Alexander Gray: Accidental Idol

Alexander Gray (1891-1976) was a musical star for over 20 years and he didn’t even set out to be one.

From rural Pennsylvania, Gray had worked a bewilderingly diverse number of jobs before going on the stage professionally: farmhand, sailor, shop teacher, industrial engineer, editor of a trade publication, and sales manager. But along the way he had always taken voice and drama classes, and participated in glee clubs, church choirs, and the like. Encouraged by Louise Homer, he arranged a singing audition for Florenz Ziegfeld through Chamberlain Brown. He was 30 years old when he sang in Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic, his first professional credit. This was followed by the Follies of 1922 and 23, and then the shows Annie Dear (1924) with Billie Burke, Ernest Truex, Bobby Watson, Jack Whiting, and Helen Herendeen; Tell Me More (1925) with Eddie Dowling, Willie Covan, Lou Holtz, Portland Hoffa; The Merry World (1926) with Ray Bolger, Grace Hayes, and Naughty Risquette (1926) with Stanley Lupino. He also toured big time vaudeville with Bernice Claire as a singing partner.

Gray also had a brief movie career, in that short window during the early days of talkies when musicals reigned. He is front and center of Show of Shows (1929); Sally (1929) opposite Marilyn Miller; No No Nanette (1929) with Bernice Claire; Spring is Here (1930) with Lawrence Gray (no relation) and Claire; The Song of the Flame (1930) with Claire; the all-star Viennese Nights (1930); and Moonlight and Pretzels (1933). Also he starred in three shorts: The Red Shadow (1932) with Claire; Passing the Buck (1932) with Victor Kilian et al; and Trav’lling the Road (1934), his last.

At this stage, musicals ceased to be big box office and Gray was no longer wanted by the studios. He filled his time singing in vaudeville, night clubs, concert halls, regional theatrical productions and on radio. He starred in two additional Broadway shows, John Henry (1940) and Blossom Time (1943). He also hosted a short-lived tv variety show called This is Music (1951-52).

For more in vaudeville history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,