Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Kid Sister

Today is Marion Hutton's birthday. Most folks have probably never heard of her. For the elders among us, she probably sparks an uncertain memory. Her kid sister, Betty Hutton, became a fairly well known movie star in the mid to late 1940's and early 1950's.

When both girls were very young, their father abandoned his family for another woman, eventually ending his life a suicide. Their mother struggled to make ends meet until she found a career as a bootlegger. The sisters found work singing with the Vincent Lopez Orchestra. And then one day, Glen Miller found her and hired her as the girl singer for his band. She was 17 at the time. Miller and his wife Helen became Marion's legal guardian and foster parents.

Glenn Miller and Marion Hutton
At first, Miller wanted her to be billed as "Sissy Jones", thinking it enhanced her girl next door qualities. It lasted one night before she rebelled. The story may be apocryphal - her sister Betty was said to have appeared under the name once, too. The band called her by many names: The Kid, Kid Sister, Goldilocks, the Brat, the Whack, Tootsie-roll, the Dopey Duchess. The guys were, however, very protective of her. Even though she was so young and  the only female on the tour bus, she never had any problems with the guys. They saw to that, keeping each other in line.  I once heard that she could beat them all at shooting craps.

Here's the Miller band from one of their two movies, Orchestra Wives. Marion is the vivacious blond who can be seen singing with the Modernaires, backing Tex Beneke's vocal. Sadly, there is no footage of her singing any of her big hits with the Miller band (i.e. I Want a Hat With Cherries, The Jumpin' Jive, etc.) Although Marion is only briefly seen, one can get an idea of the sheer fun she must have projected onstage. This is the complete number - in early experimental movie stereo! (Thank You Daryl Zanuck.) Be sure to click the full screen option on the YouTube window before the Nicholas Brothers start dancing (in a sequence carefully placed so that it could be cut from use in theaters in the Southern U.S.).


Marion didn't have the best voice, but she made up for it with spunk and verve. In later years, she noted that she'd never thought of herself as a singer - she thought herself more of an entertainer. She was enormously popular with audiences (for many years, she was more popular than her sister), and stayed with the band through it's final performance in September 1942 when Miller dissolved the band to go into the army. She then went on tour with Tex and the Modernaires, landed a few small roles in movies, and after a few years faded from public view, more interested in starting a family than in having a career. In 1947, she married her third husband, Vic Schoen, a bandleader and arranger for the Andrews Sistrers, Bing Crosby, and most of the top names in the business.
The Modernaires surround Marion. Glenn Miller is seated going over the band's arrangements.

In the mid 1960's, Marion began treatment for various addictions, went to college and earned two degrees in psychology. She and Vic joined AA, and founded a drug and alcohol treatment center in the state of Washington called Residence XII. They perfomed together in numerous concerts to raise funds for the center. It was one of the first treatment programs specifically targeted to women.

Her sister Betty also suffered addiction problems, and attempted suicide after losing her voice. Betty regained control of her life through the help of a Catholic priest, and made national headlines in the 1970's when she was discovered working as a dishwasher in a rectory in Rhode Island. She followed in her older sister's footsteps and went to college, earning a master's degree in psychology.

In 1987, Marion, still married to Vic, succumbed to cancer. Residence XII still exists and still serves women with addiction problems. Their website is not linked here, as they don't even mention Marion Hutton, their founder who was once America's kid sister.

Mental Hygiene

The Shorpy site has found another winner. I gather that most of their work is done by a guy named Dave, who searches out old photos from the Library of Congress and other sources. It's the kind of site that is very easy to get lost in - at least for me. There is usually an option to click on to get a hi-res pic which can offer sometimes stunning details. The pic that caught my attention on this morning's internet perambulation:

Washington, D.C., 1924. "Exhibit on Mental Hygiene." As we wash our hands, so must we wash our brains. Much poignantly straightforward signage. National Photo Company Collection glass negative.

