In Your Hat, pt. 11

In Chapter 11 of In Your Hat, the 1933 tell-all memoir by Hat Check Girl to the Stars Renee Carroll, she shares tales of various characters she knew, including Jack Oakie, The Four Marx Brothers, Wilson Mizner, George Jessel, Harry Richman, Clara Bow, and Lilyan Tashman.

SARDI’S may be the place where the celebrities gather, but I get more slugs and buttons in my tip box than I can use in a year’s mending. Figure it out for yourself—the most highly paid performers and theatrical executives slip me slugs I wouldn’t even try on my molars to find out if they’re real or not.
And speaking of tipping and the things I find in my box at the end of the day, one of the most common phenomena are the little slips of paper upon which telephone numbers have been scribbled. I’ve got, or rather, I could have collected a private phone list than the Manhattan police department, not to mention the Broolynites and Bronxites who have been date-hungry.
Maybe I’m wrong, and that’s only one way of kidding me. Another way is the method Jack Oakie used, to make me feel like the butt of a bad joke.
Jack came into the restaurant one day and asked me in his really-not-obnoxious breezy manner how things were going. Just for the fun of it, I told him that I was going to get married the next day. I had no more idea of getting married, then, than the girl in the swing on the big Pepsodent sign. As some wit once said, marriage is an institution, and hwo wants to live in an institution?

But that clown of clowns, that zanie Oakie, set to work and circulated among Sardi’s guests, telling all his friends that I was an expectant mother. When people started to leave the place, I noticed that no one was looking me directly in the eyes, but instead were looking down at me and at the same time talking in a sort of reverentially hushed tone—the kind I gather that people assume when they accost young mothers-to-be.
I didn’t suspect then what was happening, but the next morning when packages began to arrive by every means of transportation except the pony express, I began to smell a good-sized rodent in Mr. Oakie’s direction. For people were sending me baby clothes—dresses, bibs, caps, towels, and all the other accessories necessary to have babies. The pay-off came when Oakie’s package arrived. It contained a dozen towels, stolen from a Pullman, three napkins from three different hotels and a couple of table cloths from a club. All of the Oakie presents were cut into reminiscent triangular shapes—with the names of the places from which they were filched neatly embroidered in the corner of each pseudo-diaper.
But the height of pure nuttiness was achieved by the Four Marx Brothers when they were making Animal Crackers and The Cocoanuts at the Astoria studio for Paramount.

