Stars of Vaudeville #219: Donald O’Connor
Originally posted in 2010
He was born in 1925, and raised in “the O’Connor Family—the Royal Family of Vaudeville”. Theirs’ was a family act, consisting of singing, dancing and acrobatics. The O’Connors started out in the circus. His father was an Irish dancer, comedian and acrobat who had been with Ringling Brothers. His mother was a tightrope walker and bareback rider. Donald was their 7th child. He was first onstage at 3 days old, although at that point his act consisted of laying on top of a piano. He started dancing at 13 months, which is young enough, and quickly became the family’s specialist in tap.
O’Connor’s father died onstage when the boy was a year old. Usually that’s just a figure of speech, but in this case it was literally true. Donald’s oldest brother Jack came back into the act at that point, bringing his wife and child with him. The family worked the Loews, Gus Sun, and Franchon and Marco circuits. There were so many of them that they hired their own railroad car.
At age 12, Donald was discovered for the movies by Paramount and his life changed forever. He appeared in the 1938 film Sing You Sinners! In the 40s he was cultivated by the studio as one of the era’s token teenagers, and placed in a group called the Jivin’ Jacks and Jills, with whom he appeared in 14 films. By the late 40s, he was best known as the star of the “Frances the Talking Mule” series, a concept so bad it was revived by television a decade later as Mr. Ed. In 1952, O’Connor was tapped (ha!) by Gene Kelly for his most famous role in Singin’ in the Rain, wherein he performed his comic masterpiece of dancing, the much loved “Make ‘Em Laugh” number. Subsequent films included: Call Me Madam (1953) and There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954).He passed away in 2003.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, 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 check out 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