In Search of the Mysterious Mr. Moskowitz

Clockwise from upper left: Groucho Marx, Lee Tracy, Milton Wallace and Walter WinchellOne of the joys of being an old-movie buff is when an actor in a bit part sparks your interest and you start to do a little research on him or her, which causes you to tumble down a rabbit hole of odd facts and coincidences. Sometimes one finds unlikely connections between that unfamiliar performer and some much bigger names—such as when, say, Groucho Marx, Lee Tracy, Walter Winchell have a connection to…Milton Wallace?

We recently attended a screening of Blessed Event (1932), a classic precode comedy in which Lee Tracy plays a character that is obviously inspired by gossip columnist Walter Winchell, who was all the rage back then.

We were especially excited to attend the screening, as we had been informed that some footage that had long since been excised from the picture was back in. Reportedly, it had been there all along, but only in the print that belonged to the Library of Congress. Virtually no one knew about it till Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at NYC’s Film Forum, screened the print at the TCM film festival and realized what a find he’d uncovered.

For those not familiar with Winchell, we’ll catch you up just a bit: A former vaudevillian, he turned to a scandal-mongering form of journalism when his performing career wound down. His popular newspaper column was syndicated and he had a huge following on national radio, too. He was known for coining any number of phrases still used today, including the above-cited “blessed event” used to signal the pending birth of a baby (the guardians of broadcasting decency in those days were convinced that American ears were too tender for that oh-so-coarse term “pregnant”).

Winchell’s broadcasts included remotely broadcast performances by bands and singers around the country, and right before switching to those remote locations, he would blow a siren whistle and say, “Okay, America!”

In the film, as the title suggests, Tracy’s Winchell-esque character relies on the same “blessed event” catchphrase that Winchell used. But in the restored scene, a short, middle-aged, somewhat stereotypical (though not, in our opinion, disparagingly so) Jewish man, played by one Milton Wallace, shows up at the newspaper office to give Tracy a “blessed event” tip: He, Mr. Moskowitz, and his wife are soon going to have their seventh child and he thinks maybe Tracy would want to put that into his column.

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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

Times Square Tintypes: Al Jolson

In this chapter from his 1932 book, Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky profiles the Singing Fool, Al Jolson.
 

AL’S HERE

MAMMY!!! AL JOLSON. He drinks a bucket of bromo-seltzer every day.
Caricature of Al JolsonIs very superstitious. He is always knocking wood.
His real name is Asa Yoelson. Got the name Jolson when he was the singing mascot for a regiment in the Spanish-American war. A soldier asked him what his name was. He replied “Yoelson.” The soldier said: “That’s a Swedish name—you’re no Swede. Your name’s Jolson only you don’t know how to pronounce it.” From then on Jolson was his name.
Although he has been married three times women play a small part in his life.
He owns part of the St. Louis National Baseball Club.
His first appearance at the Winter Garden was in the show that opened that theater, Little Miss Innocence. It would be great to record that he made a big hit. The truth of the matter is that he made his first appearance on the stage after midnight and that no one paid any attention to him.
Likes to be patted on the back and is always surrounded by “Yes-men.” It was Walter Winchell who asked: “How many yes-men make a Jolson?”
Is not on speaking terms with his brother Harry. He wishes his brother wouldn’t use his name.
He has to read something in order to fall asleep.
Once started work in a D. W. Griffith picture. Then went to court in order to break the contract. On the witness stand he said: “I knew I was terrible and would never make a hit in pictures.” He was released from the contract. Today he has revolutionized the motion picture industry.
He cracks his knuckles when he is nervous.
His big passion in life is applause. Let an audience encourage him and he’ll break a vocal chord.
As a kid he sang on the streets of Washington and in the backroom of saloons. His boyhood pal at the time was Bill Robinson.
He is known as the second best verse writer in Tin Pan Alley. He doesn’t keep the profits on his songs but donates them to a tuberculosis camp.
Hates cold weather. So much so that one frosty night in Chicago he returned to his hotel room after the evening’s performance of Bombo. While undressing he noticed a sign across the street blinking: “It’s June in Miami. It’s June in Miami.” The next morning he was on his way to Miami, leaving the show cold.
He beams with happiness if anyone compliments him on his ballroom dancing.
Never took a singing lesson until he was past thirty-five. Then stopped after the sixth lesson because he thought they were hurting his voice.
He’s as sentimental as his songs.
Is a great showman and never misses an opportunity. When he arrived in Hollywood to make The Jazz Singer the entire town was at the station to meet him. He sang: “California, Here I Come.”
Mark Hellinger is now writing his life story. Hellinger got all his data when he accompanied the singing fool on his honeymoon abroad. Mark was the odd man.
His favorite word is “baby.”
He bet as much as $100,000 on a horse race and lost.
Never laughs at a joke except to be polite. If the joke really amuses him he says with a serious face, “That’s very funny.”
He knows a kosher restaurant in almost every important town.
Was a personal friend of Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding. One evening he had dinner with President Harding at the white House. Pork chops was the dish and every time he picked one up the President’s dog, Laddie Boy, would jump and grab it. This wouldn’t have happened if Jolson had been using his knife and fork.
He likes to drive a car fast.
If he ever has a son he wants him to be like Buddy De Sylva.
His favorite game is Hearts. If he loses he makes alibis. If he wins he gloats over the victory.

