Hollywood and the Movies

By Guest Contributor December 15, 2012 01:00

The following is a chapter from Don Brenon’s 1995 autobiography,  Acting with the Movie Stars. To read more about Don Brenon and his great neighbors, from a feature that appeared in the Winter 2012-’13 FAN, click here.

By Don Brenon 

Loew's State Theater, St. Louis

Loew’s State Theater, St. Louis

My grandmother died in 1938 at the young age of 49, suddenly, while I was home from school for lunch. It hit me very hard as I loved her very much. She must have been watching over me, as soon after that my big break came.

One summer night when I was 12, I was performing in an outdoor beer garden in St. Louis, when a talent scout from Hollywood saw my act. He asked my mother and stepfather to take me to Paramount Studios, as he was on a nationwide talent search for seven boys who could sing, dance and act, and would be featured in a big musical starring Bing Crosby. He gave my folks a letter of introduction to see LeRoy Prinz, the famous dance director.

The very next day we piled in the car and headed for California. When we arrived on a Friday, we stayed with an aunt temporarily until my step dad could find employment. On Monday morning we went to Paramount Studios on Marathon Avenue in Hollywood and  approached the Prinz Building adjacent to the Studio just outside the main gate. There were two small buildings like that, the other belonging to Cecil B. DeMille.

About 2,000 boys were auditioned, along with their stage mothers, and were told the audition would go on for several more weeks. Many of the kids had lots of film experience and were accompanied by their agents. After about an hour of auditions, I did my act, singing two choruses of Rosalie from the picture of the same name, starring Nelson Eddy, and then I tap danced to Somebody Stole My Gal.

When I finished, Mr. Prinz, seated behind a long table, turned to the director and tipped an imaginary cap to him. Little did I know at the time it meant something.

Don (top right) with 'Carters' cast

Don (top right) with ‘Carters’ cast

Leaving my photo and resume, I went home to wait for a call. The seven newsboys were to portray Walter Winchell, Eddie Cantor, George Jessel, etc. on the east side of New York. Before

becoming a famous columnist, Winchell was a tap dancer in vaudeville, as was the team of Eddie Cantor and George Jessel. Bing Crosby would portray Gus Edwards, songwriter and star maker at the turn of the century, who convinced talent agents and producers to use kid acts in show business. (He used the name

Larry Earl in the film.) As a child in St. Louis, I had played Crosby’s records on a wind-up Victrola, and here this was happening to me …While my folks and I hopefully waited for a call from the studio, we spent time watching Selznick Studios’ film Gone with the Wind on their back lot. We were in luck one evening and watched Atlanta burn. To make money, we’d

watch each night for the searchlights that would scan the skies where we lived, signifying a new market opening, and that meant, “Do Your Act.” They usually had a flatbed truck in front of the market with a small band playing, and that was the stage. We received a bag of groceries as payment.Six weeks went by before I got a call to report to Paramount for an interview with Prinz and the producer, Charles R. Rogers … They informed me that I was cast as one of the seven newsboys. I signed a four-month contract at $75 a week, a lot of money in 1939.

We seven boys were featured in movie magazines, sheet music, plus the Hollywood Reporter and Variety, as publicity while waiting to begin rehearsals with Crosby. We began rehearsing on a Monday, working on the song and dance routines with LeRoy Prinz and his brother, Eddy.

In one of the burned photo, Don is pictured as far right with Bing Crosby

In one of the burned photos, Don is pictured at far right with Bing Crosby shown at center

We attended school on the studio lot four hours a day. In the class were Darryl Hickman, who was also in Starmaker, and Donald O’Connor, who was filming Beau Geste with Gary Cooper, Robert Preston and Ray Milland, about the French Foreign Legion. When Bing worked, his sons also went to school with us. Everyone on the lot ate in the commissary. Some of the stars who ate there each day were Fred MacMurray, the cast of Beau Geste, George Raft, Bob Hope, Martha Raye, Barbara Stanwyck, Joel McCrea, Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, Irene Dunne, and

Jack Benny. At this time, Paramount had 15 “A” pictures in production simultaneously, quite something as the usual was about eight shooting at a given time. Bob Hope was making two pictures back to back. George Raft would drop by the set and perform coin tricks for us kids as he was practicing for a role as a gambler in a film called The Lady’s from Kentucky. Bing would always buy us kids an apple out of a machine every day during rehearsals. His sons, Gary, Lindsey, Phillip and Dennis were nice, too. They came to the studio barefoot. Bing was very relaxed and casual, wearing a loud print shirt and smoking a pipe. Crosby was always noted for his wonderful, warm voice, but he never really got credit for his excellent acting. While waiting to film a scene, he liked to whistle, especially the songs Silver on the Sage and Pennies from Heaven, from previous films.

The first day of shooting was a street scene. We start out as singing and dancing newsboys (I played the harmonica). The people on the street watching us throw coins at us for our performance (shades of years past) and Darryl Hickman collects the money as Crosby views our act. He brings us all home to meet his wife, played by Louise Campbell, and tries to convince her of using kid acts in vaudeville. His wife has faith in him and is convinced, but selling it to a theatrical agent is another story.The movie took four months to make, so we had a lot of contact with Crosby. We recorded the songs with full orchestra, three or four of us with Bing, as the other boys were dancers only. We recorded on a special sound stage, and they would project the musical numbers on a giant screen. Crosby would often forget the lyrics and would ad-lib, some good, some bad. He had a great sense of humor and would say we kids changed the words. We did the entire score of all the music.

On the last number, Bing takes Darryl Hickman off stage by the seat of his pants, as the rest of us make our exit singing. Darryl was suspended by a wire tied to his belt from the cat-walk theater rafters, sort of early special effects. In the last scene in the picture, we did a dance in mule outfits. I was the rear end of one of them. We had to learn how to watch the stage floor and maneuver correctly while dancing. The costumes were hot but open on the bottom, so we could see the floor.

The Starmaker premiered at Hollywood’s Carthay Circle Theater on Aug. 22, 1939. It was an exciting evening participating in the initial showing … Then the four-month contract for The Starmaker was over, and I wondered what the future would hold for me.

Almost immediately, I was offered a contract for a movie series, Our Neighbors – The Carters, starring Academy Award winner Fay Bainter. I was on six episodes over a period of four years, and the show won a Screen Actors Guild award.

Copyright © 2013 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Guest Contributor December 15, 2012 01:00
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