York, Pa.’s Durang family of actors linked with national anthem
June Lloyd, retired York County Heritage Trust archivist, has been writing intriguing pieces for the York Sunday News for about a year.
Her writing has focused on the 19th century. In their regular columns, Gordon Freireich and Jim Hubley write primarily about the 20th century and contemporary issues.
Meanwhile, I flit all over. But between all of us, here’s hoping we have the history front covered.
June wrote one her best columns this past Sunday, laboring through conflicting reports of the Durang family’s links with “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Her findings about the Durangs of York, a pioneering family in American theater and the arts:
Our national anthem appears in the news often, especially in the summer. It is called to mind on our most patriotic of holidays, the Fourth of July. Offbeat renditions at ballgames make the news. This year the value of non-English versions was also hotly debated.
Local residents may remember there is some connection between the origins of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and York County, but what?
Doesn’t it have something to do with the Durang family of actors, who lived and performed at one time or another in York, Lancaster, Harrisburg and Baltimore?
When doing research, too much “information” on a subject is sometimes worse than too little. An online search for “Durang” and “Star-Spangled” produced 4,660 hits. Many of the sites just repeat stories that can be traced back to a few somewhat questionable sources. Other resources do not concur with one another. About the only facts most sources, published or online, agree on is that:
• The original poem was written by Francis Scott Key, who witnessed the attack on Fort McHenry on Sept. 13/14, 1814 from a ship.
• It was set to a tune titled “To Anacreon in Heaven,” which had been written in London in the 1770s.
Young Maryland attorney Francis Scott Key had gone aboard the British flagship, the Tonnant, along with government official John S. Skinner, to negotiate with British Admiral Cochran for the return of Dr. William Beanes, of Marlboro, Md., who was being held prisoner aboard ship. They were successful, and Beanes left with Key and Skinner. The three Americans were probably back aboard the HMS Minden, the small British vessel that had carried them out to the flagship when the assault began. They were not allowed to return to shore until the bombardment was over.
Writing to Key’s son-in law in 1856 (more than 40 years later), Key’s brother-in-law, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney, related that Key had told him that he had written the poem Sept. 14th or 15th on board ship and finished at his hotel in Baltimore. Taney credited another Key brother-in-law, Maryland Judge Joseph Nicholson, with promptly having the manuscript printed as a handbill.
Ferdinand Durang, along with his brother, Charles, has been credited with matching the words with the tune, as have others, including Nicholson and Key himself. (Key had previously written another patriotic poem, “When the Warrior Returns,” which could be sung to the same tune.) An illustration of a printed copy identified as the “first handbill” includes the notation: “Tune: Anacreon in Heaven.” Consequently, the oft-repeated story of the Durangs matching the words with the music at a Baltimore Tavern seems a bit of a stretch.
The Durang boys were in Baltimore at that time, both members of Harrisburg’s Dauphin Blues militia, which had marched to York’s Penn Common to unite with Capt. Michael Spangler’s York troops. Their father, John Durang, was in York at the time and recorded helping the soldiers make cartridges before they continued on to the defense of Baltimore.
There seems to be no doubt that the song was an instant hit. It appeared a few days later in the Baltimore newspapers under the title “Defence of Ft. McHenry.” The first publicly advertised singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” probably by Ferdinand and/or Charles Durang, seems to have been at the Holliday Street theater in Baltimore in October 1814. John Durang relates in his original memoirs, now in the Library/Archives of York County Heritage Trust, that the following June he opened his company’s 1815 touring season in York at Peter Wilt’s tavern (now 218 E. Market St.). That was likely the first time Yorkers saw and heard our nation’s anthem performed publicly. He goes on to say: “‘The Star Spangled Banner’ was sung in many companies” that summer. By 1816, Durang, already known for his fireworks displays, had created quite a production noting that: “I brought out ‘The Attack on Fort McHenry’ with the bombardment of the British fleet to crowded houses.”
They may not have united the words and music, but there seems to be no doubt that “our” Durang family was certainly instrumental in familiarizing Americans with the song that officially became our stirring, if somewhat difficult to sing, national anthem in 1931.
Speaking of theater, in celebration of the centennial of the Capitol Theater, the writer of this column is a member of a volunteer committee charged with gathering together the history of the Capitol Theater and its predecessors, the Theatorium and the Jackson, as well as that of the neighboring Strand. Anything before 1980 is especially needed. If you have items connected with any of these theaters or memories you would like to share, please call 846-1155, ext. 107.