Our Backstreets #28: When Movie Stars Were Legit

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Legit theatre, that is.

This weekend, the hubby and I roused ourselves from a rain-induced stupor and decided to do something we both like enormously—poke around some second-hand stores. We drove down Lincoln Avenue, easily my favorite street in Chicago, and pulled up on a block that had three antique stores, one used clothing store, and a used record shop. We waded around the clothes, buying nothing but enjoying a lovely conversation with the owner, who was celebrating her birthday that day. We scored a few records at the used record shop and again, enjoyed the company of a real music/record enthusiast. We bought a vintage-looking table fan to replace our actual vintage fan that stood precariously on an ill-designed pedestal, and again, talked with the owner who lamented the inadvertent sale of a directory from Rogers Park filled with the names of Jewish businesses in the formerly Jewish neighborhood. In the last store, populated mainly with antique furniture, we scored big time. A family had unloaded its collection of stagebills spanning performances from the 30s to close to the present, perhaps 300 in all.

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Now, I’ve seen at least that many plays and used to collect my stagebills until they just started taking up too much room. Therefore, I understood this collection and thumbed through it with great interest, wondering what this family had taken in over the years. I actually found a stagebill from one of the first shows I ever saw, The National Health, or Nurse Norton’s Affair (1972), with a very young Frank Galati in a memorable role as the white-coated nurse. He now is part of the Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble and directed their Tony-award-winning production of The Grapes of Wrath. I also found the stagebill for G. B. Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell, a reader’s theatre production from 1972 starring Paul Henreid, Ricardo Montalban, Edward Mulhare, and Agnes Moorehead (“in her original role of Dona Ana”) and directed by John Houseman, whom I would interview just a couple of years later. So good were these actors that when Henreid lit a cigar on stage while Montalban was expostulating, I didn’t even notice. I was delighted to reclaim these bits of my past.

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The real pleasure of going through the stagebills was seeing just how many movie stars trod the boards in days gone by. The oldest stagebill I acquired was from 1939—Walter Huston in Knickerbocker Holiday at the Grand Opera House, book and lyrics by Maxwell Anderson, music by Kurt Weill. Do you suppose Huston sang well? I saw not one, but two stagebills featuring Edward G. Robinson on the cover. I bought this program of his 1951 production of Darkness at Noon, based on the book of the same name by Arthur Koestler that is one of my favorite novels of all time. It played at the Erlanger Theatre, which I had never heard of. I think the State of Illinois Building might be standing on the site of the old theatre.

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Others are Constance Bennett in Without Love (1943); Paul Robeson in Othello (1945), costarring Jose Ferrer and Uta Hagen; Audrey Hepburn in Gigi (1953); and Cyd Charisse in Once More with Feeling (1967).

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I’ve left you with a couple of puzzles and one surprise. I’ve put up two photos. The young lady was starring in Over Twenty-One, a 1944 comedy staged by George S. Kaufman. The elegant couple was appearing in The Cherry Orchard, also a 1944 show. Can you tell me who these stars are? HINTS: Both women had their brightest moments in film later in life, with the actress on the left becoming quite well-known beginning in the late 60s. The other actress spent almost her entire career on the stage, but was nominated for an Oscar in her third, and last, film; she also has something in common with Mrs. Ronald Reagan. The actor won an Oscar, and I wrote about him recently. ASKED AND ANSWERED BELOW IN THE COMMENTS.

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Finally, the surprise. The characters on this cover are of ZaSu Pitts and Guy Kibbee, who were starring in the 1947 production The Late Christopher Bean. One of the players in the cast is none other than Nancy Davis, aka, Mrs. Ronald Reagan. Here’s what the program biography has to say about her:

NANCY DAVIS (Susan Haggett), comes naturally by her theatrical bent because her mother was an actress and her God-mother was Alla Nazimova. After graduating from Smith College, where she majored in drama, she made the usual preparatory flights in summer stock and repertory work. These neatly completed, she landed her first professional job with Miss ZaSu Pitts in the touring company of “Ramshackle Inn.” This lead to her first Broadway engagement in Michael Myerberg’s enchanting production of “Lute Song” where she played Si-Tchun, lady-in-waiting to the princess. The following season again saw her on the road with Miss Pitts in “Cordelia,” and last summer she toured the stock circuit in her present role in “The Late Christopher Bean.” Her only contact with the flesh-pots of Hollywood occurred recently when she appeared in a documentary film for RKO.

