A Tale of Harry, Larry and Something Scary

I was lured to the rim of this rabbit hole of a story initially by learning about the situation comedy Harry’s Girls, a short-lived show that ran on NBC from 1963 through 1964. The premise of the show is that Harry (Larry Blyden) runs a vaudeville troupe comprised of himself and three young ladies, and they tour post-war Europe where there is still a taste for such old-school entertainment. The show was actually shot in FRANCE, an expense that was undoubtedly responsible for the fact that the show had no stars, properly speaking, either in the cast or as guests, which probably contributed to its short lifespan. Naturally, anything even tenuously connected to the word vaudeville, such as this show, will draw me eventually, and this show did.

Blyden (Ivan Lawrence Blieden, 1925-75) was not connected to vaudeville but he was a Tony award winning Broadway performer, as well as a stage director and producer, a TV and film actor, and a game show host. This highly sprawling career has got to be one of the reasons he never broke through to better recognition; if he’d concentrated on any one of the fields, he might have been a “name”. Even so, he achieved considerable success at this conglomeration of careers, although as we shall see a myriad of curses will follow.

Blyden grew up in Houston, where he was a boyhood friend of Rip Torn. His stage debut as a teenager was in a Margo Jones production. He served in World War Two, then worked as a radio announcer, acted in regional and off-Broadway theatre and studied with Stella Adler. Joshua Logan cast him in the original production of Mister Roberts in a minor role; when David Wayne left the cast, he was bumped up to the plum role of Ensign Pulver. Throughout the 1950s he was one of that army of great actors who divided his time between theatre (Broadway, in his case) and live TV shows of the Playhouse 90 variety.

Larry Blyden and Carol Haney

The mid ’50s was one of Blyden’s peak periods. In 1955 he married dancer/choreographer Carol Haney, a frequent collaborator of Gene Kelly’s, who was fresh off her Tony winning success in The Pajama Game. In ’56 co-starred in the TV adaptation of the radio sitcom Joe and Mabel with Nita Talbot (though it was rapidly cancelled). In 1957 he appeared in his first two movies: The Bachelor Party (adapted from the Paddy Chayefsky play), and Stanley Donen’s Kiss Them for Me, with Cary Grant, Jayne Mansfield and Suzy Parker. From 1958 through 1960 he was in the original Broadway production of Flower Drum Song, for which he was nominated for a Tony.

One is astounded to see how much Blyden worked during the ’60s in theatre and television given the turmoil of his personal life. He and Haney were divorced in in 1962. Two years later, she was dead of some combination of pneumonia and diabetes with severe alcohol abuse as a contributing factor. The pair had two small children: Joshua (b. 1957, named after Joshua Logan, who’d given Blyden his first big break), and Ellen (b. 1960). Blyden was to raise them while working constantly.

In the late ’60s Blyden supplemented his acting income by hosting several short-lived game shows. In 1970, he appeared in the screen version of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, his last film, where he is fourth-billed after Barbra Streisand, Bob Newhart and Yves Montand. In 1972 he took over as host of What’s My Line? — the same year he won a Tony for his performance as Hysterium in the revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which he also produced! In 1974 he had the lead in the original Broadway production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular, for which he was nominated for another Tony. In 1975 he co-hosted the Tonys and was about to co-host a new game show called Showoffs.

I said “about”, for in 1975, like his wife Carol Haney, Larry Blyden met a tragic early end. He was vacationing alone in Morocco when he was killed in a car accident. Accounts differ about the circumstances. Some have claimed that it was a carjacking and that he was left for dead by the perpetrators. The official account makes it sound more like was alone in the car and merely went off the road. Many clues in the narrative above cause some to speculate that Mr. Blyden was a switch hitter in his private life. We assert nothing, but that it would explain some twists and turns in the story.

The Achenbach House, built 1757 as it was

There are more dark elements to the tale. Blyden was a lover of old things. He and Haney had lived in an 18th century nook in rural New Jersey, the Achenbach House in Saddle River, which they had furnished with antiques and believed was haunted by the original owner. Blyden believed that the spirit of Haney also prowled the house after she passed away. (Blyden’s trip to Morocco was partially for the purpose of purchasing the sort of antiquities he loved to surround himself with.) The historical old house was destroyed by fire in 2004.

The postscript to this story is that in the year 2000, Joshua Blyden, a voice-over actor, died. The official cause, via the L.A. County Medical Examiner (thank you, Suzanne Stone!), was alcohol related organ damage.  Gossipy internet chatter (in too many places to link here, just google it) has mentioned that he was attacked and beaten and possibly blinded, and died of those causes. That may well have happened, but the ultimate cause seems to be booze and liver damage.

Three early deaths in the family plus the family home destroyed — I’d say that adds up to a curse, wouldn’t you?

For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,