Archive for actress

Benny’s Bride: The Elusive Mary Livingstone

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, Radio (Old Time Radio), Sit Coms, Stars of Vaudeville, Television, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 25, 2017 by travsd

On this day was born was born the funny, if accidental, comedienne Mary Livingstone (Sadie Marcowitz, sometimes shortened to Marks, 1905-1983).

Livingstone grew up in Vancouver. The lore is that she met Jack Benny when Zeppo Marx brought him to a Passover seder at her house circa 1919. For many years it was generally believed that Mary was a cousin of the Marx Brothers, probably on the strength of this episode and the similarity of their surnames (the Marx Bros occasionally spelled their last name “Marks” during their stage years), but it appears now not to have been the case. At any rate, she became something of a Benny groupie, purposefully crossing the comedian’s path many times until he began dating her. They married in 1927.

She appeared with him many times on the vaudeville stage, still under her given name at first. Her role in these years was more like the popular “Dumb Dora”, after the fashion of the popular Gracie Allen.  In 1932, Benny got his own radio show, and Livingstone was to become part of his stock company, along with regulars Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Don Wilson, Kenny Baker (later replaced with Dennis Day), Phil Harris and many others. As such she became one of the best known personalities in the country. Her radio character was funny, acerbic and dry; she was perfect for Benny’s show.

Livingstone remained part of Benny’s radio cast until his show went off the air in 1955. She also made scores of appearances on television, on Benny’s program and others’ throughout the 1950s. The irony of this very public person’s life was that she was afflicted with stage fright, and was only able to perform through a great effort of will. Her joining Benny in vaudeville and on radio occurred in both cases because she was asked to fill emergency vacancies. She hadn’t sought a performing career at all. She retired in 1959, soon after Gracie Allen. Livingstone seems to have been a very tense, highly strung woman, not well liked. After hearing her performances, where she jovially banters with the top stars of the day, one is surprised to read that long-time colleagues and social friends like Lucille Ball and George Burns and Gracie Allen and even her adopted daughter Joan didn’t really like her, finding her cold, hard and distant. Her fans didn’t see her that way at all. She outlived Benny by nearly a decade, passing away in 1983.

To learn more about show business history, including vaudeville veterans like Mary Livingstone and Jack Benny, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Helene Costello: Born with Summer; the Rest Was So Much Winter

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 21, 2017 by travsd

Helene Costello (1906-1957) was born the first day of summer, June 21. She is usually spoken of as part of a pair with her older sister Dolores Costello, also an actress. Both were daughters of the patriarchal thespian Maurice Costello. Dolores is best remembered today for having been married to John Barrymore, and for starring in The Magnificent Ambersons. Helene was married and divorced herself four times; her most famous husband was actor and director Lowell Sherman.

Dolores and Helene started out as child actresses in productions of their father’s, on the legit stage, in vaudeville and in silent movies. They appeared in the 1924 edition of George White’s Scandals together. Helene was voted a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1927. As talkies began to be phased in, she was in some notable landmark features, including the semi-talkie Lights of New York (1928), and the musical revue Your Show of Shows (1929), in which she performed a number with Dolores.

At this stage, she was poised for a great career in sound films, but a long list of personal problems (two divorces, a custody battle, money woes, and drug and alcohol problems) conspired to keep her away from the camera for the first half of the 1930s, crucial years to miss. By the time she attempted a return with a small role in Riffraff (1936) it was too late to regain momentum. There followed two more decades of the very same sorts of personal difficulties, and a single walk-on role in The Black Swan (1942). She died in a psychiatric hospital in 1957.

For more on the history of show business consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever vitally informative books are sold. For more on early 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. 

On the Acerbic Mary Wickes

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2017 by travsd

Beloved character actor Mary Wickes (Mary Wickenhauser, 1910-1995) was born on June 13. The gawky, wise-cracking Wickes was ubiquitous on screens big and small for half a century, usually playing maids, nuns, nurses and other no-nonsense types on the periphery of the main action but just close enough to see what was going on and make an exasperated and cutting joke about it.

I almost certainly first knew her from her regular role on the Sid and Marty Krofft kid’s show Sigmund and the Sea Monsters (1973-1974). (Though she was also a regular on the sit com Doc around the same time too so it was probably both). Thus I was already a fan (without knowing it, perhaps) from about age eight. Wickes’ screen character aged extremely well. When she was young, because of her attitude and her crone-like drawl, she had always seemed older than she was. When she actually became older, she simply WAS.

