Here are 10 things you should know about Mary Carlisle, born 105 years ago today. She was never a A-list star, but over a 14-year career, she made her mark on Hollywood. And perhaps most impressive, she lived to be 104.
There are precious few stars of the 1930s who are still with us today, and it is with sadness that we share the news that Mary Carlisle, born Gwendolyn Witter in Boston, Massachusetts, has passed at the age of 104.
The last of the WAMPAS Baby Stars, an annual promotional campaign sponsored from 1922-1934 by the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers that honored 13 young actresses (the number was 15 in 1932, the year Carlisle was honored) whose careers showed great promise, Carlisle was discovered in 1928 by studio executive Carl Laemmle, Jr. while dining at the Universal Studios commissary. She was just 14.
In 1930, Carlisle signed a one-year contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, appearing mostly as a dancer in musical shorts, but it was with Paramount Pictures that she would achieve her greatest success. She appeared opposite Bing Crosby in three films—College Humor (1933), Double or Nothing (1937) and Doctor Rhythm (1938)—and would go on to appear in more than sixty pictures in the course of her 14-year career, most of them “B” pictures with titles reminiscent of the early scene in Preston Sturges‘ Sullivan’s Travels, in which successful but artistically frustrated director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is reminded of some of his greatest successes: Ants in Your Plants of 1939, Hey Hey in the Hayloft, and So Long, Sarong.
Some of Carlisle’s pictures could’ve been plugged right into John L. Sullivan’s filmography, titles like Hotel Haywire (1937), Ship A Hooey! (1932), and Handy Andy (1934), and we’d pay good money and line up early to see that triple feature tonight, if only some bijou were screening it.
Carlisle was wed to actor James Edward Blakeley (he would go on to become an executive producer at 20th Century-Fox) in 1942 and retired from motion pictures soon thereafter. But more than five dozen pictures is nothing to sneeze at, nor is living (and staying vital) to 104 years of age. What a rich, full life Ms. Carlisle enjoyed.
Rest in peace, Ms. Carlisle, and thank you.
This story originally appeared in a slightly different form on February 3, 2016.
Glenda Farrell, who took a backseat to no one in her portrayals of great dames, was born in Enid, Oklahoma, 113 years ago today.
Happy birthday, Ms. Farrell, wherever you may be…
Crooner-actor-comedian-show biz immortal Bing Crosby was born Harry Lillis Crosby was born 114 years ago today (or thereabouts—there’s some debate about the actual date, though the date now most widely agreed upon is May 3) in Tacoma, Washington. Here are 10 BC Did-You-Knows:
- A true middle child, Crosby was the fourth of seven children. His father, a bookkeeper, was of English descent and his mother was a second-generation Irish-American. The family relocated to Spokane, Washington, when Crosby was three. When Crosby was seven, a neighbor, inspired by the Bingville Bugle, a popular humor feature in the Sunday edition of Spokane’s Spokesman-Review newspaper, nicknamed him “Bingo from Bingville.” The name stuck (though the -o was soon dropped).
- Crosby attended Gonzaga University for three years, playing on the school’s baseball team as a freshman. He never graduated, but in 1937, the university gave him the benefit of the doubt, awarding him an honorary degree.
- At 20, Crosby was asked to join a group of younger musicians in forming a combo called the Musicaladers (as to how that name was pronounced, your guess is as good as ours). One of the members of that group was Al Rinker, brother to Mildred Bailey, who would go on to great success as a jazz and swing vocalist.
- In 1925, Crosby and Rinker headed for Los Angeles, where Bailey’s show-biz contacts helped them find work. They were eventually hired by the star-making orchestra leader Paul Whiteman. During a stint in New York City, the pair’s prospects were bolstered by the addition of pianist and songwriter Harry Barris. They became known as the Rhythm Boys and their collective star was on the ascent.
- Extensive touring with the Whiteman organization allowed the Rhythm Boys to hone their skills and they became stars in their own right, with Bing being singled out for solo work on record and over the radio airwaves. They soon left the Whiteman group and signed on with Gus Arnheim, whose orchestra was featured nightly at the Cocoanut Grove night club at L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel.
