Today is the 100th birthday of Tony Martin (Alvin Morris, 1913-2013), big band singer and minor movie star of the 1930s through the 1950s. I’m not sure if I’d give him attention here ordinarily, but for the fact that his career intersects in significant ways with many of the vaudevillians we write about. To wit:
He was the featured vocalist on George Burns and Gracie Allen’s radio show from 1936 through 1937. Starting in 1936 he began concentrating on a Hollywood career. He was just an extra in Follow the Fleet with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. He was one of the many stars (Jack Haley, Patsy Kelly, Judy Garland, etc ) to appear in Pigskin Parade (1936). By the following year, his billing is second only to Eddie Cantor’s in Ali Baba Goes to Town. In Sally, Irene and Mary (1938) he appears alongside Alice Faye, Joan Davis, Fred Allen, Jimmy Durante and Gypsy Rose Lee. He appears with a constellation of stars in Ziegfeld Girl (1941). Which brings us to his most notorious role (at least with Marx Brothers fans):
To be the romantic lead in a Marx Brothers film has to be one of the most thankless gigs on the planet. To be the romantic lead in one of the WORST of their films, one that gives undue attention to YOU, is to place yourself on the firing line. It’s a matter of debate which is the worst Marx Brothers film (I can think of 4 or so candidates that could be debated) but certainly The Big Store (1941) is the worst of the films to emerge from their relationship with MGM (it was their last for that studio). The film’s (and Martin’s) most notorious moment is a musical number called “The Tenement Symphony”, a very long sequence involving a full orchestra and choir, which has very little to do with the plot (such as it is) of the film.
While a fine singer, Martin didn’t exactly set the screen on fire as an actor, although he continued to appear in films and on television through the early 1960s. He continued to make records at least until the mid 60s. He also made two very good show biz matches in the matrimonial department: he was married to Alice Faye from 1937 to 1941; and to dancer/ actress Cyd Charisse from 1948 until her death in 2008.
For more on show biz history 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