Fay Bainter (and Reginald Venable): The Sailor and the Vaudevillian

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THE SAILOR AND THE VAUDEVILLIAN

Today is the birthday of Reginald Venable (1890-1964). Venable was a U.S. naval officer, and later a businessman. How on earth did he come to be in vaudeville? Well, it all has to do with his love of this woman:

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Fay Bainter (1893-1968) was a Broadway stage actress. She’d started her stage career in 1908, and by 1912 was already playing parts on the main stem. In 1918 she starred as “Ming Toy” in East is West, a hit that ran until 1920, and I’ll lay dollars to donuts that this is what made Venable go ga-ga over the exotic looking young actress. At any rate, the two became engaged. And then they made headlines.

In 1920, Venable was at the helm of the destroyer Ingram when he learned that the R.M.S. Olympic, on which Bainter was returning from Europe, was steaming nearby. Venable changed the course of his vessel in order to meet her….causing much consternation among the authorities and controversy among the public. In the end, he wasn’t punished — probably because the public seemed to approve of the romantic gesture…at least, on this one occasion. The two enjoyed brief notoriety and cashed in on it with vaudeville dates, including one at the Palace.

Bainter remained a staple of Broadway for years, and broke into Hollywood in 1934. She was in both the Broadway and Hollywood versions of Dodsworth (1934). She won an Oscar for her performance in Jezebel in 1938, the same year she was also nominated for her performance in White Banners. Among her dozens of other films she was in Our Town (1940), Woman of the Year (1942), State Fair (1945), The Kid from Brooklyn (1946), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), and The Children’s Hour (1961). Her last credit was a guest shot on The Donna Reed Show (1962).

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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