He was very much the vaudevillian. He had great respect for it always. He never thought himself above it.
– John Huston, on his father
As a kid growing up in Toronto, Walter Huston was always playing hooky, doing impressions, and putting on little shows for the other kids in the neighborhood. At 16, he was hired for a road show called The White Heather. He quit school to take the part, but his parents didn’t allow him to go. Stuck in town, he was forced to take the usual clerk and factory jobs available to an uneducated kid. But he kept his wits about him and saved enough money to attend one Shaw’s School of Acting, thus keeping a hand in.
Before long, he and his boyhood friend Archie Christie joined the Edward d’Oize Travelling Company to perform Mr. D’Oize’s plays The Mountebank and the classic David Garrick. As was common at the time, the tour ground to a halt in the middle of nowhere, the boys trunks were confiscated at the hotel for unpaid bills, and the pair decided to hobo their way to New York. The two starved and scraped for weeks, Huston eventually getting a tour of a play called Convict Stripes with a 5 year old Lillian Gish.
In 1902 he was cast in his first big show, a small role in Richard Mansfield’s production of Julius Caesar. He beat out 100 other comers for the part, which only had 4 lines. Unfortunately, he was so nervous on opening night, he forgot the lines. Mansfield was so angry he hissed Huston’s dismissal to him during the performance.
Dejected, Huston decided to play pro hockey awhile. (H’m, I think I’ll do that). Apparently he was either a really good hockey player (he was from Canada), or it was much easier to get in the leagues back then. Gradually he returned to acting, and more years of struggle in melodramas.
Meanwhile, his sister Margaret had become a successful opera singer. At her apartment she met many of her sophisticated and famous friends, whom he regaled with jokes and tales of his life out west. To Margaret’s chagrin, the friends were so entertained they told Walter he should go into vaudeville. He did.
Years later, Groucho Marx recalled being kept awake on a train by the sound of Walter Huston making love to a woman in the berth below him. Groucho responded by dropping coat hangers on the couple, but they didn’t seem to notice. The woman was undoubtedly Bayonne Whipple, who became Huston’s wife and partner (at least I hope she was). In 1909, Whipple and Huston began to work the circuits with an 18 minute sketch entitled “Spooks”. The climax of the piece involved a gag with a large face painted on a piece of expanding rubber. Huston capped it off a song called “I Haven’t Got The Do-Re-Mi.” After five years of “Spooks”, they moved on to “Shoes,” which took them to the Palace. After this, they moved on to “Time”, an elaborate musical show with a jazz band. Unfortunately, they worked up this last act for the renegade Shubert Advanced Vaudeville circuit, which folded. Keith of course blacklisted them. It was 1923 and they were finished in vaudeville.
Another bit of of bad luck for Walter’s sister ended up being good luck for Walter. Margaret had permanently lost her voice and so was finished in opera. She now used her knowledge to give voice and diction lessons. One of her first pupils had been John Barrymore. Now she trained Walter. Not only this, but she secured a backer for a vehicle for him to star in. Mr. Pitt garnered raves and Walter was on his way.
Stage successes included the original production of Desire Under the Elms (1924), The Fountain, The Barker, and Elmer the Great
In 1928 he broke into films with Gentlemen of the Press, which was followed by D.W. Griffith’s first talkie Abraham Lincoln. Other key performances of his career included the title character in the stage and screen versions of Sinclair Lewis’s Dodsworth, his portrayal of Jerry Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy, and a crooked old prospector in his son John’s classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
DISTINGUISHED PROGENY: Walter’s son John was one of Hollywood’s finest directors for forty years, and his granddaughter (John’s daughter) Anjelica is a much respected actress.
To find out more about Walter Huston and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.