Archive for the Stars of Vaudeville Category

The Courtney Sisters (featuring Florence, Georgie Jessel’s First Wife)

Posted in Sister Acts, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2017 by travsd

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August 11, 1892 was the birthday of Florence Courtney (Florence Grismer). With her sister Fay, she was one half of the vaudeville singing duo The Courtney Sisters. Joe Laurie, Jr. called them “one of the first great harmony sister acts”. Originally from Texas, the Grismer family moved to Missouri, and then finally to New York, where their mother pursued a career as a model and the daughters tried to break into show business.

They’re already making a noise in vaudeville by 1912; by that point they were already popular enough to feature on sheet music, like this immortal classic from that year:

In 1914, Florence married ragtime piano player Mike Bernard, a rake who had previously had an affair with Blossom Seeley, fathered children out of wedlock with a Ziegfeld girl, and was to marry two other times. Not surprisingly, they divorced two years later.

The Courtney Sisters made it all the way to Broadway, appearing in the shows The Little Whopper (1919), Blue Eyes (1921), and Snapshots of 1921. 

In 1919, Florence met and married Georgie Jessel.

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One gets Jessel’s side of their rocky romance in his typically self-serving autobiography So Help Me. The Courtney Sisters were big time when the Florence and Jessel got together, whereas Jessel was still kind of second tier. But that was the year his own career broke out as well. The way he paints it, everything conspired to undermine the marriage. First both husband and wife were too busy. Fay was against her sister’s marriage, afraid it would break up the act. Then Jessel was out of work and not bringing in dough. Then he was working again. Then there were affairs because they were apart. They separated almost immediately, then got a formal divorce in 1921. Then they got back together, then broke up again, then remarried in 1923.  Meanwhile, the Courtney Sisters had broken up; Florence appeared solo in five Broadway shows through 1925. Then she did retire from show business and became intensely religious, which further alienated Jessel. So they were frequently separated, she didn’t like to go out and party more, and had lost the “whoopie” energy that had attracted him in the first place. There were plenty of affairs. Still, they didn’t get divorced again until 1932. Perhaps out of spite she kept “forgiving him” which was pretty clearly what he didn’t want. He had begun seeing Norma Talmadge during their marriage; she was to be his second wife in 1934.

When Florence passed away in 1989, she had remarried; her surname was then Mayehoff.

To learn more about vaudeville, including acts like the Courtney Sisters, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

The Pickens Sisters: Singers of High Society

Posted in Broadway, Child Stars, Singers, Sister Acts, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 10, 2017 by travsd

Jane Pickens (1908-1992) of the Pickens Sisters was born on this day. She’s chiefly on my radar because I’ve lived and recreated in Newport, Rhode island, where she was a longtime resident (summer and otherwise) and there is a theatre there named after her.

Jane was the musical leader and arranger of the trio that first included her sisters Grace and Helen. Grace later became the group’s manager, replaced by the fourth sister Patti. The girls were Southern belles from Georgia, taught to harmonize by their mother. Their father, a wealthy cotton broker, loved to accompany them on piano. In the early 1930s, they moved to New York’s Park Avenue and became involved in New York, Long Island and Newport Society. They often sang at private functions, with a specialty in what were then called “Negro Spirituals”. Fortunately, a search was on at the time to find female trios to compete with the popular Boswell Sisters. The Pickenses were spotted at a party and quickly landed both a radio deal and a recording contract.

Their radio shows ran from 1932 through 1936. They appeared in the 1933 Vitaphone short 20,000 Cheers for the Chain Gang, and in the 1933 feature Sitting Pretty. Next came the Broadway revue Thumbs Up! (1934-1935). Jane sang solo in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936.

The group split up when several sisters left to get married. Patti married radio actor Bob Simmons, with whom she performed for a time as Pickens and Simmons. Jane, the most serious about music, studied at several prestigious schools, and continued her career as a solo. She appeared on Broadway three more times: in the revue Boys and Girls Together (1940-1941), as the title character in Regina, a musical adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (1949), and the musical Music in the Air (1951). She also made several appearances on television variety shows through the mid 1950s, and even briefly had her own such series as a replacement in 1954.

