Nora Bayes: Paying Tribute to a Legendary Performer

Nora Bayes, 1912A few dozen pop culture aficionados gathered in the Bronx on Saturday, April 21, 2018, to pay tribute to entertainer Nora Bayes, who was once one of the biggest stars in America.

If you’re thinking you’re not familiar with Bayes, think again. You could almost certainly hum a few bars of at least a couple of her biggest hits: Shine On, Harvest Moon, which she cowrote and had a big hit with in 1908, and George M. Cohan‘s Over There, which she popularized in 1917 during the buildup to the USA’s entry into World War I.

Bayes, a popular vaudevillian and Broadway star, was a larger-than-life figure, a diva ahead of her time. One of the highest-paid women in the world at the peak of her career, Bayes, a featured performer in the Ziegfeld Follies, was a rival to Sophie Tucker, a fellow Follies performer who is arguably better remembered today.

While she was still living, Nora Bayes had a West 44th Street Broadway theatre named after her, and her life story was told in a posthumous biopic, Shine on, Harvest Moon (1944), in which she was portrayed by Ann Sheridan (Frances Langford played Bayes in the 1942 Cohan biopic, Yankee Doodle Dandy).

Sheet music for 'Over There' with Nora Bayes picturedBayes’ personal life was also memorable: She married a succession of five men in an era when divorce was still scandalous (and not easily achieved).

When Bayes died of cancer in 1928 at age 48, fans thronged the sidewalks outside her Manhattan townhouse to watch as she was carried away in a silver casket. She was taken to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, but wasn’t buried right away; instead her remains were stored in a receiving tomb, a temporary resting place typically used only for a short period of time while burial arrangements are being made.

But arrangements for Bayes’ internment weren’t immediately forthcoming; in fact, she remained in that receiving tomb for 18 years, until 1948.

It’s not entirely clear why her fifth husband, Benjamin Friedland, didn’t arrange for her burial sooner. He continued to pay the monthly fees for her temporary…er, digs even after he remarried, and he willingly took on the responsibility of raising the three children Bayes had adopted before she and Friedland were wed.

Friedland never offered a public explanation for the lengthy delay—it’s been suggested (but not confirmed) that he wanted his first wife to buried with him when his time came—and he refused offers from Bayes’ fans and fellow performers to assume the task of making arrangements for her internment.

A portrait of Nora Bayes, painted during her lifetimeIt was only when Friedland died in 1946 that Bayes’ remains were finally interred, thanks to Friedland’s second wife, Louise Clarke Friedland, who purchased a Woodlawn plot large enough for five coffins and buried Bayes and Friedland side by side (the other three spaces remain unused—when she died in 1973, the second Ms. Friedland opted for cremation).

But though Bayes and Friedland were buried, both graves remained unmarked. Until Saturday, that is.

Last year, Michael Cumella, friend to Cladrite Radio and an expert on the popular culture of the first half of the twentieth century, began to do the legwork needed to finally see stone markers placed on Bayes’ (and Friedland’s) graves. Saturday’s unveiling of the markers was the culmination of months of hard work on Cumella’s part (and Woodlawn officials), and it was a festive occasion. Peter Mintun and Tamar Korn performed Bayes’ biggest hits, a number of Bayes’ original 78s were played on an antique windup phonograph, and a portrait of Ms. Bayes’, painted nearly a century ago and purchased (one might say rescued) a couple of years ago at an area flea market, was put on display for all to enjoy.

We like to think that somewhere Nora Bayes is smiling.

Meet Us at the Campus Theatre!

We’ve long had a great affinity for old movie theatres—we can think of no public spaces of which we’re more fond—and though we don’t think we’ve ever acknowledged it in this space, we get a great kick, too, out of venerable business establishments with “Campus” in their names. So when someone near and dear to us sent us this photograph of the Campus Theatre in Denton, Texas, our old heart went pit-a-pat.

The Campus, situated in downtown Denton, opened for business in 1949, intended to serve the students, employees and faculty members of a pair of nearby colleges: The University of North Texas and Texas Woman’s University. The first picture to screen at the Campus? I Was a Male War Bride, starring Denton native Ann Sheridan and Cary Grant.

