In Search of the Mysterious Mr. Moskowitz

Clockwise from upper left: Groucho Marx, Lee Tracy, Milton Wallace and Walter WinchellOne of the joys of being an old-movie buff is when an actor in a bit part sparks your interest and you start to do a little research on him or her, which causes you to tumble down a rabbit hole of odd facts and coincidences. Sometimes one finds unlikely connections between that unfamiliar performer and some much bigger names—such as when, say, Groucho Marx, Lee Tracy, and Walter Winchell have a connection to…Milton Wallace?

We recently attended a screening of Blessed Event (1932), a classic precode comedy in which Lee Tracy plays a character that was obviously inspired by gossip columnist Walter Winchell, who was all the rage back then.

We were especially excited to attend the screening, as we had been informed that some footage that had long since been excised from the picture had been restored. Reportedly, it had been there all along, but only in the print that belonged to the Library of Congress. Virtually no one knew about it till Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at NYC’s Film Forum, screened the print at the TCM film festival and realized what a find he’d uncovered.

For those not familiar with Winchell, we’ll catch you up just a bit: A former vaudevillian, he turned to a scandal-mongering form of journalism when his performing career wound down. His popular newspaper column was syndicated and he had a huge following on national radio, too. He was known for coining any number of phrases still used today, including the above-cited “blessed event” used to signal the pending birth of a baby (the guardians of broadcasting decency in those days were convinced that American ears were too tender for that oh-so-coarse term “pregnant”).

Winchell’s broadcasts included remotely broadcast performances by bands and singers around the country, and right before switching to those remote locations, he would blow a siren whistle and say, “Okay, America!”

In the film, as the title suggests, Tracy’s Winchell-esque character relies on the same “blessed event” catchphrase that Winchell used. But in the restored scene, a short, middle-aged, somewhat stereotypical (though not, in our opinion, disparagingly so) Jewish man, played by one Milton Wallace, shows up at the newspaper office to give Tracy a “blessed event” tip: He, Mr. Moskowitz, and his wife are soon going to have their seventh child and he thinks maybe Tracy would want to put that into his column.

The scene’s humor stems largely from the fact that Mr. Moskowitz is not rich, famous, glamorous or powerful so, though he claims his wife regularly reads Tracy’s column, he clearly doesn’t fully understand the milieu in which Tracy traffics.

Tracy is out when Moskowitz arrives so the father-to-be is forced to make his pitch to Stevie (the delightful Ruth Donnelly), Tracy’s personal assistant. But Tracy returns before Moskowitz leaves, and he plays along as if he’ll run the story, even giving him an “Okay, Mr. Moskowitz!,” followed by a siren whistle before the proud papa departs.

An entertaining scene all around, but it seemed oddly familiar, and it didn’t take us long to figure out why.

Blessed Event, a Warner Brothers picture, debuted in theatres on September 10, 1932, just three weeks after the Marx Brothers‘ fourth feature film, Horse Feathers, was released by Paramount Pictures, and oddly enough, Groucho Marx has an “Okay, Mr. Moskowitz!” moment in that film—complete with siren whistle.

In Horse Feathers, Groucho plays the new president of Huxley College, and the film’s climax occurs during Huxley’s football game against its arch-rival, Darwin College. At one point, Groucho makes his way to the press booth, where a radio announcer is doing play-by-play of the game. The announcer invites Groucho to say a few words to the radio audience, and Groucho obliges…

“Last week, in this same hour, I told you that Mrs. Moskowitz was expecting a blessed event,” Groucho says in his typical rapid-fire fashion. “Well, last night Mrs. Moskowitz had twins. Okay, Mr. Moskowitz! [blows siren whistle]”

It’s not so unusual that two movies of that era would reference Winchell—after all, he was a major media figure at the time—but for two movies, released just three weeks apart, to make virtually the same joke with the same name—it seems too random to be random. We wondered if maybe there was a real-life Mr. Moskowitz who’d gained fame in 1932 for fathering a number of children and was therefore ripe for reference in a motion picture, much as the Dionne quintuplets are mentioned in so many movies of their day.

However, we’ve been able to find no evidence that such a person existed, so for now, we’re stumped.

But what about Milton Wallace, who portrayed Mr. Moskowitz opposite Tracy and Donnelly? He appeared in 15 films—13 features, two shorts—between 1932 and 1947, and he went uncredited in 14 of them. Only in the 1944 PRC programmer Seven Doors to Death is his name seen in the credits (in that picture, Wallace played Donald Adams, a pawnbroker—he also played a pawnbroker a year later in The Lost Weekend).

