Singin’ In The Sun
“He’s fabulous!” a big voice boomed out in the II sudden light in the projection room. The man speaking was one of a half-dozen top M-G-M executives who had just seen the first run-off of the studio’s new musical, “Singin’ in the Rain.”
Nobody was arguing. “He” was fabulous, all right. What’s more, the “he” under discussion was not Gene Kelly, who is top-billed in the picture, but a young sprout cast for what was supposed to have been a minor role, name of Donald O’Connor.
“Whoever said,” one of the top brass summed it up, “that that kid needed a mule?”
The verdict from that projection room whirled through the town, and before his tax advisers had time to take an aspirin Donald O’Connor was the hottest thing in town, signed for two more pictures for Metro, signed to co-star with Betty Hutton in Paramount’s top-budgeted “Look, Ma, I’m Dancin’,” signed by 20th for “Call Me Madam.” These in addition, of course, to the one picture a year Donald had already contracted to make for his home studio Universal-International —also the home of his side kick Francis. All this and his once-a-month television marathon on the Comedy Hour, too.
While studio bigwigs and agents and lawyers toiled over the fine print in the hot Mr. O’Connor’s five-foot shelf of contracts, Donald, at his unpretentious bungalow home in suburban San Fernando Valley was listening to some firm talk from his five-year-old daughter Donna.
He had just explained regretfully that his fourteen-hour-a-day working schedule would not permit him to attend the Fathers’ Club meeting at Donna’s school that night.
“Other children’s daddies come,” Donna declared, her pointed little chin—exact image of her father’s—sticking out a mile.
“Other children’s daddies,” Donald sighed, “have steady jobs.”
He wasn’t kidding.
No measure of success, probably, ever will convince this “fabulous” Donald, practically born in greasepaint and tumblers’ tights, that he can afford to relax when things look good.
When things look the best he knows in his veins, from grim experience, they’re apt to be rough tomorrow.
Donald just turning twenty-seven, has been in show business for twenty-six years. “The O’Connor Family” was a legend under the Big Top even before Donald was born—his mother Effie, his father John, whom everybody called Chuck, his brother Billy, his brother Jack and his sister Arlene. They played circuses, performing all-family miracles on the trapeze, the trampoline, the rolling barrels, and during the summer layoffs they scratched for a living at fairs and carnivals.
With the loose money boom of the mid-twenties the O’Connors made a painless switch from tent tops to vaudeville stages. Effie O’Connor, expecting her fourth child, dropped out of the act for the final weeks of her pregnancy, but was back on the high swing three days after Donald was born.
Things had never been better.
Then one night, between shows, six- year-old Arlene ventured alone into the alleyway back of the theatre, was run down by a car and instantly killed. The O’Connors skipped their final appearance that night, but were back the next day, spilling their tears in the privacy of their dressing-room high in the flies, but smiling bravely for the people out front when the curtain was up.
It was brave, and it was tradition—but it was too much for the overtaxed heart of Chuck O’Connor. Nine weeks later, he dropped dead. He was forty-five. Donald was not yet a year old.
With the O’Connor Family fatherless, both on stage and off, Effie O’Connor struggled against impossible odds. Her niece Patsy took over Arlene’s place in the act. But a non-family replacement for Chuck didn’t work. Chuck was irreplaceable.
Their runs grew shorter and bookings were harder to get. One night, when the act was showing particularly dangerous signs of anemia, Effie made a desperate dash into the wings to return with diapered Donald. The roly-poly baby—sixteen months old—grinned happily into the footlights and with a sign to the orchestra leader danced the Black Bottom!
Donald toddled back and forth from the wings to take a dozen curtain calls. He had officially joined “The O’Connor Family”
Nothing remotely resembling a normal childhood was in store tor him. He insists now that his daughter Donna shall have regular hours, a permanent home, friends of her age, a chance to go regularly to public school—all of which he missed.
His only permanency was “The Family” in which actually, after that diapered debut in 1927, he took a man’s place. Long before he reached school age he had mastered a performer’s most important lessons—he could sing and dance, tumble and leap, and was beginning to have a master’s control of comedy lines.
The O’Connor Family had its good times and its bad times, but it stuck together. At the peak of the boom, the act had become—and they have yellowed copies of Weekly Variety to prove it—“the top family act in vaudeville,” pulling, in the top spots, a fat $1,500 a week.
“Hot today—brrr tomorrow,” Donald philosophizes, shivering slightly as he recalls the long cold spell which set in (for all vaudeville—not just for the O’Connors) on the backwash of the big crash.
“I was five years old,” he grins, “and washed up. In 1929 we were knocking ’em in the aisles at the Capitol; a year later we were performing in the aisles in a tiny, smelly, stageless theatre on a side street.
“A two-day booking, four shows a day, the whole family—Mother, Billy, Jack and me, Jack’s wife Millie and their daughter Patsy, dressing in the entrance yet—and at the end of the ‘run’ we picked up a check for twelve dollars. Twelve dollars for all five of us, that is.
“And you think that was bad? A year after that we were scratching for nightclub dates to pick up five dollars to eat on.
“But it didn’t occur to any of the family to get into another racket. When things were quiet we could have a lot of fun . . .