Still, there was in evolution, if an incremental one. If you look at the photo at the top, when she was very young she was, if not pretty, at least pretty-adjacent. She was not in the Margaret Hamilton category as a type. Wickes was quite young when she began her career on Broadway. She is said to have been in the original production of Marc Connelly’s The Farmer Takes a Wife (1934), though, if she was, it was probably either as a walk-on or a replacement as she is not listed in the IBDB credits. She was in the original productions of two George S. Kaufman plays, Stage Door (1936) and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939-1941). The 1942 film version of the latter was her big screen Hollywood debut.

She had been in at least one film prior to The Man Who Came To Dinner, however. As a sometime member of Orson Welles’ and John Houseman’s Mercury Theatre, she had appeared in Welles’ legendary Too Much Johnson (1938). She also acted in the Mercury’s stage production of Danton’s Death (1938) and on radio with Mercury Theatre on the Air.

From 1942 until her death she was almost constantly on movie screens; starting in 1948 it was also true of television. Notable films include Now, Voyager (1942), On Moonlight Bay (1951), By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953), The Actress (1953), White Christmas (1954), Cimarron (1960), The Music Man (1962), How to Murder Your Wife (1965), Postcards from the Edge (1990), and the Sister Act films (1992 and 1993). She also appears in comedies of Abbott and Costello, Ma and Pa Kettle, and Blondie. Lucille Ball LOVED her and used her in a dozen episodes of her various tv shows I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show, and Here’s Lucy. She also appeared memorably on The Doris Day Show, Columbo, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, M*A*S*H and many other shows. Her last screen credit was a voice over in Disney’s animated The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996).

For more on show business history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold. For more on  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. 

Fifteen Famous Females Named “Billie”

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Movies (Contemporary), Silent Film, Singers, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 6, 2017 by travsd

This non sequitur of a blogpost came about because I noticed that show business has given us more than one female performer with the unusual first name of “Billie”. We post it today because it happens to be the birthday of Billie Whitelaw. As a small child, I probably became aware of Billie Burke and Billie Hayes at around the same time and found it fascinating that a woman would have that name. It’s sort of a rare name for a female, right? I’ve never met one IRL.  As a kid I considered it the female equivalent of “A Boy named Sue”. At any rate, there seemed to be a sort of interesting cluster of them at the beginning of the last century; it seemed kind of fun to compare and contrast them. For example, there seems to be an abnormally high association of the name with fantasy and magic, and a few are pioneers in one way or another. Click on links to learn more about their fascinating stories.

Billie Bennett (Emily B. Haynie, 1874-1951)

This interesting actress will be getting her own post on Travalanche later this years, for she got her start acting in many Mack Sennett and Keystone comedy shorts with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, and Mabel Normand. In the 20s she was in some major silent features, including Robin Hood (1922) and Lady Windemere’s Fan (1925). Her career did not long outlast the advent of sound, but ironically her life began to be even more interesting at that point. It has been alleged that she became the madam of a “high class bordello” for studio execs and their guests, where many of the call girls were hired based on their their resemblances to major screen actresses of the day. Surely a partial inspiration for L.A. Confidential?

Billie Burke (Mary William Ethelbert Appleton Burke, 1884-1970)

Wife of Broadway producer Flo Ziegfeld, and star of stage and screen, most memorably as Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz. 

Billie Dove (Bertha Bohnny, 1903-1997)

Artist model, Ziegfeld girl, and major star of silent movies such as The Black Pirate (1926) with Douglas Fairbanks. She was a major sex symbol of her day, and is also famous for a three year affair with Howard Hughes. 

Billie Leonard

I’m anxious to dig out the facts on this lady, as almost nothing (dates of birth or death, birth name, or her early and late life) is available readily to hand. All I know is that she was in the Broadway show You Said It (1931) with Lou Holtz, and that she had a very intense year (1934-1935) of appearing in movie shorts, many of which I’ve seen, including the very early Bob Hope musical short Paree, Paree (1934), Soft Drinks and Sweet Music (1934) with Georgie Price and Sylvia Froos, and a couple of comedies with Shemp Howard and Roscoe Ates. If and when I learn more I will share it here.

Billie Bird (Berneice Bird Sowell, 1908-2002)

You mayn’t know the name but you know the face, right? I’ll be giving her her own post in a few months as she started out in vaaudeville. She later became a bit player in tv sit coms and John Hughes movies like Sixteen Candles (1984) and Home Alone (1990).