I've tried something different with this pic - instead of loading the hi-res version so that you and I can click on it (or right click on it to open it in its own window) I've tried linking it to the hi-res version at the Shorpy site. That way, you get to scroll around and have a bit of fun clicking on this and that. I do hope you'll try it, it took me a little while to work this out (Blogger moves the link to the caption unless you add the caption later.)

I clipped one of the posters on the wall; and well, this explains everything! I was a walking danger signal.

In case you're wondering how the site got such a name: it was the nickname of a real boy. He is the subject of the first photograph posted by the site, one of a series taken by Lewis Hine, whose pictures helped change child labor laws in the US.

December 1910. "Shorpy Higginbotham, a 'greaser' on the tipple at Bessie Mine, of the Sloss-Sheffield Steel and Iron Co. in Alabama. Said he was 14 years old, but it is doubtful. Carries two heavy pails of grease, and is often in danger of being run over by the coal cars." Photograph and caption by Lewis Wickes Hine.

As the site became established, members of Shorpy's family added comments. (Shorpy shows up in four different photos.) One site visitor used the internet to see what he could find and talked to a couple of Shorpy's relatives, who were unaware of the Hine photos. He found that Shorpy died at the age of 32 in a mining accident. (If you're interested, his discoveries are posted on the Mornings on Maple Street blog.)

Some days, I really love the internet.

Friday, March 9, 2012

See It Now - March 9th, 1954

On March the 9th, 1954 (my God, 58 years ago!), I was 3 and a half years old. I certainly can't tell you what day of the week it was. But something happened that day that brought change to the United States and affected the world.

While there are memories I have from that age, I can't say that I remember that day's broadcast of a CBS News journalism program called "See It Now". I do remember the show's host, Edward R. Murrow. I liked him, and often watched his programs when I was a little older. "See It Now" was a sort of investigative news report with commentary. Today it would be called a News Magazine.  My memories of the show itself are very vague. I do remember specific Murrow programs, like "Harvest of Shame", a documentary on the lives of migrant workers in the US. I grew up in a farm area that depended on migrant workers. When a program is that immediate, you tend to remember it.

In 1953, Murrow and his producer, Fred Friendly, reported on the case of an American soldier by the name of Milo Radulovich. Radulovich was an Air Force lieutenant who was stripped of his rank and discharged for his continued association with suspected Communist sympathizers - his father and sister. His father had subscribed to several Serbian newspapers to keep track of events in his native Yugoslavia. One of the papers was "associated" with a Communist organization. His sister was known to have "liberal" tendencies.  As a result of the program, Radulovich was reinstated. The episode aroused the ire of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who began to focus on Murrow.

Murrow and Friendly responded by putting together a "See It Now" broadcast that was comprised of clips of McCarthy in action, accusing and interrogating Senate witnesses and making speeches. Today is the anniversary of that program's broadcast. It gave voice to the doubts of millions of Americans, and started the downfall of McCarthyism. In 2005, the story of that broadcast was told in the motion picture "Good Night, and Good Luck". I've long been familiar with the final comments made that night by Murrow. All these years later, here in our modern world, his words still have resonance.

Thursday, March 8, 2012


It's time again for a birthday mention of someone who provided my humble self with a good deal of pleasure. It's a little late in the day, I know, but I just got around to looking at the Almanac.

Today is Cyd Charisse's birthday.

She's not someone whose name comes immediately to mind when you think of "movie stars". And she's not quite the first name you'd think of when someone mentions "musical comedy dancer". And yet, two of her film performances created images which are close to the top of the Hollywood American Dream factory.

She was born Tula Ellice Finklea, the poor thing. She started dancing lessons at the age of six to help rebuild her strength after a bout with polio. By the age of 14 she auditioned for (and and danced with) the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. While on a European tour, she married dancer Nico Charisse. After the outbreak of WWII, they returned to Los Angeles, where they had studied. She was hired by MGM, and was quickly brought into the Freed unit, famous for producing musicals.

