Happy 100th Birthday, Ella Fitzgerald!
The incomparable Ella Fitzgerald was born 100 years ago today in Newport News, Virginia. Here are 10 EF Did-You-Knows:
- Though Fitzgerald’s parents were never married, they had lived together for more than two years when she was born. When Fitzgerald was still a young girl, her mother and another partner moved together to Yonkers.
- Fitzgerald was an excellent student, despite changing schools with frequency. As a young girl, she loved to dance to jazz records, often performing for friends and classmates.
- Fitzgerald’s family was active in the church, so she grew up hearing hymns and sacred songs in that setting, but she also loved listening to jazz records, especially the recordings of Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and the Boswell Sisters (Connee Boswell was a particular favorite). “My mother brought home one of her records, and I fell in love with it,” she would later say. “I tried so hard to sound just like her.”
- When Fitzgerald was 15, her mother died from injuries suffered in a car accident, and Ella was sent to live with her aunt in Harlem. That didn’t go so well, and Fitzgerald soon became truant at school, her grades soon fell off and she was running with something of a rough crowd. She was sent first to an orphanage and later to a reform school, from which she escaped and took to living (and singing) on the streets.
- In 1934, when Fitzgerald was 17, she competed in an amateur night at the legendary Apollo Theatre. Her original intention was to dance on stage, but she decided at the last minute to sing, doing her best Connee Boswell impression in performing Judy and The Object of My Affection. She won the top prize of $25.00.
- Though she’s best remembered today as the kind of grand dame of jazz who played only the classiest of venues, Fitzgerald didn’t always soar in such rarified air: She began her career as just another girl singer for the Chick Webb Orchestra, singing pop and jazz hits for jitterbuggers in dance halls and ballrooms. Not long after her win at the Apollo, she was given the opportunity to perform with Webb at a dance at Yale University as an audition for long-term employment. Webb was skeptical of the gawky and somewhat disheveled Fitzgerald’s suitability for the job, but the Yale students and Webb’s band members both responded positively to her singing, and the job was hers.
- Soon thereafter She and the Webb outfit enjoyed several chart hits and Fitzgerald became a star in her own right, so much so that when Webb passed away in 1939, the orchestra was renamed Ella Fitzgerald and her Famous Orchestra.
- In 1942, the erstwhile Webb orchestra disbanded and Fitzgerald went out on her own as a solo artist. She enjoyed a number of hits as the swing era wound down and her scat singing abilities were put to good use during the bebop era. She was now viewed as one of the great jazz vocalists of the day.
- Fitzgerald eventually began to feel that she was being restricted by the public’s view of her as a bebop singer, Norman Granz, her manager, created the Verve label for her and in 1956 the pair worked together to record The Cole Porter Songbook.
- Over the next eight years, Fitzgerald recorded a series of eight songbooks, each dedicated to a different composer from the era of the Great American Songbook. It was a groundbreaking concept, one that brought Fitzgerald’s music to a new audience. The songbooks were arguably Fitzgerald’s greatest accomplishment, but she continued to work and grow as an artist as long as her health allowed it. Her last recordings were undertaken in 1991 and her final public performances came in 1993. When she died on June 15, 1996, Ella Fitzgerald was viewed almost universally as one of the greatest vocalists of the 20th century.
Happy birthday, Ms. Fitzgerald, wherever you may be!
Happy 124th Birthday, Harold Lloyd!
Comedy giant Harold Lloyd was born 124 years ago today in Burchard, Nebraska. Here are 10 HL Did-You-Knows:
- Lloyd’s parents fought frequently when he was a child (due in large part to his father’s penchant for launching unsuccessful, short-lived businesses); they divorced when he was a teenager, after which Lloyd and his dad moved west to San Diego. In 1912, Lloyd, who’d acted on stage since childhood, began to work in one-reel comedies for the Thomas Edison company. His first role was a Yaqui Indian in short called The Old Monk’s Tale.
- Before long, Lloyd moved to Los Angeles, where he became friends with aspiring filmmaker Hal Roach. Roach told Lloyd that when he was able to produce his own pictures, he’d make a star out of Lloyd. When Roach opened his studio in 1913, the pair began to collaborate on creating Lloyd’s first recurring role, Lonesome Luke, a character influenced greatly by Charlie Chaplin‘s Tramp.
