Archive for radio

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.

The Moylan Sisters: The Angels of the Airwaves

Posted in Child Stars, Hollywood (History), Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers, Sister Acts with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2017 by travsd

July 16 was the birthday of Marianne Moylan (1930-90). Along with her sister Peggy Joan (1932-2002), she was part of the kiddie act The Moylan Sisters.

All of 7 and 5 when they made their debut on The Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour, the girls were prized for their naturalness and purity. They sang beautifully and in nice harmony, but unlike most kiddie acts they were not precocious and show bizzy. They were real kids, not performing freaks. Their repertoire tells the tale; they did songs like “School Days”, “I Don’t Want  to Play in Your Yard” and “M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I-I.”  Billed as “The Cinderellas of Radio” and “The Angels of the Airwaves”, they also made records, live appearances and  several short films, including The Backyard Broadcast (1936), Starlets (1937), Toyland Casino (1937 — a Vitaphone, which is how I first learned of them), and World’s Fair Junior (1939). In 1939, they were given their own network radio show, which remained on the air through 1945. For a while the show was sponsored by Thrivo Dog Food. The Thrivo jingle which they sang was one of their most popular and well-known numbers. At one point, their show was the second most popular in the country, topped only by The Shadow.

The girls both seem to have retired from the business in the early 1950s. Born and raised in Sag Harbor, New York, the Irish Catholic children of an engraver at a watch factory. They attended school at the Academy of the Sacred Heart. Marianne married a local plumbing contractor in 1953 and became a homemaker, remaining in Sag Harbor. Peggy Joan married in 1955, also choosing the domestic life over a career. She moved to Maine for a time before returning to New York. Both women continued to sing in church after their professional retirement.

The act was parodied in the 1976 Broadway musical Annie as “The Boylan Sisters.”

For everything you need to to know about the variety arts, including kiddie acts, sister acts, and radio variety, see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

Polly Bergen: Heard But Not Seen

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Singers, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2017 by travsd

The late Polly Bergen (Nellie Burgin, 1930-2014) had a birthday of July 14.

I became really interested in her when I saw her entertaining performance in the 1975 tv movie Murder on Flight 502 and so I perked up and noticed her whenever I saw her in things subsequently. But here’s something that I think is worth mentioning and altogether not negligible: I had already seen her in many things previously without ever taking particular note of her. And this includes her Tony-nominated performance in the 2001 Broadway revival of Follies. (That was a special case; I was dragged to that. You might think I would like a show about a bunch of old Follies broads, and if I saw it today I might feel differently but probably not, for the simple reason that all Sondheim after A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum bores the absolute ever-loving shit out of me. There, I said it. Go ahead, be outraged. I am unmoved, either by your umbrage, or by Sondheim’s reputation for genius. I don’t care how many hits he has, I find him an untheatrical bore. So when I saw that production of Follies, I’m sure I spent the whole two hours looking at my watch, the ceiling, any place but the stage.)

“The Stooge” is the one in the middle

So there’s that. But I had also already seen her in her three movies with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, At War with the Army (1950), That’s My Boy (1951) and The Stooge (1952), as well as the original Cape Fear (1962), the western Escape from Fort Bravo (1953), the insane asylum melodrama The Caretakers (1963) with Joan Crawford, and the 1983 tv mini-series The Winds of War, again without ever particularly marking her existence.

But, as I say, I liked her Murder on Flight 502. And I have my theories as to why. She is given full reign to play a big personality in that film, a big cocky diva character with a lot of bark on her, very Elaine Stritch. And she makes an impression. No doubt her Follies performance had been in this vein but I wasn’t open to anything I was seeing. But I SAW her in this dopey tv disaster movie and then subsequently I noticed her, even if she wasn’t particularly doing anything flashy. For example, she is sexy but subdued in the 1964 comedy Kisses for My President, and yet I noted her and liked her in that. (TCM had been playing this screwball comedy about America’s first female chief executive the last few years because of a certain prominent democratic candidate whose initials are HRC. Something tells me they decide to mothball it now, the way early 60s assassination films like The Manchurian Candidate got shelved after the JFK assassination. TOO SOON! Bergen’s role in this film was why she was stunt-cast as Gena Davis’s mother on Commander-in-Chief, which ran 2005-2006). And I enjoyed her on The Sopranos as Tony’s father’s old girlfriend in a 2004 episode.

