The following is a wonderful story by Betsy Holland Gehman, vaudevillian and Broadway chorus girl (and Princess Farhana’s mom). It’s a glimpse of her experience working in the waning vaudeville circuit in the 1940’s.
V A U D E V I L L E 1939
By Betsy Holland Gehman
Here’s one of my Show Biz moments. I don’t have many photos from those days. Somehow I had the idea that collecting photos and making scrapbooks of one’s theatrical “triumphs” was vulgar and rather vain. I felt the work should speak for itself…you didn’t have to “prove it” with pictures. It never occurred to me I’d be old one day and might just enjoy looking backward.
This photo’s caption: “Between shows at the State Theatre in Indianapolis: Betty Bennett (that was me), featured singer with the Pinky Tomlin Orchestra, and Donald O’Connor.” Donald was on the bill as part of The O’Connor Family, a popular singing and dancing comedy act, well-known on the vaudeville circuit.
The year was 1939. I was 17, Donald was 16. Pinky Tomlin (the one-hit wonder who wrote, “The Object of My Affections”) was a lanky red-haired, freckle-faced good ol’ boy from Oklahoma. He was married to a Native American woman whom I never met. She was busy back in Ponca City tending to her family’s oil interests. I learned at that point that only the Oklahoma Native Americans (the Ponca Tribe) had been permitted by the Great White Father to keep their mineral rights. Who, back in Washington, could possibly have guessed there was oil in that wasteland? So the entire tribe got very rich and, undoubtedly, heads rolled in D.C.
As a historical note, some thirty years later I noticed a little office building in Beverly Hills with a sign that read, “Pinky Tomlin Oil Co.” So I guess he either outlived his very rich wife or finally cajoled her into letting him move to Hollywood where he had longed to be all those years ago. But back to the ‘Thirties.
I found Pinky loathsome, and not merely for the way he chose to introduce me at five shows a day:
“Well, folks,” he’d say in a voice weary with the immensity of this intrusion into his time in the follow-spot, “every band has to have a girl singer … so here’s ours.”
Faced with that kind of “enthusiasm”, I learned how to really take stage. Out of sheer self-defense I managed to stop the show at every performance with one of my favorite numbers, “The Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish”.
I should have mentioned at the start that Pinky had not been the one to hire me. In fact, it wasn’t even his band. He was hired help, just as I was. The Wm. Morris Agency had put together the “package”, and sent us off into the midwest to make some money for them in the waning days of Vaudeville.
So, the package: Pinky signed on as putative star; an already existing band from Milwaukee (which until now had specialized in playing polkas), complete with its actual leader who sat with the band and played the accordion while Pinky stood in front, waving his arms and pretending to be the leader. And of course little me because, well, as Pinky said, every band had to have one.
Donald loved what he was doing, loved show biz and, above all, loved his family. His big brother John, John’s 9-year old daughter Patsy, and Donald were what remained of a larger family theatrical unit. Like Judy Garland, Donald had been born in a trunk. Now, at 16 he was not quite ripe enough to be welcomed back to Hollywood where he had been a huge kid star, co-starring with the likes of Bing Crosby. Now he was going through what Hollywood considered the “awkward stage”, meaning those years that made the movie studios so uncomfortable because they didn’t yet know how to write sellable movies about pubescent angst and tentative sexuality.
Shortly, however, H’wood would be discovering the Teen Market, thanks to Judy Garland and Micky Rooney who literally overnight had become the newest pot o’ gold over at MGM. Because of their success, Donald suddenly found himself worthy of Hollywood attention again, and soon he was co-starring with Peggy Ryan in a long series of successful Teen song and dance flicks at Universal Studios.
Then came WWll, and Donald and Francis the Mule made a new kind of movie couple – one that became hugely popular in wartime America. Francis could talk to Donald, which started a new trend in Second Bananas. Together, they made many money-making sequels during wartime. Ultimately, Donald wound up at MGM, most notably in “Singin’ in the Rain” creating and performing “Make ‘em Laugh”, the greatest single comedy dance number ever filmed, in one of the greatest movie musicals ever made.
Here’s the thing. All those incredible falls, leaps, aerials, wall-walking and split-second timing that Donald dazzled audiences with in that number, the 16-year old Donald had done five times a day – every day – in the family vaudeville act back in 1939. And he would do it all for a total of maybe 10 or 20 people at some of the midweek matinees. It didn’t matter: the most miniscule audience got exactly the same go-for-glory show a standing room only audience would get. I learned the meaning of the word “professional” from the O’Connor Family – it was the highest praise you could get from a vaudevillian.
This photo catches Donald and me when we were both young, giddy, in love with life, and just having fun in those few short hours between our five shows a day – every day – while some movie or other was running. We never watched the movies … we were much happier getting out into the daylight once in a while.
To bring this story full circle I, too, can be heard on the soundtrack of “Singin’ in the Rain”. Got my Screen Actors Guild card somewhat earlier by singing on Disney soundtracks for Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse cartoons. A humble beginning, but it led to singing on soundtracks at all the major studios, primarily those huge, lavish musicals at M.G.M.
Then, suddenly, the movie musical – like vaudeville – was dead. That’s when I headed East to Broadway, where I found myself on stage in what has come to be called “The Golden Age of the Broadway Musical” during The Great White Way’s last memorable, pre-corporate days.
The other thing I learned that year was that the kind of camaraderie found in live theater is unlike anything else in life, with its instant intense relationships and no baggage attached. Very existential.
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Copyright 2005, Betsy Holland Gehman. All rights reserved.