Billie Holiday (Eleanora Fagan, 1915-1959)

I am way overdue to do a post on this distinctive and tragic jazz singer who remains extremely influential to this day. She took her stage name from Billie Dove (above).

Billie Rogers (1917-2014)

Singer and jazz trumpet player — in fact, she was the first female to play in the brass section of a major jazz orchestra (Woody Herman’s). She later fronted her own bands.

Billie Mae Richards (Billie Mae Dinsmore, 1921-2010)

Actress and voice over performer best known for being the voice of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer in Rankin-Bass specials!

Billie Whitelaw (1932-2014)

While American audiences know her best for playing the sinister Mrs. Baylock in the original 1976 version of The Omen, she was was major sex symbol in British films of the 1950s, and one of the principal stage collaborators of playwright Samuel Beckett. 

Billie Hayes (b. 1932) 

is of course Witchie-Poo!

Billie Jean Horton (Billie Jean Jones Eshliman, b. 1933)

Country singer from Louisiana who was married to Hank Williams and Johnny Horton (“The Battle of New Orleans”) and had an affair with Johnny Cash. 

Billie Jo Spears (Billie Jean Spears, 1937-2011)

Nashville singer best known for her 1975 #1 Country Hit “Blanket on the Ground”.

Billie Jean King (b. 1943)

Champion women’s tennis player and feminist icon. But we include her on this list mainly because she re-created her famous “Battle of the Sexes” feud with Bobby Riggs on The Odd Couple in 1974.

Billie Davis (Carol Hedges, b.1945)

English pop singer of the Swinging Sixties best known for her 1963 hit “Tell Him”. She is said to have taken her stage name from Billie Holiday and Sammy Davis Jr. 

Billie Lourd (b. 1992)

Like a lot of “old school” first names, Billie-for-Girls is in the midst of a strong comeback. There are numerous female Billies on TV and the internet at present, but for the sake of sanity I’ll only mention one timely and topical one. Billie Lourd is the daughter of the late Carrie Fisher and granddaughter of the late Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher. She is a star of the tv show Scream Queens and the most recent Star Wars films.

To find out more about show business history consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early  film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com

Dorothy Stone: Broadway Legatee

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2017 by travsd

Stage and screen performer Dorothy Stone came into the world on June 3, 1905. The daughter of Broadway and vaudeville legend Fred Stone (the original Scarecrow in the Broadway version of The Wizard of Oz), Dorothy managed to crawl past her dad’s large shadow, but only just barely. Most of her Broadway credits were either shows that she appeared in with her dad, or shows in which she replaced the original star. The first Fred Stone shows she appeared in were Stepping Stones (1923), Criss Cross (1926), and Three Cheers (1928; Will Rogers replaced his friend Fred prior to opening when the latter was injured in a plane crash).

By 1930 the elder Stone had recovered and Dorothy appeared with both her parents as well as her younger sister Paula and Charles Collins, in Ripples (1930), an updated version of Rip Van Winkle. Collins became her dance partner; the two were married in 1931. Other “family affairs” included Smiling Faces (1932) with Fred and Paula; Sea Legs (1937), with Collins; a revival of You Can’t Take It With You (1945) with Fred and Collins; and The Red Mill (1945) with Collins; and the film shorts Shave it with Music (1932) with Fred and Collins, and Paree Paree (1934) with Collins and Bob Hope; A Radio Hook-up (1938) with Collins; and Latin High-Hattin’ (1938) with Collins.

As a replacement, she went in for Ruby Keeler in Show Girl (1929), and Marilyn Miller in As Thousands Cheer (1933), and got glowing notices in both cases, although these seem to have been her only outings without either a father or a husband around to team up with. Apart from one very special exception…

In 1936 she starred in the interesting horror movie Revolt of the Zombies, which we wrote about in this post about zombie films. That film, as well as the aforementioned Paree Paree, which is one of Bob Hope’s very first screen credits, is what she is best known for today. I managed to watch both films somehow without realizing that Dorothy was Fred Stone’s daughter.

Another frequent co-star of Dorothy Stone’s was Eddie Foy, Jr, who appeared with her in Show Girl, Ripples, Smiles, and The Red Mill. Foy’s dad was of course a contemporary of Fred Stone’s; this close connection is almost like yet another family connection. In addition to Paula, a third Stone sister Carol had a successful career on stage, and in film and television, one that was a bit more independent and longer lasting. While Collins managed to land some minor roles throughout the decades, Dorothy Stone’s last credits were in the late 1940s, scarcely outlasting the career of her dad. She died in 1974.