Still, I can’t be the only one who had trouble “seeing her”. Her movie career had had a couple of mild peaks at best, but had never ever really taken off. She’d had some moderately good roles and shots, but she was never able to break through to the other side, although she continued to work (especially in television) pretty much all her life.

Bergen with Woody Allen and Andy Williams on The Andy Williams Show, 1965

I think I have the key, though. Bergen was more an entertainer than an actress. Don’t get me wrong — her acting performances are fine, but with some exposure to the full performer, you can see that she reigned herself in as an actress. Originally from Knoxville, Tennessee, Bergen began singing professionally as a teenager in the big band era, on the radio and with local orchestras. She cut ten record albums in the 50s and 60s (a couple of them charted), and for one season (1957) she starred in her own NBC tv variety show The Polly Bergen Show, on which every week she sang her closing theme song “The Party’s Over”. It is worth noting that show won an Emmy for her 1958 performance as the title character — sad, smoky, cabaret singer — in the tv movie The Helen Morgan Story. At any rate, to see the full firecracker in action, go to Youtube. Lots of clips of Polly the Performer there. She was also a popular panelist on What’s My Line? for  couple of years. Singing and cutting up in patter is what she did best. Ain’t nothin’ wrong ’bout that.

For everything you need to to know about early show business, including cabaret and tv variety performers like Polly Bergen, see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

On the Pivotal Thomas Mitchell: From Classics to “Columbo”

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Irish, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Playwrights, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 11, 2017 by travsd

The great Thomas Mitchell (1892-1962) came into the world on this day. Mitchell remains well known today as a character actor with parts in an unnaturally long list of Hollywood classic movies — the full weight of them is almost too much to talk about. The best known are Gone With the Wind (1939), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Stagecoach (1939) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). I had already seen these movies when I was a kid, and that’s a good measure of their evergreen reach. There are dozens more besides, which we’ll get to. Yet, we are such a movie-centric culture, seeing Mitchell solely in this light gives a false, incomplete appreciation of his entire career. Movies were just the tip of the iceberg. Prior to Hollywood, he had been an actor, playwright and director for the stage for over twenty years, and continued to appear on Broadway stages and regionally over the rest of his career. During the Hollywood years, he was not just an actor, but an occasional screenwriter. Then, like most of actors of his time, he was constantly on radio throughout the 40s.  And then, over the last decade of his career, he did a huge amount of television.

So Mitchell was prolific. But he was also emblematic of a cultural shift. He was a quintessential man of the theatre and her daughter arts, but unlike many who had gone before, and who may spring to mind, he was not the slightest bit “Anglo”. Back in the day, your typical man or woman of the stage, even in America, was ever self-consciously that. The three Barrymore siblings, though they were one-quarter Irish — think of their manner, and multiply it across the generations. Warren William, Frank Morgan and even Mitchell’s own mentor Charles Coburn (whom we’ll return to) all affected English style. It was dunned into actors at the time.  But Mitchell was the son of Irish immigrants, and there was surely no point in ever pretending otherwise. His face was like the caricaturist’s conception of a leprechaun’s, and he could summon the brogue of his parents for a role at a moment’s notice. And yet interestingly (whether its because or in spite of that, I don’t know) we also think of him as just “American”. Mitchell’s father and older brother were both newspapermen, and Mitchell dabbled in journalism briefly in his youth before choosing the theatre. Think of all the newspaper editors and reporters he plays so authentically. The gruff voice, the unshaven face, the twinkle in his eye, the unlit cigar in his puss. The quality carries over so well into other American archetypes — the country doctor, the provincial politician, the crusty uncle. He represents a sea shift that was probably more noticeable to our forbears. With actors like Mitchell, American culture was coming into its own. Nothing English about that guy.

Young Mitchell, from the Broadway period

Mitchell claimed in a 1939 article that he cut his teeth by touring vaudeville with a once act play he’d written about the poet Thomas Chatterton. As we said, for a time he toured with Charles Coburn’s Shakespearean stock company. By 1916, he is already on Broadway, appearing in the play Under Sentence with Edward G. Robinson and Frank Morgan. Over the next twenty years, he was constantly on the Broadway stage, appearing in or directing some two dozen plays. And his own plays were produced there, including Glory Hallelujah (1926), Little Accident (1928-1929, and later adapted into movies more than once), and Cloudy with Showers (1931). After Stick in the Mud (1936) he made the move to Hollywood, but he returned to Broadway another half dozen times, notably in the original production of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls (1948-49), as a replacement in the original production of The Death of a Salesman (1949-1950) as Willy Loman (how I’d love to have seen that!), and the musical Hazel Flagg (1953), for which won a Tony. His last Broadway appearance was in Cut of the the Ax (1960), which closed after only two performances.

He only appeared in one silent film, Six Cylinder Love (1923). Interestingly one of his fellow players in that film was Donald Meek, with whom he later appeared in Stagecoach. This occasion seems like an experiment, an anomaly. He was very successful on Broadway and probably saw no reason to switch horses to this upstart medium where the audience couldn’t hear you speak, and where you heard no applause.

I first saw Mitchell’s haunting performance as Gerald O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind” when I was about an 11 or 12 years old. What an enormous impression it made on me.

But by 1936, many things had changed. Broadway was badly hurt by the Great Depression. And talkies had not only proven their viability they also paid former stage actors big money. His first speaking part was in Craig’s Wife (1936) an adaptation of the George Kelly play, the easiest transition conceivable for him. And then: it was like he had a charmed career, especially at the outset. Highlights included Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1937), the incredible John Ford disaster movie The Hurricane (1937), and that same director’s beloved Stagecoach (1939), for which Mitchell won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. 1939 was a magical year for him, for in addition to Stagecoach, he also had key roles in Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Only Angels Have Wings. 1940 wasn’t much worse: among his several pictures that year were Swiss Family Robinson, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and Ford’s adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s The Long Voyage Home. Other notable pictures: The Black Swan (1942), the notorious Howard Hughes western The Outlaw (1943), The Sullivans (1944), Buffalo Bill (1944), Wilson (1944), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), and High Noon (1952). His last film role was in Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles (1961). Further, his Broadway play Little Accident was made into a movie three separate times, and he co-wrote the screenplays for All of Me (1934), and Casanova Brown (1944).

And just as our tendency to be movie-centric causes us to neglect his early theatre work, it may also cause us to miss his late work in the broadcast media of radio and television. This is interesting to me — folks older than myself no doubt will remember him from this work. Conceivably, one could remember him primarily from this work. It is so voluminous one can scarcely wrap ones arms around it. In the radio days, he made repeated appearances on shows like Suspense, The Cavalcade of America, Lux Radio Theatre, and Anthology. On TV, some of the shows he appeared on (often numerous times) included Lux Video Theatre, The O. Henry Playhouse, The Ford Television Theatre, and at least a dozen others. he also was the star of two different tv series of his own: Mayor of the Town (1954-55), and Glencannon (1959).

Check it out — Mitchell as Columbo, with Cotten as the killer in the stage production of “Prescription: Murder”

And amazingly — and this is quite true — Mitchell’s last role was the part of police detective Lt. Columbo, later made famous on the tv series starring Peter Falk. Created by writer William Link, the character had made on The Chevy Mystery Show, with Bert Freed, in the role in 1960. Its next incarnation was a stage play at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco on January 1962, with Mitchell as Columbo, with Joseph Cotten and Agnes Moorehead as his co-stars. Mitchell died of cancer during the play’s tour. But I love this so much — it makes him this wonderful link between the past and future. This Irishman, who started out doing Shakespeare with Charles Coburn takes us all the way to the modern age, playing this Italian police detective, and would end up (metaphorically) handing the baton to Peter Falk, a Jewish guy who would play the part on television into the 21st century.

For more on vaudeville history, including touring thespians like Thomas Mitchell consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.

Tal Henry and His North Carolinians

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Music, Radio (Old Time Radio), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2017 by travsd

July 10 is the birthday of big band leader Tal Henry (Talmadge Allen Henry, 1898-1967). Born in Georgia, Henry didn’t became a North Carolinian himself until he moved to Eton College, Burlington, N.C. to follow up on his earlier studies at the Shenandoah Conservatory of Music.

