wasn an urban nation, with New York elevated to a new status as capital not only of the postwar country but of the world. When mass immigration was stopped in 1924, only one million of New Yorks six million residents were white, native-born Protestants [like Burt Lancaster], and only a handful of these lived in East Harlem [where he lived].
Buford, page 16:
Though Eastern European Jews remained a significant presence in the neighborhood east of Third Avenue--Burton's [i.e., Burt Lancaster's] first childhood pals were Jewish--immigrant Italians from Naples, Calabria, Sicily, and Salerno now dominated the quarter.
Buford, page 18:
[Burt Lancaster's mother] took him to the Metropolitan Opera house on Broadway and Thirty-ninth Street to sing in the children's choirus... The backstage bustle and onstage drama were an exaggerated version of the peaks and valleys of life he saw every day on the streets of East Harlem, an art form he would love with a religious intensity...
With a strong dose of noblesse oblige, Lizzie [Burt Lancaster's mother] showed by example that the Lancasters had an obligation to give to those less fortunate, which covered just about everyone in the neighborhood. The word on the street was that Mrs. Lancaster, after chewing you out for being a bum, would feed you and send you on your way. Burton [young Burt Lancaster] watched these transactions, listened as his mother purposely simplified her speech to "Second Avenue English," had black neighbors in to tea, and shared what little they had. The actions became what he would call his "Bible."
Buford, pages 19-21:
Lancaster would credit Union Settlement House on East 104th Street as the single most important influence, after his mother, on his childhood and youth. An experiment in making the Christian Kingdom of God--the "City of the Light"--manifest in the slums, Union was founded in 1895 by a group of alumni from the Protestant Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan. Underwritten by contributors like Mrs. J.D. Rockefeller Jr. and Mrs. Andrew Carnegie, it was created to serve the as yet unnamed area devoid of civil services north of East Ninety-sixth Street. One of at least fifty settlement houses set up around the country by 1895, Union was based on the activist charity work of Jane Addams's Hull House in Chicago. "Hail the glorious Golden City,/ Pictured by the seers of old!" went one settlement hymn of the time. "Only righteous men and women/ Dwell within its gleaming walls/ Wrong is banished from its border/ Justice reigns supreme o'er all/ We are the builders of that city . . . All our lives are building stones. . . ."
At their best such experiments in the "social gospel" tapped into the ardent hope that America might be the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies of a heavenly kingdom for all people, a place where racism and class conflict wither in the glorious light of justice. Union's "special gift," as Janet Murray, widow of former Settlement House director Clyde Murray, described it, was to have settlement workers "literally go down, 'settle,' and live in crowded immigrant communities as neighbors," and then help the residents put pressure on the city and federal governments to make changes. The movement was a training ground for the progressive era of the first two decades of the twentieth century, often described as a golden age of American politics. While Union quickly shed any religious affiliation as inappropriate for its mission ina Jewish/Catholic neighborhood, its ethos remained religious in its insistence that the American experiment have an applied meaning.
Happily unaware of all this idealistic freight, Burton [young Burt Lancaster] trooped down a couple o blocks to the settlement house every day to have fun. It was his home away from home, buzzing with boxing matches and other sporting events, and classes in painting, drama, English, hygiene, sewing, and dancing. Countless clubs taught the rules of parliamentary procedure: changing the world began with meetings...
On Sundays the Lancaster family attended the Union-affiliated Church of the Son of Man, a Protestant island at 227 East 104th Street. Called "the church in a house" because it was indistinguishable form any other building in the neighborhood, the small, plain church was deliberately austere, stripped down to the essentials of the Christian mission. "Isn't it more satisfying to touch a few lives deep down at their roots," asked the pastor, Harris Ely Adriance, in one of his sermons, "than a large number who 'hit the trail' and then forget what it's all about?"
Burton [young Burt Lancaster] was one of those so touched. The names of Adriance [the pastor] and his assistant, David Morrison, turn up, again and again, in interviews throughout the actor's life. The two men were like emissaries from another planet, pointing the way to a different kind of life. Though Adriance, a skilled preacher, was constantly wooed by "[t]he Fifth Avenue churches," Burton [Burt Lancaster] would remember he turned down all offers in order to stay with them. A literate, intent man, slim with a small face, big eyes, receding hair, and a large forehead, his central message was St. Paul's plea for a noble life. "Lives that tell," he exhorted from the pulpit in the tiny wainscotted church room, "are those that are thus spread out to the full octave" of justice and fairness. One Sunday, Burton watched the pastor stop his sermon to welcome and seat a black woman who stepped into his church for the first time. "Not to be blinded, not to be controlled by prejudice, not to be warped, not to be unreasonable, these are the things," the preacher insisted, "for the spiritual man to battle for." Planted like a sead in the head of young Burton [Burt Lancaster], these ideas would grow.
David Morrison was an exotic character born in Punjab to English missionary parents. He was also an artist who taught drawing lesons at the settlement house and at the private Allen-Stephenson School on East Seventy-eight Street. Using his drawings to illustrate Bible lessons, he gave children's sermons which in fact taught the children about art, how to see what they saw. Burton [Burt Lancaster] watched and listened, taking in Morrison's lesson that art, supposedly an elitist preserve, was a natural expression of life.
Most of the time, however, Burton was what his Sunday-school teacher, Carrie Nester--like Lizzie, a stalwart of the church--remembered as just another "snuffle-nosed little boy." He was the star of the children's choir until he was fifteen, his pure soprano voice revered even more than a tenor's. He had his first acting role as a shepherd (some accounts say angel) at the age of three in the church's annual Christmas pageant. Bundled into a burlap sack, he had no words to speak, but halfway through the production, when the angel, sheep, and shepherds usually get restless, Burton, center stage in front of the alter, discovered a wad of chewing gum on the bottom of his shoe. He sat down and started to work at pulling it off. "After much exasperated pulling," his father would remember, "he snarled at the top of his little voice, 'How'd this damn gum get on my shoe?'" A roar of laughter burst from the audience, who had been watching this bit of distracting business intently. "Mrs. Lancaster," her husband recalled, "was not amused" and whisked Burton off the stage.
Adriance [the preacher at the Church of the Son of Man] got the eleven-year-old Burton to try out for his first proper acting role in 1924, the lead in a settlement-house production of Three Pills in a Bottle. Participation in the one-act play... earned him credits toward two weeks at Union's Nathan Hale summer camp across the Hudson River... [This was the real start of Burt Lancaster's acting career.]
Burt Lancaster called on the experiences and strong beliefs he gained in the Church of the Son of Man when he starred in the title role in Elmer Gantry, one of his most famous roles, for which he received an Academy Award. From: Buford, page 200: