Happy 115th Birthday, Louise Beavers!
The delightful Louise Beavers was born 115 years ago today in Cincinnati, Ohio. Beavers made the very most of the extremely limited opportunities Hollywood offered African American performers in her time, but we can’t help but mourn for what might have been, for Beavers and for so many other black actresses and actors. Here are 10 LB Did-You-Knows:
- Beavers’ father, a school teacher, moved the family to Pasadena, California, when Louise was 11 years ago. While Beavers attended Pasadena High School, her mother, a voice teacher, trained her daughter for the concert stage, but Beavers instead joined an all-female minstrel company called “Lady Minstrels” and spent time in vaudeville. She also worked as a dressing room attendant for a photographer, a nurse, and as a personal maid to silent film star Leatrice Joy.
- A Central Casting Bureau talent scout named Charles Butler saw Beavers perform and urged her to try for a movie role. Beavers was hesitant due to the typically derogatory portrayal of African Americans in pictures at the time, but she was finally persuaded and won a role in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1927).
- Though Beavers broke into movies near the end of the silent era, she smoothly made the transition into talkies, making more than 75 film appearances by 1935—she appeared in twenty pictures in 1933 alone! Though Beavers’ roles were (sadly) limited to the sort of maid, mammy and slave characters that black actresses were restricted to in those days, she brought a sense of wisdom, warmth and gentleness to them that allowed her to rise above their inherently cardboard, stereotypical nature.
- In 1934, Beavers was given a breakout role in Imitation of Life opposite Claudette Colbert. In that film, she plays Delilah Johnson, a single mother who agrees to serve as a housekeeper for a white widow named Bea Pullman (Colbert) in exchange for room and board for her and her daughter. Delilah and Bea team to open a pancake recipe (using Delilah’s secret recipe) and together become very wealthy, though their respective relationships with their daughters become strained. Beavers was billed fourth for the film, but anyone who’s seen the picture knows that she deserved equal billing with Ms. Colbert, not only for the size and importance of her role but for the memorable and moving performance she delivered.
- After that moment in the spotlight, though, Beavers returned to playing the secondary characters she’d always played, bringing humanity to them but leaving us 21st century movie buffs bemoaning what might have been if had Beavers been allowed to build on her wonderful work in Imitation of Life.
- Beavers was just a year older than Fredi Washington, who played her daughter in Imitation of Life.
- Like other black performers of the day, Beavers sometimes came in for criticism from the African-American community for accepting the kind of derogatory roles Hollywood offered. She defended herself and performers like her, saying, “I am only playing the parts. I don’t live them,” but as she became more successful and better known, she began to speak out more about Hollywood’s poor treatment of black performers.
- Even after finding success in movies, Beavers continued to work in live theatre, taking part in annual tours of twenty weeks’ duration.
- Beavers was the third of three actresses to portray Beulah Brown on the comedic television program The Beulah Show, which began as a radio show before moving to TV. Ethel Waters originated the role on television, followed by Hattie McDaniel, whose health forced her to drop out after just six episodes, at which point Beavers came in as her replacement. The show came in for criticism for its stereotypical characters, but it was the first sitcom to star an African-American performer.
- Among the more than 150 features and shorts in which Beavers appeared are Our Blushing Brides (1930), What Price Hollywood? (1932), 42nd Street (1933), The Story of Temple Drake (1933), Bombshell (1933), Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), Made for Each Other (1939), Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) and The Jackie Robinson Story (1950).
Happy birthday, Louise Beavers, wherever you may be!
Happy 121st Birthday, Buster Keaton!
The wonderful Buster Keaton was born Joseph Frank Keaton 121 years ago today in a figurative trunk that just happened to be situated in Piqua, Kansas. Keaton ranks right up there with the Marx Brothers in our esteem, and as has surely been established by now, that’s saying something. Here are 10 BK Did-You-Knows:
- Keaton was born into a theatrical family, as his father owned a traveling show with Harry Houdini called the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company that featured performances and sales of patent medicine.
- Buster followed five other generations of Keaton men named Joseph (though the middle names varied).
- The story goes that when Keaton was a toddler, Houdini witnessed him take a spill down a flight of stairs and emerged unharmed. “That was a real buster,” the legend has Houdini saying of the fall, and thus was a lifelong nickname born (unless the story is apocryphal, which is certainly possible).
- By age three, Buster was a performer in an act called The Three Keatons that saw his mother playing saxophone and Buster and his father engaging in knockabout horseplay for humorous effect (mostly, the elder Keaton tossed his young son about in acrobatic fashion, which was surely laid a solid groundwork for some of the stunts Buster would later perform on screen). The act frequently came under scrutiny because of laws that prohibited the use of child actors in vaudeville performances and also because of concern on the part of the authorities for Buster’s safety, but the younger Keaton was adept at avoiding injuries, telling The Detroit News in 1914, “The secret is in landing limp and breaking the fall with a foot or a hand. It’s a knack. I started so young that landing right is second nature with me.”
- As a child, Keaton lost most of his right index finger to a run-in with a clothes wringer.
- Because of his father’s alcoholism, Keaton and his mother moved to New York City around 1916, where Buster first broke into films.
- Keaton served with the 40th Infantry Division during World War I. While on active duty, he suffered an ear infection that left his hearing permanently impaired.
- Keaton’s film career was launched after meeting Roscoe Arbuckle at the Talmadge Studio on East 48th Street in NYC. They would go on to make 14 shorts together and remained fast friends, even after Arbuckle was accused of causing the death of actress Virginia Rappe (he was eventually exonerated).
- Keaton was an avid fan of the game of baseball, playing it at every opportunity.
- Keaton’s move to MGM in the early talkies era was financially rewarding, but proved to be a detriment to his work, as the studio’s overly hands-on approach didn’t fit Keaton’s seats-of-the-pants style of filmmaking. The loss of control over his films drove Keaton to drink, and by 1932, MGM had fired him (the studio would hire him back some years later for a fraction of his original salary). His third wife, Eleanor, eventually helped him get his drinking under control and he began working as a gag man for other film comics. He continued to work, both behind and in front of the camera, until his death in 1966, but he never again equaled his greatest, pre-MGM successes.
Happy birthday, Buster Keaton, wherever you may be!
Happy 126th Birthday, Groucho Marx!
The immortal Groucho Marx was born Julius Henry Marx 126 years ago today on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. He is, for us, in the show-business pantheon, perhaps the funniest man who ever lived. We loved him with a passion while he was still with us, and we miss him dearly today.
Here are 10 GM Did-You-Knows:
- Groucho and his four brothers were first-generation New Yorkers. His mother, Minnie, was from northern Germany; His father, Sam, came from Alsace in France (hence the affectionate name he was given: Frenchie). Sam and Minnie met in New York, married and raised a clan of sons that left an indelible mark in the worlds of vaudeville, musical theatre, movies, radio and television.
- People know of the exploits and accomplishments of Groucho, Harpo and Chico, and there are some who are familiar with Zeppo‘s 18-year stint in the family act. A few even know of Gummo‘s brief participation while the brothers were still working in vaudeville, but few are aware of Manfred, Sam and Minnie’s first-born son, who was born in 1886 but lived just seven months.
- Groucho was a lifelong insomniac, which he blamed on the financial bath he took when the stock market crashed in 1929.
- Groucho was very much a middle child, pining for his mother’s affection throughout his life. Minnie doted instead on Chico (perhaps understandable, since he was the first child born after the painful loss of Manfred).
- Groucho and his brothers were nephews to Al Shean, Minnie’s brother, who was a huge success in vaudeville as half of the headlining act Gallagher and Shean.
- In the early years of the brothers’ vaudeville career, Groucho played a “Dutch” or German character, a familiar role during the heyday of ethnic humor.
- Though he dreamed of being a doctor, Groucho’s years of formal education were brief, and in 1905, he was the first of the five sons to enter show business—but as a singer, not a comedian. He answered an ad in the New York World for an audition being conducted by one Gene Leroy at his apartment at 281 Third Avenue (the building is still there, as is, one assumes, the apartment). Groucho was hired to tour with the Leroy Trio, but was soon abandoned in Colorado when Leroy and the third member of the trio, Johnny Morris, absconded with all the money the threesome had earned. Minnie had to wire Groucho money to get back to NYC. Groucho’s lifelong worries over money (even after he was successful and financially very stable) is often attributed to the aforementioned losses he suffered in the Crash of ’29, but we’re inclined to think his traumatic first experience on the road in vaudeville had as much, if not more, to do with it.
- The self-educated Groucho was an avid reader and admired writers much more than performers. His own humorous prose was frequently published in The New Yorker and other periodicals of the day. He also authored several books.
- Groucho was a Gilbert and Sullivan aficionado and was thrilled when he was given the opportunity to portray Ko-Ko in a 1960 television production of The Mikado on NBC.
- Groucho introduced Johnny Carson as the new host of The Tonight Show on October 1, 1962, and was Carson’s first guest on the show.
Happy birthday, Groucho, wherever you may be!
Happy Birthday, Cary Grant!
Former acrobat Archie Leach, who would go on to worldwide fame as the suave leading man Cary Grant, was born 112 years ago today in Horfield, a suburb of Bristol, England.
Grant was born into a troubled family. His father was an alcoholic and his mother was placed in a mental institution, though young Archie was first told she’d gone off to a seaside resort and later that she’d passed away (she hadn’t), and he wouldn’t see her again for some 20 years.
Archie was active in theatrics as a child, performing with a group of acrobats known as the Bob Pender Stage Troupe. He traveled extensively with the troupe, eventually landing in NYC where the troupe performed on Broadway. When the show closed, Grant decided not to return to England, instead remaining in NYC and touring as a vaudeville performer before eventually moving up to the legitimate theatre. He signed with Paramount Pictures in 1932, and after selecting a new name (with the input of Fay Wray, with whom he’d appeared in a Broadway play called Nikki), he debuted in This Is the Night (1932), opposite Thelma Todd and Lili Damita. Grant wasn’t happy with that film, but the critics praised his performance and he was off and running on his way to a legendary career.
Cary Grant is one of our favorites (and surely one of yours, too), and we wish him a happy birthday, wherever he may be.
In Their Words: Mickey Rooney
We were sorry to learn of the passing on Sunday of Mickey Rooney. His performing career spanned 92 years (he first appeared onstage, in his parents’ vaudeville act, at the age of 17 months); that’s a record that will likely never be broken.
And we are not ashamed to admit that we are suckers for Andy Hardy movies. Rest in peace, Mickey.
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