Chick Chandler: The Rich Man’s Lee Tracy

Fehmer Christy “Chick” Chandler (1905-1988) was a blueblood who chafed at family discipline, chucked it, and jumped into show business with both feet, to the benefit of audiences.

There must have been major pressure to excel in Chandler’s family. One uncle (his namesake) was successful architect Carl Fehmer, another uncle was the famous illustrator Howard Chandler Christy. His father was an army surgeon, Colonel George F. Chandler, who was also a bigwig in the NY State Police. His mother, Martha Schultze was a sportswriter and the daughter of the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra Carl Schultze. Chick’s older brother went to West Point. Chick went to a military academy also, and did very well, but at age 16 he ran away and worked for a time on a tramp steamer.

No doubt Chandler was quickly disabused of any notions of romanticism in the life of a lowly cargo sailor, for his next move was show business. He studied dance with Ned Wayburn and performed in vaudeville and burlesque with a succession of female partners with whom he was also romantically linked. These included 17 year old Sallie Sharon, whom he had met while visiting his brother at West Point, and Naomi Morton, granddaughter of vaudevillian Sam Morton of The Four Mortons. In 1925 he was engaged to marry Ziegfeld Girl Dorothy Knapp, whom he had also met at West Point, but she broke it off. He also dabbled a little in silent film in the ’20s, as assistant director on the film Driven (1923), and an actor in Red Love (1925).

In 1930 he was cast as a regular on Chic Sale’s radio show Liberty Bell Filling Station. The following year he married Jean Frontai, an actress with David Belasco’s stock company. In 1932 he appeared in the out-of-town tryouts of the Ben Hecht-Gene Fowler comedy The Great Magoo, which put him onto the radar of Hollywood. Chandler was to go on to play over 120 supporting roles in film and television over the better part of four decades. I was about to write that he was regarded as sort of the Poor Man’s Lee Tracy, but it was more like the Rich Man’s Lee Tracy. He was good at playing brash characters, but with more of a WASP edge.

Early on he also starred in his own comedy shorts, including A Preferred List (1933), Unlucky Strike (1934), The Big Mouthpiece (1934), Horse Heir (1935), and Raised and Called (1935). Most of his features were B movies. Some interesting ones include Harold Teen (1934, based on the comic strip), Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938), Swanee River (1939, a Stephen Foster bio-pic), Blondie in Society (1941), The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941), Maisie Goes to Reno (1944), Irish Eyes Are Smiling (1944), Leave it to Blondie (1945), Blondie’s Reward (1948), Show Boat (1951), The Eddie Cantor Story (1953), A Star is Born (1954), It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) and Jerry Lewis’s The Patsy (1964).

From the 50s, most of his work was in television. He had a recurring part on The Loretta Young Show (1954-55), and was a regular on Soldier of Fortune (1955-57), and One Man’s Family (1961), and appeared on dozens of other programs. His last appearance was in a 1971 episode of Bonanza. Touchingly, he and his wife Jean passed away within a day of each other in 1988 after 57 years of marriage.

To find out more about the history of vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.