Happy 133rd Birthday, Texas Guinan!

Actress and Queen of the Nightclubs Texas Guinan was born Mary Louise Cecilia Guinan 133 years ago today in Waco, Texas. Here are 10 TG Did-You-Knows:

  • Guinan was one of seven children. Her parents were Irish-Canadian immigrants. She attended parochial school at a Waco convent.
  • When Guinan was 16, her parents moved the family to Denver, Colorado. There she began to appear in amateur stage productions before marrying newspaper cartoonist John Moynahan at age 20. The pair moved to Chicago, where she studied music. She eventually divorced Moynahan and began to perform in vaudeville as a singer.
  • Guinan’s singing was reportedly no great shakes, but she had lots of pep and she soon found that she improved her prospects as a performer by regaling the audience with (perhaps exaggerated) tales of her “Old West” upbringing.
  • In 1906, Guinan moved to New York City, where she worked as a chorus girl before finding additional work in vaudeville and on the New York stage.
  • In 1917, Guinan made her movie debut and soon was a regular in western pictures. She is said to have been the first movie cowgirl (her nickname was The Queen of the West). Guinan would go on to appear in more than 50 features and shorts before she died in 1933.
  • With the passage of the 18th Amendment, Guinan became active in the speakeasy industry, serving as hostess and emcee for a long string of illicit (but very popular) nightspots. Her outsized, sassy personality and her skill at evading justice, despite her many arrests for operating a speakeasy, made her a legendary figure in Prohibition-era NYC.
  • Guinan’s speakeasies featured an abundance of scantily clad fan dancers and showgirls, but her penchant for pulling the legs of the rich and famous served her just as well. “Hello, suckers!” became her standard exclamation for greeting customers. Her well-to-do patrons she referred to as her “butter-and-egg men” and she coined the familiar phrase “Give the little ladies a big hand” while serving as emcee.
  • Texas Guinan’s nightclubs were often backed by gangster Larry Fay and such legendary bad guys as Arnold Rothstein, Owney Madden and Dutch Schultz frequented her establishments—alongside relatively “good guys” such as George Gershwin, Walter Chrysler, Pola Negri, Mae West, Al Jolson, Gloria Swanson, John Gilbert, Clara Bow, Irving Berlin, John Barrymore and Rudolph Valentino.
  • Ruby Keeler and George Raft both got their starts in show business as dancers as Guinan’s clubs, and Walter Winchell acknowledged that the inside access Guinan gave him to Broadway’s cornucopia of colorful characters helped launch his career as a gossip columnist.
  • Guinan died of amoebic dysentery in 1933, one month before Prohibition was repealed. She was just 49. Bandleader Paul Whiteman and writer Heywood Broun were among her pallbearers.

Happy birthday, Texas Guinan, wherever you may be!

Texas Guinan

Happy 121st Birthday, Busby Berkeley!

The inimitable director and choreographer Busby Berkeley was born Berkeley William Enos (though some sources claim it was Busby Berkeley William Enos) 121 years ago today in Los Angeles, California. Berkeley, of course, is famous for his large-scale cinematic dance numbers that featured dozens of beautiful starlets painstakingly organized in geometric, kaleidoscopic formations that were often best viewed from above. Here are 10 BB Did-You-Knows:

  • Berkeley’s mother, Gertrude Berkeley, was an actress and his father, who died when Berkeley was just eight years old, managed a theatrical troupe.
  • As a young man, Berkeley held a number of disparate jobs, working for a shoe company, playing semi-pro baseball and leading a dance band.
  • Berkeley served in World War I, with the rank of field artillery lieutenant. Some say the drills he saw his fellow soldiers perform while in the military may later have influenced his precision choreography (we consider this a stretch, albeit a delightful one we’re willing to perpetuate).
  • During the 1920s, Berkeley choreographed more than 20 Broadway musicals, and from the beginning, he was less interested in dance steps than in the kind of complicated geographic formations for he later became famous in Hollywood.
  • Berkeley’s Hollywood debut as a choreographer and dance stager came in a 1930 Eddie Cantor picture, Whoopee!, and he would go on to work on 40 pictures in the next decade, as choreographer or director (or both).
  • In 1935, Berkeley was traveling home from the wrap party for In Caliente when the car he was driving hit a pair of autos; three people were killed and five others seriously injured (as was Berkeley). Berkeley was brought up on second degree murder charges; the first two of three trials resulted in hung juries; in the third, Berkeley was acquitted of the charges.
  • Despite his success in the field of terpsichore, Berkeley never took a dance lesson.
  • At age 74, Berkeley directed the Broadway revival of No No Nanette. In the cast was his former leading lady at Warner Brothers, Ruby Keeler. The show was a success, and both Berkeley and Keeler saw their work acclaimed.

Happy birthday, Busby Berkeley, wherever you may be!

Busby Berkeley

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

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!

Happy Birthday, Dick Powell!

Dick Powell, who would be 109 today, had a remarkable run as an actor and performer. He started as a band singer (we play his records here on Cladrite Radio) and went on to star in dozens of early musicals, many opposite the gal his career was closely associated with, Ruby Keeler.

But when his boyishness began to fade just a bit (and he began to crave some meatier material), he successfully made the move to playing tough guys in thrillers and films noir.

In fact, you could probably win a few bar bets by asking who was the first actor to play tough-guy private dick Philip Marlowe on the silver screen. Not many would guess it was Powell, but it was, in Edward Dmytryk‘s Murder, My Sweet (1944), which was based on Raymond Chandler‘s Farewell, My Lovely. Powell eventually moved on to directing and producing for movies and television.

On top of all that, he was even married to that swell dame Joan Blondell for a good many years.

A mere boy singer, Powell most certainly was not, but it’s a clip from that phase of his career that we’ll share with you today, on the occasion of his birthday. It’s Powell, Keeler, and a slew of showgirls performing “I Only Have Eyes for You” in the delightfully bonkers finale from Busby Berkeley‘s Dames (1934).