Happy 109th Birthday, James Stewart!

The great James Stewart was born 109 years ago today in Indiana, Pennsylvania. He remains one of the most popular actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age (and a favorite here at Cladrite Radio). Here are ten JS Did-You-Knows:

  • James Stewart was the first prominent actor to enlist in the military during World War II. He joined the Army eight months before Pearl Harbor and served overseas for 21 months, where, as a pilot with the 445th Bomb Group, 703rd squadron, he flew 20 combat missions and rose to the rank of colonel.
  • Stewart held the highest active military rank of any actor in history. After World War II, he continued serving in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, ultimately attaining the rank of brigadier general.
  • James Stewart attended Princeton University, where he graduated in 1932 with a degree in architecture.
  • Stewart was a member of Princeton’s Triangle Club, a musical-comedy theater group. A 1931 recording exists of Stewart performing the song Day After Day with the Princeton Triangle Club Dance Orchestra (regular listeners to Cladrite Radio have heard this recording).
  • Stewart played the accordion and hoped to do demonstrate his facility with the instrument in the 1957 picture Night Passage, but his playing was dubbed by a professional musician.
  • James Stewart wore the same hat in all of his westerns.
  • Stewart was very conservative, politically, supporting such presidential candidates as Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
  • James Stewart was originally in line to play Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest, but because Vertigo had not done well at the box office, director Alfred Hitchcock went with Cary Grant instead.
  • Stewart was a bachelor until age 41, but his marriage to former model Gloria Hatrick McLean was a happy one.
  • James Stewart’s Best Actor Oscar statuette (The Philadelphia Story, 1940) was on display in the window of his father’s hardware store for 25 years.
  • The word “Philadelphia” on that statuette was misspelled.

Happy birthday, Mr. Stewart, wherever you may be.

James Stewart

This story was first published in slightly different form in 2016.

Snapshot in Prose: Phil Spitalny

Phil Spitalny was a very popular orchestra leader who experienced success as a recording artist, on the radio (his was the house orchestra on The Hour of Charm, a program hosted by Arlene Francis that aired on CBS and then NBC from 1934 to 1948), the movies (he appeared in a number of musical shorts and in two features), and even television.

But he achieved his biggest success based on what some considered a gimmick: Beginning in 1934, his orchestra (and later an added chorus) was composed entirely of women.

This profile, from 1935, captures Spitalny just months after he first launched his all-girl outfit, which he would lead successfully for twenty years. And if you read all the way to the end, there’s an historic epsiode of the Hour of Charm awaiting you. It’s the broadcast from the evening of Dec. 7, 1941—the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The sound quality’s not ideal, but we think you’ll agree it’s well worth a listen.

WHY do all the girls love Phil Spitalny? Why do they rave over this adventurous maestro in an especial, possessive way?
One reason is because however “modern” a girl appears to be, there is still something down deep inside that responds to chivalry as quickly as sunflowers turn to the sun. Phil, in blazing the trail in radio with his all-girl band, dared battle for Every Girl. So she looks at him in his plain business suit and sees her shining knight in armor.
Of course our trailblazer is a great director possessed of distinguished musicianship, but there is still another big reason why the women love Phil.
He first loved them. He believed in them; in their common sense and in their musical ability. They had often been told before how beautifully they played. Oh, many times! But when a girl had tried to make her living with her trombone or bass violin, she had soon realized that the boys didn’t want her playing in their ball game.
So in the beginning the girls only shrugged their pretty shoulders and smiled when Phil said that he was going to organize a big woman’s band. The men laughed scornfully at his idea.
“A woman’s band! Why, where could he find professional women musicians to play all the instruments that men play in band? Impossible,” said the know-it-all men. “Women would quarrel, display temperament, and all that! No, Phil, don’t be ridiculous!”
Some of the wise ones said it was born of a commercial sense, while others grinned and remarked, “Find the woman!”

“I was born in a little Russian village,” began Spitalny when interviewed. “There were, father, mother, and three sons in our family. My parents wanted me to be an artist—you know, a concert violinist. They were very poor. But they manaaged so that I had study in Odessa.
“I came to America in 1917. At first, I played in orchestras in Cleveland. Then in various other cities. Finally I gathered together an orchestra of my own. It was a big thing for me when we finally got an engagement at the Pennsylvania Hotel. We stayed there for two and a half years.”
When asked about the search for girl musicians, Phil answered:
“I travelled for eight months, from the pine woods country of Maine to the small towns in the Rocky Mountains, looking for them. They came from 17 different states. I listened to 1100 girls play and sing. There are 30 in my band.
“At that time every one I knew discouraged me. When I had found the right girls, I would have to pay their transportation to New York and rehearse them.
“It was L. K. Sidney,” said Phil, “who at last gave us work in the Capitol Theatre. He helped us to keep together until we got an engagement on radio.”
“How do you find the girls to work with, as compared to men musicians?”
More business-like and more intelligent to handle than any men I ever had,” he replied promptly. “They take more pride in their work.”
The girls in Phil’s band all sing and most of them play two or more instruments. They are as lovely to look upon as a Ziegeld chorus.
“Why was this idea—this band of women—so vital to your happiness?”
“I have two brothers,” Phil began slowly. “They are both orchestra leaders. My father was a violinist who had the pleasure of expressing his talent. But, my mother, a pianist and the best musician of us all, never got anywhere—never got anywhere.
“It was only because she was a woman. I always knew that. And how much it hurt her. This rankled in me. I made up my mind I’d do this—for her—.”

The Hour of Charm—Dec. 7, 1941 (29:45)