Zelma O’Neal: Did the Varsity Drag

Tribute today to Jazz Age star Zelma O’Neal (Zelma Schrader, 1903-1989.)

Chicago native O’Neal started out in a vaudeville act with her sister. She could sing, dance, play the piano, and do comedy, and within a few short years her obvious talents gained her traction. In 1925 and 1926, she co-starred in nine silent comedy shorts with the likes of Cliff Bowes and Al St. John, and this is what brought her first signficant notice. Her Broadway debut came in the show Good News (1927) with Gus Shy and Inez Courtney. It was in that show she introduced the Henderson, Brown and DeSylva song “The Varsity Drag”, a major hit of the ’20s. When the company toured to London in 1928, she went with it. There she met English stage and screen actor Anthony Bushnell, whom she married later that year. O’Neal’s next Broadway hit was Follow Through (1929), in which she and Jack Haley scored another Jazz Age hit song by Henderson, Brown and DeSylva “Button Up Your Overcoat”. In 1930 she and Haley appeared in the Hollywood film version of the show retitled Follow Thru, along with Buddy Rogers, Thelma Todd, Eugene Pallette, and Nancy Carroll. She also wisely toured big time vaudeville that year, showcasing her two hit songs. In early 1931 came her third Broadway show The Gang’s All Here, with Ted Healy, Hal Le Roy, and others. Premiering in the depths in the Depression, this one only played a couple of months. She then went on to appear in the movie Peach O’Reno (1931) with Wheeler and Woolsey — this is how I first became aware of her.

Meantime, Bushnell had also begun a film career. You can see him in such things as James Whale’s Journey’s End (1930), the 1932 version of Vanity Fair, and the horror movie The Ghoul (1933) with Boris Karloff. In 1932, O’Neal made the short-sighted decision to move to London with Bushnell. There, she starred in a half dozen British films and the West End shows Jack O’Diamonds (1935) and Swing Along (1936). Then, having divorced Bushnell in 1935, she returned to the States. But by then she had lost the momentum of her career in Hollwyood. She appeared in just one more American film Let’s Make a Night of It (1937) with Buddy Rogers, June Clyde and Clare Luce. Her role in this film was much smaller than her parts of the early ’30s. She retired after this. She may have been married for a second time to an Irish actor named Patrick O’Moore who later became a Hollywood bit player. In 1984 her autobiography, Memoirs from Scotts Hill, was published.

For more on vaudeville history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic and silent slapstick comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.