She’d have a little more contact with a particular flesh-pot soon enough.

  • fox spoke:
    12th/03/2009 to 2:53 am

    It’s probably just me not knowing theater that well, but I had no idea movie stars of old used to do theater like the stars of today do. It was especially surprising to see Audrey Hepburn on the Gigi bill.
    And I don’t know who that woman on the “guess who?” bill is, but she DOES look a bit like Judy Davis.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/03/2009 to 8:40 am

    Yes, Fox, she does look like Judy Davis.
    I’d say that movie stars do a lot less theatre than they once did. I remember growing up seeing all kinds of stars on stage. These days, it’s rare to find them. They just can’t make the money on stage, and the snobbery that kept actors on the boards to remain legit just doesn’t exist anymore.

  • Daniel spoke:
    12th/03/2009 to 1:13 pm

    Very cool finds! Reminds me of the short discussion we had at my blog after I saw John Carroll Lynch in an Arthur Miller play here. I love seeing these “stars” on stage in a different medium – especially when they’re good.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/03/2009 to 1:16 pm

    Yeah, Daniel. I remember that conversation. I just saw Brian Dennehy in Desire Under the Elms, not an unusual sighting since he’s in Chicago all the time. However, his costar, who unfortunately left the show before I saw it, was Carla Gugino, an actress I really love. Still, I was perfectly content to see her replacement Amy Carle, who was superb.

  • Kimberly spoke:
    12th/03/2009 to 9:46 pm

    Very cool find!
    Can you tell me who these stars are?
    I’d recognize that smile anywhere. The large photo of the single mystery woman is the fabulous Ruth Gordon! I really love her and that’s a great image.

  • Kimberly spoke:
    12th/03/2009 to 9:48 pm

    On second thought I could be totally wrong, but she sure looks like Ruth!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    13th/03/2009 to 8:15 am

    You are totally right, Kimberly. It is Ruth Gordon. I didn’t recognize her and was surprised to see this. The other two are much more obscure, particularly the woman. I know her very well because I’m such a theatre person. I’ll leave it up a few more hours and then do the reveal.

  • Pat spoke:
    13th/03/2009 to 12:09 pm

    RE: Walter Huston in “Knickerbocker Holiday” – I believe Huston was in the original Broadway production; I know his recording of “September Song” was a hit. More details I can’t give you, since my go-to reference book “Broadway to Hollywood” is not here with me at work.
    Your afternoon in the vintage stores sounds wonderful, and those Stagebills were a great find!
    A friend of mine recntly found her old Stagebill from an 1970’s touring company of “The Sound of Music” – Florence Henderson played Maria and a very young Sarah Jessica Parker was one of the VonTrapp kids.

  • jonathan lapper spoke:
    13th/03/2009 to 12:18 pm

    The actor looks a lot like one Joseph Schildkraut but I can’t be sure. Still trying to figure out the actress.
    Sorry for not showing up sooner. I could’ve have stolen Kimberly’s thunder on the Ruth Gordon photo.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    13th/03/2009 to 12:18 pm

    Thanks for the info, Pat. I know my aunt has (or had) a big stash of Stagebills. I might go over and sift. It was such fun!

  • jonathan lapper spoke:
    13th/03/2009 to 12:30 pm

    I’ve got the actress too but only because I did a diligent search on the Oscar trivia you supplied so I don’t know if I should give it away. So for those who want to keep guessing, don’t click the link, but for me, Marilyn, is it this actress? I’m pretty sure it is.

  • jonathan lapper spoke:
    13th/03/2009 to 12:31 pm

    And what are the odds on The Late Christopher Bean coming up on two separate movie blogs in a little over a week?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    13th/03/2009 to 1:09 pm

    You got them both right, Jonathan. I’m pretty familiar with Eva Le Gallienne based on my research on Alla Nazimova for a number of movie reviews. She was Alla’s lover for several years, hence, the connection with Nancy Reagan.
    As for synchronicity, remember the taxonomy coincidence. Nothing surprises me anymore.

  • jonathan lapper spoke:
    13th/03/2009 to 1:59 pm

    Hooray! And it’s no coincidence, it’s kismet.

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