Jane was married thrice, to T.J. Russell Clark (whom she divorced), stockbroker William Langley, and Walter Hoving (the head of Tiffany and Bonwit Teller, and father of the Met Museum’s Thomas Hoving). In 1972 she ran as the Republican against Ed Koch for a New York Congressional seat (unsuccessfully, of course). Newport’s Jane Pickens Theater, named after her, opened in 1974. She died in Newport in 1992. Patti, the youngest sister, was in the midst of plans to record a tribute album to her deceased sisters when she too passed away in 1995.

Glenn Tryon: Forgotten Silent Screen Comedian

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 2, 2017 by travsd

Idaho-born Glenn Tryon (Glenn Monroe Kunkel, 1898-1970) had worked in vaudeville and the regional melodrama stage when Hal Roach hired him in 1923 to fill the void at his studio left by Harold Lloyd, who had departed to make features. He was a good looking leading man type, on the small side, and was adept at playing romantic light comedies with a bit of slapstick. He starred in Roach two-reelers for four years, and early on, backed Stan Laurel in shorts like The Soilers (1923) and Smithy (1924). Lloyd was to remake Tryon’s The White Sheep (1924) at feature length as The Kid Brother (1927). Tryon has a cameo as himself in Harry Langdon’s Long Pants (1927). 

From 1927 through 1932 he starred in features, often comedies at first, but increasingly westerns and B movies adventures in the sound era.  He co-starred with Merna Kennedy in three features in 1929 (Broadway, Barnum Was Right and Skinner Steps Out), immediately after she had co-starred with Charlie Chaplin in The Circus (1928). 

From 1933 through the end of the 1940s he amassed credits as a screenwriter, director and producer, contributing to many notable projects. He contributed to the screenplay for Laurel and Hardy’s Sons of the Desert (1933), the musical Roberta (1935), George M. Cohan’s Seven Keys to Baldpate (1935), and the Marx Brothers Room Service (1938), and was associate producer on Abbott and Costello’s Hold That Ghost (1941) and Keep ’em Flying (1941) and Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin’ (1941). On the latter picture he met Jane Frazee, to whom he was married from 1942 through 1947. (His previous wife was stage and silent screen actress Lillian Hall, who ended her career in 1924 when she married Tryon, then a rising star).

Among Tryon’s more interesting projects from the 40s were a couple of anti-Hitler comedies, made as “streamliners” for Hal Roach. He produced The Devil with Hitler in 1942; and That Nazty Nuisance in 1943.

Late in his career, he went before the camera three more times. He played George White in George White’s Scandals (1945), appeared in the musical Variety Girl (1947), and has a small role in Home Town Story (1951). Sometime after this he appears to have retired to Florida, which is where he passed away in 1970.

For more on early silent and slapstick film comedy consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. 

Theda Bara: The Screen’s Premiere Vamp

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 29, 2017 by travsd

Aw, man, this late in the day this guy can still be properly fooled.

I had never probed too deeply into the background of silent screen actress Theda Bara (Theodosia Burr Goodman, 1885-1955), whose birthday it is today. Or, if I did, it was a long while back and I’d forgotten about it. I’ve long known the basics, of course. Theda Bara was the quintessential screen vamp, one of Hollywood’s top silent stars, who played all the great wicked sirens of literature and history. And she was extremely influential. Many stage and screen actresses emulated her. In my book and a blogpost I’d used a picture of the young Mae West in full Theda Bara drag early in her career. And there are great cultural bellwethers like this:

What I didn’t know — or perhaps forgot — was the extent of the hoodwink at the center of her career. I’d assumed that, much like, say, Nazimova or Pola Negri, she was an exotic foreign female from Eastern Europe or someplace. But, no. While her father was indeed a Polish Jew, Theda herself was a straight-up American girl from Cincinnati. Naturally, the movie flacks of her day put out quite different, more colorful stories about her background, that she was an Egyptian princess or something, and maybe I subconsciously swallowed that over the years. But, no, she’s much more like one of my favorite vaudevillians, Olga Petrova, a big (huge) delightful, imaginative invention, a projection, a fantasy. I love it so much when the pretend spills out beyond the stage and screen to create another dimension in the real world. Technology makes it harder to accomplish, but I think some occasionally manage.