The four boys, it would appear, didn’t care much about making any pictures at all, and when a scene was ready to be shot, one of the four was always missing from the set. When he was finally retrieved, a second one would have gone astray, and the hunt went on again.
While a scene was being shot, it was nothing for one of the four to do something unscreenable that would be discovered much later when the scene was being shown in the studio projection room. Then the whole thing would necessitate re-shooting, an enormous expense in motion pictures.
Once, while The Cocoanuts was being filmed, Harpo thought it a brilliant idea to unbutton some clothes and expose himself before the camera. No one seemed to notice this until the next day when the rushes were projected. The whole thing was hurriedly destroyed and had to be done all over again.
The same thing happened when the four were herded one day into the “still” studio at the plant for photographs to be used in advertising. While the photographer had his head beneath the focusing cloth, he did not notice any irrelevancies on Harpo’s part, particularly because the image is reflected upside down on the ground glass. But when the film was developed and printed, he found that something was in the picture that didn’t belong there and it was a sheer test of retouching art to get things back into shape again.
When the mad Marxes would be needed for a retake, someone would be sent to Groucho’s home in Long Island. “Sure,” Groucho would say, “I’d be perfectly glad to come to the studio tomorrow, bu you’d better see the other boys and get their consent, too. I can’t speak for all four.”
Then Harpo would say that if Chico would go, he would. Chico would say that he had an appointment with Groucho, and that if he would consent to cancel it, he’d be more than willing to come. Groucho meanwhile had disappeared, and then suddenly Harpo would send a wire from Philadelphia or some such out-of-the-way place, regretting his absence but pointing out that he had suddenly remembered a dentist’s appointment in the City of Brotherly Love.
One day the four of them were at the studio. Chico and Harpo were wandering through the halls without make-up and in their regular street clothes when they espied a pretty girl in the stenographic department. The girl didn’t recognize them as they entered, so Chico began to speak in his Italian dialect.
“I wanta job.”
“You’ll have to see the employment manager,” the girl told him politely.
“No. I wanta job, here and now.”
“But I can’t give you a job,” the girl protested.
“That’s alla right, my brother will taka the job you cannotta give me.”
“Sure Mike, we both want jobs, but not together and not here.”
By this time Harpo was sitting in the girl’s lap and trying to caress her. The girl, frightened at what she considered two maniacs, jumped from her seat and fled into the hall with the two in pursuit. They ran all over the studio, with both brothers trying to corner the girl and tickle her before someone tipped her off about the Marx Brothers.
Most of the stars come East once in a while, and when they do they drop around Sardi’s to pay their respects to the rest of the fraternity.
It was at the time that the Harry RichmanClara Bow affair was just beginning to peter out that Clara blew into town to make some location pictures in New York. The reporters were all on her trail trying to get statements about her forthcoming marriage to Richman, if any. Richman, wisely, was referring the matter to Bow.
Well, Bow came in at Grand Central one cool morning and Harry was waiting there for her, the center of an admiring throng. The photographers were there, too, and a couple of reporters from the tabs.
Clara blew in on the Century with Daisy DeVoe and flew into Harry’s arms. The cameras clicked, again and again, and the two renewed the clinch over to oblige the photographers. After this amatory greeting, Harry led Clara out a side entrance where a gorgeous, new Rolls Royce cabriolet was drawn up at the curb.
“Why, Harry,” Clara gushed. “Is this your new car?”
“No, dear,” Harry said. “It’s yours!
At which moment the cameras went into action again. And the two got into the luxurious car and rode away.
The point of the story is this: that Clara was never seen in the car again. Richman owned an Isotta for his own use, so the Rolls was only a demonstration model for the day only. Oh, well.
One of the snappiest retorts I’ve ever heard is the one Lewis Milestone likes to tell about Wilson Mizner, reputedly one of America’s foremost wits.
It happened that Mizner was walking a girl down Broadway and they passed the Palace where all good actors used to strut when “at liberty”. The girl with Mizner met a friend, and leaving Mizner standing alone, she went over and spoke to her acquaintance. A few minutes later she rejoined him as if nothing had happened and they continued walking down Broadway.
Mizner was burning up because he hadn’t been introduced and because he had felt so much the fool standing alone and waiting, first on one foot and then on the other, for the hoofers to get through gabbing. Finally, he couldn’t hold out any longer.
“Say,” he asked, “who was the fellow you stopped to speak with?”
“Oh, him?” she answered indifferently. “Just a fellow I met in the profession.”
“Whose profession,” snapped back Mizner. “His or yours?”
Then there’s always the story about Jack Osterman, the comedian who’s so funny nobody wants to give him work. They say he gets too clever and antagonizes his audience.
Once Jack got an out-of-town booking and promptly sent this wire to his manager:
Within a few hours he got a reply from the manager, who wired:
When I was trying to get gags for some stories, I went to see Georgie Jessel to see if he had anything that would make interesting copy. Georgie thought over my request for a long time.
“Let’s see.” He scratched his head and cupped his chin in his hands. “A funny story, huh? Let’s see now.”
This went on for about fifteen minutes. One of the best comedians on the stage couldn’t think of a gag! He keeps hundreds, thousands rollicking in their seats, but he couldn’t remember a single story from all his years of experience.
“What sort of a story do you mean, exactly?” he wanted to know again.
“It can be anything, George,” I explained. “An incident, something between you and a famous Broadwayite, a prank—how about a practical joke?”
He thought this over a long time. Finally he shook his head negatively. I found this hard to believe.
“You mean to tell me,” I said, “that you can’t remember a single practical joke from your career?”
George was hurt. He sat upright and faced me. He was very serious now.
“Listen,” he said. “When I was four I supported a family of parents and brothers and sisters. When I was seven I didn’t have roller skates, I didn’t have bicycle, I didn’t know what it was to ride on a pony. So practical jokes IA should have time for!”
I let it go at that. Georgie has a book that he’s written himself, an autobiography called An Old Man of 30. One of these days he’ll publish it, and we’ll see what a comedian thinks about behind his mask.
Just before Jessel made one of his numerous personal appearances at the Paramount Theatre, Lilyan Tashman also appeared before her dear public. She came in to Sardi’s one evening at nine o’clock. She was crying bitterly, and when she had begun to cry on my shoulder, I began to realize that dear Lil wasn’t exactly a teetotaler.
“Nobody loves me,” she sobbed, as if her heart would break. “Nobody loves me!”
It seems that she had suddenly decided that she wanted to hear Bing Crosby sing for her privately. This wasn’t possible, so the Paramount stage crew compromised by having a special chair rigged up for Lil in the wings.
When the wait for Crosby proved too tedious, La Tashman became bored and decided she’d have her own party. So she began whooping it up off-stage with a couple of enthusiastic “huzzahs” for anyone nearby. The stage hands were the nearest to her, and while the Paramount audience was still wondering who was shouting so loud backstage, they ushered unceremoniously into 44th Street.
And speaking of Bing Crosby, who is really one swell guy, reminds me of Jack Osterman’s perfect answer to Con Conrad, then the alleged manager of Russ Columbo, Bing’s alleged rival.
Conrad heard that Osterman was planning to go on the air and hurriedly phoned him.
“Jack,” raved Conrad, “let me be your manager and I’ll make you the biggest radio sensation of all time. Just look what I did for Columbo. Make me your manager, and I’ll make another Columbo out of you.”
“Ah,” niftied Jack as he hung up, “threatening me!”

* * * *  *

Here’s a little bonus treat for those of you who have read this far. The above-mentioned Jack Osterman is largley forgotten today, but he had a successful stretch in the 1920s and early ’30s before dying prematurely of pneumonia in 1939.

In 1929, Osterman made a Vitaphone short called Talking It Over. The film is lost, alas (barring a lucky discovery at some future date), but the audio is extant, and we’re sharing it with you below to give you an idea of Osterman’s act. We especially liked the line about his two weeks in Paris, but we won’t spoil it for you—give a listen.

Jack Osterman — “Talking It Over” (1929)

If you enjoyed this clip, don’t forget to pay a visit to our friends at The Vitaphone Project. They’re a non-profit group that is working hard to make sure that all Vitaphone materials, visual and aural, are preserved (they also reunite and restore the disparate parts whenever possible). Visit their web site and show your appreciation with a contribution; anything you can spare will be appreciated.

And tell ’em Cladrite Radio sent you.

< Read Chapter 10 | Read Chapter 12 >

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