Snapshot in Prose: Jeanette MacDonald

Jeanette MacDonald is best remembered today for the old-fashioned (even then) musicals she made with Nelson Eddy, but you’d be hard-pressed to get us to watch one of those. We greatly prefer the movies she made in the early Thirties—most notably with director Ernst Lubitsch—when she was allowed to show a little spark and sass on screen.

This profile originally saw the light of day in September 1940. Her professional pairing with Eddy was already well established, and she had been married to actor Gene Raymond for three years. She and Raymond remained married until MacDonald’s death in 1965.

The Private Letters of Jeanette MacDonald

The correspondence of a
movie star covers dozens
of different matters. Here
is your chance to spend a
day at Jeanette’s desk and
see how she deals with
this important problem.


Jeanette MacDonald is a living proof of the saying, “The more you have to do, the more you can accomplish.”
Even in the midst of picture production, when there seem to be a dozen different demands on every minute of the day, her desk remains reasonably clear, her correspondence is never neglected, even though her letters frequently number hundreds a week. Jeanette is an inveterate letter writer because she is a firm believer in putting things on paper. Once in a while things “carried in the head” are forgotten and produce hurt feelings or embarrassments, so a flurry of little notes about dozens of different matters leaves her studio dressing-room every day. Her calendar pad is crowded with jotted notes of reminders to herself and her secretary.
When she is busy at the studio, letters are dictated on the set between scenes, in her own quarters at noontime, and at any other moment she may find herself free. When she has the day at home, part of each morning, frequently a good part of the whole day, is spent at the dainty writing table in her sitting room.
The first half hour always is devoted to letters to intimate friends . . . bread-and-butter notes, acceptances of invitations, thank-you notes and her own invitations. These she usually writes on double cards, the size of a calling card. “Mr. and Mrs. Gene Raymond” is engraved on the front, and her note, in long hand, of course, is jotted on the inside.
Notes to her associates at the studio regarding matters incident to work are dictated to her secretary who later types them.
Today there is a matter of wardrobe Adrian had submitted sketches and samples. Jeanette writes:
Dear Adrian: The sketches are divine! And I agree with you on the coloring. The blue bodice should be a trifle deeper than the skirt, blending the two shades of blue at the waistline.
“The sample of the gray tulle is lovely. When will you need me for a fitting? Will Wednesday be convenient for you?” She signs it—Sincerely, Jeanette—the signature which goes on all her letters to coworkers at the studio, from executive to wardrobe girl.
The greatest letter-writing chore Jeanette MacDonald has is answering the numerous fan letters which come to her desk for personal attention and reply. These are letters segregated from the thousands she receives each week, by her secretaries. They include letters from fan correspondents of long standing; letters which definitely ask advice on a personal or career problem; letters which ask for the intangible gift of courage.
If Jeanette is working, she reads these letters between scenes, makes memos in pencil which are the basis of a reply by her secretary, or later on for her dictated answer. Frequently, when there is long leisure between scenes, she dictates on the set.
On this day, as we sit at Jeanette’s desk—a small battalion of human problems faces her.
There is the letter from Arva: “Dear Jeanette,” she writes, “I’m twelve years old. At eleven my voice matured, but now something’s happening. I can’t hit those high notes at all. I’m sort of hoarse or something. Is my voice gone? Were you that way? Is there anything I can do? Anything I can gargle? I’m almost desperate . . . please help me. My voice is my whole life.”
Jeanette makes a note on the back of the letter. She writes: “Answer this kid and tell her I lost my voice around the same age and had to stop singing for a year and a half. Tell her that frequently happens. By continuing to sing she may ruin her voice. She’ll just have to be patient and trusting. Meanwhile she can study French and Italian.”
From Helen: “I’m studying voice seriously, but I’m having teacher trouble. I have recently changed teachers and find myself singing flat and straining a great deal. You sing so easily. What should I do?”

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Snapshot in Prose: Rodgers and Hart

This week’s Snapshot in Prose visits a pair of classic composers who need no introduction, Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers, when they were at their most successful.

The author of the story speaks to both men, and we learn that they were of very different temperaments, outlooks, and lifestyles. Apparently musical theatre, like politics, makes for strange bedfellows.

