Russ Brown: Ya Gotta Have Heart

Russ Brown (1892-1964) is best remembered for winning his Tony winning performance as Van Buren, manager of the Washington Senators in the original 1955 Broadway production of Damn Yankees, and his turn in the 1958 film version. But, like so many others, he got his start in vaudeville, and that’s what lands him here. 

Brown was originally from South Philadelphia. He had something of a bifurcated boyhood: he belonged to a street gang as a boy. but also sang soprano in church choir. He went to new york when about 13 to sing in the original production of Victor Herbert’s Firefly at $18 a week. From there he went into vaudeville. In an interview with the New York Times, during his early vaud days, he was stranded twice, once in Fall River and and once in Toronto. Then he returned to Philly for a time to work in the newspaper business.

By the time of America’s involvement in the First World War, he was straight man in a vaudeville team with Jim Fallon, billed as Fallon and Brown. One finds me reviews of and references to their act from newspapers all over the country in 1919 and 1920. But the most intriguing thing I found was reference to them performing for U.S. and British soldiers in France. There is a book called The Story of the 27th Division by Major General John Francis O’Ryan which describes Fallon and O’Brian performing with a show called The Broadway Boys, along with performers named Van Zandt and Roche and Kitty Crawford. I had my misgivings that they might not be the same guys until I came across the photo above. That’s certainly Brown on the right. Apparently he and Fallon performed in a number called “Me and Mickey”.

By 1922 he had split with Fallon and had teamed with (Gertrude) Jean Whitaker, who would become his wife. One of their early sketches was called “Clown Topics”. They were popular enough to become headliners on the Keith Circuit. In 1927 their act was recorded for posterity in a Vitaphone short called A Laugh or Two, filled with wisecracks, wheezy jokes and songs.

As often happens when success arrives, Brown seems to have split with Whitaker professionally in the aftermath of this film. In 1928 he appeared in the Broadway play Ups-a-Daisy. He and Whitaker were divorced in 1930. Then he was cast in the Bert Lahr show Flying High (1930-31). He would work with Lahr numerous times on stage and screen over the next decade.

Then came several more film shorts including The Palooka Flying School (1930), which seems to be a 7 minute movie of Brown reciting a monologue written and directed by Al BoasbergFootlights (1931), a variety film including acts like  James C. Morton and the Albertina Rasch Dancers; and Pie a la Mode (1933) which features lots of pie throwing and Bernard Gorcey.

They he played supporting parts in features for a stretch such as Moulin Rouge (1934) with Constance Bennett, Franchot Tone, Fuzzy Knight, Russ Columbo, the Boswell Sisters, Richard Carle, the Crane Sisters and showgirls Lucille Ball, Irene Ware, and June Gale; Let’s Talk it Over (1934) with Chester Morris and Mae Clarke, The Love Captive (1934) with Gloria Stuart and Nils Asther, and Sweet Surrender (1935) with Frank Parker and Tamara (both of whom only have a couple of movies to their credit, making them curious but intriguing leads).

Then it was back to the stage (he basically see-sawed between stage and screen for the entirety of his career). In the mid he briefly teamed up with Harold Whalen immediately after Jans and Whalen broke up. In this new team, Brown was the comic and Whalen was the straight man. Then Brown was cast in the Broadway show One Good Year (1936-37) which, contrary to its name, only ran seven months. Then he was in Howdy, Stranger (1937) with Frank Parker from Sweet Surrender. 

At the same time he appeared in several comedy and variety film shorts. In three of them he supported his old friend from Flying High, Bert Lahr: Boy, Oh Boy (1936), Off the Horses and Montague the Magnificent (1937). In Carnival Time (1936) he played a carnival barker announcing a bunch of obscure vaudeville acts. School for Swing (1936) featured Sylvia Froos and Bert Gordon. Brown himself starred in Strike, You’re Out! (1936), a baseball comedy, presaging his role in Damn Yankees. And in 1938 he appeared in Air Parade, the last of about a dozen shorts which Educational made starring Niela Goodelle.

In 1940 he supported Joe Penner in his comedy feature Millionaire Playboy.

Meanwhile that same year, he appeared in Al Jolson’s last Broadway show hold on to your hats  also featuring Gil Lamb and Martha Raye. The show ran through part of 1941. Then in ’41 he teamed up with Bert Lahr again, this time as his straight-man and an emcee at Loew’s State (which ran vaudeville programs through the mid ’40s).

As the title character in Viva O’Brien

In October 1941, Brown actually starred in the Broadway show Viva O’Brien, but it only played three weeks. He appeared in four more forgotten Broadway shows through the end of the 1940s. Then came:

The role of Van Buren in the original production of Damn Yankees (1955-57), in which and his players sang “You Gotta Have Heart”, and for which he won a Tony. He was 65 years old when the run ended, but his career was just picking up.

Towards the end of the ’50s he was cast a great stretch of films: South Pacific (1958), Damn Yankees (1958), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), and a few others. Then came Fiorello! (1959-1961) on Broadway. Then Advise and Consent (1962), and several other movies. His last role, was in a posthumously released tv pilot, The Two of Us (1966).

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