Happy 121st Birthday, Busby Berkeley!
The inimitable director and choreographer Busby Berkeley was born Berkeley William Enos (though some sources claim it was Busby Berkeley William Enos) 121 years ago today in Los Angeles, California. Berkeley, of course, is famous for his large-scale cinematic dance numbers that featured dozens of beautiful starlets painstakingly organized in geometric, kaleidoscopic formations that were often best viewed from above. Here are 10 BB Did-You-Knows:
- Berkeley’s mother, Gertrude Berkeley, was an actress and his father, who died when Berkeley was just eight years old, managed a theatrical troupe.
- In his early teens, Berkeley attended the Mohegan Lake Military Academy near Peekskill, New York, graduating in 1914.
- As a young man, Berkeley held a number of disparate jobs, working for a shoe company, playing semi-pro baseball and leading a dance band.
- Berkeley served in World War I, with the rank of field artillery lieutenant. Some say the drills he saw his fellow soldiers perform while in the military may later have influenced his precision choreography (we consider this a stretch, albeit a delightful one we’re willing to perpetuate).
- During the 1920s, Berkeley choreographed more than 20 Broadway musicals, and from the beginning, he was less interested in dance steps than in the kind of complicated geographic formations for he later became famous in Hollywood.
- Berkeley’s Hollywood debut as a choreographer and dance stager came in a 1930 Eddie Cantor picture, Whoopee!, and he would go on to work on 40 pictures in the next decade, as choreographer or director (or both).
- In 1935, Berkeley was traveling home from the wrap party for In Caliente when the car he was driving hit a pair of autos; three people were killed and five others seriously injured (as was Berkeley). Berkeley was brought up on second degree murder charges; the first two of three trials resulted in hung juries; in the third, Berkeley was acquitted of the charges.
- Despite his success in the field of terpsichore, Berkeley never took a dance lesson.
- By the late 1930s, Berkeley began to direct non-musicals, including the John Garfield vehicle They Made Me a Criminal (1939).
- At age 74, Berkeley directed the Broadway revival of No No Nanette. In the cast was his former leading lady at Warner Brothers, Ruby Keeler. The show was a success, and both Berkeley and Keeler saw their work acclaimed.
Happy birthday, Busby Berkeley, wherever you may be!
Happy 141st Birthday, Elizabeth Patterson!
The delightful character actress Elizabeth Patterson, best remembered today for her role as Mrs. Trumble on I Love Lucy, was born 141 years ago today in Savannah, Tennessee. Here are 10 EP Did-You-Knows:
- Patterson’s father, a Confederate soldier, was a county judge. She attended public schools and college in her home state, and it was after participating in collegiate theatricals that caught the acting bug, very much against her parents’ wishes.
- Her parents sent young Patterson to Europe in hopes of discouraging her theatrical ambitions, but their tactics backfired: Attending performances of the Comédie Française only increased her interest in a life in the theatre.
- Upon returning from Europe, Patterson received a small inheritance that allowed her to move to Chicago. There she joined a theatrical troupe, the Ben Greet Players, that specialized in the works of William Shakespeare; Patterson also toured with repertory companies.
- Patterson made her Broadway debut in 1913 in the play Everyman. She would remain active on the New York stage through 1954.
- It wasn’t until 1926, when she was 51, that Patterson appeared in her first motion picture, The Boy Friend, but having broken into cinema, she made up for lost time, appearing in more than 100 features and shorts over the next 35 years.
- Patterson made her first appearance on television in 1950 on an episode of The Chevrolet Tele-Theatre. She would go on to appear on nearly 35 other television series and TV movies, including the recurring role for which she is most famous today, Mrs. Trumble, the elderly neighbor of the Ricardos and the Mertzes on I Love Lucy.
- Patterson was 77 when she made her first appearance on I Love Lucy, but it wasn’t as Mrs. Trumble. On an episode entitled The Marriage License, she played Mrs. Willoughby, the wife of a Connecticut justice of the peace (you may recall her painfully off-key rendition of I Love You Truly). It wasn’t until the next season that the Mrs. Trumble character was introduced, and Patterson would go on to play her for three more seasons.