hat incomparable team of songwriters, Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers, author and composer of Blue Moon, began turning out their great song hits without the benefit of Necessity, the mother of so much of our musical invention, being around to spur them on.
Nor did they hear the wolf howling at the door. But they did suffer a terrible urge to express themselves in their work.
Hunger for approval, thirst for accomplishment. Haven’t you too, often experienced that feeling?
We called upon Lorenz Hart in his spacious, luxurious apartment overlooking Central Park.
He greeted us in his huge music room with Kiki, his nine-year-old dog, romping at his feet.
“She’s just home from the Doctor’s,” said Hart. “Had to take her—she was losing her hair. She’s a Chinese chow.”
I picked up my pencil.
“Don’t say anything about poor Kiki, she hates publicity,” said Hart.
Hart is hospitable and generous. “What will you have?” he said, leading the way into his ultra-modern study and offering everything from Bourbon to coffee.
“A story about you and Rodgers,” we answered.
“How did you happen to begin writing songs with ‘Dick’ Rogers?”
In his inimitable way, Hart began: “We met while Dick was attending Columbia University. I’d been out of the Columbia School of Journalism for a year or two. Of course, we decided to write the college varsity show.”
“What was the name of it?”
“Something like Fly With Me—a great success”
“What work had you done before you met Rodgers?”
“I had produced a play by Henry Myers, The First Fifty Years. There were two characters played by Clare Eames and Tom Powers. We took in so little money, we couldn’t afford to pay the players. It ran for six weeks. We’d have been worse off if it had run 12. Lost our money.

“However, after our Columbia show, Dick met Herbert Fields, a son of Lew Fields of the famous Weber and Fields Minstrels.
“Lew Fields was putting on The Poor Little Rich Girl, so Herbert asked his father to use some of our songs. By the time the show opened all of the songs were ours.
The Poor Little Rich Girl ran 22 weeks on Broadway. Rodgers was then only 17. Of course we felt that we had arrived. We expected the managers to make us some offers. But no offers came.
“We put on amateur shows, benefits, and did anything we could to make a few dollars.
“Finally with Herbert Fields writing the book, Dick and I sat down and wrote a musical comedy. Then for months we made tours of auditions. Some managers liked the music and hated the lyrics, some loved the lyrics but couldn’t hear the melodies. Nobody took it.”
“What did you call it?”
Oh, it had some awful names. Then we all three wrote The Melody Man for Lew Fields. He took it on the road. Yes, it was a colossal—failure,” he finished.
We showed Dearest Enemy to Max Dreyfuss. He liked it, and now signed us up on his staff.
“This was in the month of March. The show could not open until Fall. We were unknown—and now very, very broke.
“We wrote Garrick Gaieties in a week. We used two or three numbers that we had been peddling around. One of them was Manhattan.
“At the opening matinee, I stood in the back of the theatre with a young writer about town, Walter Winchell. Three boys came before the curtain and recited that polysyllabic lyric! I felt like the thing was doomed.
“But that matinee, because of the long applause, lasted until seven o’clock.”

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Snapshot in Prose: Mildred Bailey

Regular listeners to Cladrite Radio know we’re big fans of Mildred Bailey. She’s perhaps not as well remembered today as some of her contemporaries, but fans of the music of the 1920s and ’30s know her well, and her versatile vocal stylings clearly proved an inspiration to songbirds who followed her, including Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.

Bailey was married three times—her third husband, who proved to be a charm only professionally, was vibraphonist Red Norvo. Though their marriage didn’t last, the two recorded together from the mid-’30s through 1945. Bailey, who had health issues throughout her adult life, struggling with weight gain and diabetes, died far too young—at age 44—in 1951.

Read to the end of this profile, first published in 1935, and you’ll find a couple of our favorites Mildred Bailey recordings for your consideration. We’re confident that, if you’re not already a fan, you will be after hearing these recordings..

WHEN Mildred Bailey ran away from a convent and got a job playing piano in a synagogue, anyone might have guessed that this young lady would never lead a dull life.
Mildred, whose real name is Rinker, is the daughter of a mother who was famous in and around Spokane for her lullabies. Her brother, Al, was a member of Paul Whiteman‘s original Rhythm Boys, the other two members of this famous trio being Harry Barris, pianist-composer, and Bing Crosby.
Another brother, Miles, played saxophone in the college band at the University of Illinois and brother Charles (Chuck) Rinker played the guitar and sang his way through the University of California and later was vocalist with several big orchestras. He is now one of Tin-Pan Alley’s best known song pluggers.
So you see, Mildred’s talent was largely a family characteristic. She first demonstrated her vocal ability and precociousness when, at the age of six, she sang a hot tune at a church benefit, much to her mother’s annoyance. Her first money job was playing piano in a motion picture theatre at the age 16.
She went to work for a music shop in Spokane, playing the piano and singing over songs for prospective purchasers of sheet music and when she went to Seattle to visit an aunt, she looked for something similar to do there. She found it, behind the music counter of a five and ten cent store, demonstrating popular songs. While working there a night club operator from Vancouver, British Columbia, came along, heard her singing and playing and offered her a professional engagement before an audience as an entertainer.
“So you see,” she explains, “it is largely a matter of getting the breaks. If that night club owner hadn’t come along I might still be hanging a piano and singing my head off for 25 center a copy for the store and an altogether too small salary to keep myself in perfume and jewelry, my two greatest extravagance.
“I think there are probably quite a few girls behind the music counters today who would have a real chance to make good if given the opportunity of appearing professionally somewhere. This is one possible source of talent which seems to have been entirely overlooked by the sharp eyes of the talent scouts for motion picture companies and broadcasting stations.”
Before long, “Rink,” as Mildred has been nicknamed by her friends, went to Los Angeles and joined a Fanchon and Marco stage unit show. These units of entertainment appeared in principal theatres on the West Coast and, in recent years, have travelled throughout the nation. After a number of tours for Fanchon and Marco she began making short featurettes for Vitaphone and thus realized a childhood ambition to become a movie actress.
Now it must be mentioned that in those early days of her professional stage and movie career, she was a petite little thing, weighing only about 100 pounds, for all of her five feet and four inches of height. Perhaps this will sound strange to you who only know her as a radio star as she is today—a fat, jolly singer of spirituals and hot rhythm songs weighing around 190 pounds.
But first let us tell you that it was Paul Whiteman who discovered Mildred Bailey when he went to Los Angeles to make his first movie, “The King of Jazz,” for Universal Pictures. Her unique singing style matched the rhythm of Whiteman’s music and he engaged her to sing with his band as the featured feminine vocalist.

