Today is the birthday of Alice Faye (Alice Leppert, 1915-1998). I’m not sure what to make of the claim in her Wikipedia entry that the New York City native “got her start as a chorus girl in vaudeville”. The format in vaudeville was a constantly shifting bill of acts, there was no formal structure that might contain a chorus. It’s possible that she was in the chorus of what was called a tab show, or tabloid musical (a musical production lasting only a few minutes long that toured in vaudeville). Even so, she’d have to have been mighty young; vaudeville died when she was still a teenager. Still it is possible. We leave it a question mark, but we’re hesitant to put her in our “Stars of Vaudeville” series.
Even so, by age 16 she was already cast in the Broadway revue George White’s Scandals. (Supposedly, she had previously been cast in the Ziegfeld Follies but was let go for being too young). From 1932 through 1934 she appeared regularly on Rudy Vallee’s radio show The Flieschmann Hour. From here it was out to Hollywood when she was cast in Fox’s film version of George White’s Scandals (1934) and George White’s 1935 Scandals. For the next decade or so she was a major star, first as a sort of musical version of Jean Harlow, then to a more wholesome (frankly more boring) incarnation. Her presence in movies is frankly somewhat baffling to this correspondent; her skills as a thespian leave something to be desired, and she has almost no personality. Yes, she was a popular singer. But why does that mean we have to endure the boredom of the 85% of the movie in which she is not singing? (Read the Duchess’s even more damning assessment here).
Yet the show biz buff can’t avoid her films, many of which have show biz themes: she’s a saloon singer in In Old Chicago (1937), a Broadway star in On the Avenue (1937), then there’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938), Rose of Washington Square, 1939, loosely based on the life of Fanny Brice), Lillian Russell (1940), and Tin Pan Alley (1940). A dispute with Daryl F. Zanuck ended her movie career in 1945.
She picked up the slack by becoming a radio star on the show The Fitch Bandwagon on which she co-starred with her husband Phil Harris from 1946 to 1954 (it was renamed The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show in 1948). (Her first husband, from 1937 to 1940, had been singer Tony Martin).
She continued to work sporadically thereafter. She’s in a 1962 remake of State Fair, in a 1974 Broadway show called Good News, and had some cameos in a handful of films in the late 70s. Her last credit is a Love Boat episode in 1980.
Now here she is with Shirley Temple and Jack Haley in a number from Poor Little Rich Girl (1936), “You Gotta Eat Your Spinach, Baby):
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 my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc