Written and narrated by Lorraine Dmitrovic
Welcome to this month’s edition of The Hollywood Trivia Closet, featuring celebrities and their first jobs. Some had a long road to Hollywood, others seemed to take the fast train. They all eventually arrived in Tinsel Town and found the fame and fortune they had been seeking.
Phil Silvers, well before becoming known as The King of Chutzpah and Sergeant Bilko, was influenced by comedy greats Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx. Silvers started clowning around – I mean entertaining – at age 11, taking his cue to sing in theaters when the film projector broke down, which was pretty common back then. As it worked out, he was allowed to attend some theaters free of charge, so long as he sang at future breakdowns. By age 13, he was a singer in the Gus Edwards Revue, and then worked in vaudeville and as a burlesque comic. His comedy future was sealed. As his Bilko character once said, “All I ever wanted was an honest week’s pay for an honest day’s work.”
In the 1930s, Jackie Gleason got a tip from a friend for a one-week job in Reading, Pennsylvania paying $19, a huge sum during The Great Depression. The booking agent advanced him bus fare for the trip against his salary. As it turned out, that first job as a professional comedian was a success, and led him to regular work in a number of small clubs. Gleason soon worked his way up to a job at New York’s “Club 18, “ where insulting patrons was the order of business. On one memorable occasion in his loud stage voice, Gleason greeted world-famous skater Sonja Henjie by handing her an ice cube, saying, “Okay, now do something.” When Jack L. Warner first saw Gleason at the club, the studio mogul quickly signed him to a film contract for $250 a week.
Around 1922, Clark Gable toured with stock companies in stage plays, at the same time working as a logger and an oil field horse manager. Later in Portland he found work as a necktie salesman at the Meier & Frank department store. While there he met stage and film actress Laura Hope Crews, who encouraged him to go back into acting and join a theater company. Many years later, Crews and Gable would together as Aunt Pittypat and Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind (1939). So, returning to the stage, Gable soon married his acting coach, Josephine Dillon, who groomed him physically as well as for future acting stardom. Now we all know why he looked so good in those ties and ascots and bowties in the Southern saga. What’s that saying? Once a necktie salesman, always a necktie salesman? Maybe Gable could do a fancy tie knot in his sleep.
As a young lad, Laurence Olivier attended All Saints School in London. His older brother was already a pupil. Laurence felt himself to be an outsider, and didn’t like the church’s Anglo-Catholic ritual and incense. The theatricality of the services, however, did appeal to him, and the vicar encouraged students to appreciate secular as well as religious drama. In a school production of Julius Caesar in 1917, ten-year-old Olivier’s performance as Brutus impressed an audience that included Lady Tree, the young Sybil Thorndike, and the legendary stage actress Ellen Terry, who later who wrote in her diary, “The small boy who played Brutus is already a great actor.”
At age 15, having never thought about going into acting, one of Gloria Swanson’s aunts took her to visit the small Essanay Studios in Chicago. She must have made quite an impression because Gloria was asked to come back to work as an extra. After a few months as an extra working with stars like Charlie Chaplin, and making $13.50 a week, Swanson left school to work full-time at the studio.
After her parents separation, and she and her mother moved to California in 1916 so she could appear in Mack Sennett’s Keystone comedies. In 1919, Gloria signed with Paramount Pictures and worked often with Cecil B. DeMille. In the still popular Male and Female (1919), she posed as “the Lion’s Bride” with a real lion, and she went on to make many other silent classics. By 1922 she was a star, and people went to the theatres not only to watch her movies but to see what Gloria would be wearing, as she was as famous for her trendsetting fashions as her acting.
Coming full circle in 1950, Gloria was re-united with DeMille, and another of her directors, Erich Von Stroheim in scenes from Billy Wilder’s, Sunset Boulevard.
Mother DeDe tried to end an early romantic relationship of Lucille Ball by turning her attention to her daughter’s desire to be in show business. Despite meager finances, Dede arranged for Lucille to go to the John Murray Anderson School for the Dramatic Arts in New York City, where Bette Davis was a fellow student. Ball later said about that time in her life, “All I learned in drama school was how to be frightened.”
Ball was determined to prove her teachers wrong and returned to New York City in 1928. Among her other jobs, she landed work as a fashion model for Hattie Carnegie.Her career was thriving when she became ill, either with rheumatic fever, rheumatoid arthritis, or an unknown illness, and she was unable to work for two years.She moved back to New York City in 1932 to resume her pursuit of a career as an actress and supported herself by again working for Carnegie and as the Chesterfield cigarette girl.
Using the name Diane (sometimes spelled Dianne) Belmont, she started getting some chorus work on Broadway but the work was not lasting. Ball was hired– but then quickly fired– by theatre impresario Earl Carroll from his “Vanities,” and then by Florenz Ziegfeld, from a touring company of “Rio Rita.”
She soon started to have bit parts in films and became an RKO contract player in the 1930s. In the 1940s she signed with MGM, but then found she was more often than not being cast in “B” films.
In 1948 she was starring on a radio show My Favorite Husband, a radio program for CBS Radio. When an offer came to re-create the role and show for TV in a comedy series.
Lucy wanted real-life husband Desi as the husband for the TV show and after a so-so pilot they produced as their company Desilu, Lucy and Desi toured the concept until they found the right comedy rhythm that would work for television. They succeeded, and show known as I Love Lucy was picked up by CBS, and it has flourished internationally and turned “Lucy and Ricky” into comedy icons.
Once she had “made it,” later in her career she gave acting classes. Ball was quoted as saying, “You cannot teach someone comedy; either they have it or they don’t.
And coming from one of the the grand dams of comedy, Lucy, I believe her 100 percent. Many other stars in front of and behind the camera who also made their marks in Hollywood, earned their paychecks another way before that. We’ll have a look at their stories, too. See you then, next month, with another installment of First Celebrity Jobs on the Hollywood Trivia Closet.
Copyright © April 2016: Lorraine Dmitrovic