Martha Sleeper: Stayed Awake

Martha Sleeper (1910-1983) started out with the greatest possible advantages in show business. Her uncle was J.J. Murdock, who ran the Keith-Albee-Orpheum circuit (in other words, the boss of big time vaudeville). Her father William B. Sleeper was also an exec with KAO, and was organizer of B.F. Keith’s Boys Band, a.k.a. Keith’s Boys Band, which had 400 members, performed at venues like the New York Hippodrome, and gave hundreds of young musicians their start.

As a girl Martha studied ballet for five years with Louis H. Chalif. In 1923 the family moved to Los Angeles for her father’s health; he died two years later. Only 12 when she got to Hollywood, Martha was cast in an independent feature called The Mailman (1923), launching a career in show business that would last nearly a quarter century. Initially she was paired with Mary Kornman’s cousin Buddy Messinger in a series of kiddie shorts for Century Productions. Later in 1924 she went to work for Hal Roach, where she appeared in comedy shorts with Our Gang, Charley Chase, Stan Laurel, Jimmy Finlayson, Snub Pollard, Max Davidson, and others, including classics like Are Husbands Necessary? (1925), Should Sailors Marry? (1925), Long Fliv the King (1925), Bromo and Juliet (1926), Fluttering Hearts (1927), and Pass the Gravy (1928). Her last short for Roach, Should Tall Men Marry? (1928), was also Stan Laurel’s last solo comedy.

Meanwhile, in 1927, Sleeper now 17, had become one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars, which (ironically) meant that she was all grown up. At the end of the silent era she appeared in several features for FBO (soon to become part of RKO, successor to her late father’s organization). In 1929, in apparent preparation for sound, she made her Broadway debut in Stepping Out, with Grace La Rue, Hale Hamilton, and Jobyna Howland.

Notwithstanding her experience and connections, in the sound era, Sleeper was a bit player, sometimes just an extra, in films like Our Blushing Brides (1930), Madam Satan (1930), Ten Cents a Dance (1931), Bombshell (1933), Spitfire (1934), and Rhythm on the Range (1936). Four Days Wonder (1936) marked the end of her initial Hollywood period. In late 1935 she moved to New York with her husband, actor Hardie Albright, where she appeared in a succession of ten Broadway plays over the next dozen years. (She and Albright parted ways in 1940 and he resumed his Hollywood career). Sleeper returned to Tinseltown for one last film, The Bells of St. Mary’s, in 1945, then returned to Broadway for two last plays, the last of which was Christopher Blake (1946-47).

In 1949 she moved to San Juan where she ran a clothing boutique for 20 years, then retired to her third husband’s South Carolina plantation in 1969.

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