A Century of Sally Demay

Coincidentally, today is the centennial birthday of Sally Demay (born 1922), born the very same day as Betty White. I first became aware of her from Marcia Keegan’s terrific, quirky 1975 book We Can Still Hear Them Clapping. How I wish I had discovered this book prior to writing No Applause. Basically, Keegan spent time with elderly showfolk living in the Times Square area in SROs, public housing, and so forth. The book features old vaudeville, burlesque, and Broadway performers, mostly ones who didn’t become famous, now living in straitened circumstances, on fixed incomes etc (although some were still working). She photographed and interviewed them about their lives. Keegan’s a photographer mostly — the interviews were not as useful as they might as been, so it winds up being a better snapshot of 1975 than a pipeline back to the classic show biz days. Basically, it’s kind of like the characters in The Sunshine Boys.

Anyway, Demay’s story is one of the more coherent in the bunch and she is one of the few I could find any corroborating info on, to make a story out of. She was originally from Philadelphia, and studied ballet and ballroom dancing as a kid. According to her interview, her mother died when she was 15 and she married her dance instructor at 16, with whom (and a third partner) she formed the comedy dance act “De May, Moore and Martin”. However, I just found a reference to that act playing an Indianapolis vaudeville show in 1936 — when she was a mere 14! I’m guessing she wanted to gloss over a racy past — that’s mighty young to be married and/or on the road with two boys. (By the way, they shared the bill on that occasion with Eddie Peabody and Tess Gardella. Heady stuff for a kid!) By her account she played the Palace, and worked the RKO, Loew’s, and Interstate Circuits, though in those waning days of vaudeville it must have been tough to patch together a tour.

In 1938, De May and Moore appeared in the short variety film Skyline Revue sans Martin, with Paula Stone and Lita Grey (Chaplin). De May spoke of touring the UK and the Continent in ’38 and ’39, on the eve of the war. She then worked as a single (doing stand-up) during WWII while her partners served. After the armistice, the De May and Moore worked as a double act for a decade. Moore retired in 1961, and did charity work with Joey Adams, creating a program that taught theatrical skills to troubled youth.

At this stage De May, not yet 40, became an actress. Her earliest credits were several guest spots on Car 54, Where Are You? She also played Mammy Yokum in a tour of Li’l Abner. She was in the Broadway show How Now, Dow Jones (1967-68), later touring with fellow female cast members as “The Wall Street Widows”, and was also in the show 70 Girls 70 (1971). At around this time, she was getting cast a lot in comical old lady roles, and worked in commercials for Scope, Macy’s, Tootsie Pops, and Doan’s Pills. She was also in the Alan Abel (and Jeanne Abel) film Is There Sex After Death? and the Sophia Loren comedy Lady Liberty, both in 1971 and a recurring role on the soap opera The Doctors in 1974, just before the Keegan book came out. Afterwards came some roles in the film Looking Up (1977) with Dick Shawn and Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980).

In 1992 Demay published her memoir, entitled Almost Famous, and she was one of the talking heads in the 1997 PBS documentary Vaudeville. This is the last I can find on her. I have not yet come across a reference to her death, so she may well still be with us!

In the Keegan book, Demay claims to have been close with Donald O’Connor, to have worked with Milton Berle, and to have been on the tv shows of Ed Sullivan, Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, and David Frost, although corroboration awaits!

To learn more about vaudeville history please check out No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous