Milburn Stone: From Tent Shows to Television

Those of us of a certain age will remember Milburn Stone (1904-1980) from his role as Doc Adams (1955-1975) on the long-running western Gunsmoke. How delightful to learn this morning that not only was Stone himself a vaudeville veteran, but he was also a close relative of vaudeville royalty.

Milburn Stone was either the cousin or nephew of the legendary Broadway, vaudeville and film star Fred Stone. (Most sources say nephew; Milburn’s brother Joe, a screenwriter said “cousin” in some correspondence). Raised in Burrton, Kansas, Stone sang in quartets in high school and traveled with tent shows as a teenager. He’d landed a Congressional appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy but opted instead to follow Fred into show business. He toured with the Helen Ross sock company and later went into vaudeville with a song and dance two-act called Stone and Strain, who billed themselves as “Two Loose Pages from the Book of Harmony” and were known for their “snappy patter”. He made it to Broadway as a supernumerary in the short-lived show Jayhawker (1934) starring his uncle Fred, Walter C. Kelly, and Tom Fadden. His second and last Broadway engagement, equally brief, was Around the Corner (1936) starring Charles Coburn, in which he had a small speaking role.

Stone broke into films as an extra and bit player in 1935. He amassed over 150 credits over his 40 year screen career. Early things you can see him in include Harold Lloyd’s The Milky Way (1936), The Three Mesquiteers (1936), Banjo On My Knee (1936), Charlie McCarthy Detective (1939), Black Friday (1940), and Lillian Russell (1940). In the ’40s he got bigger parts in B movies, such as westerns starring Roy Rogers and Red Barry, and horror pictures like The Mad Ghoul (1943) and The Frozen Ghost (1945). He had supporting roles in the John Ford pictures, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and The Long Gray LIne (1955), giving Stone something in common with fellow Gunsmoke actor Ken Curtis, a Ford relative by marriage an stock company member. You can also see him in Nicholas Ray’s Flying Leathernecks (1951), the sci-fi classic Invaders from Mars (1953), and Sam Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953). In 1955 he was cast as Doc Adams on the TV version of Gunsmoke, replacing Howard McNear (better remembered as Floyd the Barber on The Andy Griffith Show), who played Doc on Gunsmoke’s original radio incarnation.

Occasionally Stone’s old show biz bug would rear its head. This delightful article from 1959 informs us that he teamed up with fellow Gunsmoke cast members Amanda Blake (Miss Kitty) and Dennis Weaver (Chester) for a song, dance and comedy act that toured state fairs and rodeos. He later appeared on Kraft Music Hall, The Dean Martin Show, and The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. Following the cancellation of Gunsmoke, he appeared on a Dean Martin Celebrity Roast of Dennis Weaver in 1976, his last performance.

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