Today is the birthday of Mary William Ethelbert Appleton “Billie” Burke (1884-1970). American-born, she was the daughter of singer and clown Billy Burke, and grew up on the road, touring the U.S., Continental Europe and England (which is where she spent the most time, hence her unique accent). Her first Broadway show was Pinero’s The Amazons at age 10. At 19, her proper acting career began with a role in The School Girl on the West End. In 1907 she starred on Broadway in My Wife and became a fixture there for the next 30 years, with a handful of returns after that. In 1914, she met and married the great Broadway show man Flo Ziegfeld, who now was apparently over both Anna Held and Lillian Lorraine. The two were to remain married until his death in 1932, and Burke was to appear in several posthumous editions of the Follies.
Burke’s first film career was in the silent days, starring in over a dozen movies between 1916 and 1920; she returned to the stage after that, preferring a medium that allowed her to speak — her voice, as fans of her sound films know, was highly distinctive.
When talkies came in, she was back to films like gangbusters, most famously as Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz (1939), but also memorably in Dinner at Eight (1933), Topper (1937), Zenobia (1939), The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), Father of the Bride (1950), Sgt. Rutledge (1960), and scores of other films. She was also a major star of radio throughout the 30s, 40s and 50s (even had her own radio show from 1943 through 1946 and her own tv show from 1951 through 1952). During her last decade she did some local theatre in the Hollywood area but she was beset with memory problems.
Come hear me talk about Billie Burke and the rest of the cast of “The Wizard of Oz” in my 80th anniversary talk at Coney Island USA on August 24! Details here.