Showman’s family lives the drama offstage

Posted 5/17/22

Walter Scott Davis Sr. was one of RI’s most successful and well-known showmen. From the be-ginning of the 20th century, he owned the Star Theatre in Pawtucket, which was destroyed by a fire …

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Showman’s family lives the drama offstage


Walter Scott Davis Sr. was one of RI’s most successful and well-known showmen. From the be-ginning of the 20th century, he owned the Star Theatre in Pawtucket, which was destroyed by a fire that began in the cellar during the winter of 1916. He rebuilt the theatre and continued presenting wholesome plays performed by stock companies.

He also managed the Bijou Theatre and the Keith Theatre and spent a summer in Montreal, Canada as the manager of a theatre company there. In 1929, he closed up shop here in RI and moved to Oakland, Cal. where he began man-aging theatres on the west coast. But the real drama in the Davis family was not happening on a stage.

Walter’s son, Walter Davis Jr., had worked as an electrician at one of his father’s theatres before marrying 21-year-old Mildred Emma Phillips on Feb. 25, 1915 in New York. The couple settled in Pawtucket and Walter worked in the textile department of the bleachery. In 1919, Mildred gave birth to a son.

During the summer of 1923, Mildred petitioned for divorce from Walter, alleging extreme cruelty. She was granted custody of their child and support in the amount of $15 per week.

On Aug. 4, 1927, Mildred was committed to the RI State Hospital for Mental Diseases in Cranston, for observation. A few days later, a longtime friend of hers, attorney Thomas McGauley, came to visit her at the institution and informed her that it was her own father, electric road conductor Frederick Phillips, who had committed her to the hospital.

Mildred would later testify that McGauley had urged her to let him become the guardian of her estate while she was hospitalized so that her father would not try to claim her assets, telling her that he would not charge her anything and simply wanted to help her.

McGauley would testify that he petitioned to become the guardian of her estate when he saw the assets being wasted due to her mental condition. He claimed that Mildred was an alcoholic. Mildred, in turn, claimed that McGauley had actually provided her with alcohol.

Within days of her hospitalization, she had agreed to give the attorney control of her estate. The court granted him guardianship the following month. A few days later, she was transferred to Bates Sanitarium but McGauley had her returned to the State Hospital on Sept. 29.

While a patient, Mildred grew close to one of the hospital’s physicians, Dr. Stanley Perkins. After she was released from commitment in June of 1928, she married Dr. Perkins.

For the next year, very heated arguments played out in the RI courts. McGauley could not account for the money missing from Mildred’s estate. He testified that he withdrew his attorney fees and spent the rest on necessities for Mildred which he did not keep a record of. Dr. Perkins sat in the front row during these arguments, muttering under his breath. During one hearing, McGauley shouted out, “If the doctor has anything to say to me, I will meet him outside. If he wants to meet me outside, if he is in that mood, I am too.”

The judge continuously warned both sides to subdue their fiery clashes. Two months later, after two additional clients accused McGauley of taking their money, he was reprimanded by the Supreme Court, charged with unprofessional conduct and suspended from practicing law. The following year, his license was reinstated.

Mildred’s problems did not end there. As she had been hospitalized, her first husband, Walter, had been given custody of their 10-year-old son. Walter had gotten remarried on July 9, 1925, to city hall telephone operator Doris Ruth Wilkinson. The couple lived in Providence and Walter was working as a foreman at the radio tube factory while Doris plied the switchboard.

Before her hospitalization, Mildred had lived alone with the boy in Pawtucket. Now, she had been granted visitation with him every Sunday from 1:00 to 7:00. The previous year, she had brought Walter into court, charging him with refusing to let her see the child. The court did not feel there was evidence to support her claim. The present hearing concerned Walter’s plans to relocate to Cal., where his father resided, with his new wife and the child.

Mildred brought charges against him, arguing that such a move would make it impossible for her to see her son on Sundays or at all. Walter argued back, informing the court that Mildred and Stanley had moved to Ontario, Canada and that Mildred had visited the boy only one time over the previous seven months.

The following year, Walter and Doris were still residing in RI but the boy was not with them. It’s possible he may have been with his mother in Ontario.

In 1964, Walter Jr. died of heart disease and prostate cancer at Leger Cottage in New Hampshire, not far from his home. His cremated remains were interred in Swan Point Cemetery in Providence.

Dr. Perkins died in Ontario in 1972. Mildred went on to found the Dr. Stanley H. & Mildred E. Perkins Scholarship, annually awarded to Canadian college students who are entering the medical field and need financial assistance with tuition.

For decades, patrons had watched rehearsed drama playing out on the stages of Walter Scott Davis. But the real drama was taking place beyond the spotlights and ticket booths. The acts were long and the intermissions brief.

Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.


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