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Snapshot in Prose: Rodgers and Hart

This week’s Snapshot in Prose visits a pair of classic composers who need no introduction, Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers, when they were at their most successful.

The author of the story speaks to both men, and we learn that they were of very different temperaments, outlooks, and lifestyles. Apparently musical theatre, like politics, makes for strange bedfellows.

hat incomparable team of songwriters, Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers, author and composer of Blue Moon, began turning out their great song hits without the benefit of Necessity, the mother of so much of our musical invention, being around to spur them on.
Nor did they hear the wolf howling at the door. But they did suffer a terrible urge to express themselves in their work.
Hunger for approval, thirst for accomplishment. Haven’t you too, often experienced that feeling?
We called upon Lorenz Hart in his spacious, luxurious apartment overlooking Central Park.
He greeted us in his huge music room with Kiki, his nine-year-old dog, romping at his feet.
“She’s just home from the Doctor’s,” said Hart. “Had to take her—she was losing her hair. She’s a Chinese chow.”
I picked up my pencil.
“Don’t say anything about poor Kiki, she hates publicity,” said Hart.
Hart is hospitable and generous. “What will you have?” he said, leading the way into his ultra-modern study and offering everything from Bourbon to coffee.
“A story about you and Rodgers,” we answered.
“How did you happen to begin writing songs with ‘Dick’ Rogers?”
In his inimitable way, Hart began: “We met while Dick was attending Columbia University. I’d been out of the Columbia School of Journalism for a year or two. Of course, we decided to write the college varsity show.”
“What was the name of it?”
“Something like Fly With Me—a great success”
“What work had you done before you met Rodgers?”
“I had produced a play by Henry Myers, The First Fifty Years. There were two characters played by Clare Eames and Tom Powers. We took in so little money, we couldn’t afford to pay the players. It ran for six weeks. We’d have been worse off if it had run 12. Lost our money.

“However, after our Columbia show, Dick met Herbert Fields, a son of Lew Fields of the famous Weber and Fields Minstrels.
“Lew Fields was putting on The Poor Little Rich Girl, so Herbert asked his father to use some of our songs. By the time the show opened all of the songs were ours.
The Poor Little Rich Girl ran 22 weeks on Broadway. Rodgers was then only 17. Of course we felt that we had arrived. We expected the managers to make us some offers. But no offers came.
“We put on amateur shows, benefits, and did anything we could to make a few dollars.
“Finally with Herbert Fields writing the book, Dick and I sat down and wrote a musical comedy. Then for months we made tours of auditions. Some managers liked the music and hated the lyrics, some loved the lyrics but couldn’t hear the melodies. Nobody took it.”
“What did you call it?”
Oh, it had some awful names. Then we all three wrote The Melody Man for Lew Fields. He took it on the road. Yes, it was a colossal—failure,” he finished.
We showed Dearest Enemy to Max Dreyfuss. He liked it, and now signed us up on his staff.
“This was in the month of March. The show could not open until Fall. We were unknown—and now very, very broke.
“We wrote Garrick Gaieties in a week. We used two or three numbers that we had been peddling around. One of them was Manhattan.
“At the opening matinee, I stood in the back of the theatre with a young writer about town, Walter Winchell. Three boys came before the curtain and recited that polysyllabic lyric! I felt like the thing was doomed.
“But that matinee, because of the long applause, lasted until seven o’clock.”

