Happy 110th Birthday, Joan Blondell!

The wonderful Joan Blondell was born into a vaudeville family 110 years ago today in New York City. A performer from early childhood, she provided a spark to just about any picture or program she appeared in. Here are 10 JB Did-You-Knows:

  • Blondell toured with her family’s act, the Bouncing Blondells, until she was 17, at which point the family settled in Dallas, Texas.
  • In Dallas, Blondell became a beauty contest contestant under the name Rosebud Blondell. She won the 1926 Miss Dallas pageant, was a finalist in an early version of the Miss Universe pageant in May of that year, and came in fourth in that year’s Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
  • Blondell relocated to NYC around 1927 to join a stock theatrical company, and in 1930, she appeared on Broadway opposite James Cagney in a play called Penny Arcade (Cagney would soon make his film debut in the film version of the play, Sinners’ Holiday; Blondell was in that picture, too, but she already had a small handful of films to her credit at that point). Both Cagney and Blondell repeated their Broadway roles in the film version at the insistence of Al Jolson, who’d seen the play on Broadway and purchased the film rights, though the play had closed after just three weeks.
  • Blondell and Cagney made six pictures together at Warner Brothers—more than any other actress.
  • Blondell was a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1930.
  • Blondell was married three times—to cinematographer George Barnes for just under three years, to actor and crooner Dick Powell for just under eight years and to theatrical impresario Michael Todd for just under three years. She had a son with Barnes and a daughter with Powell.
  • When she signed with Warner Brothers, Jack Warner urged her to change her name—he thought Inez Holmes had a nice ring to it—but Blondell refused.
  • In 1972, Blondell published a novel, Center Door Fancy, that was said to be something of a roman à clef, with characters based on former husband Dick Powell and his third wife, June Allyson, with whom he had an affair while married to Blondell.
  • Blondell was nominated once for an Oscar, in the Best Supporting Actress category for her work in The Blue Veil (1951).
  • In a career that lasted a half-century (if you count vaudeville, her career lasted 75 years), Blondell totaled more than 150 combined credits in pictures and on television. She worked until the very end, with her two final films released after her death of leukemia in 1979.

Happy birthday, Joan Blondell, wherever you may be!

Joan Blondell

Happy 117th Birthday, James Cagney!

The unforgettable James Cagney was born 117 years ago today on New York City’s Lower East Side. Here are ten JC Did-You-Knows:

  • Cagney’s first show biz gig was as a female dancer in the chorus line of the 1919 Broadway revue, Every Sailor.
  • Cagney was three-quarters Irish and one quarter Norwegian.
  • Having grown up on the Lower East Side, Cagney was conversant in Yiddish.
  • Cagney’s brother William (actor/producer) and sister Jeanne (actress) both worked in pictures, too.
  • Cagney was a Black Belt in Judo.
  • Cagney was married to wife Frances for 64 years.
  • On March 26, 1984, Cagney was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
  • Cagney and his wife, Frances, worked in vaudeville as “Vernon and Nye,” performing comedy routines and musical numbers.
  • Cagney once operated a dance school for professional performers.
  • Cagney’s first film, Sinner’s Holiday (1930), saw him and Joan Blondell reprising the roles they had played in Penny Arcade, the Broadway play on which the picture was based.

Happy birthday, James Cagney, wherever you may be!

James Cagney

Happy 130th Birthday, Al Jolson!

Al Jolson was born Asa Yoelson in what is now Seredzius, Lithuania, 130 years ago today. Here are 10 Jolson trivia tidbits:

  • Al Jolson began his career paired with his brother in a vaudeville act. He moved on to partner with other performers as well, but it was as a solo act that he finally found success.
  • As with his character in The Jazz Singer (1927), Jolson’s father was a cantor, at the Talmud Torah Synagogue in Washington, D.C.
  • Though his early work in blackface is considered offensive today, the view of many African-Americans at the time was that Al Jolson was helping to introduce African-American music—jazz, blues, and ragtime—to a white audience. He also was a strong advocate in the 1910s and ’20s in the fight discrimination on Broadway against black performers.
  • At 35, Jolson was the youngest man in American history to have a theatre—Jolson’s 59th Street Theatre, across from Central Park—named after him.
  • Al Jolson wrote the campaign song for the Warren G. HardingCalvin Coolidge ticket in the 1920 presidential campaign: Harding, You’re the Man for Us!
  • Jolson was the first musical artist to sell more than 10 million records.
  • Al Jolson owned the rights to the play Penny Arcade by Marie Baumer and insisted that the two actors who played the leads in the Broadway production be brought west to appear in Sinners’ Holiday (1930), the movie adaption of the play. Those actors? James Cagney and Joan Blondell.
  • NYC’s 51st Street, as it passes by the Winter Garden Theatre, home to many Jolson’s greatest successes, was, on August 11, 2006, renamed Al Jolson Way.
  • Many stars of the rock ‘n’ roll era—Elvis Presley, Jackie Wilson and David Lee Roth, among them—cited Al Jolson as one of their greatest influences.
  • As a lark, Jolson once entered a sound-alike contest, singing as a sound-alike of himself. He placed third.

Happy birthday, Mr. Jolson, wherever you may be!

Al Jolson