Bara even had a couple of regular old, quotidian years at the University of Cincinnati! She did some local theatre, then moved to New York, where she appeared in the play The Devil in 1908 using the pseudonym Theodosia De Cappet. She then barnstormed with touring stock companies, returning to the New York area in 1914. That year, she got a part as a gang moll in Frank Powell’s film The Stain, made for Pathe Freres. It was Powell who discovered her and made her a star, casting her as “The Vampire” in his next picture A Fool There Was (1915), made for Fox, which was then based in Fort Lee, NJ. She became a contract player for Fox and their top star. Her screen name was adapted from her childhood nickname + a shortening of her maternal grandfather’s surname. Studio p.r. men, however, have out that it was “Arab Death”, with the letters switched around.

Maybe her best known film and the one that caused Theda Bara to relocate to Hollywood in 1917. Today all but a few seconds of it are lost

One would know more about her today if her career had gone longer and if most of her films hadn’t been destroyed in a horrible fire. Only six of her films survive in their entirety out of approximately 40, and they aren’t necessarily representative ones. Her surviving films are The Stain (1914), A Fool There Was (1915), East Lynne (1916), An Unchastened Woman (1926), and two very uncharacteristic comedies for Hal Roach, Madame Mystery (1926), and 45 Minutes from Hollywood (1926). Only two of these are from the meat of her career, the Fox period. Gone forever apparently are such tantalizing titles as The Devil’s Daughter (1915), Sin (1915), Carmen (1915), The Serpent (1916), The Eternal Sapho (1916), The Vixen (1916), Camille (1917), Cleopatra (1917), Madame Du Barry (1917), The Forbidden Path (1918), Salome (1918), When a Woman Sins (1918), The She-Devil (1918), When Men Desire (1919), and The Siren’s Song (1919) — although there are plenty of publicity stills and movie posters to raise our curiosity.

“Romeo and Juliet”. Bara as a virgin?

Periodically, she did try to break out of her typecasting, as when she played Juliet in Romeo and Juliet (1916), and the title character in an adaptation of Boucicault’s Kathleen Mavourneen (1919), one of her last films for Fox. There was public outcry among Irish-Americans when she essayed the latter — it was considered a profanation to have a wicked woman play a part they considered sacred. Back then, it was common for the wider community to confuse screen actors with the parts they played.

Poli’s was a vaudeville circuit — it looks like they made an exception in this lucrative case

Tired of playing the vamp, Bara broke her contract with Fox, and returned to the stage, starring in the 1920 Broadway play The Blue Flame (in which, ironically she played another femme fatale), which then went on tour. She was trashed by critics, though tickets sold like crazy. Despite the financial success, she cut the tour short unwilling to endure the embarrassment any longer. I’ve read some of the reviews; they were truly mean.

In 1921, she married film director Charles Brabin. She next toured vaudeville for a while, presenting herself as a celebrity as opposed to an actress (i.e., she spoke with audiences about her experiences; she didn’t risk acting in a play). In the mid 20’s she attempted a very brief cinematic comeback, starring in The Unchastened Woman for Chadwick Pictures in 1925, and then the two comedy shorts for Hal Roach. It’s not the craziest development in the world. For example, Mae Busch had also been one of the screen’s greatest vamps, and then in middle age she wound up being one of Roach’s most dependable comedy actresses.

