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.

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Happy 107th Birthday, Ruby Keeler!

Actress, singer and dancer Ruby Keeler was born Ethel Ruby Keeler 107 years ago in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Here are 10 RK Did-You-Knows:

  • Her father was a truck driver who moved his wife and six kids to New York City when Ruby was three years old in search of better pay.
  • Ruby’s family couldn’t afford dance classes for the aspiring hoofer, but she took occasional lessons at the parochial school she attended.
  • When she was 13, Keeler lied about her age (the law required chorus girls be at least 16) and attended a cattle call audition for a Broadway producer. She was hired for the chorus in George M. Cohan‘s The Rise of Rosie O’Reilly (1923). A year later, she was working in the chorus at a Tex Guinan speakeasy called El Fay.
  • After appearing in a few more Broadway shows, Keeler married Al Jolson and moved west to Hollywood with him. Though the marriage lasted eleven years, it was not a happy one and Keeler was hesitant to discuss it in later years. When a biopic was made about Jolson’s life in 1946, Keeler refused permission to use her name in the movie.
  • Her first credited movie role was in 42nd Street (1933), in which she played a young Broadway chorus girl who gets her big break with the star of the show breaks a leg (literally).
  • Keeler’s greatest success in pictures came in a string of Busby Berkeley musicals in which she starred opposite boyish crooner Dick Powell.
  • Keeler retired from show business in the 1940s, but made a triumphant return to the Broadway stage in 1971 in a revival of the play No, No, Nanette. The production ran for 861 performances.
  • Keeler was one of several Canadian actresses who were stars in Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s, including Mary Pickford, Marie Dressler and Norma Shearer.
  • Keeler’s movie career was brief; she starred in just eleven feature-length motion pictures from 1933 to 1941. She later made the occasional cameo appearance in movies and on television, but these were few and far between.
  • Keeler’s nephew was Ken Weatherwax, who played Pugsley on the 1960s sitcom The Addams Family.

Ruby Keeler

Times Square Tintypes: Jed Harris

In this chapter from his 1932 book, Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky profiles theatrical producer Jed Harris.

IN GOD’S IMAGE

He is Mrs. Horowitz’s little boy, Jacob. But in the bright lights of Broadway, it’s JED HARRIS.
Caricature of Jed HarrisFour years ago he knew where the Automat was but he didn’t have the nickel. Today he is worth over a million dollars. In the days when he didn’t have a penny he told everybody he could make a fortune whenever he was ready.
He wears only the top part of his pajamas.
Was born in Vienna and came to this country at the age of three. He has three sisters and one brother.
His personal appearance is a minor thing with him. He has had the same hat since he’s been in the show business. If it isn’t the same hat it looks the same.
Is, however, particular about his shoes. They must always look like new. Every other week he purchases a new pair.
The script of Broadway, originally titled Bright Lights, was rejected by almost every theatrical manager. George M. Cohan turned it down because he didn’t like the characters. William A. Brady because he couldn’t get Tex Guinan to play the hostess. A. H. Woods refused, writing these noble words across the title page: “Not with my money, sweetheart.” On a first reading even Jed Harris rejected it. Six months later, reading it for the second time, he bought it and became famous.
He carries very little money with him. Generally allows someone else to grab the check.
He hates to shave due to the fact that he has “tissue paper” skin. No matter how careful the barber is, his face always bleeds after a shave.
Seldom does he drink. He likes to pretend that he is drunk.
His ambition is to have his own ocean liner.
During rehearsals of a play he is a mad man. For the first couple of weeks he has no confidence in the script. After he has passed through that period he believes he has the greatest play in the world.
Every Friday evening he visits his parents and has noodle soup. They still live in the same house in Newark.
He plays the violin well and is quite adept at card tricks, which he learned from a vaudeville magician. At parties he entertains by reciting complete acts of his plays.
Does most of his work between midnight and four in the morning in the office.
His favorite meal is one consisting of beans, hash, pickles and near beer.
He was fired from the publicity job of a Jewish charity organization by a man who is now doing theatrical interviews for a leading metropolitan newspaper. He has issued a standing order that this man must never be permitted to interview him. He is careful, however, that this interviewer receives aisle seats for all his shows.
With the money he made from Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em he got married.
No matter who the author or star is, if he doesn’t like the play, he closes it out of town. He tried for two years to get Ina Claire to appear in a play for him. Then he closed that play, The Gaoler’s Wench, forty-eight hours before it was due on Broadway.
He possesses the intuition of a woman.
Once he talked a college chum into taking him to Europe. Quarreled with the chap in Paris. After bumming about London he worked his way back to America in the stokehole of a boat.
He is afraid of old age.
His favorite photograph is the one in which he is sitting on a table with his hands carefully folded in his lap. His shoulders are rounded and his eyes have that faraway look—like a genius.
He can talk anybody into anything.
Works on the script of every play he produces. Always suggests new situations to be written into the play. Twenty-four hours later he telephones the playwright to inquire if the suggested bit has been written. If it hasn’t he merely says: “If you’ll do that you’ll make me very happy” and hangs up.
Dreads the impact of cold water. Whenever he goes to the seashore he sits on the sand all day without going into the water.
He does everything in high gear. Worries about things. Delays doing them until he has worked himself into an emotional state. Then he is a tornado. Nothing can defeat him.
Lives in a duplex apartment in Sutton Place. His second ride in the elevator in that building cost him exactly $212.
Recently in a restaurant a waiter wishing to impress the people at his table pointed and said: “See that man. That’s Jed Harris. He shaves and it comes right out again.”
Noel Coward calls him “Destiny’s Tot.”
On the opening night of his plays he is home sleeping. Whenever he wishes to break an appointment or avoid a tense situation he goes to bed.
His favorite character in all history is Jed Harris.