- Patterson’s nickname was Patty.
- Patterson never married, and during her 35 years in pictures, she lived alone at the Hotel Roosevelt in Hollywood.
- Patterson, who specialized in frail but persnickety characters—maiden aunts, small town gossips and the like—proved to be a relatively tough old bird: She lived to the age of 90, dying in 1966 of pneumonia.
Happy birthday, Elizabeth Patterson, wherever you may be!
Happy 96th Birthday, Gene Tierney!
The lovely Gene Tierney was born 96 years ago today in Brooklyn, New York. Here are GT Did-You-Knows:
- Tierney’s childhood was one of privilege. Her father was a successful insurance broker, her mother a former teacher. She sometimes lived with her grandparents in Connecticut, attending St. Margaret’s School in Waterbury, Connecticut, and the Unquowa School in Fairfield. She later attended finishing schools in Switzerland and Farmington, CT.
- At 17, Tierney visited Los Angeles. Her striking beauty caught director Anatole Litvak‘s eye during a visit to the Warner Brothers studio (her cousin worked there) and she was offered a contract. Her parents urged her to turn it down, due to the low salary and the fact that they envisioned a more high-society path for her.
- Gene Tierney was a debutante, making her society debut in September 24, 1938, but society life didn’t interest her and she resolved to be an actress. She began theatrical studies and was a protégée of Broadway producer-director George Abbott.
- She made her Broadway debut in a small role in What a Life! (1938) that saw her carrying a bucket of water across the stage. A Variety reviewer wrote of her performance, “Miss Tierney is certainly the most beautiful water carrier I’ve ever seen!”
- Tierney went on to appear in a handful of other Broadway shows, garnering larger roles and positive reviews each time. In 1939, she signed a six-month contract with Columbia Pictures and was slated to star in National Velvet (1944), but when the picture was delayed, she returned to Broadway to star in The Male Animal, which was a big hit and led to a contract with 20 Century-Fox and her motion picture debut, in The Return of Frank James (1940), opposite Henry Fonda.
- Tierney wrote poetry throughout her life; she first saw one of poems published in her high school newspaper.
- Tierney struggled with manic depression throughout her adult life. While shooting The Left Hand of God (1955), her costar, Humphrey Bogart, whose sister had struggled with mental illness, urged her to seek medical help.
- Tierney spent time in various institutions and underwent multiple shock treatments against her will. She was thereafter an outspoken critic of shock treatment therapy.
- Tierney was married twice—to fashion designer Oleg Cassini and oil baron W. Howard Lee—and had romantic relationships with many other prominent men, among them John F. Kennedy, Prince Aly Khan and Tyrone Power.
- Tierney, who took up smoking to lower her voice—“I sounded like an angry Minnie Mouse,” she is reported to have said after seeing herself on screen for the first time—remained a heavy smoker throughout her life and died of emphysema in 1999.
Happy birthday, Gene Tierney, wherever you may be!
Happy 107th Birthday, Johnny Mercer!
Lyricist, composer and singer Johnny Mercer, one of the greatest lyricists to contribute to the Great American Songbook, was born John Herndon Mercer 107 years ago today in Savannah, Georgia. Here are 10 JM Did-You-Knows:
- Mercer’s father was an attorney; his mother was his father’s secretary before she became his second wife.
- Mercer was exposed to a wide range of African-American music as a child. His aunt took him to minstrel and vaudeville shows, and he spent time with many black playmates (and his family’s servants). He also was drawn to Savannah’s black fishermen and street vendors, as well as African-American church services. As a teenager, he collected records by black artists such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong.
- Mercer was singing in church choirs by age six, and within a few years, had demonstrated a penchant for memorizing all the popular songs of the day.
- His family frequently escaped Savannah’s heat at a mountain retreat near Ashville, North Carolina, and it was there that young Mercer learned to dance from none other than Arthur Murray himself.
- Mercer moved to NYC in 1928, taking bit parts as an actor and continuing to work on the songwriting he’d begun to experiment with back in Savannah. He took a job at a brokerage house to pay the bills, and began to sing around town. He once pitched a song to Eddie Cantor, and though Cantor didn’t buy the song, he was very encouraging to Mercer.