It continued to be a going concern until 1985, when it was shuttered. A few years later, the theatre was purchased by the Greater Denton Arts Council, which operates it as a community performing arts center. We checked the calendar on their website and see no signs of motion pictures being exhibited there, which is disappointing, but perhaps we just didn’t dig deeply enough.

It’s a pet peeve of ours when classic theatres are preserved and restored, but their original reason for existing is ignored. By all means, play host to concerts, plays and high school talent shows, if you must, but if you’re not showing a movie (preferably a classic film from the Golden Age of Hollywood) at least once a month, you’re not doing right by that old bijou, we say.

Campus Theatre, Denton, Texas

Hollywood Quotes from Our Favorite Glamour Girls

Big news! We’re holding a giveaway! One lucky winner will receive this one-of-a-kind hardbound book that collects the wit and wisdom of 20 actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood, and it’s available only through Cladrite Radio! If you’ve enjoyed the Hollywood quotes we’ve shared with you in the past, you’ll want to own this volume! Ann Sheridan, Fay Wray, Myrna Loy, Barbara Stanwyck—they’re all here, and many more of your favorite actresses are represented, too!

To enter for your chance to win, just follow us on Twitter and retweet one of the giveaway announcements we’ll be posting through April 11. That’s all there is to it! But hurry—you only have until 6pm ET on Monday, April 11, to follow us and retweet one of our announcements!

Hollywood Quotes by Actresses of the Cladrite Era

Happy 112th Birthday, George Brent!

George Brent, born George Brendan Nolan 112 years today in Ballinasloe, County Galway, Ireland, enjoyed an odd sort of career. By any measure, he achieved great success, but outside movie-buff circles, he’s all but forgotten today. Odd, considering that when he arrived in Hollywood, he was touted as the next Clark Gable. The comparison seems almost laughable today, so low-key was Brent compared to the man once known as the King of Hollywood.

George Brent was a rebel during the Irish War of Independence, though how active he was is open to question; he acknowledged having served as a courier for IRA leader Michael Collins. In any case, the British government put a price on his head, at which point Brent (then Nolan) saw fit to hightail it to the United States.

Brent started his career in the theatre, touring in a production of Abie’s Irish Rose and acting in stock theatre around the country. In 1927, he debuted on Broadway in Love, Honor and Obey. Also in the cast? None other than Clark Gable.

Brent headed for Hollywood a couple of years later, appearing in minor roles for Universal and Fox before signing a contract with Warner Brothers in 1932. It was at Warners that Brent achieved his greatest success. Perhaps the greatest strength of his low-key (but hardly milquetoast) on-screen persona was that he was a perfect complement to strong leading women, holding his own but never overshadowing them.

George Brent

Given how little he’s remembered today, it’s remarkable to consider how often George Brent worked with some of the most iconic actresses of the Golden Age of Hollywood. He made eleven features with Bette Davis (enjoying an offscreen romance with her as well), six with Kay Francis, five with Barbara Stanwyck, four with Ruth Chatterton (to whom he was married from 1932–1934) and two with Myrna Loy. He also played opposite Ruby Keeler, Greta Garbo, Ginger Rogers, Madeleine Carroll, Jean Arthur, Merle Oberon, Ann Sheridan (to whom he was married from 1942–1943), Joan Fontaine, Claudette Colbert, Dorothy McGuire, Loretta Young, Lucille Ball and Yvonne De Carlo. That’s a line-up of costars that any leading man might envy.

By the late 1940s, Brent was appearing in mostly B pictures, and he retired from films in 1953, though he continued to act on television for another seven years. He was married five times, and if you read some of his early interviews, it’s not hard to see why most of those marriages didn’t work out. Brent clearly had no interest in being tied down and seemed to resent the responsibilities that relationships carried with them. “No woman will ever own me,” Brent once said. “I own myself.”

But he and his fifth wife, former model and dress designer Janet Michaels, were together for 27 years until she passed away in 1974.

George Brent, who suffered in later years from emphysema, died in 1979 in Solana Beach, California.

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