To learn more about vaudeville, show business, and Fred Stone, please see my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever illuminating books are sold.

June MacCloy: Sang Deep

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2017 by travsd

With Groucho in “Go West” (1940)

June MacCloy (born this day in 1909) worked with many of the comedy greats on stage and in the movies, and was noted for her ability to sing in what was essentially the baritone range, making her sound like a man. Originally from Toledo, she started out in vaudeville, singing in a duo with a high school friend. Her first break came when she was cast in Earl Carroll’s Vanities in 1928, but her mother made her turn the job down due to the skimpy costumes. Lew Brown of the songwriting team of De Sylva, Brown and Henderson got her in the 1928 editions of George White’s Scandals; she was hired to sing the team’s “I’m on the Crest of a Wave” — while impersonating Harry Richman. This was probably the most creative use of her unique voice, and essentially her big break.

MacCloy’s Hollywood career began in 1930. She had decent roles in Reaching for the Moon with Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Bebe Daniels and Edward Everett Horton, and in the screen version of George S. Kaufman’s June Moon (1931) starring Jack Oakie and Frances Dee, directed by Eddie Sutherland. Most of her films were musical shorts — a notable one was the elaborate color fantasia Good Morning Eve (1934), in which she played Eve to Leon Errol’s Adam. In 1932, she returned to Broadway one last time to appear in Hot-Cha! with Bert Lahr, Buddy Rogers and Lupe Velez. Meanwhile, as she would through the end of her career, she was also singing with big bands in night clubs, resorts and hotels. After a break of six years, she returned to films in 1940 to take two of her best parts, a role in the crime drama Glamour for Sale; and the part of Lulubelle in the Marx Brothers’ Go West, which she is best known for today. In 1941 she married architect Neal Wendell Butler and retired to raise a family. She passed away in 2005 at the age of 95.

To learn more about vaudeville performers like June MacCloy, please see my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.

 

On the Fearless Peggy Fears

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Drag and/or LGBT, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2017 by travsd

The legendary Broadway figure Peggy Fears (1903-1994) was born on this day.

Originally from New Orleans and later Dallas, Fears was the daughter of a wealthy banker. She was all of 14 when she ran away from home and was cast in her first Broadway show the Bolton-Wodehouse musical Have a Heart (1917). From here she went into the Morris Gest show Midnight Whirl (1919-1920). Next came three Florenz Ziegfeld shows. There are two different stories about how she came to Ziegfeld’s attention. One says she was heard singing at a country club by Ziegfeld star Helen Morgan; another (Fears’ own account) says she bumped into him in his offices (after making a concerted effort to do so). At any rate, he put her in the shows Louie the 14th (1925), the Ziegfeld Follies of 1925 and No Foolin’ (1925).

Fears was bisexual. As a young girl she is said to have attempted to elope with a cattle heir named Tom Wharton, and to have dated John Hay “Jock” Whitney. While on the Ziegfeld shows she was the lover of Louise Brooks. In her memoir, Brooks writes of the experience, and of the two of them palling around with W.C. Fields, who always had booze, in his dressing room.

Fears’ last Broadway show strictly as a performer was Rufus LeMaire’s Affairs (1927). In that year she married the real estate millionaire Alfred Cleveland Blumenthal. In the 30s, she and Blumenthal produced several Broadway shows, including the Preston Sturges play Child of Manhattan (1932), the farce Nona (1932), the Oscar HammersteinJerome Kern show Music in the Air (1932-1933), and the play A Divine Moment (1934), in which she also appeared as an actress. This is the last show she produced, and I imagine the date tells the story. We are now in the depths of the Great Depression, when Broadway was in danger of going under for good.

Next she tried her hand at Hollywood. She appears in only one film: The Lottery Lover (1935), with Lew Ayres, Sterling Holloway and Reginald Denny. It was a bit of stunt casting. In the film she plays a night club singer, a star of the Folies Bergere named “Gaby Aimee”. The film was a bit of an outlier for her. A nightclub singer was what she actually was, touring extensively throughout American and Europe for the next few decades.

Fears and Blumenthal separated, divorced and remarried several times, finally splitting up for good in 1950. In the ’50s she purchased land on Fire Island and built the Yacht Club at Fire Island Pines, which she later sold to John B. Whyte in 1966. During the Fire Island years, she was the lover of the radio actress Tedi Thurman (who may be known to some readers from Ed Wood’s 1954 movie Jail Bait). Thurman spoke of their relationship in the 2003 documentary When Ocean Meets Sky.

For more on show history, please see my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.

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