“We were living in the Plymouth Hotel,” says Donald, “and the old man in the drugstore downstairs would always let us win a dollar or two on the pin-ball machines . and then I could always get together with some of the other guys who were laying off and go out to Coney Island. We knew all the rides-men, of course, and could get a free spin on the Dodge-ems oi the Roller Coaster or the Octopus.
“If we got hungry all we had to do was drop into one of the clubs and do a routine—and they’d give us supper.
But it was rough on Mother. For her—for me, too, I guess—not working was failure. No matter what your bookings were, or how big or small your check, you had to get bookings or lose your self-respect.”
Fortunately, things picked up after a while. The O’Connors worked regularly and Donald, never knowing quite why, could go to professional school.
“I studied every day from eight-thirty until twelve-thirty, then tore off to whatever theatre we were working in to make the first performance. When we were out of New York I kept up my classes by correspondence.
“I have the equivalent of a high school education, I guess, history and algebra, and a smattering of five or six languages.”
So Donald went on growing, and working, and learning—learning a lot more about entertaining people than he ever did about higher mathematics.
As an entertainer he learned so well and so fast that—when he was thirteen—Arthur Jacobsen was able to sell him to Paramount for a leading role with Bing Crosby and Fred MacMurray in “Sing You Sinners.”
The news caught the O’Connors in one of their broke spells and Donald replied with a wire to Jacobsen, collect, that he would be delighted to accept the good fortune if good old Arthur would be so good as to send enough money to get the family to California. Good Old Arthur complied, the O’Connors bought an ancient Cord for fifty dollars, packed them selves and their belongings into it and headed west.
Donald was good in “Sing You Sinners.” Future bookings for the family were good as a result. Too good.
The O’Connors had barely made it from Hollywood to their home town of Danville, Illinois, where they planned to spend a few weeks getting their act into shape for the road, when Billy, just twenty-six, fell ill of scarlet fever and died in three days.
“I’m tired,” said Effie O’Connor when at last they could face the prospect of the road. “I think I’ll drop out for & while. She had made her last curtain until just a few months ago when—after fourteen years—she danced on Donald’s TV show.
Millie O’Connor wanted to drop out too. When “The O’Connor Family” made its next appearance, it was down to three: Jack, his daughter Patsy, and Donald—Donald, by now, at fifteen, the unquestioned star of the act. Already, to those who knew their show business, this boy was “fabulous.”
The abbreviated family hit the road, had its good times and its bad ones. And then, once again, Arthur Jacobsen—by now Donald’s movie agent—came through in the nick. On December 7, 1941, he wired Donald that he had lined up a contract for him with Universal.
Donald caught on as a juvenile comedy star—he was two years too young for the
Army—and Universal couldn’t have been happier.
Donald was happy, too, until he got too tired to feel anything. In the year before his eighteenth birthday, on which he had announced he would join the Air Force, Universal starred him in eleven pictures! Somehow, he found time to meet, fall in love with, and marry brown-eyed blonde Gwen Carter, who was still trudging daily with her books to Los Angeles High School.
They “went to the war together”—Gwen joining Donald in an entertainment unit after he was assigned to Special Services.
After a private’s pay, a movie star’s check looks enormous and Donald came back to his studio at the war’s end feeling like the richest man in America.
That nice check came in every week and for the first time in his life Donald really “threw it around.”
He and Gwen bought and furnished the house in the valley where they still live. Then he bought his mother a house and his brother a house, Patsy a fur coat, and Gwen her first mink. He bought himself three supercharged foreign racing cars.
“I would have bought seven,” he says, “except that Gwen put her foot down.”
It was a great little binge. And then came the morning after. Donald woke up one morning and started to worry. He was getting rich, but he was a failure—he had been home for thirteen months, and had yet to start a picture. (Actually, Universal didn’t know quite what to do with their child-star, now turned war veteran.)
“No bookings,” says Donald. “I’m a bum.”
This called for a conference with friend- in-need Arthur Jacobsen.
“Hit the road,” said Jacobsen.
Donald hit the road on personal appearances with Gwen, who had surprised everyone, including herself, by falling into the entertainers’ “other world” as though she, too, had been born in it, as his co-star.
Suddenly Donald O’Connor was “fabulous” again, with plenty of bookings, and Universal wired him to come home at once and make a picture with a mule.
Donald has had very little to worry about since, except getting enough sleep, and enough time out of make-up to get to the mountains for his skiing, of which he is passionately fond.
“Francis” proved a gold mine, which has not run out yet. When Donald went on TV with his pal Jimmy Durante to plug “The Milkman,” he found himself overnight one of the hottest television “properties” on the market, and a whole new area of “bookings” opened up for him.
On TV “The O’Connor Family” has had a rebirth. Effie O’Connor appeared on Donald’s first Comedy Hour show, brother Jack and Millie on the second. Gwen is a regular, playing Mrs. Donald O’Connor, although she remarks slyly that “she really doesn’t like character parts.” Even five-year-old Donna had her chance—and, typically for a young O’Connor, stole the show right out from under the noses of the grown-ups.
“You know, Daddy,” she said the next day, “I think I’ll get me a television show of my own.”
“Don’t you think, baby,” Donald suggested. “that people would get tired of watching just one little girl week after week.”
“Then,” said Donna, “I’ll work with midgets.”
Could be “The O’Connor Family” is about to pass into the hands of the third generation.
With plenty of bookings.
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE JULY 1952