This is part four of the series on the show biz ancestry of writer-actress Cynthia Fujikawa, which we launched here three weeks ago. It’s in her own words.
GATES AND FINLAY
Gates and Finlay were my grandparents. I’ve written a bit about them in the last 2 posts, but this one is close to the bone for my living family. My older brothers and cousins knew my grandmother well. Our parents were their children. Gates and Finlay explains why my Uncle Ray burned up all their pictures, why he and my Auntie Sheila completely rejected the arts (they both went into the army), and why my mom tried to reclaim their life in theatre.
Marion Finlay had many suitors, most notably actor/writer Eddie Dowling (perhaps best known as producer of O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” on B’way) who she was engaged to for 7 years. Charlie Gates was betrothed to Mae West (as previously mentioned), and his disapproving father ended it. One day Charlie had to take over a role in an act that Marion was in, and she helped him learn his lines. That night he brought a stein of beer to her dressing room as a thank you.
Gates and Finlay were regulars on the Keith vaudeville circuit throughout the life of their act, from 1917 till 1929. Their song and joke routines featured Charlie as the con man man who beguiles the lovely blond girl. Only one of their written sketches survived, called “The Instructor.” Charlie is a book salesman, and Marion mistakes him for a member of the school board:
Marion: Are you from the Board?
Charlie: Yes, I’m a long way from it. I haven’t made my board for two weeks….
Marion: How many terms did you put in?
Charlie: They gave me three years the last time.
Marion: What were you teaching in that school?
Charlie: I had charge of the Quarry class.
Marion: Quarry class!?
Charlie: Yes, they taught rock-breaking for a side line.
Marion: Did you like school?
Charlie: No, it was too confining.
After a few songs and more jokes, it’s clear they are meant for each other. And they were.
The story goes they fostered another great love story by way of introducing Burns to Allen. And that Marion encouraged Gracie to marry George, despite Gracie’s reservation about him being Jewish. That they worked with greats, including Bert Lahr, Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Victor Moore, the Cohans. But that story is less interesting to me than that of their longevity in show biz, and their sacrifices for a life lived on stage and on train cars. The only life they knew actually. They got married while working, and stayed on the road for 12 years. Here is a picture of their wedding day, taken at a carnival.
Their first baby, Raymond, toured with them, and was nannied by stage hands. He slept in trunks and dresser drawers, and survived without age-appropriate playmates.
Gates and Finlay played all over the country on the Keith’s circuit and made only 2 stops: 1) when Marion nearly died; 2) when Vaudeville itself died.
In Memphis, Marion collapsed in the middle of their routine, and was diagnosed with tuberculosis. She entered a Massachusetts sanatorium for 2 ½ years, and was one of only two survivors among the patients there. During the illness, Charlie did not come off the road. With their little son Raymond in tow, he toured without her, and the boy was mothered by any available adult. Meanwhile, Marion summoned all of her mental energy to get well, and discontinued all visits from her distraught family. And when she emerged alive, the young boy did not know her at all. When Marion re-joined the act, it was time for Raymond to go to school. Now, he ping-pong’d between strange and random relatives. Meanwhile, Gates and Finlay tried a comeback, and persevered while the vaudeville houses were now demanding 6 shows a day. They had another baby (Sheila), packed her up, and got back on the train with their costumes and props.
When Vaudeville died, so did the act of Gates and Finlay. They did not transition into Radio or movies like Burns and Allen. They thought Radio might prove to be a passing fad. They conceded it was ok to raise their children and have a normal life. Unfortunately my grandfather did not possess any traditional job skills. And then of course the depression crashed down upon them all. Thus it was when, my mother, Skeeter Gates was born.
To find out more about 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.