Today is the birthday of Grace Kelly (1929-1982). Unknown to most people, hers is one of the great acts of self-creation of modern show business history, ranking perhaps only with Cary Grant’s. Audiences think of her as the Hitchcockian ideal, the WASPy, blonde high society ice queen. In reality, she was as Irish as a 4 leaf clover. So mesmerized are we by the impression she makes that we forget, “Oh, yeah—her name is Kelly.” And while vaudeville was long gone by the time she trod the stage, you could say that her career began there, through the auspices of her two uncles.
Her paternal grandparents had come to the U.S. from Ireland in the 1860s. They met and married in upstate Mineville New York, giving birth to their first son Walter in 1873. Walter was to be oldest of ten, although the second oldest, George would not follow until 1887, by which time the family had moved to Philadelphia. Walter went into vaudeville around 1900 and became famous for a character he performed called The Virginia Judge (see more on him here). He was already a headliner by 1904, and remained a star until his death in 1939. The younger brother George followed him into vaudeville, writing and acting in dramatic sketches. These grew to the point where George became a full-fledged playwright, writing some of the top Broadway hits of the 1920s. The most famous today are The Show-Off (1924) and Craig’s Wife (Pulitzer prize winner, 1926). Both of these plays have been made into Hollywood films many times over.
The 3rd oldest brother, Jack (1889-1960), was also a star of the 1920s, although in a different field. He was the country’s top rowing champion, and took home gold medals in both the 1920 and 1924 Olympics. He made his living as a masonry contractor. By the time his daughter Grace came along in 1929 Jack was a millionaire (have you seen all the brick buildings in Philadelphia?). This allowed Grace to go to private schools, and then to appal her parents by choosing to follow her uncles into show business. Her connection to uncle George is what got her into the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. And there she worked, and worked, and worked, on her elocution and diction, reinventing herself in the process. To the extent that she one day become the Princess of Monaco. You must admit this is an amazing evolution, very American, except the part about royalty at the end there.
To find out more about the vaudeville and the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.