Fifty Years of Fun

Fifty years, five decades of movie musicals!  What could have been more fun? From the 1930s right into the 1980s, Hollywood kept turning out one musical after another, songs that became classics, and performers who became superstars.   What great memories they left us!

THE JAZZ SINGER starring Al Jolson, produced in 1927, was the first of the real movie musicals. Silent movies were being replaced by “talkies” and our viewing habits were changing rapidly.

Musicals came into their own during the 1930s. The trend at first was toward depicting Broadway type stage productions.  Ziegfeld Follies, George White Scandals and Earl Carroll Vanities were some of the early extravaganzas. Before long story lines began to develop. Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, soon to be famous as  “America’s Singing Sweethearts,” appeared in classics such as NAUGHTY MARIETTA, ROSEMARIE and NEW MOON.

Jimmy Cagney and the great Fred Astaire added their dancing talents to many memorable musicals. Astaire and Ginger Rogers partnered in 10 musicals such as  TOP HAT and SWING TIME and became lasting sensations. You’ve probably heard the old joke that Ginger could do everything Fred did, backwards and in high heels.

My research turned up some interesting tidbits. Actually, Ginger Rogers wasn’t considered that great a dancer, she didn’t even do tap, but her enormous appeal came from making Fred Astaire look like the only man alive. The saying was that she provided the sex and he provided the class. Astaire also danced with Eleanor Powell, the most talented female dancer of the decade. Unfortunately she lacked the crowd appeal others had.

Shirley Temple as THE LITTLE COLONEL stole everyone’s hearts, as did Mickey Rooney in the ANDY HARDY series.  The Marx brothers were hilarious in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. By now humor and wit were being added to the genre. A Latin theme became popular with movies such as FLYING DOWN TO RIO.

The decade ended with the blowout ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND.  That title song has been recorded by every major singer and band over the last fifty years.  And let’s not forget the enormous hit that made Judy Garland a mega-star. The classic WIZARD OF OZ is still popular today.

HELLZAPOPPIN’  opened the 1940s with a bang, showcasing the comedy duo of Olsen and Johnson and also Martha Raye, one of the first really successful comediennes.  The Latin trend continued with PANAMA HATTIE, WEEKEND IN HAVANA and RIO RITA. Carmen Miranda, with her outrageous headgear loaded with flowers and fruit, became another big star.

With a major World War raging, several musicals aiming to raise the nation’s  spirits appeared, I LEFT MY HEART AT THE STAGE-DOOR CANTEEN and THIS IS THE ARMY, MR. JONES were among them.

FANTASIA was another milestone in movie making, a visual treat and the first in a long tradition of animated films.

Jimmy Cagney’s little dancing feet were flying in his greatest hit, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, which came out in 1942, still a staple on late night TV.  CABIN IN THE SKY and SONG OF THE SOUTH left their influences, and Judy Garland starred again in HARVEY GIRLS and MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS among others. Another hit that soon became a classic was EASTER PARADE, once again showcasing those two great stars, Judy Garland and Fred Astaire. SHOW BOAT was enormously popular.

The 1950s and 1960s became the heyday of the musicals, bringing us one hit after another.  ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, MY BLUE HEAVEN, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS and the ABBOTT AND COSTELLO movies. Also SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN,  CALL ME MADAM, GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES and THE GLEN MILLER STORY. And the list goes on, KISS ME KATE, CARMEN JONES, WHITE CHRISTMAS,  GUYS AND DOLLS and OKLAHOMA!

Elvis Presley burst on the music scene, truly an overnight sensation.  More and more wonderful stories poured out of Hollywood including FUNNY FACE,  PAJAMA GAME, PAL JOEY, DAMN YANKEES and GIGI. Never to be forgotten; SOME LIKE IT HOT,  PORGY AND BESS and SOUTH PACIFIC. Next came WEST SIDE STORY, GYPSY, MUSIC MAN, STATE FAIR,  BYE BYE BIRDIE, SOUND OF MUSIC, MARY POPPINS and MY FAIR LADY. We spent those two decades relishing one timeless treasure after another.

CAMELOT,  FUNNY GIRL,  OLIVER, MY FAIR LADY,  HELLO DOLLY and PAINT YOUR WAGON;  looking back we now realize how lucky we were.  There were so many others, I’m sure I’ve overlooked a lot of favorites.  Many of them enjoy a second life on television today.

The 1970s had their share too, but television was demanding more and more of our free time.  We still took the time to watch such blockbusters as FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, WILLY WONKA, CABARET,  JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, SERGEANT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND, A STAR IS BORN, and ALL THAT JAZZ.

The most recent decades have had fewer major musicals but the ones we’ve seen have all been hits.  BLUES BROTHERS, ANNIE, GREASE, MARY POPPINS and CHORUS LINE, also DIRTY DANCING, HAIR SPRAY, THE LITTLE MERMAID,  MOULIN ROUGE and PHANTOM OF THE OPERA to mention just a few.

Animation is more popular than ever today, and in the past few years we’ve had a new approach with GLEE  and LA LA LAND keeping the tradition alive.

Wouldn’t it be fun to be ushered down a shadowy aisle with your sweetie, each  carrying a tub of hot, buttered popcorn, a box of Milk Duds and a giant Orange Crush, ready to lean back in a squeaky seat as the music to  “Seventy Six Trombones” swells around you and the credits for THE MUSIC MAN begin to roll?

Oh, the good old days of the movie musical.


A Wartime Wedding (from my memoirs)

My husband-to-be, Lynn and I first spotted each other when I was 14 and trying to learn how to ride a bike in my front yard. Two of my brothers had pooled their paper route money to buy their first bike, a well used relic, and I had to sneak it out when they weren’t around.  I’d just fallen off for the umpteenth time when I glanced across the street to see a curly haired blonde guy sitting on the back steps of our neighbor Ruth’s house, watching me intently.

I threw the bike down, ran into our house, slammed the door and hid. I later recalled hearing that Ruth’s younger brother was home on leave from U.S.Navy boot camp. This was 1940 and he had enlisted at 17

with his step-mother’s help, a year before he was legal.

I babysat Ruth and Erv’s children and had often seen Lynn’s graduation picture in their living room, a sober looking face with hair slicked back in a dark, greasy looking pompadour. I’d shudder, my only thought being “Yuck!”

It would be almost 3 years before we actually met, typical years for me, eventful for him. In March of 1943 I was a 16 year old high school senior working a part-time job at S.S.Kresge 5&10 cent store, and making plans for my future. Lynn’s years had been spent on a Navy cruiser , World War ll  being now an ugly, terrifying reality. His ship was sunk in a battle in the South Pacific with a tremendous loss of life. He’d suffered major injuries, spent months in a U.S.Naval Hospital facility in Auckland, N.Z., and had just arrived home for a 30 day convalescent leave.

His curly hair was no longer slicked back, he wore a white sailor’s cap jauntily cocked on the back of his head, and he kept breaking out in a huge happy grin. My “Yuck” turned into a “Hmmm” as we met in Ruth’s kitchen, ever after referred to as the scene of the crime.

It was a Saturday and I was in a hurry to catch my bus for a 12 hour day at the 5&10.  I had agreed to go in early so I could say goodbye to a Naval Air recruit who was leaving for training. As things worked out the curly hair won out over the departing recruit and I was swept up in a whirlwind 30 day courtship. We were both surprised to find ourselves engaged on the last day of his leave.

Lynn returned to the Bay Area and a new assignment, another cruiser bound for the South Pacific.  I celebrated my 17th birthday, proudly wore my tiny diamond to my graduation and a few days later was on a train headed west, leaving our 2 stunned families worried and upset.

Lynn had made what few arrangements he could for our wedding, renting a cute little studio apartment in San Francisco for our starter home. It had no kitchen which didn’t seem like a problem at the time.  Lynn would be eating most of his meals aboard his ship, anyway. It did have a Murphy bed, a real novelty to me. He asked one of his new shipmates to be his best man and even located the wife of an acquaintance from his hometown to stand up with me. He also reserved a date for the ceremony in the office of a large Methodist church in Oakland, his idea being to make peace with our mothers, both staunch Methodists.

With all the major arrangements made, our first step was to take a 3 day blood test for venereal disease, now known as STD.  This was a legal requirement in those days. Next we headed for the license bureau at the courthouse and picked up our marriage license, going through a few very anxious moments. I had just turned 17 and had to fib my way into convincing the clerk that I was 18. She looked like the motherly type and must have had a romantic soul. After a good hard look at me as I tried to look 18, with my baby face, she signed anyway and wished us well.

Our wedding day dawned dark, drizzly and cold. No one had warned me about San Francisco weather in June and my graduation outfit, a black and white checked sharkskin 2 piece with a peplum, topped by a white straw hat was totally inappropriate. I donned my raincoat, stuffed the straw hat in a paper bag, and met up with my groom on our way to the church. I was already learning that the Navy ruled our lives as he’d been on duty most of the time since I’d arrived. He did manage to swap enough hours with other sailors to get 2 full days off for the wedding.

I met our attendants for the first time, both very nice people, and we greeted our minister who had spent a useful hour counseling us the night before. She was her husband’s assistant;  a female pastor in 1943 was a real novelty.

Flower carts stood on most downtown corners in the cities in those days and gardenias were the flower of the 40s. We picked out a fragrant corsage of gardenias and red roses on our way to church and we were all set. I removed my wet, soggy raincoat, pinned on my corsage and donned my hat long enough to mumble and shiver my way through vows I never could remember afterwards. Lynn wore his Navy blues of course. This was wartime and all servicemen wore their uniforms at all times in public. He insisted in later years that I had repeated the words “to obey”  in our ceremony and I insisted I never would have agreed to any such thing; one of those arguments that never got settled.

After the “I do’s”,  the soggy raincoat went back on, the hat was returned to its paper bag and we ducked through the rain to a photographer’s shop nearby. Off with the raincoat one more time, on with the hat and we were ready to pose for the pictures.  Just as we approached the setting, I fainted dead away for the first and only time in my life, throwing the entire procedure into turmoil. No, I was not pregnant, not in those days. I soon recovered, but our wedding pictures were so awful I hid them for years.

I look at them now and see a very young woman, glassy eyed and trying to wear a sickly smile. I look as if  I’d just spent 3 or 4 days in exhausting activity, nervous, asphyxiated from the overly heavy smell of the gardenias and nearly frozen to  death. The gardenias and the hat held up better than I did. As for Lynn, there he is, white hat cocked on the back of his curls with his usual slap-happy grin.

We stopped at a mom ’n pop grocery on our way back to the apartment and picked up a quart of milk and a packaged layer cake. It wasn’t until we opened our door that it dawned on us, no kitchen, no dishes. Taking turns gulping milk out of the bottle, we toasted one another and ate the cake with our fingers.  Somehow this seemed like the funniest thing ever and we were soon laughing our heads off. It was great comic relief after so many days of tension.

As weddings go, the only things we missed were our families and friends. Our wedding may have seemed meager and lonely to some but it was our wedding and it lasted for 65 years. The multiple bridesmaids, ushers and the sweeping trains were for others.  I’ve often thought about the thousands of other wartime weddings occurring at the same time, hoping they were as successful as ours. And we both remembered and could always laugh about our first look at one another over that rickety old bicycle.

Oh yes, our mothers did come around to accepting our marriage when they finally realized we hadn’t been quite as crazy as we seemed.