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Thursday, August 18, 2011


Rita Hayworth helps her boyfriend-- and future husband-- Orson Welles
with one of his Magic Shows.

One of many descriptive words applied to Orson Welles is "magician." As he played the role of a sort of intellectual trickster figure in Hollywood, creating hypnotic illusions and entrancing audiences, the title seems to fit. However, Orson had a fascination for magic that was literal as well as figurative. Captivating a live audience, keeping them enthralled, and shocking them to resulting ecstatic applause was a way of marrying both the ambitious man and his idealistic and playful youth. It was one of few ways that the overgrown boy allowed himself to indulge in his more childish nature, so often hidden. This is because the curiosity he held for the art started in his boyhood, and was one of few things that he and his father shared-- that and alcohol. Richard Welles enjoyed a good magic show, and while his son perfected his own tricks, he decided to give him a special treat: he took him to see the great Harry Houdini! When going back stage, Orson was probably as close as he would ever be to starstruck. Of course, his already scintillating ambition won the day, and he performed a handkerchief trick for Houdini, who watched appreciatively. Afterward, Harry praised the young chap but told him to keep practising and practising until the gag was perfect, even if it took a thousand times. Orson did. When he returned at a later date to show Houdini his improvement, he was surprised to see another magician teaching the master a new trick. This disappointed the peeping boy, who realised that maybe Houdini was, after all, just a man applying a craft like everyone else and not as Godlike as he had assumed. While this crushed Orson's little, innocent heart, it also taught him a great lesson-- never let them see what's up your sleeve; maintaining the illusion is the real power. This tactic was heartily applied. Later, Orson prepared a very elaborate magic show, which he performed for the servicemen during WWII. He used his current girlfriend, Rita Hayworth, as his assistant during the show, through the length of which he made several costume changes. After Columbia Pictures'  Harry Cohn objected to Rita's involvement in the show, much to her chagrin, she had to bow out, and Marlene Dietrich stepped in on her behalf. (Previously, Orson had also done a performance where he sawed ex-girlfriend Dolores Del Rio in half).


Marlene fills in for Rita Hayworth as Orson's assistant. Marlene was also
an avid wartime entertainer and was always happy to do her part.

When Lon Chaney was a young theatrical performer trying to eek out a living in vaudeville (left circa 1905), he traveled around a great deal. As was typical in those days, actors would join up with a troupe only to find themselves abandoned in a strange city when the financing went kaput and left them penniless. Dusting yourself off and starting over became second nature to him early on, and for an ambitious youth with unquenchable passion and itchy feet, the trials were worth it. At the very least, he got to travel around the country-- sometimes on trains that were moving so slowly that one could hop off and take a brief stroll before hopping back aboard. He too got to meet some interesting and talented people. In 1910, he and his first wife, Frances "Cleva" Creighton were living in Los Angeles, and Lon got a gig working with the Ferris Hartman Company at the Grand Opera House on Main Street. He was in gifted company, including a chubby young singer and comedian with light feet and a kind heart. Then, people called him Roscoe Arbuckle, but later he would be known as "Fatty." Lon also rubbed shoulders with Robert Z. Leonard, who would later become a film director and re-team with Lon in Hollywood for Danger-- Go Slow. Most importantly, Lon met the woman who would become his second wife, Hazel Hastings, though at the time, the married man took little notice of her. She and the other chorus girls helped out in babysitting his young son: Creighton Chaney, later known as Lon Chaney, Jr. Cleva had little time, since she was performing herself as a singer and equally was descending into alcoholism. Hazel would recall Lon's early ambitions toward comedy and his natural penchant for making people laugh, as well as his talents as a song and dance man. However, his later career in Hollywood would become the exact opposite. Odd how time (and a damaging divorce) can change things...

Former vaudeville star Fatty Arbuckle teams up as a movie star 
with Charlie Chaplin in The Rounders.

