A Century of Gordon MacRae (and Family)

If you’re like me, the title of this post sounds like a horrifying nightmare, your personal version of Room 101. Few have done more than Gordon MacRae (1921-1986) to sour me on the culture and aesthetics of musicals. Not because he is obnoxiously terrible, but because he’s a stiff. My nickname for him is “Boredom MacRae.” At this juncture, I’ve seen nearly all of his movies, and I still wouldn’t know him if I tripped over him. And I say “tripped over him” because he reminds me of a log. Many who love musicals seem to forget that a play or a movie is not a CONCERT…the stars need to be compelling in the bits BETWEEN songs, as well. To my mind, MacRae is not compelling in the songs, either. It might be pleasant to listen to his records, but as to visual impact, the dude achieves less than many wallpaper patterns of my acquaintance.

But he would be 100 today, and his career is interesting (on paper, or your computer screen, as the case may be), and I’ve had occasion to mention him on Travalanche several times, so we give him his due here. First, I celebrate him as a fellow Scotsman. His parents were immigrants. He was born in East Orange, New Jersey, which is next door to the heavily Scottish community of Kearney (which is where I rented the kilt for my wedding to my first wife 30 years ago! In the late 19th century a couple of Scottish factories moved their operations to this area, taking many workers with them). MacRae had performed on radio as early as age 11. When he was 19 he won a talent contest and got a two week engagement to sing at the 1939 New York World’s Fair with the bands of Harry James and Les Brown. From 1940 through 1942 he sang with Horace Heidt’s band. In 1943, he briefly subbed for Frank Sinatra on radio (not the last time he would get Old Blue Eyes’ sloppy seconds). Two years of World War Two service did not spoil his momentum. From 1945 through 1948 he hosted The Gordon MacRae Show on CBS radio. In 1946 he appeared in Ray Bolgers’ Broadway revue Three to Make Ready.

The 1948 boxing drama The Big Punch was MacRae’s first Hollywood film. But obviously he was better suited to musicals. He played Frank Carter in the Marilyn MIller musical bio-pic Look for the Silver Lining (1949), Tony Pastor in The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady (1950), and also co-starred in such things as Tea for Two (1950), On Moonlight Bay (1951), By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953), and most famously the adaptations of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! (1955) and Carousel (1956). His starring role as Buddy De Sylva in The Best Things in Life Are Free (1956), ended this peak eight year period of 16 films.

MacRae then switched horses to television, recording, and live performance, and his timing couldn’t have been better, as Hollywood was making fewer and fewer musicals. He briefly had his own TV variety show in 1956, and throughout those years you could also see him constantly on such shows as the Colgate Comedy Hour, The Jackie Gleason Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show Starring Jack Paar and The Jack Paar Program, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and dozens of others. When TV variety started to slow down towards the mid ’60s, more of his appearances were on talk shows like Merv, Mike Douglas etc through the 1970s, where he had an opportunity to plug his albums, concert appearances, and regional musical theatre productions, many of which co-starred his wife, Sheila MacRae:

Sheila MacRae (Sheila Stephens, 1921-2014) was born the same year as her husband; the pair married when he was 20, she, 19. Born in London, she evacuated with her family to Long Island when World War Two began. Today she is best remembered for replacing Audrey Meadows in the role of Alice Kramden in The Honeymooners sketches on The Jackie Gleason Show from 1966 through 1970 (Meadows herself had replaced Pert Kelton). Sheila had first appeared on Gleason’s show in 1953 with her husband Gordon. (I find it significant that the pair divorced in 1967, when she began to enjoy this prominence, somewhat eclipsing her husband, who by that time had also become an alcoholic. She immediately married Gleaon’s producer Ronald Wayne). In 1950 Sheila had been in no fewer than four movies: Caged, Backfire, Pretty Baby, and Katy Did It, but most of her career was a singer in live performance on TV variety shows. One of her last roles as an actress was a regular part on the sitcom version of Parenthood (1990-91).

Two of the MacRae children were also in show business:

Meredith MacRea (1944-2000) was the member of the family I knew first and best (or really, at all) as a kid, for not only was she a regular on the shows My Three Sons and Petticoat Junction, which I watched in reruns, but she was (much like her parents in their day) a frequent guest on game shows, often with her husband Greg Mullavey of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. She’d gotten her start in youth films like Beach Party (1963) and Bikini Beach (1964). Sadly she died of a brain tumor at age 56, predeceasing her mother by 14 years.

The fourth performing member of the fam is Heather MacRae (b. 1946). After going in as a replacement in the original Broadway production of Hair (1969), she was cast in such major films as Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask (1972), Bang the Drum Slowly (1973), and Robert Altman’s A Perfect Couple (1979). She was in the original Broadway productions of Coastal Disturbances (1987), Falsettos (1992), and A Catered Affair (2008). In addition to singing in live performances in cabarets, she has taken the occasional TV role over the years on such shows as Starsky and Hutch, Frasier, and The Sopranos. Her most recent film role as of this writing was in The Sixth Reel (1921), with Charles Busch, Julie Halston, Tim Daly, and Margaret Cho!