- Within a few years, Lloyd began to shift toward the character that is better remembered today, often referred to as the “Glass character” for the round specs that he wore. “When I adopted the glasses,” Lloyd said in a 1962 television interview, “it more or less put me in a different category because I became a human being. He was a kid that you would meet next door, across the street, but at the same time I could still do all the crazy things that we did before, but you believed them. They were natural and the romance could be believable.”
- In his Lonely Luke days, Harold Lloyd gave actress Bebe Daniels his start. The credits usually listed Lloyd’s character as “The Boy” and Daniels’ as “The Girl.” The pair were romantically involved for a time. After five years, Daniels went on to a very successful career as a leading lady. Daniels’ replacement in Lloyd’s pictures was Mildred Davis, whom he wed in 1923. They were married until her death in 1969.
- In 1919, while shooting some publicity photographs, Lloyd suffered extensive damage to his hand while lighting a cigarette with a prop bomb that he thought was just a smoke pot. The bomb exploded, and Lloyd lost his thumb and forefinger. He also suffered burns on his face and incurred damage to one of his eyes (luckily, his sight was unaffected).
- Lloyd and Roach began focusing on feature-length pictures, rather than shorts, in 1921, and when the pair parted ways in 1924, Lloyd launched his own production company.
- Though Buster Keaton and Chaplin are today considered the greatest comedians of the silent era, in the 1920s, Lloyd’s pictures made more money than either (in large part because he was so prolific—he made 12 full-length features in that decades to Chaplin’s four).
- In the late 1920s, Lloyd built a home in Beverly Hills he called Green Acres that boasted 44 rooms, 26 bathrooms, 12 fountains, 12 gardens, and a nine-hole golf course. Though the surrounding grounds have been subdivided, the main house and the estate’s principal gardens are still there, and the estate is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
- It’s been reported that Lloyd was approached to portray Elwood P. Dowd in the original Broadway production of Mary Chase’s play, Harvey. When Lloyd turned the part down, the role went to Frank Fay.
- Lloyd’s post-cinema hobby was 3-D photography; among his works were portraits of Hollywood stars such as Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Sterling Holloway, Richard Burton and Roy Rogers. He also shot a good many nude…er, artistic photographs of more anonymous starlets of the day.
Happy birthday, Harold Lloyd, wherever you may be!
Happy 128th Birthday, Charlie Chaplin!
The immortal Charlie Chaplin was born Charles Spencer Chaplin 128 years ago today. There is no official record of his birth, but Chaplin said he was born on East Street in South London. Here are 10 CC Did-You-Knows:
- Chaplin’s childhood was a difficult one. His alcoholic father was largely absent (and died at 37, when Charlie was just 12), and his mother was committed to a mental asylum when he was 14.
- For some time, even after becoming very successful, Chaplin continued to live in a cheap hotel room.
- Chaplin was married four times, with a greater disparity between his age and his wife’s with each new union (12 years, 19 years, 21 years and 37 years). He had 11 children with those four wives; he was 73 years old when his youngest, Charles, was born in 1962.
- Stan Laurel was once Chaplin’s understudy during their years on the English stage. Later, when they had both emigrated to the United States, they roomed together in a boarding house. No cooking was allowed there, so when Laurel was making dinner on a hot plate, Chaplin played the violin to cover the sound of the frying.
- Chaplin was the first actor to appear on the cover of Time magazine (the July 6, 1925 issue).
- Contrary to popular belief, Chaplin’s eyes were a striking shade of blue.
- Chaplin received no screen credit for his early films for Keystone (it was that studio’s policy not to credit actors); it wasn’t until 1915 that Chaplin finally received a screen credit, when he made his first film for Essanay.
- In addition to his many other accomplishments, Chaplin was a composer. He wrote more than 500 songs, including the beloved hit “Smile,” and later in life scored some of his early films when they were reissued.
- In 1947, Chaplin was subpoenaed by—but never appeared before—the House Un-American Activities Committee. He sent HUAC a telegram, reading: “I am not a Communist, neither have I ever joined any political party or organization in my life.” That seems to have satisfied them.