Wallace was born on September 24, 1887. The 1930 census lists his birthplace as Austria-Poland and his native tongue as Polish, and states that he immigrated to the United States in 1888 (in the company of a parent or two, we would assume). Given that all other sources cite Austria as Wallace’s native land, we’re inclined to believe this latter account.

Milton Wallace's World War I draft registration card width=From his 1917 World War I draft registration card, we learn that Wallace was a traveling salesman for Shapiro, Bernstein and Co., a sheet music concern that published popular music, specializing in novelty songs (the company published Yes, We Have No Bananas in 1924, though Wallace was no longer their employee by then).

Wallace’s draft card lists his home address as the Hotel Hayward in Rochester, New York, which leads us to suspect that his territory was New England. We also learn from the draft card that Wallace had bad feet and arches and a defective right eye.

Wallace listed himself as an alien (though he’d been in the United States for more than a quarter-century by then, and almost certainly was a naturalized citizen) and cited, where the card asked, “Do you claim exemption from draft (specify grounds)?”, his “dependent wife.”

In 1920, Milton and his wife, Anna, who was also born in Austria, lived on New York’s far Upper West Side, in an apartment near 212th and Broadway; that year’s census stated that he was working in vaudeville. By the mid-1920s, Wallace had made the leap to Broadway, making his debut on the Great White Way as a replacement cast member in the long-running comedy Abie’s Irish Rose.

By 1930, the Wallaces were residing near 141st and Broadway—Wallace, his two sons and a pair of boarders, that is. That year’s census makes no mention of Anna; in fact, Wallace is listed as a widower, we’re sad to report. Wallace’s occupation in 1930? Real estate broker, though he’d be back on Broadway in late October of that year, appearing in a short-lived drama called Puppet Show. The following October, he was back on the Great White Way in a drama called Enemy Within and in 1932, he originated the aforementioned role of Mr. Moskowitz in the Broadway production of Blessed Event.

It may well be that being cast in the movie adaptation of that play is what brought Wallace west. His turn as Mr. Moskowitz in the movie version of Blessed Event was his second film appearance; the first was a small part in MGM’s Skyscraper Souls, which, though it hit theatres a month earlier than Blessed Event, could very well have been filmed after it.

On February 19, 1935, Wallace married another Anna—a Maryland native named Anna Welch. The Wallaces lived on North Las Palmas Avenue, just south of Sunset Boulevard, from at least 1935-1940. By 1942, according to Wallace’s World War II draft registration card (interesting that even men in their 50s, as Wallace was, had draft cards then), they had moved five blocks almost due east to 1404 Cole Place.

Milton Wallace's World War II draft registration card width=The 1940 census tells us that Wallace’s formal education ended after the eighth grade and that he was, at the time, the proprietor of a liquor store. His 1942 draft card provides a bit more info: His spirits emporium was located at 6434 Sunset Boulevard, near Cahuenga Boulevard, less than a 10-minute walk from his home. Given that he averaged just one uncredited movie role a year, it makes sense that Wallace might have needed a reliable source of income outside of show business. One has to pay the bills, after all, and a single bit part per year doesn’t exactly put sauerkraut on the table.

Aside from his sporadic (and mostly uncredited) film work, we couldn’t learn any more about Wallace’s life after 1942. He died in Los Angeles on February 16, 1956.

But now we’re wondering about Wallace’s two Annas. Did he have a type? Did Anna #1 resemble Anna #2 in personality, temperament and appearance? Or were they tall and short, slim and stout, blond and brunette? Or was he just drawn to the name “Anna”? (We’ve long had a thing for women named Fritzi, which may explain why we remain unattached.) It’s a mystery, dear reader, that may go forever unsolved.

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3 thoughts on “In Search of the Mysterious Mr. Moskowitz

  1. In 1888, when he was born, there WAS no Poland – he would have been born in Austria-Hungary.  By 1930, the nation had been reborn, so to speak, which produced the Poland reference.

    Without knowing his town of birth, however, it can not be confirmed one way or the other whether or not his town was then in Poland, proper, or an area some considered part of “historic Poland” but which no longer was…say, western Ukraine.

    “Polish,” for a century or more, was merely an ethnicity.

  2. So I read…”From his 1917 World War I draft registration card, we learn that Wallace was a traveling salesman for Shapiro, Bernstein and Co.”

    Strangely seven years earlier Chico Marx ( then known as Leonard) was a song-plugger and then manager of the Philadelphia PA office of the very same music publishers Shapiro, Bernstein, and Co.

    • Good catch–thanks, Gary. We knew that about Chico, but didn’t make the connection when composing this post.

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