Happy 115th birthday, Louis Armstrong!

The great Louis Armstrong was born 115 years ago today in New Orleans, Louisiana. Here are 10 LA Did-You-Knows:

  • Armstrong was the grandson of slaves.
  • He grew up rough in the Storyville section of New Orleans and as a sometimes-delinquent teenager, he found himself more than once sent to the Colored Waifs’ Home for Boys. It was there that he honed his abilities in playing the cornet.
  • The young Armstrong played with many bands in the Crescent City, but it was his time with band of Fate Marable‘s riverboat outfit that perhaps proved most influential in his style and ability. He once referred to his time with Marable as “going to the University.”
  • His nickname morphed from Satchelmouth to Satchmo during a 1932 European tour when an editor of a London music magazine referred to him by that soubriquet, perhaps based on a shorthand version of Satchelmouth in his notes.
  • Armstrong tended to remember faces but not names, so he made it a practice to call “Pops” anyone whose name was eluding his memory. Eventually, friends turned that around on him, and it became another of the nicknames by which he was known.
  • Armstrong claimed most of his life to have been born on July 4, 1900, but some years after he died, a birth record was discovered that revealed his true birth date.
  • Armstrong was unfamiliar with both the song Hello, Dolly! and the show it came from when he recorded it in 1964. It became his first No. 1 hit.
  • An avid user of a herbal laxative called Swiss Kriss, he adhered to the questionable belief that the regular use of laxatives was key to good health.
  • Armstrong is said to have coined the slang terms “cat” (a jazz musician) and “chops” (a musician’s skill with his instrument).
  • Louis Armstrong’s home in the Corona section of Queens, New York, where he and his fourth wife, Lucille, settled in in 1943, is now a museum and remains furnished much as it was when the pair resided there.

Happy birthday, Satchmo, wherever you may be!

Louis Armstrong

Happy Birthday, Smith Ballew!

If you turned on your radio in the 1920s and early 1930s (or, for that matter, if you tuned into Cladrite Radio right now), you wouldn’t have to wait long before you heard the crooning of one of a handful of popular male vocalists: Chick Bullock, Scrappy Lambert, Dick Robertson and a few others.

These weren’t the biggest stars of the day—they didn’t rank up with, say, Bing Crosby or Rudy Vallée—but they were among the busiest singers for hire, performing and recording with a lengthy roster of the most popular orchestras of the day, and, depending upon which contractual restrictions they were violating at the time, often being credited under various pseudonyms.

And probably as busy as any of them was Smith Ballew, who was born 114 years ago today in Palestine, Texas. Ballew was a popular radio singer and sang on literally hundreds of records. He was so busy that he once reported for for-hire session at a recording studio in NYC with no earthly idea who he was to be singing with that day—it turned out to be Duke Ellington and his orchestra.

Smith Ballew

After this busy phase of his career, Smith Ballew became a singing cowboy in the movies, starring in 17 pictures between 1936 and 1951. He retired from Hollywood after that, moving back to the Lone Star state, where he took a position as manager in the missiles division of an aircraft company. He passed away in 1984.

Happy birthday, Mr. Ballew, and thanks for the musical memories!

Happy New Year from Your Pals at Cladrite Radio!

Cab Calloway and his orchestra at NYC’s Cotton Club on New Year’s Eve, 1937? That would make for a memorable New Year’s Eve, indeed! Where do we buy our time-machine tickets?

Happy New Year to Cladrite readers and listeners everywhere! If Cladrite Radio goes off the air tomorrow, as we fear it will (it’s out of our hands—see this post for more info), please keep your eyes on this space, where we’ll post any new developments.

Happy New Year -- Cab Calloway and his orchestra at the Cotton Club on New Year's Eve, 1937

Happy Birthday, Edward G. Robinson!