- Chaplin was a cofounder of United Artists, along with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith.
Happy birthday, Charlie Chaplin, wherever you may be!
The Set-Up Delivers a Knock-Out Punch
Sunday’s installment of Noir Alley on TCM (10am ET) is a don’t-miss (set those DVRs now). The Set-Up (1949) stars the great Robert Ryan as Bill ‘Stoker’ Thompson, an over-the-hill boxer who can’t bring himself to pull the plug on his dreams of pugilistic glory. His wife (Audrey Totter) begs him to stop fighting, but for Stoker, it’s always the next bout that will start his climb to the top.
The problem is, Stoker loses so often that his manager has taken money from a gangster on the assurance him that Stoker will take a dive in his next fight—but he hasn’t told Stoker.
The Set-Up holds the distinction of being perhaps the only film noir to be based on a poem, a narrative work written in 1928 by Joseph Moncure March. The poem and film share a title and a premise, but March’s boxer was a skilled African-American fighter nicknamed Pansy—“He’d carve you up like a leg of mutton,” wrote March—who had just been released from prison.
The picture takes place in real time, running a tidy, tense 73 minutes. Director Robert Wise gives the picture a gritty quality that suits the subject matter (and the genre) perfectly.
If you’ve never seen what many consider to be the best boxing picture ever (and certainly the best released before 1950), here’s your chance. Don’t blow it.
Happy 102nd Birthday, Billie Holiday!
The legendary Billie Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan 102 years ago today in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Here are 10 BH Did-You-Knows:
- Holiday’s childhood was a tough one. Her parents were teenagers and never married. Her mother worked mostly on railroads and so left Holiday with her half-sister, Eva, and Eva’s mother-in-law in Baltimore. By nine, Holiday was sent to a Catholic reform school due to her truancy and other behavioral issues. Eventually, her mother opened a restaurant and Holiday dropped out of school at age 11 to help with its operation. At 12, Holiday was raped by a neighbor and, after a stint in protective custody as a state witness against the perpetrator, she began working as an errand girl for a brothel.
- At 14, Holiday was reunited with her mother, who had relocated to Harlem. Their landlady was the madam of a brothel and soon, both mother and daughter were working as prostitutes. Thankfully, Holiday, who had by then been exposed to the music of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, also began singing in Harlem nightspots. Her professional name came from actress Billie Dove and jazz musician Clarence Holiday, believed by many to be her long-absent father.
- Holiday’s close friend and musical collaborator, saxophonist Lester Young, was the person who gave her the nickname with which she would come to be so closely associated, Lady Day. She gave him his nickname, Prez, because of her deep respect for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
- Though Holiday’s singing style was distinctive and memorable, her vocal range was limited, just over one octave.
- Holiday’s 1941 recording of Gloomy Sunday, though by some to inspire suicides, was banned from airplay on the BBC until 2002.
- Holiday was a comic book fan as an adult; Captain Marvel was a particular favorite.
- Holiday, by then a heroin addict, was sent to prison in 1947 on a narcotics conviction. Eleven days after her release in March 1948, she performed before a sold-out house at Carnegie Hall.
- Holiday once named fellow vocalist Jo Stafford as her favorite musical artist; she admired Stafford, she said, because she was so ladylike.
- Nightclub performers in New York were required to have cabaret cards, a kind of municipal license to perform. Holiday’s narcotics-related legal troubles prevented her for acquiring a card, so she was unable to perform in NYC clubs for the final 12 years of her life.
- Holiday’s hardscrabble childhood left her with a lifelong fear of poverty. When she passed away, she had less than a dollar in the bank and had $750 strapped to her leg.
Happy birthday, Billie Holiday, wherever you may be!
You think that money is everything
And yet it’s anybody’s spring.
Go make a fortune, become a king
And still it’s anybody’s spring.
And if you flash a bank roll
Do you suppose the brook would care?
Or that a rose would say
“There goes a millionaire!”
It’s more than diamonds around a ring
Because it’s anybody’s spring.
You may be born with the silver spoon
And yet it’s anybody’s moon
You couldn’t buy a ticket
To hear the first robin sing
It’s free because
It’s anybody’s spring.
Music by James Van Heusen, lyrics by Johnny Burke, 1944