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In Your Hat, pt. 12

In Chapter 12 of In Your Hat, the 1933 tell-all memoir by Hat Check Girl to the Stars Renee Carroll, she reveals what various celebrities wrote in her collection of autograph books, and she follows that with tales of what the stars of the day liked to eat when they patronized Sardi’s.

If you took a rabbit out of those suckers’ hats
They would squawk just the same:
They all have two strikes on them
When they are born.

TEXAS GUINAN

THAT’S an autograph left in my book by Tex. I’m not quite clear as to its meaning, and I don’t think she is either. But vaguely, it’s Broadway’s philosophy. If somebody pats you on the back, he’s only locating a spot for the knife thrust. If you give a sucker a break, he’s liable to shove his hand in and rip it apart.
Of course, all this is only sentimental hooey, and the boys and girls on Broadway are just as maudlin about one another as boys in an English boarding school. They all want to appear like awful, terrible “bad mans” with no hearts at all. The visage is stern, but the head and heart are made of mush, and it oozes through your fingers when you squeeze it.
I’ve got three books full of autographs. Perhaps a glance at some of them might throw an interesting light on the writers. I particularly like that of Frances Williams, whose cheeriness and glibness is not limited to her appeareances on the stage.

“May every hat check bring you a fat check—and may no meanie neglect my Renee—who never wrecks hats each time she checks hats—Frances Williams.”

Most of the celebrities pore over the book, seeking inspiration in the lines already written. Very few show any originality at all. Al Jolson, in one of his brighter moments, scribbled:

“Oh, look, I am in your book—thanks for letting me.”

And Louis Sobol, the Journal‘s columnist, wrote:

“To Renee, who expects something clever from me but won’t get it.”

Russell Patterson, the artist, who very rarely wears a hat, said as much, regretfully, with:

“To Renee, from her worst customer.”

Tony Canzoneri, the prize fighter, dragged his trade in by the teeth when he inscribed:

“To a real and sweet girl, with loads of knockouts.
                                           Tony Canzoneri,
                   Lightweight Champion of the World.”

The professional gate crasher, Tammany Young, waxed philosophical and wrote:

“To Renee—
   “Who takes what you give graciously. All life is a game of give and take. For what she takes she gives in a return a smile, a cheerful greeting and your belongings. May you go a long ways and prosper. Keep smiling Renee, it’s what we all go for.”

I think George Jessel‘s autograph amusing:

“To Renee—
            Duchess of Sardi,
               from
               Baron George Jessel,
               Colonel of the Bronx Grenadiers
               And Vis-count of Brownsville.”

Sidney Skolsky, the paragrapher, gave me away with:

“You’ll always be Miss Shapiro to me—one of my best yarns. Sidney Skolsky
               P.S. She sleeps in the raw!”

If you can remember Herbert Rawlinson, you’ll remember his signature, too:

“My hat’s off to you. (Get it?) Je parle français aussi. (I hope that’s right).”

And Jesse Crawford noted:

“My autograph I here inscribe,
A member of the organ tribe
               Jesse Crawford,
               Poet (?) of the Organ.”

The little movie star, Marian Marsh, gave me a a straight tip with:

“Keep your face towards the sun and the shadows will fall behind you.”

And Reri who starred in F.W. Murnau‘s Tabu and was brought to American by Ziegfeld, wrote in the only language she knew:

“A mon amie Renee en souvenir des Ziegfeld Follies 1931.”

I offer the inscription of Sam Shipman, the playwright, because it is more or less typical of Broadway sentiment and ways of thinking:

“A hat girl who has more in her head than all the brains those hats cover. A little princess on a door mat—An oriental pearl in a suffocating shell—a ruby in a musty purse, but watch her.”

And Everett Marshall, the lusty-voiced baritone, dropped this:

“To Renee. In memory of my first daughter of four kilos.”

While Faith Baldwin, the author of Self Made Woman, wrote simply:

“Because I like red-heads.”

I’ve got lots of drawings, too, by famous artists, all of them too risqué for reproduction, and in some cases too combustible for safekeeping. Some of our best known illustrators have garnished the pages of my little books with drawings that would make those paintings on the bathroom walls of old Pompeii quiver with shame.
But not all the good things happen in autograph books or at penthouse parties. I have a lot of laughs right in the restaurant.

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