Today is the birthday of the adorable Una Merkel (1903-1986). Ironically the Kentucky-born Merkel did not start out in vaudeville as most other performers did but only wound up there after she was a star, to promote her films in the early 1930s after the advent of talkies.
Merkel got her start as a teenager in the chorus of the Broadway revue The Big Show in 1916. Towards the end of the 20s she had several decent roles on Broadway, including the hit Coquette (1927-1928), which became Mary Pickford’s first talkie.
Merkel’s own career in talking films began in 1930 in Abraham Lincoln for D.W. Griffith. (She had previously done some a little work in silents and an experimental early talkie for Lee DeForest). Another early film role was in The Bat Whispers, directed by Roland West. Soon her gift for comedy was discovered, and she was memorably cast in such films as 42nd Street (1933), Harold Lloyd’s The Cat’s Paw (1934), Baby Face Harrington (1935) with Charles Butterworth, Destry Rides Again (1939), The Bank Dick (1940) with W.C. Fields, The Road to Zanzibar (1941) with Hope and Crosby, It’s a Joke Son! (1947) with Kenny Delmar, The Kettles in the Ozarks (1956) and Spinout! (1966) with Elvis Presley. She continued to work steadily throughout the years; her last part was in an episode of I Spy in 1968.
To find out more about the vaudeville past and present, including stars like Una Merkel, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.