A little attention today for a family of actors whose heyday was the early 20th century. It all starts with Bob McKenzie (1880-1949) an Ulster-Scot from County Altrim who moved with his family to Oregon when he was nine. BTW, if you found this post by googling “Bob McKenzie” but actually want the one from Strange Brew, bless you, and we shall endeavor not to disappoint; see my post here on beer comedies.
Circa 1910 McKenzie married Eva Belle Heazlet (1889-1967). Two daughters followed in 1911: Ida Mae (born January) and Ella (born April). Thanks to Jennifer Ann Redmond’s book Reels and Rivals Sisters in Silent Film, I know the answer as to why the two girls were close in age, but not close enough to be actual twins. Ida Mae was actually the daughter of Eva’s deceased sister Ella; Bob and Eva adopted her.
The McKenzies were showfolk. Bob had acted in stock companies for years; Eva had toured in vaudeville with her siblings in an act called The Heazlet Trio. The family formed a little theatrical stock company called McKenzie’s Merry Makers. Starting in 1915, all four of the McKenzies began appearing in silent films with Essanay Studios, some of them starring Broncho Billy, some of them part of the “Snakeville” series. These films were the perfect springboard to BOTH types of films the various family members were connected with: westerns and classic comedies.
Bob was in 310 movies over the course of his career, mostly in small supporting parts. In addition to his many oaters you can see him in Charlie Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms (1918), See America Thirst (1930) with Slim Summerville, Harry Langdon and Bessie Love, Hook Line and Sinker (1930) with Wheeler and Woolsey, Mae West’s I’m No Angel (1933), and five W.C. Fields classics: Tillie and Gus (1933), The Old Fashioned Way (1934), You’re Telling Me (1934), Mississippi (1935) and My Little Chickadee (1940). He’s in the Educational short Hayseed Romance (1935) with Buster Keaton, and the Three Stooges shorts Whoops I’m an Indian (1936), Dizzy Doctors (1937), and The Yokes on Me (1944), which also featured his wife Eva. He’s in Zenobia (1939) with Oliver Hardy and Harry Langdon, and Saps at Sea (1940) with Laurel and Hardy. This is in addition to western classics like San Francisco (1936), Wells Fargo (1937), Destry Rides Again (1939), The Return of Frank James (1940), The Spoilers (1942) and Duel in the Sun (1946), his last film. I am intrigued to note that his place of death in 1949 is given as Matunuck, Rhode Island. I am guessing that he must have been performing in summer-stock at the time at Matunuck;s Theatre-by-the-Sea. This theatre is in my home town, and it’s one of the first places I ever worked professionally in the theatre. That he was performing there wants confirmation, but I’d bet money I’m right.
McKenzie also directed four westerns during the silent era: A Knight of the West (1921), A Western Demon (1922), Hell’s Border (1922), and Fightin’ Devil (1922).
Eva appeared in about half as many films as her prolific husband, though they were in the same kinds of films, and like him she was a bit player. Some of the ones you can see her in are Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932), The Fighting Parson (1933) with Harry Langdon, and Rattling Romeo (1939) with Charley Chase. Her last film was Heavenly Days (1944) with Fibber McGee and Molly.
Ida Mae (1911-1986) worked with her parents as a child actress in silents. After a lengthy hiatus, she returned to the screen with a vengeance on television in the early ’60s on shows like My Three Sons, The Andy Griffith Show, The Red Skelton Show, Mod Squad, Marcus Welby M.D., The Tim Conway Comedy Hour, and All in the Family. She capped off her career with appearances in two movies: Soylent Green (1973) and Lepke (1975).
Of the original four’s careers, that of Ella (1911-87), was shortest, chiefly because she married someone who himself was a major performer. Like Ida Mae, Ella started out as a child at Essanay. Later you could see her in such films as Alice Adams (1935), as well as shorts in 1937 with the Three Stooges and Charley Chase. It was the latter activity that likely brought her into contact with Billy Gilbert, whom she married in 1938. Apart from a U.S.O. tour with Billy during the Second World War, Ella retired at the time of her marriage.
But wait! There’s more! There’s another McKenzie, and she’s important for it’s her birthday today; it’s what led this tangle of a post.
There was a third McKenzie daughter, Fay (b.1918). Fay McKenzie is arguably the biggest star of the family. She too began as a child actress in silent film. Her last of the early period was The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln (1924), after which she withdraw for a ten year period to focus on school. Starting in 1934 she began getting small roles in B movie westerns and other films, eventually culminating in a stretch starting in 1941 where she was co-star to Gene Autry. Their five films together were Down Mexico Way (1941), Sierra Sue (1941), Cowboy Serenade (1942), Heart of the Rio Grande (1942), and Here in Wyomin’ (1942). She went on to co-star in Remember Pearl Harbor (1942) with Red Barry, and The Singing Sheriff (1944) with Bob Crosby. In 1946, she appeared in two films as a singer, Murder in the Music Hall, and the Cole Porter bio-pic Night and Day.
She also appeared on Broadway, in the revue Meet the People (1940-41) with Jack Albertson and Jack Gilford, and in Burlesque (1946-48) with Bert Lahr. In 1942 she was a regular singer on Groucho Marx’s radio variety program Blue Ribbon Town. Later she was to tour with a pal of Groucho’s, songwriter Harry Ruby.
In 1946 she married movie star Steve Cochran; their liaison was short-lived; she married screenwriter Tom Waldman, later a frequent collaborator with Blake Edwards, in 1948. Through that connection, Fay was later to appear in Edwards’ films Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), The Party (1968 — she plays the lady of the house) and S.O.B. (1981), her last. Fay McKenzie passed away in 2019 at the age of 101.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy, read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,
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