The Crazy Career of Leona Anderson

Leona Anderson (1885-1973) had two careers in show business: one was about silence, one was about noise.

The younger sister of cowboy star and mini-mogul Broncho Billy Anderson, Anderson appeared in several films produced by his company Esssanay in 1915. These included The Shanty at Trembling Hill (with Francis X. Bushman), In the Park (with Charlie Chaplin), A Horse of Another Color, Her Realization, Suppressed Evidence, and Broncho Billy’s Mexican Wife. After a 7 year hiatus, she returned to appear in two more: a drama called Ashes, and Mud and Sand, Stan Laurel’s parody of Valentino’s Blood and Sand, both 1922.

Then mysteriously, three decades later she re-emerged as the singer of the novelty record “Fish” (1953). There were two gags to this record. One, was that it was self-consciously written by its creators Tony Borrello and Tom Murray to be a preposterously terrible song. There was something in the zeitgeist then; Mad Magazine was launched that same year. On top of that, the second level of joke was Anderson’s performance, off-key, harsh and self-consciously posh in the tradition of Florence Foster Jenkins but intentionally worse. This led to an album called Music to Suffer By (1957) featuring Anderson’s slaughtered versions of pop standards, selections from opera, and original numbers such as “Rats in My Room” and “Limburger Lover.”

Ernie Kovacs, inveterate lover of comedy music, had her on his show many times, and this led to appearances on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar (1958-1962), and The New Steve Allen Show (1963). The notoriety also led to two new movie roles, a low-budget independent film called Johnny Gunman (1957) and William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill (1959).

Anderson was 78 at the time of her last TV appearance so it’s no wonder this second phase of her career proved to be as shortlived as the first. I find myself most curious about what she did during the interval, though. Folks have speculated about vaudeville and radio but I haven’t yet come across anything concrete. She is said to have studied music, and there is evidence of that in her screwy performance — she knows HOW to make it bad, in the same way Jack Benny and Henny Youngman play the fiddle bad. (This is what makes her different from Florence Foster Jenkins, who was quite serious about what she did.) Interestingly, there was another Leona Anderson who appeared on Broadway during the first decade of the 20th century. It’s tempting to want to claim her as the same woman, for she performed in the sort of vehicles that would have been appropriate for what we know of this performer. But it’s a different woman, with different places and times of birth and death. And our Leona Anderson, like her brother Broncho Billy, was actually an Aronson; Anderson was a professional name. At any rate, if and when we learn about the missing years, we’ll share what we know.

To learn more about show business history please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube