Sunday, February 15, 2009

The other Marilyn

My dear friend Graceann Macleod - formerly of Milwaukee, now of London, England, sent this little note the other day about Marilyn Miller.
I was reading Warren Harris's The Other Marilynand on Page 44, he mentions Marilyn and her parents taking a vacation thusly:

"The Passing Show tour was twice as long as the Broadway run; it did not end until March 1915. After a short vacation with her parents at Lake Muskegon, a [Minnesota] resort very popular with show people, Marilyn was whisked back to New York to begin rehearsals for the next edition of The Passing Show."

Clearly, Mr. Harris is in error as to where this popular resort was located, but the rest of it seems to make sense. Buster is mentioned a couple of times in the book, albeit very briefly, because when Marilyn and her family were touring early on as "The Columbians," she would occasionally cross paths with the Three, Four and Five Keatons. I can imagine Buster or his Dad mentioning either to Marilyn or to her stepfather, Caro Miller, a nice, relaxing place where show folk are welcome. Any thoughts on this?
Well - my first thought was, "that's pretty cool! Another famous visitor to Muskegon during the days of the Actors' Colony."

My second was, "OK - who is this Marilyn Miller, and what was this show called "The Passing Show"?

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew the answer, however it wasn't bubbling to the top. It was time to set it free.

First stop - Google. More specifically, the Google's "books" option.

I started with "Broadway, An Encyclopedia", by Ken Bloom. Check out page 563 and "The Passing Show of 1914."

The Shubert Brothers, Lee and J.J. were powerful theater operators in New York, and ultimately, across the United States. During their rise to power in the Big Apple, they, leased the old American Horse Exchange at 1634 Broadway in New York, and had it renovated into the Winter Garden Theater. Designed to host musical presentations, it opened in March, 1911. with a performance of La Belle Paree, featuring the Broadway debut of Al Jolson. A ragtime comedian, Jolson was not yet well known on Broadway, but the show would change all that. After 104 performances, according to Bloom, "La Belle Paree became the first to tour the country following its Broadway run."

Jolson's next Shubert show Vera Violetta would make him a star. He bacome the feature performer as numerous Shubert shows and his popularity led Variety to proclaim "the Shuberts may run the Winter Garden, but Al Jolsen owns it."

While Jolson was touring the shows nationally, it became necessary to produce an attraction to fill the void. "The Passing Show," first performed in 1912, was designed to handle that role. The show was a revue, designed to compete with Florenz Ziegfeld's Follies It was titled as such as the show was meant to play a short time on Broadway, then hit the road on a tour of the country. The show offered parodies of current Broadway offerings.

"The Passing Show" was mounted again in 1913 and then in 1914. Bloom's book deemed the show "no better than any of the Shubert offerings. However, it did mark the Broadway debut of Marilyn Miller, a delightful dancer, who became a particular favorite of Broadway audiences."

She was only 15-years old.

So - that would explain the vacation with her parents.

"The Passing Show." Of course. It was the planned destination of Buster Keaton when he chose to leave the family act. Instead, fate intervened, and Keaton visited the Comique set at Norma Talmadge Studios where Roscoe Arbuckle was filming.

Indeed, the location of Lake Muskegon has been mistaken before. Harris has it in Minnesota. In "Vaudeville, Old and New" by Frank Cullen, Florence Hackman, Donald McNeilly it surfaces in Wisconsin.
"At the end of the day or career, vaudevillians had little to talk about with bank clerks, grocers, or insurance underwriters. The retired troupers needed their own community. Some found fellowship in rural vacation colonies that attracted show folk, such as those in Lake Hoptacong in New Jersey, Blaisdell Lake in New Hampshire or Lake Muskegon in Wisconsin."
Miller would go on to an amazing career on Broadway, then briefly, in film. Years later, she would be the inspiration for Norma Jean Baker's transformation into Marilyn Monroe.

In New York, Miller's image was captured by Alexander Calder on the I Miller building at 46th Street and Seventh Avenue just off Times Square. She shares the space with Mary Pickford, Rosa Ponselle, and Ethel Barrymore.
...once the preeminent musical theatre star of her day.

She scored a hit with "Sunny"just four years before this statue was unveiled; she died seven years later.
She passed away on April 7, 1936 at the age of 37 of an acute sinus infection.

Here's an interesting blog entry on Miller. And some beautiful photos at Vanity Fair. (Thank you Melani!)

So - I guess it's time to see if I can find a reference to the family's visit in the local paper.


silentsgirl said...

How sweet of you to write about Marilyn Miller and your quest for information in your blog! I'm a fan - I've gotten to see her two films and she was an adorable little thing. Thanks for the further information; it made for a fascinating read.

Anonymous said...

I notice you have written a few things here about this show, but I must tell you that I am currently doing my dissertation on _The Passing Show of 1914_. I have, in fact, done an entire reconstruction of both the score and the script, and have written over 300 pages explaining why everything works the way it does. I'm sorry to say that not only have I found numerous errors in Harris (including several blatant moments of plagarism), but I can pretty much show that Bloom and everyone else who has ever written about this revue has never bothered to look at it. They are simply wrong, as my dissertation will show. Sometimes they get facts incorrect, but for the most part, I find that scholars like Lee Davis just didn't bother to check up on things before they decried the show "mediocre," and I think that's probably what happened with most writers on the revues of this period. Hopefully, my dissertation will show everybody how exicting these shows really were!
-Jonas Westover, CUNY Graduate Center