Greenwich Village in the the roaring twenties was the place to be. A spiritually and intellectually liberated city, it became a quite the den for artists, youth, creativity, and expression in the 1920s... with a little debauchery, of course. One thing that made it so enticing was its openness to sexuality, and it was one of few places where homosexual couples could walk around openly and without fear of persecution. It was here that future film star William Haines (right) would find himself at home and also meet two lifelong friends: Mitchell Foster and Larry Sullivan. At the time, the couple did much to polish Billy into a more stylish and cultured young man. Later, after Billy made it big, they would help him in his antique business and interior design company as well. While enjoying the nightlife, including seeing female impersonator Jean Malin at Paul and Joe's or Charles Spangles put on his "Josephine and Joseph" routine, Bill would make some other acquaintances. All types of artists migrated to the bustling Village, and it was here that he would meet comedians George Burns and Jack Benny for the first time, both of whom he would call friends for the remainder of his life. He too would meet a young painter, Jack Kelly, who would later become the famous designer Orry Kelly, and a young vaudevillian, Archibald Leach, who would later become Cary Grant. It is also believed that it was here in the village that Billy first met director George Cukor. George was already working in showbiz-- as a doorman at the Criterion Theater. They too would re-team in Hollywood, where Billy would help George inch his way into cinema and too decorate his lush pleasure palace. 


Archie Leach aka Cary Grant. The young cockney is already looking
polished here, but he had a way to go before he reached "suave."

Groucho Marx had a great love for the ladies (left with his favorite mark, Margaret Dumont). An intelligent man, he enjoyed the company of equally interesting and funny women, whom he admired. He would remark in later life that he always made the grievous mistake of marrying for beauty over intelligence. At least in his friendships, he was rich in sharp and sassy female companionship. One such gem he enjoyed was Gracie Allen. Their attraction was never physical, but Groucho respected the "Irish tap dancer" and her great humor. One night, he and his gal pal were dining in Schenectady when he spotted another friend across the room. With that, George Burns came over and said "Hello," and Groucho introduced him to Gracie. Groucho would later say that, then and there, George fell in love. George had seen Gracie before, of course, for in the small entertainment world everyone gets to know each other professionally if not personally, but the two had never officially met. Groucho took pride in the fact that it was he who finally brought the two together. Maybe they would have met without him, maybe not, but certainly Groucho held the debt over George's head for the rest of his life. For his part, George was eternally grateful. He would later say that the real talent in the George and Gracie act was all in the latter part. He was nothing without her. Together, they were comic dynamite.


The recipe for a successful marriage: love and laughter-
George Burns and Gracie Allen. Take note, Groucho.

Howard Hughes (right) had many relationships with and engagements to beautiful starlets over the years. An awkwardly handsome and eccentric man, he was as alluring as he was confusing. But then, maybe it was all the dough... He once gave the same sapphire ring he had given to Ginger Rogers to Ava Gardner after an exasperated Ginge' gave him the heave-ho. He too was deeply involved with Kathryn GraysonKatharine Hepburn, etc etc etc. As always, the great innovator saw potential in many things- cinema, air travel, and women. He too saw a goldmine in Norma Jeane Baker, though whether this was of the purely professional or sexual nature we'll never know, (though based on his track record it is easy to guess). While Howard was recuperating from his infamous Beverly Hills plane crash, he saw a picture of Norma Jeane in a bathing suit on the cover of Laff Magazine (below, summer of 1946). Apparently, the picture helped his recovery. He sent his associates on a manhunt to find out who she was and put her under contract at his studio. Her agent at the time, Bunny Ainsworth, caught word of his interest and used the information to advantage-- not to forge a love connection but to help Norma's career. Bunny planted a story with Hedda Hopper that Howard was seeking Norma out and used this as leverage to score her a contract with 20th-Century Fox. "Howard Hughes wants her, so you'd better act fast!" The ploy worked. Soon enough, the beautiful girl was making the screen test that gave cinematographer Leon Shamroy the chills-- both in excitement and in a fearful premonition. Thanks to Howard, Darryl F. Zanuck scooped the ingenue up and put her on her way to becoming Marilyn Monroe.

Marilyn Monroe was still going by her married name, Norma Jean Dougherty
when she did this shoot. It, and her hair color, would soon change.