The career of Milton Watson (1902-82) intersected with so many of the top names in show business, classic comedians, vaudeville, stage, radio and screen stars. His period of greatest prominence was the ’30s, when he moved among them as a peer. Originally from California, he was a good looking baritone, who sang with the big bands of Paul Ash and Paul Whiteman. This led to Sam Harris spotting him and casting him as “Johnny Parker” in the original Broadway cast of the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers (1928-29). His part in the film version was recast with Hal Thompson. Ironically, though a native Californian, Watson’s great success would be in New York; he never cracked films or we’d probably know his name better. It’s ironic because so many of his Broadway shows would indeed be made into movies. His next show Sons o’ Guns (1929) would later be made into a Joe E. Brown film. In 1931, he performed in an early CBS television broadcast and in the Broadway production of Earl Carroll’s Vanities, which ran into 1932. In 1933 he was in Strike Me Pink with Jimmy Durante, later made into a 1936 Eddie Cantor film. In 1934 he appeared in Saluta with Milton Berle. In 1935, he was a regular on Burns and Allen’s radio show, dubbed “Miltie Wiltie”. In 1937 he appeared in his one film, taking a very small role in The Firefly with Jeanette MacDonald and Allan Jones. That year he also appeared in a live revue with Mae West, designed to help her promote her film Every Day’s a Holiday. In 1939 he appeared in “The Streets of Paris” revue in the New York World’s Fair with Abbott and Costello and Gypsy Rose Lee.
This is about where the decline occurs. He was in two very short lived Broadway shows, Viva O’Brien (1941) and Count Me In (1942). Then he went in as a replacement in the World War Two revue Something for the Boys (1943) and the original productions of Oklahoma!, Annie Get Your Gun, and Music in the Air, all respectable work in historically important shows but not calculated to burnish one’s lasting fame. No one remembers the replacements. Watson’s last Broadway work was in the early 1950s.
Watson’s wife, Peggy Bernier (1907-2001) was also a performer in musicals. She, too, was a discovery of Paul Ash’s. Originally from Newton, Massachusetts, she’d been a chorus girl in the Al Jolson show Big Boy (1925) which disbanded in Chicago. Ash spotted her in a local club doing her Jolson impression. Bernier performed in musicals in the late ’20s and early’30s, mostly regionally in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, including book musicas, revues, and “prologues” before movie features. She performed in an act with Eddie Peabody, and is said to have dated Bing Crosby. In 1930 she starred in a Vitaphone movie short called One on the Aisle, penned by Paul Gerard Smith. In 1931 she returned to Broadway to appear in You Said It with Lou Holtz, Lyda Roberti, et al. It ran for six months. Later she made small, uncredited appearances in The Hit Parade (1937) with Phil Regan and Frances Langford, and an intriguing independent film called Rebellious Daughters (1938) directed by Jean Yarbrough, which starred Marjorie Reynolds but has lots of formerly important stars in supprting roles, including Irene Franklin, Vivian Oakland, Dell Henderson. and Florence Lake.
Milton and Peggy’s granddaughter Jenny Lombard has promised to share lots of excellent archival material with us once the pandemic blows over, so stay tuned. Jenny is also showfolk, having written off-Broadway plays, developed an original series for Nickelodeon and authored the books How to Stay Single Forever and Drita My Homegirl.
To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.
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