Edward G. Robinson, born Emmanuel Goldenberg 122 years ago today in Bucharest, Romania, is an actor we’ve long felt doesn’t receive his due. Sure, he’s still remembered, but it’s as a movie star, not an actor—a cliché, almost, who played nothing but gangsters and delivered his lines with a sneer. (“We’re doing things my way, see, or it’ll be just too bad for you, see..”) [Please note: The preceding was not a line of dialogue Mr. Robinson ever actually delivered; we made it up.]

But Edward G. Robinson was very much capable of nuanced and moving performances, and it’s almost a shame that he was so effective in tough guy roles. They made him a star and no doubt put a lot of money in his bank account, but they have colored the public’s perception of Robinson’s talents to this day.

Edward G. Robinson

In movies such as Double Indemnity, The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street, he plays not tough guys, but intellectuals, men who rely on brains rather than brawn or bullets, and in two of those pictures (and in others he appears in), there is a gentleness, even a meekness, to his characters that causes them to be taken advantage of, even victimized.

It’s ironic that Robinson came to be identified with tough guy roles, as in real life he was refined and cultured. He was a serious art connoisseur and a man of the theatre. He even co-authored a play with Jo Swerling.

But nowadays, when a comic attempts to reference the gangster movies of the 1930s, it’s usually Robinson they mimic (whether they realize it or not), and it’s Little Caesar and an assortment of other gangster roles that Robinson is remembered for. Not that he didn’t play them well—he obviously did—but he had much more range as an actor than he is given credit for today, and that’s a shame.

Happy birthday, Mr. Goldenberg, wherever you may be!

Happy 112th Birthday, Una Merkel!

In Herman Raucher‘s coming-of-age novel Summer of ’42, his teenaged protagonist (perhaps not coincidentally named … Hermie) has a big crush not on Lana Turner, Betty Grable, or Rita Hayworth, but on Penny Singleton, best known for portraying Blondie, wife to Arthur Lake‘s Dagwood in a long series of comic B-pictures.

Hermie was a little bit embarrassed by his preference in movie stars, but he figured there was not as much competition that way.

We have a similar little thing for Una Merkel, whose 112th birthday it is today. Una came to specialize in playing wise (and sometimes wisecracking), loyal second bananas to the leading ladies in films of the Pre-Code Era, but she was certainly not without her own charms, not the least of which was her Southern drawl.

Una Merkel

Ironically enough, it was Una who was first slated to play Blondie in that popular series of films before the role was finally awarded to Singleton.

Merkel was born Una Kohnfelder in Covington, Kentucky (we’ve long wondered at the choice of Merkel to replace Kohnfelder. It doesn’t seem the typical choice for a studio-concocted screen name) and began her career in silent movies. She’s listed in some sources as having appear in a 1924 short called Love’s Old Sweet Song and a feature film produced in Texas that same year called The Fifth Horseman. This now-lost (and good riddance) picture was an entry in the then-active genre of pro-Ku Klux Klan films, so perhaps the less said about it, the better. (We hope and trust our Una was just in it for the money.)

Merkel is said to have resembled Lillian Gish during the early years of her career, and she served as her stand-in for a while (on the 1928 classic The Wind, among others). After some time on Broadway, she was back before the cameras, portraying Anne Rutledge in D. W. Griffith‘s 1930 biopic, Abraham Lincoln.

As the years passed, Merkel got to stretch out a bit and her career showed staying power (her final role final role was in 1968, on the popular television program I Spy). Along the way, she appeared in Jean Harlow‘s final picture, Saratoga (1937), indulged in a hair-pulling catfight with Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again (1939), and even appeared in the 1961 Disney comedy The Parent Trap as the Evers’ family’s housekeeper.

But our crush stems from her work in the 1930s, when she was every glamour gal’s best pal in movies such as Red-Headed Woman, 42nd Street, and Bombshell.

Here’s a scene from the latter picture, featuring our Una opposite Harlow and Louise Beavers.

This is a revised version of a post that was originally published on Dec 10, 2013.