- Bing Crosby was increasingly the focus of the act and he eventually made the logical move toward being a solo performer. Both his recordings and his radio program became huge successes. Crosby performed on 10 of the most popular 50 recordings of 1931. He began in films making shorts for Mack Sennett and his first feature-length picture, The Big Broadcast (1932), made him all the more successful. He would be a top recording, radio and motion picture star throughout the 1930s and ’40s and in the 1950s, he conquered television, too.
- From the 1940s to the 1960s, Crosby was a minority owner (15%) of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team.
- Crosby was the first choice to portray Lieutenant Columbo on the popular television series Columbo. After Crosby declined, he role eventually went to Peter Falk.
- It could be said that, as Elvis Presley was to rock ‘n’ roll, Crosby was to jazz. He was one of the first—and certainly the most popular—white vocalists to embrace the new form of music. Jazz legend Louis Armstrong was an admirer of Crosby, describing his voice as being “like gold being poured out of a cup.”
- Crosby notched 38 No. 1 singles over the course of his career, topping even Presley and the Beatles in the category.
Happy birthday, Bing Crosby, wherever you may be!
The incomparable Ella Fitzgerald was born 100 years ago today in Newport News, Virginia. Here are 10 EF Did-You-Knows:
- Though Fitzgerald’s parents were never married, they had lived together for more than two years when she was born. When Fitzgerald was still a young girl, her mother and another partner moved together to Yonkers.
- Fitzgerald was an excellent student, despite changing schools with frequency. As a young girl, she loved to dance to jazz records, often performing for friends and classmates.
- Fitzgerald’s family was active in the church, so she grew up hearing hymns and sacred songs in that setting, but she also loved listening to jazz records, especially the recordings of Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and the Boswell Sisters (Connee Boswell was a particular favorite). “My mother brought home one of her records, and I fell in love with it,” she would later say. “I tried so hard to sound just like her.”
- When Fitzgerald was 15, her mother died from injuries suffered in a car accident, and Ella was sent to live with her aunt in Harlem. That didn’t go so well, and Fitzgerald soon became truant at school, her grades soon fell off and she was running with something of a rough crowd. She was sent first to an orphanage and later to a reform school, from which she escaped and took to living (and singing) on the streets.
- In 1934, when Fitzgerald was 17, she competed in an amateur night at the legendary Apollo Theatre. Her original intention was to dance on stage, but she decided at the last minute to sing, doing her best Connee Boswell impression in performing Judy and The Object of My Affection. She won the top prize of $25.00.
- Though she’s best remembered today as the kind of grand dame of jazz who played only the classiest of venues, Fitzgerald didn’t always soar in such rarified air: She began her career as just another girl singer for the Chick Webb Orchestra, singing pop and jazz hits for jitterbuggers in dance halls and ballrooms. Not long after her win at the Apollo, she was given the opportunity to perform with Webb at a dance at Yale University as an audition for long-term employment. Webb was skeptical of the gawky and somewhat disheveled Fitzgerald’s suitability for the job, but the Yale students and Webb’s band members both responded positively to her singing, and the job was hers.
- Soon thereafter She and the Webb outfit enjoyed several chart hits and Fitzgerald became a star in her own right, so much so that when Webb passed away in 1939, the orchestra was renamed Ella Fitzgerald and her Famous Orchestra.
- In 1942, the erstwhile Webb orchestra disbanded and Fitzgerald went out on her own as a solo artist. She enjoyed a number of hits as the swing era wound down and her scat singing abilities were put to good use during the bebop era. She was now viewed as one of the great jazz vocalists of the day.
- Fitzgerald eventually began to feel that she was being restricted by the public’s view of her as a bebop singer, Norman Granz, her manager, created the Verve label for her and in 1956 the pair worked together to record The Cole Porter Songbook.
- Over the next eight years, Fitzgerald recorded a series of eight songbooks, each dedicated to a different composer from the era of the Great American Songbook. It was a groundbreaking concept, one that brought Fitzgerald’s music to a new audience. The songbooks were arguably Fitzgerald’s greatest accomplishment, but she continued to work and grow as an artist as long as her health allowed it. Her last recordings were undertaken in 1991 and her final public performances came in 1993. When she died on June 15, 1996, Ella Fitzgerald was viewed almost universally as one of the greatest vocalists of the 20th century.
Happy birthday, Ms. Fitzgerald, wherever you may be!