After this she retired for the most part, although she did do an art theatre revival of Bella Donna in 1934 (presumably in the Nazimova part), and a few isolated but high profile radio appearances. She died of stomach cancer at age 70.

For more on vaudeville including performers like Theda Bara and Mae West see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold, and for more on silent film consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc.

Charles Butterworth: Hilarious Hoosier, Sad Suicide?

Posted in Broadway, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), MEDIA, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2017 by travsd

Charles Butterworth (1896-1946) was born on this day. This low-key, subtle comic actor was sort of the quintessential screen Hoosier, playing dry, mild-mannered, vaguely distracted midwesterners at a time when that was very much in vogue in the writings of guys like George Ade, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, and countless others. Originally from South Bend, Indiana, he got a law degree from Notre Dame, but immediately dropped the law to become a newspaper reporter. His circle of friends would come to include a large number of important humor writers, including Heywood Broun, Robert Benchley, Cord Ford, and Frank Sullivan.

In 1924 he turned his own talents as a humor writer to the stage, becoming a comedy monologist in vaudeville. Within two years he was on Broadway, performing his act in the revue Americana. This was followed by Allez-Oop (1927) and Good Boy (1928-1929). In 1929, he performed one of his vaudeville monologues in an early Paramount comedy short called Vital Subjects, his first film.

For the rest of his career Butterworth would divide his time between Broadway and Hollywood. He appeared in Sweet Adeline on Broadway from 1929 through 1930. Then it was back to the movies. He’s little more than an extra or bit player in a couple of Barbara Stanwyck precode pictures Ladies of Leisure (1930) and Illicit (1931), but he’s used to much better effect supporting fellow vaudevillian Winnie Lightner in The Life of the Party (1930) and Side Show (1931). He’s in the John Barrymore horror picture The Mad Genius (1931), and in a killer ensemble in the highly entertaining Lee Tracy vehicle The Nuisance (1933) along with Frank Morgan, Virginia Cherrill and David Landau. From 1932 to 1933 he appeared in the Broadway revue Flying Colors with Patsy Kelly, Clifton Webb, Buddy and Vilma Ebsen and others. But mostly Butterworth worked in film constantly throughout the 30s. Directors especially prized him because, due to his writing ability, he was able to ad lib better lines than had been written for him, enriching the script.

One of his few starring vehicles (and many think his crowning achievement) is Baby Face Harrington (1935), in which he plays an easy-going, irresolute small town book-keeper, who through a series of misunderstandings, gets mistaken for being a hardened gangster. A cast that includes Una Merkel, Eugene Pallette, Nat Pendleton and Donald Meek keep the comedy moving. That same year he was 3rd billed in the classic melodrama Magnificent Obsession with Robert Taylor and Irene Dunn. He’s in the 1937 Mae West vehicle Every Day’s a Holiday (that’s the first movie I ever noted him in). Other notable films included The Boys from Syracuse (1940), the old barnstorming classic Sis Hopkins (1941), This is the Army (1943) with George Murphy, The Sultan’s Daughter (1943) with Ann Corio, and many others. His last film was Dixie Jamboree (1944).

He appears to have hit a dry spell here. In late 1945 he returned to Broadway to appear in Brighten the Corner, which ran until early 1946. Six months later, he died in a car crash on Sunset Boulevard; he’d skidded off the road and smashed into a lamp post. Some have speculated that it was a suicide, either because of his faltering career, or because he was blue over the death of his close friend Robert Benchley. I find the latter idea tough to credit. The men weren’t romantically involved; neither was gay. Butterworth had been married before and at the time was seeing Natalie Schafer (best today as Mrs. Howell from Gilligan’s Island). On the other hand, if he was a close friend of Benchley’s there’s a good chance alcohol was involved, although that’s just speculation on my part. He was not yet 50 when he died.