In 1952, she was cast as the femme fatale in the Broadway Melody number in Singin' in the Rain. Her sultry character and dancing is a highlight of the movie. Even though I consider it sacrilegious to see just a clip from the entire number, I found the following on YouTube. (I'd cap and post the whole number, but it would run about 2 minutes longer than YouTube's allowed 10 minutes.)

The following year, she was paired with Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon. She played a ballerina. He played a washed up movie musical star who turns to Broadway for work. Yes, you can name that movie cliche at 10 paces to Baker Street. But that doesn't mean that the film isn't a distinct pleasure - it is. And one of my favorite set pieces in all of moviedom is here, the "Girl Hunt Ballet". Needless to say, she played the girl. Here's the entire sequence (which, interestingly enough runs over the 10 minute YouTube time limit):

There are many other wonderful scenes, songs, and dances she performed which deserve to be noted here, but those two are forever etched into my memory and maybe the memories of film lovers everywhere. Certainly, images from the above used to be used everywhere whenever an illustration was needed for "Hollywood Musical".  But there is also the following, also from The Bandwagon. It is a simple number, really. A ballerina and a hoofer, working in the same show, trying to come to terms with each other. We know they will fall in love. They do it while "Dancing in the Dark", with an orchestration by Conrad Salinger - one of the best ever put together at MGM. I used to imagine myself courting/dancing to this number around the reflecting pool and fountain of the Christian Science Church centre in Boston... it's that kind of a moment. Movie magic. And it is the dance I always think of when I see, hear, or read Cyd Charisse's name.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Finishing touches

In one portion of  yesterday's post (the Jean Harlow birthday nod), I wanted to include a video clip from the movie "Dinner at Eight", which would explain that part's title. The clips available on YouTube were of poor quality, and one was even in the wrong frame ratio. So, since it is now within my power (and with many Thanks to the people who helped me lug my stuff around over the years) here's a clip which shows a bit of Harlow's delivery as she sets up Marie Dressler for one of the all time great double takes; a stevil  film favorite moment:

Oh, by the way, it was on this day in 1791 that Vermont became the 14th of the United States.

And there are a couple of birthdays today of people whose efforts have provided me pleasure, and of whom I'd like to take note: that ol' red headed priest and composer Antonio Vivaldi was born today in 1678 (I used to have a thing for chamber music, especially when played on period instruments),  silent serial queen Pearl White, illustrator Milt Gross (worth a long post of his own),

Shemp Howard (there was a time when I was a bigger Curly fan, but depending on my mood I kind of preferred Shemp the last time I checked), magician-card sharpe and author John Scarne, Avery Fisher (audio engineer and benefactor who paid for the acoustic redesign of what had until then been Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center),  actor Edgar Barrier (who I so enjoy in his role as Martok in one of my all time favorite movies, "Cobra Woman"), actor John Garfield (seen below with Lana Turner),

and Ward Kimball - who deserves a multi post of his own: one of Disney's "Nine Old Men", redesigner of Mickey Mouse, designer and animator of the likes of the dwarfs in Snow White, the crows from Dumbo, the Mad Hatter and the Cheshire Cat, the mice and Lucifer the cat from Cinderella, the hunters in Peter and the Wolf, etc. A short clip (again, from my stuff and from my private files on You Tube):

Kimball was also the trombonist of the dixieland styled band the "Firehouse Five Plus Two". I've played them on my radio show. He also had this thing with steam trains and restored one that he installed on his property in Southern California. He was the first person to do something like that, and it directly inspired Walt Disney's interest.

And last for today, it's time I take note of the passing of Davy Jones. These things are starting to hit close to home now. One guy I know, a few years younger than myself, noted, "I had a crush on Davy Jones, and I'm not even gay." He was pretty damn cute, with a kind of well scrubbed potential bad boy charm.

Reading some of the reminiscences published about him, one of the things that stood out: he decided that he wanted to become a rock star when he was standing in the wings on the Ed Sullivan Show as the Beatles made their first US appearance. He was there to perform as part of the moved over from England Broadway cast of Oliver, in which he played the Artful Dodger. You know I just have to do this:

Thank You for entertaining me, Davy Jones.
Rest in Peace.