Helen McKellar: A Favorite of O’Neill

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Actress Helen MacKeller (1895-1966) was born on this calendar day.

Originally from Detroit, MacKellar began trouping in melodramas and vaudeville as a teenager. I see references to her in reviews and playbills as early as 1910 appearing in cities like Spokane, Scranton, San Francisco and Salinas, Kansas. In 1916 she made her Broadway debut in the original production of Seven Chances (later adapted into the famous Buster Keaton vehicle).  Throughout the teens, twenties and early thirties she was a big wheel on Broadway and in Big Time Vaudeville. In 1917, she toured the big time with a one-act called “The Jay Driver” by Edmund Burke. Her notable Broadway vehicles included Back Pay (1921) by Fanny Hurst and The Mud Turtle (1925). It is said that Eugene O’Neill was a particular fan and wanted her for All God’s Chillun Got Wings but she couldn’t wrap her head around the miscegenation. With the exception of a stint as a replacement in Dear Ruth (1944-46), her last Broadway show was Bloody Laughter (1931-32).

Her Hollywood career began auspiciously when she starred in The Past of Mary Holmes (1933), featuring Jean Arthur, Skeets Gallagher and Rosco Ates, and Crane Wilbur’s High School Girl (1934). But despite her illustrious stage past she was destined not to be top-billed in films, but instead a character actress and often even an uncredited bit player. She was often in westerns such as Dark Command (1940) and The Great Train Robbery (1941). MacKellar retired from films in 1944 to return to the stage for Dear Ruth, then spent her last 20 years in retirement.

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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