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Snapshot in Prose: Al Jolson

We’re of the opinion that no performer’s appeal has dropped as much over time as Al Jolson‘s.

By that we mean, given what a huge star he once was, it’s intriguing how dated and, well, odd he sounds to many people today.

Not that any other performers who became stars in the first three decades of the 20th century are moving many records (or mp3s) these days, but Jolson, to our ears, stands nearly alone among the stars of that era as a not terribly easily acquired taste for 21st century listeners.

This profile, first published in 1934, reviews Jolson’s rise from a hardscrabble childhood to unparalleled stardom. Give it a read, and see if you’re won over. And when you reach the end, we’ve included a pair of Jolson recordings for your consideration. “Sonny Boy,” especially, is Al at his most … emotive.

“MAM-MY! Mam-my!” boomed the great, heart-to-heart voice of Al Jolson, and the whole world shouted, “Here I is!”
With storms of wild applause, vast audiences filled the pockets with their idol, who had grown up from hungry, little Asa Yoelson, to overflowing with millions of dollars.
Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on May 26th, 1886, Asa soon was taught the chants and songs of the Hebrew religion that he might become the seventh in a direct line of Yoelson cantors.
While he was still a small child, the family came to America. They settled in Washington, D. C., where the father became cantor in a synagogue.
Now that the little fellow’s tummy was gratefully full, he suffered the pangs of another hunger. It was for high adventure, a restless craving for romance.
He no longer wanted to be a cantor, but the grandeur and throbbing sorrow in the music of his people had already left their indelible beauty in his voice.
To escape the boredom of his childhood, Asa ran away. He rode to New York in a freight train to join his brother. Falling asleep on a park bench, the little youngster awoke to find that someone had stolen his shoes. His brother sent him home.
Next, eager for excitement, Asa ran away with a circus. Discovered, the manager said he was too young. He sent him right back to Washington.
Undaunted, the exuberant runaway wandered off to the army camp of a regiment in the Spanish-American War. The attractive, brown-eyed lad instantly won the friendship of the soliders. They enjoyed his rare ability as an entertainer, and adopted him as their mascot. However, they urged him to return to his parents.
His last runaway was with a burlesque show, when again he was promptly sent home.
Asa had become resigned to wait in Washington until he owned his first pair of long pants. With the long pants, he put on a new name, Al Jolson. The combination seems to have brought him good luck. He found work as a super in “Children of the Ghetto,” at the Herald Square Theatre, New York.
A little later Al joined his brother, and a friend named Palmer, in a vaudeville act. There followed years of one-night stands, traveling from coast to coast. He knew nights of near-despair, and days of hunger.
Al had to hunt for cheap rooms, and often he found them miserably cold or stiflingly hot. Loneliness and dreadful food were his frequent lot.
Following the San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906, he got a job in a Barbary Coast café. Here, Jolson created his own informal style of entertaining. Later, as the greatest box-office attraction on the American stage, he developed it into a real art. In this achievement, he stands supreme among the entertainers of our time.
To make himself heard over the din of the city’s reconstuction, the gay troubadour stood on the piano near the audience, he got down on his knees for “sob” songs, and carried his listeners into a “colored” heaven.
He was wearing black-face. To an unnamed, old negro dresser in a New York theatore goes the credit for Al’s make-up.
“Mister Jolson, why don’t yo’ try singin’ yo’ songs blacked up?” the wise old fellow had said to Al.
The suggestion turned the tide in Jolson’s career. The Barbary Coast crowds raved over him. The next year, he became a member of the Al Jolson became King of Broadway’s royal entertainers. The Shuberts signed him, in 1911, for musical shows at the Winter Garden Theatre. Gone were the one-night stands. The singing waiter of the Embarcadero became the biggest star on the Great White Way.
Jolson had sung to popularity more great songs than any other of the lionized singers. The list of “hits” he has made is staggering.
Al’s favorite stage role was in “Robinson Crusoe, Jr.” He proved the most successful and biggest drawing card the Winter Garden ever had.

