Winnie Lightner (born Winifred Reeve on this day in 1899) is best known today as a movie star of the pre-code era, 1929-34 (not because she was particularly racy but that was just the timing). Brassy, peppy (she was known as “The Song a Minute Girl”), her talents as a musical comedienne were much in demand. Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929), now lost, made her a star. Among her dozen or so features, the notable ones today include Hold Everything (the 1930 Joe E. Brown vehicle that Bert Lahr had starred in on Broadway) and Dancing Lady (1933), which contained Fred Astaire’s cinematic debut.
A Long Island native, Lightner broke into show business by joining her “sister’s” vaudeville act around 1915 (the quotes are because the relationship was a subterfuge, common in show business at the time). She quickly eclipsed everyone else in the act, although she stayed with them for the next decade before breaking off on her own. Like many big time vaudeville stars, she went back and forth between vaud and Broadway gigs, mostly revues like George White’s Scandals and Harry Delmar’s Revels. And like many, she broke into Hollywood courtesy Vitaphone shorts around 1929. In fact, she has the distinction of starring in the first Hollywood film banned on the basis of verbal content rather than anything visual. The songs in her Vitaphone short were apparently too much for a censorship board in Pennsylvania. Something tells me we would find them laughably tame today.
In 1934, Ms. Lightner married director Roy Del Ruth, who’d directed several of her films, and retired from the limelight. She passed away in 1971.
For more on Winnie Lightner, check out this recent book.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville and stars like Winnie Lightner, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
Thank you for giving wonderful Winnie her due. She began her career in July 1915 in partnership with two established vaudevillians, Theo (short for Theodora) Lightner and Newton Alexander. Winnie adopted Lightner as her stage name so that the act could be billed as “The Lightner Sisters and Newton Alexander,” but she and Theo were not actually related. Because her mother had died in childbirth, Winnie was raised from infancy by her aunt and uncle named Hansen, in Manhattan. Her two Vitaphone shorts were filmed in 1927 and released in 1928. She also made a Movietone short, also released in 1928. Although Winnie and Roy Del Ruth had been together as a couple since 1929, they did not marry until 14 August 1948 because Del Ruth was unable to divorce his first wife until then. Before marrying Del Ruth, Winnie herself had been married and divorced three times.
Thanks for writing, and nice to hear from you! How are you related? Son? Grandson?
Not related at all, as Winnie merely adopted Lightner as her stage name. I likely am related to Winnie’s so-called sister Theo, who really was a Lightner.