Time Square Tintypes: Sam H. Harris

In this chapter from his 1932 book, Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky profiles Broadway producer and theater owner Sam H. Harris.
 

HIS WORD IS HIS BOND

IN a business where an ironclad contract often becomes a mere scrap of paper, there is a man whose word is his bond. He often closes an important deal by merely a handshake. The man is SAM H. HARRIS.
Caricature of Sam H. HarrisThe “H” is for Henry, although he likes to believe it stands for “Hits.”
His first theatrical job was at Miner’s Theater. Was employed to trail John W. Kelly, the Rolling Mill man, a star of the times. When Kelly went out for a drink he played no favorites. He gave every saloon along the Bowery a break. Harris’s task was to tag after him and bring him back to the theater in time to go on.
When a young girl comes to him, anxious to get into show business, he advises her to go home and get married.
At twenty-two he owned six horses. Entered four of them in a seven-horse race. They finished fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh. He immediately traded his stable of horses for a bulldog.
His favorite expression: “You can play only one way—straight.”
Was once part of one of the most successful partnerships in the theatrical business: Cohan and Harris. That firm dissolved, friendly, during the actors’ strike. Cohan picked up a blotter, which had his picture in one corner and Harris’s in another. Tearing the blotter, he tossed the half with Harris’s picture to him and said: “Sam, we’re through.” That’s all there was to it.
His trousers can stay up without support of either a belt or suspenders.
Always sits in the last row of the balcony at the opening of his plays.
Is the only theatrical producer to have the honor of having a book dedicated to him by Alexander Woollcott.
He hasn’t a gray hair in his head. Bets have actually been made that he never will have a gray hair.
His idea of a swell meal is a good bowl of vegetable soup.
Any play he produces must have these two requisites: In his own words, “It must add up at the finish.” Secondly, it must contain at least one character for whom the audience will root.
He never harbors a grudge.
Was once in the prize-fighting racket. Trained his protégé faithfully. Only to see him knocked out in the first five minutes of action. While this man was being counted out, he was in the other corner, signing up the winner. You’ve probably heard of the guy—Terry McGovern.
He eats chop suey only on rainy days.
In his opinion there is no man in the world who knows the theater as well as George M. Cohan.
Every time he is about to close a show, his comment is: “I can’t go along with it.”
Is now the owner of a fine stable of horses. He names his horses after fond memories. One is called Terry McGovern. Another is known as Sadie Thompson.
As a kid he greatly admired John Drew. Although just getting out of short pants he grew a heavy mustache in order to look like his idol.
His favorite author is George S. Kaufman. And, as far as music is concerned, he taste begins and ends with Irving Berlin.
He once worked in a hat store on Grand Street. Every week he had to make a delivery away uptown, at Seventy-second Street. For this he was given a quarter for carfare. He walked, thus giving a dollar a month extra to his mother. Every month his mother had to buy him a pair of shoes costing a dollar and a quarter. A little figuring and shortly he was told to spend the quarter for carfare. His economy was costing the family money.
He will play cards with anybody in the world but Harpo Marx.
His office is a studio room in the Music Box Theatre. A wall door leads to an especially constructed dungeon. Inside there is a fully equipped bar. The entrance is guarded by a cuckoo clock. While leaning against the bar the pressing of a button will produce a beautiful scenic effect. The ceiling becomes “Blue Heaven” and the stars twinkle.
When an actress’s performance pleases him he expresses his delight by saying: “She gives me a lump.”