In 1919 he moved to Greensboro and played violin in a band led by Frank Hood. Henry took over the act in 1924, renaming it Tal Henry and His North Carolinians. The first several years of the orchestra’s existence were spent as the house band at Greensboro’s O’Henry Hotel. In time they managed to secure bookings in hotel ballrooms all over the country, as well as vaudeville engagements, radio spots, recording contracts, and,in 1928 two Vitaphone shorts. By the ’30s, they were a nationally known concern, with hit records, regular national radio broadcasts from the New Yorker Hotel, and coverage in national magazines.

By 1938, several years into the Great Depression, the expense of maintaining a full orchestra grew too great and the North Carolinians disbanded. This early break-up of the act may be one of the reasons Henry’s band is less well known today, whereas the ones who were able to press on into the 40s or beyond, like the Dorsey Brothers (who’d played with Henry on occasion), or Kay Kyser (Henry’s exact contemporary, and a fellow North Carolinian) continue to be known today. Henry worked as an agent and manager for a few years, and then led bands for U.S. Army Special Services during World War Two. After the war, he returned to North Carolina, where he continued to work as a violinist. A biography of Henry written by his daughter-in-law, was published in 2008.

For more on the vaudeville history, including big bands like Tal Henry and His North Carolinians, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.

Gertrude Niesen: Singer, Comedienne, Wrecker of Mansions

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Broadway, Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 8, 2017 by travsd

Singer, actress and comedienne Gertrude Niesen (1911-1975) was born on this day.

Niesen started out as a child performer in vaudeville. She was trained for opera, but became a pop singer in big bands, in films, on radio and records, and was cast in the occasional Broadway show. Half Swedish, Half Russian, her exotic, vaguely “Eastern” beauty added to her appeal.

I became aware of her from her 1932 Vitaphone short Yacht Party, in which she sang with Roger Wolfe Kahn and his Orchestra, and Artie Shaw. 

In 1933, she became the first person to record the Kern-Harbach standard “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” from the musical Roberta. Often referred to as a “torch singer”, she was prized for her comic ability as much as her singing. She was a frequent radio guest throughout the 1930s and 40s on the shows of such stars as Rudy Vallee, Edgar Bergen and others.

With vaudeville all but wound down, in the early 30s one finds her performing in the big presentation houses that largely replaced it, like Loew’s State in NYC, the Orpheum in Los Angeles, or the various RKO houses.  She was on the bill at Radio City Music Hall’s Inaugural Spectacular in 1932. Broadway shows included the Lew Brown revue Calling All Stars (1934-1935), the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, and the biggest hit of her career, Harry Delmar’s Follow the Girls (1944-1946), in which she played a burlesque queen named Bubbles Lamarr. Co-starring Jackie Gleason, Follow the Girls played over 800 performances on Broadway, then went on tour. Niesen’s show stopping number was “I Wanna Get Married”.

Niesen appeared in a dozen films between 1932 and 1948, usually playing some version of herself singing in a night club. The last two are probably best known today: This is the Army (1943) with George Murphy, and The Babe Ruth Story (1948) with William Bendix. She also co-wrote the song “I Want to Make with the Happy Times, which was used in A Night at Earl Carroll’s (1940).

In the 1941 she became the owner of the Newport mansion Rosecliff, estimated to have been worth $2.5 million at the time but purchased by Niesen’s mother as a birthday present for $17,000 at auction. The Depression and wartime combined to make upkeep very problematic, which is how the family managed to acquire it for such a low price in the first place, and indirectly why they sold it off soon thereafter. In March 1942, with no caretaker having been hired for the winter, all the pipes froze and burst, flooding the house with lakes and waterfalls which in turn froze into great, thick sheets of ice. The Niesens resold the house not long after that. Both the purchase and the damage received national publicity.

In 1950, she starred in the west coast production of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, taking the Carol Channing role. She also did lots of tv variety in the early days of television, singing on the programs of Ed Wynn, Milton Berle, Jack Carter, Paul Whiteman, and others. Her last tv credit is in 1951. The last recordings I can find from her are from 1953.

Last record

In 1943, Niesen married Chicago nightclub owner Al Greenfield, owner of The Black Orchid and other establishments. The couple were divorced but remarried in 1954, remaining married until Niesen’s death in 1975. Her death notices all mention a “long illness”. Given that her last professional activity seems to have happened around 1953, and that Greenfield sold The Black Orchid in 1956, reportedly to be with her, one speculates the illness, whatever it was, was very long.

For more on vaudeville, including performers like Gertrude Niesen, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.

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 family’s 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 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.

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