To learn more about vaudeville, including monologists like Charles Butterworth, see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

Althea Henley: Almost a Star

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Dance, Hollywood (History), Movies, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , on July 23, 2017 by travsd

Chorus girl and actress Althea Henley (Althea Heinley, 1911-1996) was born on this day. As a girl, Henley trained as a dancer in her native Allentown,Pennsylvania. Encouraged by a teacher and a local theatre promoter, she auditioned for a chorus part in a tab musical, and began touring the Publix vaudeville circuit in 1926. Ned Wayburn spotted her and put her in his touring revue New Buds of 1927, which then led to a chorus part in Ziegfeld’s touring production of Three Cheers with Will Rogers and Dorothy Stone. This led to small roles in Ziegfeld’s Show Girl (1929) on Broadway with Ruby Keeler, Jimmy Durante and Eddie Foy, Jr. Probably through Foy or Stone, she was then cast in 1930’s Ripples, featuring Foy and the Fred Stone family.

That is she, paired with Curly on the left

Scouted while she was appearing in Ripples, she was given a contract at Fox and moved to Hollywood — where she only got bit roles and chorus parts, although she did appear in notable movies. She’s in the chorus in Eddie Cantor’s The Kid from Spain (1932), as well as International House (1933), George White’s Scandals (1934), and Redheads on Parade (1935). In 1931 she co-starred with Mary Mulhern, Jack Pickford’s last wife in a stage production of Kaufman and Hart’s Once in a Lifetime, but not much seems to have come of it.  In 1935 she signed with Columbia, where she had roles in three Three Stooges shorts: Three Little Beers (1935), Ants in the Pantry (1936) and Movie Maniacs (1936).  She then had a walk on role in Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936).

In 1936, she got her first decent feature role in the British film Find the Lady with Jack Melford and George Sanders. While in London she married her second husband, British auto manufacturer Arthur Markham. Markham died of a brain tumor, but Henley remained in London through the war years, returning to the U.S. to marry Hollywood agent William J. Begg in 1947. 

For more on vaudeville including performers like Althea Henley,  see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold, and for more on classic screen comedy, consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc.

Irene Delroy: A Star That Twinkled Briefly

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , on July 21, 2017 by travsd

A few notes about performer Irene Delroy (Josephine Sanders), born this day in 1900. She was originally from Bloomington, Illinois; the McLean County Museum of History has a comprehensive collection of her correspondence, photographs, and newspaper clippings.  It is said that Adlai Stevenson was her senior prom date, although that has the whiff of studio p.r. puffery.

Delroy started as a dancer with the Chicago Opera. Later, she was Tom Patricola’s partner in vaudeville; the two were romantically involved. Her invented surname was arrived at by joining the first part of her mother’s first name (Della) with that of her father (Royal). In 1920 she began her Broadway career, mostly appearing in revues and a few musicals: Frivolities of 1920, The Greenwich Village Follies of 1923 and 1925, Vogues of 1924, Ziegfeld Follies of 1927, and others. She is also said to have been in an edition of Raymond Hitchcock’s Hitchie Koo series, although this credit doesn’t appear on IBDB; it may have been a touring version.  Her last New York stage show was Top Speed (1930), which was later adapted into a Joe E. Brown screen vehicle.

Delroy starred in her first film for Warner Bros., Oh, Sailor Behave! that same year (1930), with Olsen and Johnson, Charles King, Vivien Oakland, and Noah Beery. Later that year, she was second billed to Winnie Lightner in The Life of the Party, with Jack Whiting, and Charles Butterworth. Then came Divorce Among Friends (1930) with Lew Cody and her last film Man of the Sky (1931).

Believe it or not, that seems to be the end of her brief career trajectory. She retired in 1931 to marry a real estate millionaire named William Austin. Sadly, she’d sacrificed her career for nothing tangible. The couple divorced in 1937, at which time she appeared in one comedy/ musical short called Sound Defects in 1937 with the Frazee Sisters. For a few years she did radio, regional theatre, and commercials. She remarried in 1972, and died in Ithaca, New York in 1985 following a 40 year retirement.

For more on vaudeville including performers like Irene Delroy,  see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

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