- Mercer preferred writing standalone songs to writing for musicals, where the lyrics had to fit the show, so when the revue format gave way to book musicals on Broadway, he moved to Los Angeles and took a job with RKO.
- Mercer founded Capitol Records with songwriter Buddy G. DeSylva and businessman Glenn Wallichs in 1942, investing $25,000. In 1955, he sold his share in the company for $20 million.
- Mercer was married to Ginger Mehan from 1931 until his death in 1976, but he had an on-and-off affair with Judy Garland.
- A fan once wrote Mercer, suggesting the song title I Wanna Be Around (to Pick Up the Pieces When Somebody Breaks Your Heart). Mercer quickly wrote a song by that title, and when it became a hit, he gave the fan half his royalties.
- Mercer was a distant cousin of Gen. George S. Patton.
Happy birthday, Johnny Mercer, wherever you may be!
Happy 148th Birthday, Marie Dressler!
Beloved character actress and comedian Marie Dressler was born Leila Marie Koerber 148 years ago today in Cobourg, Ontario. Here are 10 MD Did-You-Knows:
- Dressler’s father was a music teacher and her mother a musician. When she was still a child, her family moved to the United States, residing in Michigan and Ohio. She grew appearing in amateur theatricals.
- At 14, Dressler left home, lying about her age that she might join a traveling stock company that played mostly in the Midwest. Her older sister, Bonita, also worked with the stock company for a time before leaving to get married. Much of Dressler’s early stage work was in light opera.
- Dressler made her Broadway debut in 1892 in Waldemar, the Robber of the Rhine, a production that enjoyed a brief five-week run. Dressler, who stood 5′ 7″ and weighed 200 pounds, had dreamed of being an operatic diva or a tragedienne, but the author of Waldemar, Maurice Barrymore, father to Lionel, John and Ethel, convinced her that comedic roles would suit her best.
- Dressler’s first starring role came in 1896 in The Lady Slaver, which played for two years at the Casino Theatre.
- Throughout the 1900s and ’10, Dressler kept busy in Broadway productions and in vaudeville, and during World War I, she toured the country, selling Liberty bonds and entertaining the troops.
- Aside from cameo roles playing herself in a pair of film shorts, Dressler’s movie debut came in 1914 at age 44 when fellow Canadian Mack Sennett hired her to star opposite Charlie Chaplin (in a villainous, non-Tramp role) in Tillie’s Punctured Romance, one of the first full-length, six-reel motion picture comedies. The movie was a hit, and Dressler continued to enjoy success in film comedies into the 1920s.
- Her movie career on the wane in the late ’20s, Dressler, now in her late 50s, was considering taking a position as a housekeeper on Long Island—another story has it that she was on the verge of committing suicide—when screenwriter Frances Marion convinced MGM to cast her in The Callahans and the Murphys (1927). That hit picture revived her career.
- Dressler won the Best Actress Oscar for Min and Bill (1930), the first of three popular pictures she would make with Wallace Beery. Only the fourth actress to win that award, she was the third Canadian in a role to do so (after Mary Pickford and Norma Shearer). She received the award the day after her 63rd birthday.
- At age 65, Dressler was named the top box-office draw of 1933 by the Motion Picture Herald.
- The house Dressler was born in Cobourg still stands. Known today as the Marie Dressler House, it was a restaurant from 1937 through 1989, when it was damaged by fire. After being restored, it served as the office for the Cobourg Chamber of Commerce for a time until it was transoformed into a Marie Dressler museum and information center for tourists visiting Cobourg.
Happy birthday, Marie Dressler, wherever you may be!
The night was mighty dark so you could hardly see,
For the moon refused to shine.
Couple sitting underneath a willow tree,
For love they did pine.
Little maid was kinda 'fraid of darkness
So she said, "I guess I'll go."
Boy began to sigh, looked up at the sky,
And told the moon his little tale of woe
Oh, shine on, shine on, harvest moon
Up in the sky;
I ain't had no lovin'
Since April, January, June or July.
Snow time ain't no time to stay
Outdoors and spoon;
So shine on, shine on, harvest moon,
For me and my gal.
Words and music: Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth, 1908