Never The Star But I Was There
Library of Congress Control Number: 2015952862
The whole world was involved and everyone was singing the praises of that exciting 1904 hit "Meet Me in St. Louis" and the World Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. On September 15 of that year, in Clay Center, Kansas, I was born. I believe some of those stimulating emotions became a part of me forever.
My mother and father had divorced when I was only three and Mom had moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where I would spend all of my school days. At this early age, I was not too academically inclined as my two favorite interests were the horizontal bar and the trapeze, on which I became quite an expert.
Lewis D. Offield, who later changed his name to Jack Oakie, and I played on the basketball team for both the school and the First Congregational Church. My first crush was on a girl whose name was Lucille LeSeur, who later changed her name to Joan Crawford. She sat in front of me in school and I carried her books home after school.
Electric Park was a kid’s dream place and it was open each summer. There was a wimming pool, all kinds of concessions, free amusements, and daredevil acts. Everything a boy could want was at Electric Park. After school, and each summer during the regular season, I was there. All of those things were fun 'but just wandering around’ sort of being a part of this activity, was a thrill to me and I could always feel the excitement inside of me.
My first job at the Park was selling balloons. This gave me free admission, which included the chance to see everything and talk to all the performers. There were other forms of entertainment for us in Kansas City, one being the Nickelodeon. Today we think of the Nickelodeon as a "juke-box" but in the early 1900's, it was a theatre presenting entertainment for an admission price of a nickel, hence the name. About 1914 or 1915, it was disappearing as a theatre.
A few of us boys that hung around the corner of Eighth and Tracy could hardly wait, from week to week, to see the next serial at the Nickelodeon, which fascinated all of us. Many times, in order to get money for the show, we would all wait for the lights to go out in a pre-picked neighborhood, then sneak up on the porches and take the nickels from the milk bottles that had been left for the early morning milk delivery. Sometimes a barking dog would scatter us, but we always managed to get enough for the next show. It wasn't the best way, but it was one way of guaranteeing we would see the following serial. Other times we would pass out handbills for free admission.
I knew that Jack Oakie and Joan Crawford (both had now changed their
names) were in New York and had made the chorus of a show called "Innocent
Eyes." This was another reason for wanting to get to New York.
New York was an exciting city, although I had been there before with "The
Different Revue," there hadn't been the opportunity to get around. As soon as
Peggy and I were settled, we did explore the city. It was pretty impressive and the
many theatres and stage shows inspired me. I thought, "This is where it all is, this
is the hub of the theatre." I got into the thick of it and came out with a job in the
chorus of "Lady Be Good." The show ran for a year on Broadway, starring Fred
and Adele Astaire, Walter Catlatt, and "Ukulele Ike" Cliff Edwards. Here I was in
New York City in a successful Broadway production and felt now, since I had made
it this far, I was on the way up the "Show Biz" ladder.
I contacted Jack Oakie and we were both pleased and excited about our new
status in this business. When I made it a point to try and contact Joan Crawford,
it was without success, but I knew she had become quite a dancer and was
entering most of the Charleston dance contests around town.
The Shuberts made Broadway the show street it was and they had a show
running on Broadway all the time. They did have competition, however, with the
other big three producers of great shows, Flo Ziegfeld and his “Follies,” George
White and his “Scandals,” and Earl Carroll with his "Vanities." New York City, in
the 20's and 30's, was a most exhilarating place to be if show business was your
reason for being there. In 1925, the Shuberts gave me a bit part in a show called
"Princess Flavia" at the old Century Theatre, starring singers Harry Welchman
and Evelyn Herbert. When the Shuberts had bought this building, the rooftop had
been a palm garden restaurant. They turned it into a cabaret but it wasn't
successful now that prohibition was law, and they made a theatre out of part of
"Princess Flavia," a musical version of "The Prisoner of Zenda" was written
by two members of the Shubert's staff, Sigmund Romberg and Harry Smith. I am
sure Sigmund Romberg is best remembered for the musical play, "The Student
Prince" whose original run was playing downstairs in the Century Theatre at the
same time we were upstairs with "Flavia." After a few months run in New York,
the show was scheduled to go on the road and I chose not to go.