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Snapshot in Prose: Bing Crosby

What a career Bing Crosby had. Is there anyone in popular culture who got his start in the 1920s who is as well remembered today as Der Bingle?

Perhaps Louis Armstrong.

Many folks 55 years old and younger will recall only the more sedate, older Bing, he of the briarwood pipes, stingy-brimmed fedoras, and cardigan sweaters.

But in his early years, Bing was like Elvis Presley—a white man singing music inspired and influenced by the music of the African-American community.

He also was something of a wild man off-stage, as he is said to have had, in those days, a penchant for going on alcohol-fueled tears.

By the time this profile was published in December 1935, Bing was long since a huge star, having conquered vaudeville, recordings, radio and movies. He had much great success still to come, but it’s interesting to consider this early look back at his rise to stardom.

Bing Crosby will tell you that he is the laziest man in the United States, but it is doubtful if a more ambitious and energetic person ever fought his way to the pinnacles of success.
A lazy man would have been content to do one thing. Bing, however, achieve his fame by doing well in half a dozen diversified fields of endeavor.
As a youngster, he was a star athlete. Growing up, he made himself an expert musician and a polished orchestra leader. Later came his success as a crooner and as the greatest entertainer in the history of the ether waves.
He followed this triumph with a thrilling and novel courtship of the sweet and beautiful cinema queen, Dixie Lee. Shortly afterwards, he became the first legitimate radio performer to make a permanent place in motion pictures. Finally, where an ordinary father would have been content with a single son, or even a daughter, Bing proceeded to have twin boys.
When the sun disappeared from view on May 2, 1904, a brand-new son brightened the home of the Crosby family in Tacoma, Washington. This newcomer, who is also the hero of our tale, was given the rather pretentious name of Harry Lillis Crosby, Jr. Papa Crosby had to do an awful lot of pickle manufacturing to provide for his seven young ones, so he took the whole caravan to Spokane, where business opportunities seemed brighter.
It was in Spokane that the resounding, vocal “Bing!” Bing!” which accompanied the waving of young Harry’s hand-made gun in a game of “cops and robbers,” earned for him the nickname that clings to him to this day.
As a boy Bing had no chance to get the habit of being lazy, what with splitting kindling, shoveling snow, mowing lawns, running errands, selling papers, and going to school. He did, however, manage to find time for athletics.
He had found visions of himself decked out in a grand uniform and playing shortstop for one of the big league teams. One day, when he was about twelve, he entered every event in a neighborhood swimming meet and wound up with nine first place medal, and two seconds.
Bing received his baptism of grease paint while attending Gonzaga High School in Spokane. One night, playing a dead Caesar, he turned a tragedy into a comedy by leaping upstage to dodge the falling curtain. After school he worked in the prop department of a local theatre, and broadened his knowledge of life behind the footlights.
Finding that he still had a few minutes of leisure each day, Bing began to deal out punishment to the drums in the school orchestra. The summer that he was sixteen he became a lumberjack in a relative’s logging camp, and in this capacity did more damage to his own person than he did to the forest. Bad cuts above each knee forced him to retire.
That fall he entered Gonzaga University with the idea of becoming a lawyer, but football, baseball and the glee club received most of his attention and efforts. The average person would have found it hard to keep up with such a schedule.
Together with a classmate, he organized a seven-piece band that was soon a necessary part of all the college parties. Bing played the traps and sang the vocals. The manager of a vaudeville house heard the band, liked it and engaged it for an indefinite engagement at his theatre.
This settled, once and for all, the profession Bing was going to follow. He and Al Rinker, his school chum, went to Los Angeles, where Rinker’s sister, Mildred Bailey, secured them employment in the Tent Café. After that they toured the Pacific Coast in vaudeville.
Back in Los Angeles at the Metropolitan Theatre, they sang one night for an audience that included Paul Whiteman. They did so well that the portly maestro signed them immediately. He took the young vocalists East, where an addition to their party made them the famous “Rhythm Boys.”
In three years with Whiteman their voices became known from coast to coast. In 1930 the trio was signed to sing at the Cocoanut Grove. It was here that Crosby began to make a name for himself as a soloist. He made records which became best-sellers.

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