Times Square Tintypes: John Golden

In this chapter from his 1932 book, Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky profiles theatrical producer John Golden.
 

“PURE AS THE DRIVEN SNOW”

JOHN GOLDEN. He’s the only man who produces clean sex plays. Yet he always manages to give the public what it wants. A shrewd showman, he realizes the value of publicity. Started the “clean” gag because of its healthy box office appeal. It has “it.”
Caricature of John GoldenWas once a bricklayer and the vice president of a chemical company. From the experience gained at the latter he is proficient in making gin.
He wrote the song “Poor Butterfly,” with Raymond Hubbell and Charles B. Dillingham. In fact, his managerial career started on a song. His royalty check for “Goodbye, Girls, I’m Through,” was $40,000. Gave it to Mrs. Golden for a present. She loaned it back to him to produce Turn to the Right.
His favorite actor is Muni Weisenfrend. He never says this without adding: “And Otto Kahn agrees with me.”
Is very much interested in what makes an audience go to a play. Once distributed a circular during the run of Pigs inquiring, “What made you attend this show?” Seventy per cent of the answers were variations of “Because a friend told me about it.”
As a bricklayer he helped build the Garrick Theatre.
For the last thirty years the annual Lambs’ Washing has been held on his estate at Bayside.
He was a partner of Cohan and Harris in the production of Hawthorne of the U. S. A. His task was to pal about with Douglas Fairbanks, seeing that the young acrobat didn’t hurdle over taxicabs and climb up buildings.
He is superstitious. Likes to have a numeral in the title of his plays. Remember: The 1st Year, 2 Girls Wanted, 3 Wise Fools, 4 Walls and 7th Heaven. Considers 27 his lucky number. In roulette and other numerical games of chance he will bet huge amount on it.
He organized the Producing Managers Association. This led to the famous actors’ strike.
The man he quotes most is Ring Lardner.
Is not fussy about clothing. Never goes to a store to purchase wearing apparel. If he needs another tie, shirt or suit, he merely telephones for it.
Thinks Atlantic City and Miami are the only vacation spots worth knowing.
He is one of the few producers who treat the theater as if it were a business. Is in his office by nine every morning and leaves at five. Is in bed every night at ten. He never attends the theater in the evenings. Goes only to matinées. Misses every opening night. Even his own.
Owns the original Old Kentucky Home, having bought the Stephen Foster homestead in Federal Hill to save it from being torn down.
He realizes the value of flattery. Gets the most out of people he is associated with by using it.
His favorite tryout town is Elmira, N. Y. Believes it to be lucky and opens all his shows there.
Was the first to cover the front of a theatre with an electric sign. Did it with 3 Wise Fools at the Criterion. Then the movies took up the idea . . . And how!
He hates the word “clean.” Refrains from using it in his conversations. When it slips out accidentally, he looks embarrassed.
He has collaborated on songs with Irving Berlin, Douglas Fairbanks, Oscar Hammerstein, Victor Herbert and Woodrow Wilson.
Always puts on his glasses when he talks on the telephone.
His hobby is collecting “the key to the city.” He has framed in his office keys to twenty-seven of the most important cities in the United States.
He hates dogs and cringes when he sees one.
Has a barber shop in his office, fully equipped. Every day at twelve a barber appears and shaves him. Every other week he takes a haircut.
His home in Bayside has eight bedrooms. He sleeps in a different room each night, according to his mood.