Bringing Down The Curtain
With Harry Delmar
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine
Feb. 15, 2016 — “I remember in the early ‘30s after the advent of sound in pictures, you could drive down Ventura Boulevard the length of the San Fernando Valley and see vaudevillians practicing every imaginable kind of act on their front lawns. There were jugglers, musicians, dancers, contortionists and dog acts all hoping to break into the movies — most never got a job.”
Eddie Foy, Jr. of “Seven Little Foys” vaudeville fame
Almost a century ago, movies supplanted vaudeville as the favorite entertainment venue of the American masses. Yet even in its heyday, just prior to World War I, the force that was to eventually unseat vaudeville was featured at the end of each show.
“Animated Scenes” and silent motion-picture shorts in their embryonic stage of development were screened after each vaudeville bill as incidental entertainment for patrons as they filed out the rear exits.
Although the increasing sophisticated technology and popularity of movies sounded the inevitable death-knell of vaudeville, some performers like Jack Benny, W.C. Fields, Burns & Allen, The Marx Brothers and Fred Astaire, among others, were able to survive and thrive by adapting their talents to a continuous assembly-line of movies churned out by the Hollywood dream factories. As an ironic epitaph, these movies then played many of the same theaters in which those former vaudevillians had made live appearances only a few years before.
As vaudeville sputtered and gasped its last gasp, most performers gravitated to Los Angeles or New York City to be near major entertainment markets and revamped talent agencies that wouldn’t have acknowledged their brand of outdated novelty if it had jumped up and bit them in their accounts receivable. Showbiz has always readily allowed faded glory and the best of intentions to go justly unrewarded, and for the majority of vaudevillians, Eddie Foy’s melancholy pronouncement became a fact of life and unemployment.
In Los Angeles in the late summer of 1981 we interviewed an 89-year-old ex-vaudevillian named Harry Delmar. Even though he shared a crumbling apartment building with an assortment of panhandlers and petty thieves, Delmar didn’t seem to mind. He moved to a dialed-down tempo of bygone anecdotes that recognized the harsh realities of life as untheatrical and therefore unimportant.
When we met him, Delmar was busily tapping out an account of his life and career on an old manual typewriter. He was dressed in slippers and a faded checkered bathrobe that had seen many washings and he had a shock of silver hair that continually displaced itself and fell across his forehead blotting out the vision in his left eye. When this occurred, Delmar would jerk forward like a chicken in a barnyard strut, and mechanically brush his hair back, all the while peering intently at us as if to reassure himself that we hadn’t, in that instant, left the room.
“I guess I’ve been living a secluded life out here,” Delmar said. “I wanted to move back to New York City but there’s nobody left there. Here’s a photograph of Benny Rubin and me (Delmar showed us a yellowed snapshot probably taken in the 1920s). He was a vaudevillian. I hear he lives right down the block but I don’t know where. We listen to different drummers today. What brought us together when we were young no longer exists. You try to find reasons why you fall away. If you want to ask me questions, just be warned that when I start, I go like a jackhammer.”
Not an idle threat. Delmar’s memories were practically adrenal; as insistent and vital as when the curtain rang down on his last stage performance years before. Anecdotes of SRO audiences, thunderous applause and his name in neon were clearly still in the forefront. Delmar spun them out for us as if they were proof of his singular worth as a human being, but it seemed that for too many years those halcyon days of glory had remained bottled up and uncirculated and that in the retelling the memories had become tinged blue and heavy with a kind of loneliness.
“I don’t think I’m clever enough to write my own story but I went through it,” Delmar said. “I tried to get James Farrell, the author of the ‘Studs Lonigan,’ series of books, to ghost for me. He’s a fallen-away Catholic born in a Kerry Patch. His mother took in washing and the whole bit. Farrell refused, saying my story ‘smacked too much of Studs.’ Right now, I’m writing about when I ran away to Chicago at the age of 15. To make a living, I washed dishes and bussed tables. In my spare time I used to hang around the Majestic Theater and when people got out of their horse carriages, I brushed off the widows for small change. Twelve years later I was headlining at the Majestic and flipping quarters to the bellhops. Are you listenin’?”
Delmar’s triumphant metamorphosis from back-kitchen menial to Windy City celebrity was not without cost. As one of the “best hoofers in show business,” Delmar was hobbled with a bum leg and danced in extreme pain throughout his career.
