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PORTAGE PATHWAYS: Ravenna native enjoyed fleeting fame

By Roger J. Di Paoio | Record-Courier Editor Published: November 27, 2016 4:00 AM

Etta Reed was only 16 years old when she left Ravenna to pursue a career in entertainment that took her to New York, where she enjoyed fame and fortune that, sadly, wasn't destined to last.

Her husband, Corse Payton, an impresario known as "America's Best Bad Actor," put his own aspirations aside to showcase his wife's talents. Together they became one of the most celebrated couples in Brooklyn at the turn of the 20th Century.

It was said that Corse treated Etta Reed Payton like a queen -- to the point of purchasing jewels once owned by the empress of Austria that he displayed on a life-sized, gold-painted statue of his wife in the lobby of their theater.

Doted on by her adoring fans, she thrived on celebrity. The girl who grew up in Ravenna lived a fairytale life, but there was to be no happy ending for Etta Reed Payton.

Born in Ravenna in 1868, Etta was the daughter of Carrie and Gustavus Reed. Her father was a Civil War veteran who lost a leg during the war and settled in Ravenna afterward, where his career in public service including being Portage County treasurer and auditor. The mansion he built when his daughter was three years old is still standing at 213 W. Riddle Ave.

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Gustavus Reed was part-owner of Reed's Opera House on East Main Street, which was a popular entertainment venue that booked traveling theatrical troupes and other performers. It's possible that Etta's exposure to the arts at a young age may have influenced her career choice as a teenager.

She joined the Bennett and Moulton Opera Company as a "prima donna soubrette" -- an operatic soprano. That led to theatrical work, and she eventually formed her own troupe, touring the West as its star. She returned to her hometown for several performances during the height of her career, taking the spotlight at her father's opera house.

"She was everywhere popular and no more so anywhere than in her native community, where she was universally loved for the gracious qualities that made her everybody's friend," the Ravenna Republican observed. Despite her fame "she was ever the same womanly friend whose greatest charm was in the simplicity of her demeanor."

Etta married in the late 1880s and had a son, Gustave Reed Clayton. The marriage didn't last and she met and married Corse Payton in 1899. Her second husband set about making her a star.

Corse Payton was an actor, and a popular one. He made a fortune, too, earning $100,000 per year at the height of their shared fame -- more than $2.5 million in today's dollars. And it was said that he spent every penny of it. And more.

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He had toured the Midwest, but headed for New York following his marriage. He and Etta settled in Brooklyn, where he paid $5,000 for a music academy that he turned into a theater.

Etta became the starring attraction, combining glamour with the approachability that had made her "everybody's friend" back home in Ravenna. Women and girls attending matinees were invited to remain for tea with her on stage after her shows. This added to her popularity and the audiences drawn to their theater grew.

She starred in a variety of productions ranging from Shakespeare to theatrical staples to melodrama, including the title role in a tragedy titled, "The Octoroon, a Tale of Louisiana." The Paytons were in great demand on the social circuit and Etta became a generous patron of charities in Brooklyn.

It was great while it lasted, but changing tastes and competition from other forms of entertainment, such as vaudeville and the novelty known as motion pictures, took a toll on the box office at the Paytons' theater.

Etta's health failed, too. She was injured in an automobile accident in New York in 1910 and suffered "a paralytic shock" that rendered stage work impossible. She struggled to rehabilitate herself, returned to the stage briefly, then retired from the career that she loved.

In May 1915, she made another comeback attempt, appearing with her husband at the Court Square Theatre in Springfield, Mass. "Old friends were shocked at the change in her appearance," the Republican reported. She later moved to a sanitarium, then was transferred to a hospital in Springfield, where she died on Oct. 11, 1915. She was 47 years old.

Carrie Reed had traveled to Springfield to nurse her daughter. She accompanied her remains to Ravenna, where services were held at the A.C. Williams residence, followed by burial in Maple Grove Cemetery. "Everybody's friend" was back home for good.


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