Here are 10 things you should know about the sublime Annette Hanshaw , born 119 years ago today. For our money, she was the gold standard for songbirds of the late 1920s and early ’30s; we think she’s keen. We’ll be featuring Ms. Hanshaw’s recordings on Cladrite Radio all day today, so tune in now!
Cladrite sweetheart Annette Hanshaw was born Catherine Annette Hanshaw 115 years ago in Manhattan. For us, she’s the gold standard for songbirds of the late 1920s and early ’30s; we think she’s keen. Here are 10 AH Did-You-Knows:
- Hanshaw came from something of a show biz family. Her father, Frank Wayne Hanshaw, loved the business so much he ran off to join the circus (he thought better of it and returned), and her aunt, Nellie McCoy, and cousin, Bob “Uke” Hanshaw, were popular and successful vaudeville performers.
- Hanshaw grew up loving to sing—she performed for the guests at a series of very small hotels her father operated for a time and demo’d sheet music at a Mount Kisco music shop owned by her family—but she dreamed of making her mark as a painter, not a singer, even studying at the National School of Design for a year.
- Hanshaw made her first professional recordings in 1926, recording a demo of six popular songs of the day for the Pathé label before recording her first commercial recordings—Black Bottom and Six Feet of Papa—in September of that year. She recorded for many labels and under many pseudonyms, including Gay Ellis, Dot Dare, and Patsy Young. She also sang in variety of styles, delivering sentimental songs in a more straightforward fashion and, when appropriate, jazzing peppy songs up a bit. She even did Helen Kane impersonations (on whom Betty Boop‘s vocal stylings were clearly based) on a number of recordings.
- Hanshaw began to appear on the radio in 1929 and soon was a huge hit. As the twenties gave way to the thirties, she began to sing with Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra, and from 1932-34, she was featured on the very popular program Maxwell House Show Boat, which aired every Thursday evening, and she later did 39 weeks on Camel Caravan. Her success on radio did little to alleviate her anxiety about performing over the airwaves. “I’m so afraid I’ll fail, not sing my best,” she said before agreeing to appear on radio. “Suppose I should have to cough. Suppose I didn’t get just the right pitch. And all those people listening.”
- At the height of her fame, Hanshaw was known as “The Personality Girl” and her trademark was ending each recorded performance with a winsome “That’s all!”
- Hanshaw loved singing but was not at all confident of her voice and was, at best, a reluctant star. In her later years, when asked to assess the recordings she’d made during her prime, she had not a positive word to offer. She was her own worst critic, and it may have been this tendency that led to her (extremely) premature exit from show business. “I disliked all of [my records] intensely,” she said during a 1972 interview with radio host Jack Cullen. “I was most unhappy when they were released. I just often cried because I thought they were so poor, mostly because of my work, but a great deal, I suppose, because of the recording.”
- Hanshaw’s favorites singers of the day were Marion Harris, Sophie Tucker, Blossom Seeley, Ruth Etting, Ethel Waters, and Connee Boswell.
- Hanshaw composed two songs—Sweet One and Till Your Happiness Comes Along—but it’s unclear if either was ever published or recorded.
- Uncomfortable in the spotlight, Hanshaw retired from show business in 1937 at the age of 36. She considered a return in the 1950s, recording a pair of private demos to test the waters, but, alas, no comeback was forthcoming.
- The 2008 animated film Sita Sings the Blues, which retells the Indian epic poem The Ramayana from Sita’s perspective, used Annette Hanshaw’s recordings as its soundtrack. In 2010, her 1929 recording of Daddy Won’t You Please Come Home was used in the video game BioShock 2.
Happy birthday, dear Annette, wherever you may be!
Here’s Chapter 7 of In Your Hat, the 1933 tell-all memoir by Hat Check Girl to the Stars, Renee Carroll, in which she reflects on the early days of Sardi’s and how Vincent Sardi came to use the now-familiar caricatures of celebrities to garner attention for his eatery.
IT’S surprising what you can learn from hats. There’s something about the way a man wears one that betrays him instantly. He may smile and joke and think he’s fooling the world—but just by watching him when he saunters or hurries up to my window, I can tell him things that ought to get me a tabloid columnist’s job. I can tell when he’s out of work, and when he’s in the money. When he’s playing the market and winning—and when he’s losing. And there’s nothing pseudo-psychic about it! Just observation—and experience.
Take right at the moment when this ‘umble tome was being concocted. Broadway had been pretty hard hit, and there were hundreds of good actors as well as hams out of work. People who never tipped me less than a quarter before, now fumblingly left only dimes. And apologies were frequent, until I told the hardluckers that there were plenty in the same boat with them. Then, every once in a while, one of the new dime tippers would toss me a dollar bill and say nothing. I knew the answer. He’d landed a job! He was in the dough again.
But it wasn’t all so simple five years ago when I started on this job, the day that Sardi’s opened. I didn’t know a soul among the big-timers, could barely recognize a few of them. The job had been a sort of birthday present to me, and that first day I was awfully scared—and terribly anxious to succeed. I never dreamed that I’d stick at it five years—and then want to keep it fifty more!
Five years! It isn’t much when you say i fast—but a lot of things have happened since then. When Sardi’s opened, there weren’t any Broadway columnists, and a man’s biological secrets were his own. There weren’t any talkies, and the blonde and beautiful Tillie Awnertz could murder the king’s English without having to worry about losing her dear public. There weren’t even any nasal crooners—most of them were in college or short pants. Five years!
A lot of kids of my own generation were just getting their first foothold in show business and thought they were lucky to be able to afford Sardi’s eighty-five cent luncheon. Today some of them are way up on top and never dream of going upstairs for cheaper food, or even looking at the price list when they order their daily delicacies.
A Night in Spain was running at the Schubert Theatre just across the street, and Phil Baker, Ted Healy and Helen Kane were getting their first big chance. Today Baker and Healy are headliners, and Helen Kane has gained fame, fortune, notoriety and considerable poundage. She was getting fifty bucks a week then—now she gets over two thousand and works when she feels like it!
Robert Montgomery was an adorable young juvenile who owed money to everyone in town and who frequently ate at Sardi’s on the cuff. He was trying frantically to woo and win the lovely Elizabeth Allen who was playing the lead in Broadway, but no one ever thought Bob would get her because it was doubtful if he could even pay for the license and ring. Today they’re happily married, Robert Montgomery is a screen name to conjure with, and his weekly pay check runs ever so high. And millions of movie fans find him every bit as charming as I did in the days “when.”
Those first days at Sardi’s were a lot of fun—and a lot of worry too. There wasn’t a great amount of business, the restaurant was big, and the “nut” high. Like every café owner, Sardi wanted his establishment to be a rendezvous of-and-for celebrities. The little place near the Lambs Club had whetted his appetite for Big Names, and Sardi hungered to repeat his success on a larger scale.
We were talking about the disheartening business one day when things were particularly slack, and Sardi began to reminisce about famous Continental restaurants. Somehow the conversation swung around to Joe Zelli’s in Paris.
“Zelli’s is wonderful,” exclaimed Sardi. “No one would ever dream of seeing Paris without spending at least one evening in Zelli’s. It’s the rendezvous of all the celebrities. I guess they go there because their caricatures hang on the wall.
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