“My right leg is about two inches shorter than my left leg,” Delmar said struggling to his feet. We noticed that his slippers were really Earth shoes with a built-up right sole. “One of my jobs as a kid was in the dining car of the Rock Island railroad line, some euphonious designation like ‘third cook.’ One day I escaped the kitchen and went out to the platform. There were brass rails on each side and somehow my foot slid off of one and I tumbled off the train. Well, my leg was mangled and they were gonna cut it off, but a doctor named Bohart knew that I wanted to be a dancer, so he wired me together. I’ve had about five cracks at the final curtain but I’m still celebrating birthdays. Hello Dolly!”
Delmar might have missed the brass rail but he did grab the brass ring. By 1919, he was making $1,300 a week as half of the vaudeville song and dance team of Delmar and Hackett.
“She would have shot you for mentioning my name first,” Delmar said. “Jeanette Hackett was a clever girl who could write lyrics and I was pretty good at staging our routines. We did a 40-minute flash act with a company of 22 chorines and technicians. Everybody in the show could tap dance except Jeanette. She faked the stuff she did with me. Here’s the idea of two very successful people who are both strangers to the dance. The only time we really got together was in the opening and during the last 16 bars of music at the finale. Dressed in a cutaway with white spats and striped trousers, I used to run up a large flight of steps and then do splits all the way down. They were called ‘Roxy finishes.’ Four or five girls would be at the bottom of the steps and I would leap over them into a split and then I would pick one up over my head and swing her over my shoulder.”
Although ill-equipped to partner Delmar in a syncopated buck-and-wing dance bash, Hackett did have a solo. Delmar said that in order to buy time for the rest of the cast to make costume changes, Hackett danced a Ruth St. Denis type of number complete with exotically tossed veils and hop-and-skip choreography that passed for high art in the hinterlands in those days.
“The set was a perfumed garden with a misty background,” Delmar remembered. “During part of the number, Hackett came out with castanets all over her body. She was the most beautiful girl I had ever met in my life. Jeanette had breasts that were sculpted like they were put there solid as stone – not a droop. I was married to her for a while.”
During their eight-year stint as a vaudeville dance team, Hackett and Delmar performed in Orpheum Circuit theaters from coast to coast, including the St. Paul Orpheum that once stood at the corner of Fifth and St. Peter Streets in downtown St. Paul, MN, across from the St. Paul Hotel.
“We played St. Paul around 1920 and I always got the impression that people there weren’t as bright as the people in Minneapolis just across the Mississippi River,” Delmar said. “I mean that they weren’t as quick or ‘with it’ as the saying goes. Our act went over great in Minneapolis but we laid an egg in St. Paul. I couldn’t understand it and to this day I’m still trying to figure it out. There aren’t any answers, only questions. Are you listenin’?”
Jeanette Hackett died in 1975 in a car crash at the age of 81. After she split with Delmar, Hackett worked for RKO Studios as a show doctor and costume designer. She ended her show business career booking entertainment on cruise ships.
“I saved as much money as I could from our vaudeville days,” Delmar said. “Quite a large chunk of it went to produce my ‘Revels’ which ran for two years on Broadway and starred people like Bert Lahr and Frankie Fay.
After his “Revels,” Delmar produced a burlesque musical called Follow the Boys filled with bawdy songs, cheesy sight-gags and scantily-clad chorus girls. Another smash hit on the Great White Way, it elicited a heartfelt testimonial from impresario Mike Todd. “Harry, God damn it! I saw your show the other day and that’s the best piece of shit I’ve ever seen produced in my life,” he told Delmar.
Looking around Delmar’s apartment, we noticed many photographs detailing the highlights of his career. In the midst of all those tokens was a colored picture of Jesus – the kind Catholic guilds sell for pennies and that you can’t give away at garage sales.
“Heaven, I guess, is the ultimate booking,” Tom mused, looking at the picture.
“That’ll be my first command performance,” Delmar quipped. “There was a time when I couldn’t decide if I wanted to be a priest or an actor. You know the path I took. I like to remember the words of St. Augustine. He said: ‘Lord, make me pure … but not yet!’”
They were words that Delmar live (and loved) by for no sooner had he finished reciting St. Augustine’s wayward prayer than he launched into a soliloquy of past sexual peccadilloes that would have turned Don Juan beet red.
