Donald Novis: No Novice

Much like Bob Hope, Donald Novis (1906-1966), was an English immigrant who came to the U.S. at a very young age and made it big on Broadway and on radio and in the movies.

Born in Hastings, raised in Los Angeles, Novis won a national radio singing contest in 1928 and the attention got him tons of work. A walk-on in Bulldog Drummond (1929) was his first screen role, but his second, a starring role in a short called Irish Fantasy (1929) was more typical. He usually appeared as a singer in films, either as himself or as an Irish tenor. He starred in 15 films shorts through 1942. Feature films in which he appeared as a singer included Kathleen Mavourneen (1930) with Sally O’Neil, Love in the Rough (1930) with Robert Montgomery et al, Flying High (1931) with Bert Lahr and Pat O’Brien, Her Majesty Love (1931) with Marilyn Miller and W.C. Fields, and the all-star The Big Broadcast (1932) among many others. Meanwhile, he had his Broadway debut in Luana (1930) and got his own radio program on NBC in 1932. From 1932 through 1934 Novis fronted his own big band, which recorded on the Brunswick label. He also sang frequently with the Anson Weeks Orchestra.

1935 was a big year for Novis. He was one of the stars of Billy Rose’s Jumbo at the Hippodrome, one of the most spectacular shows in Broadway history. Also Fibber McGee and Molly went on the air; Novis was to be a frequent guest star on the show for many years. In 1938 he married former Ziegfeld Girl Dorothy Bradshaw and starred in the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera’s production of Jerome Kern’s Roberta.

In 1942, Novis got one of his most prominent and lasting credits, if no lasting fame, when he sang “Love is a Song” in the Walt Disney movie Bambi. He returned to on-camera performance in feature films after a break of many years to co-star with Una Merkel and Harry Parke in Monogram Pictures’ B movie Sweethearts of the U.S.A. (1944). He had a much smaller role in Slightly Terrific (1944) with Leon Errol. You can also see him in the noir film Guilt Bystander (1950) with Zachary Scott, and the 1951 Jack Carson comedy Mister Universe. He appeared on the western TV shows Hopalong Cassidy and Judge Roy Bean.

And then in 1955, his career’s last phase. Novis returned to the Disney fold to co-create the Golden Horseshoe Revue at Disneyland’s Frontierland with Wally Boag (today best remembered as Steve Martin’s mentor). Novis performed in the show until his retirement in 1964. The show itself was presented as late as 1986.

To learn more about variety entertainment, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous