North Country History Lesson: famous on film

Published: Dec. 16, 2022 at 6:25 AM EST
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CLAYTON, New York (WWNY) - For our north country history lesson this week, we meet a local celebrity from the 1800′s.

May Irwin was an actress who would end up in the cinematic hall of fame.

Born in 1862 as Georgia Campbell, later known as May Irwin, she began life just across the border in Canada. But she wouldn’t stay there long.

“Her father died young and she and her sister Flo got into show business their mother got them started to augment money since their father died,” said Thomas LaClair, Clayton Historian.

“When they were teenagers, they got their first opportunity to be on stage in Buffalo, New York across the border and they were an instant hit. May in 1877, when she was still a teen, she started hitting the stage of the metropolitan stage in NYC and even went to London, England to some of the stages there.”

“So she was doing quite well as a teenager,” LaClair said.

By the age of 33, Irwin was at the height of her career, when she did a very scandalous play.

“In 1895 she was doing a stage play. It was an act with a gentleman named John Rice and in that play they did a very romantic kiss that was kind of taboo,” LaClair said.

“Well, Thomas Edison heard about the kiss so he jumped on it and said ‘I’d like to invite you May and you John to Edison Studios and were going to film that kiss.”

It was the kiss heard round the world. The first ever in cinematic film history.

“It was scandalous back in the day. Moviegoers said ‘No, we denounce that and the Catholic church even tried to do some censorship,” LaClair said.

“Police were called at many studios where it was being released because there were picketers saying this is too much, but it became popular. Many other actresses were going on film now and doing similar kisses. A lot of people said ‘No, we gotta stop it,’ but there was more and more being made.”

She was a sensation. And she didn’t stop at acting. She was also a singer... and dabbled in cookbooks. But what is her connection to the north country?

“She came to the Thousand Islands because its a beautiful area,” LaClair said.

“She has the opportunity to travel, she knew George Boldt quite well, she was doing several of her world-renowned plays at the Clayton Opera House. She has a summer home on Club Island.

“Where’s club island? just off of Grindstone Island back in the day,” LaClair said.

She was very active in the area. People would see her walking around, donating to boys and girls clubs, performing for her friends. She was well respected in the community.

“So she’s a local hero to us,” said LaClair.

In her later years, she settled in Clayton with a farm house, too. Happily living to the age of 76, leaving behind a big smooch on the film industry and in her beloved north country.