“When I first rolled into Chicago I checked into a $3-a-night room on Wabash Ave. The landlady was the first real lay where I saw a lot of hair. I didn’t pay rent for four months and she did all the leading – for those rates, why not! I was a very hip young guy but I pretended I wasn’t. She said, ‘Would you like to sleep with me tonight?’ I meekly replied, ‘I don’t know, I’ve never slept with a woman.’ That went on for a long time.”
At this point in the visit, Delmar got up, unhitched his bathrobe and wordlessly pointed to a concave depression of scarry tissue near his spine. It was a dramatic gesture as faultlessly timed as one of his dance splits.
“Know where I got that?” Delmar smirked. He could see we were hooked and waiting to be reeled in. “A gangster’s moll shot me in the back during a jealous, what’s the word, tryst?” Delmar said that a few decades earlier when he was a spry young guy, he was always ready to “tell somebody where to go.”
“I had a peculiar quirk,” he said. “I disliked mobsters so much that I would bed their girlfriends. I considered it a feather in my cap. One evening while partying at a nightclub, I started to dance with this cheap hood’s girl. She kept nuzzling up against me so I took her up to my Riverside Drive hideaway and we got down to it. She was a good lay, that’s all I knew, and I thought that was all she cared about.
“About one month into the affair, she woke me up saying she couldn’t sleep,” Delmar continued. “She was on the edge of the bed nervously smoking a cigarette. I asked her what was wrong and she blurted out that she had agreed with her boyfriend to pretend she cared for me and after a certain amount of time had elapsed, her boyfriend would conveniently ‘find out’ about us and shake me down for some cash. I hauled off and hit her in the mouth. Between spurts of blood, I managed to calm her down. All the time she kept repeating that she had grown to love me. I told her I was going out. I had a date on the sly with a Chinese girl that I didn’t want her to know about. She told me not to go because she could be killed for confessing. I slammed the door hearing her scream after me that she would shoot me. I knew that she carried a small-caliber pistol.
“I went to a party, and about two hours later I heard an ominous knock (Delmar rapped his knuckles three times on the coffee table to cue the suspense). A detective’s knock I call it. I opened the door and there she was; a mink coat draped over her nightgown and wearing little pom-pom bedroom slippers. I took off running and made it through one of those brocaded room dividers before I heard the shots and felt the burning in my neck and back. She had the presence of mind to know that all shootings had to be reported to the police, so she took me around to 47th Street and a doctor who was the brother of her boyfriend. Are you listenin? I couldn’t dream up this scenario. I thought I was dying so I tried to get a priest over to administer the last rites and the doctor’s bedside manner was: ‘Shut up or I’ll knock your teeth in!’ I’d say I’ve spent $15,000 on this injury over the years for operations and pain killers thanks to Julie Morton, I think that was the girl’s name.”
A woman scorned and a bullet in the back didn’t stop Delmar from continuing to enjoy the carnal pleasures. He said that once he told the lucky woman of the moment that they were going to spend the entire year in bed. It cost him, by his estimate, $60,000 and he “never did that again.”
“It came easy in those days and you lived, or at least I thought you did,” Delmar said. “Now, in my old age, I spend about three hours a day writing. I wrote this cockamamie thing.” Delmar ripped from his typewriter the sheet of paper he had been working on when we first entered the room. “Before you go, read it into your tape recorder,” he said. Tom read:
Harry Delmar is the last remaining theatrical producer in the grand tradition of Florenz Ziegfeld, Earl Carroll and George White. One time boy wonder of Broadway with “Delmar’s Revels” and “Follow the Girls” to his credit, he was also the male half of one of the great dance teams of vaudeville – Delmar and Hackett. Harry Delmar’s love affair with the musical theater spans almost half a century. It comprises close associations with some of the greatest stars in show business. Harry Delmar is still active in his beloved field and he can still kick up his heels in a good old soft-shoe routine. A very charming and entertaining gentleman, he can talk with authority about the good old days of the theater and about the stars that made it great.
Harry Delmar died a recluse who, in his last years, funneled his waning energy into writing a memoir that never saw printer’s ink.
Are you listening?
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV and are currently writing a biography of songwriter and legendary MGM musical producer Arthur Freed. Reach them at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
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