Janet Gaynor

Janet Gaynor.jpg

In yesterday's blog, we called out a classic 1928 film, a kind of crossover from the silent to the talkie era.  Street Angel was a huge hit for the Fox Studios, banking around $1.7 million (which meant a LOT more ninety years ago than it does now), and got itself a few Academy Awards to boot.  One was for its leading lady - Janet Gaynor - who has the distinction not only of being the first woman to ever win the Best Actress Award, but for having received it for three movies simultaneously - Street Angel, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, and 7th Heaven, the latter two having been released in 1927.  Yes, the rules have changed since then. Now you can only officially win for one performance (although we believe that some actors occasionally win not for the movie they deserve to win for, but for another one.  Kate Winslet is one person we consider there, but that's off the record, and does not represent the views of everyone on the ATT blog staff). 

Janet Gaynor, born in Germantown Philadelphia in 1906, started acting in silent films at the young age of 18. She quickly rose to the top, and by the time she was 22 was one of the biggest names on the big screen.  That said, Gaynor retired from the industry (on her own terms) when she was 33.  She dabbled in the arts for the rest of her life, occasionally appearing on Broadway and the like, until she was involved in an accident between a drunk driver and her taxicab. She died of complications from the accident when she was 77.

Tunes on Tuesday

You're a Sweetheart.jpg

1937 was a big year for Alice Faye.  She starred in no less than five films that year, including In Old Chicago, On the Avenue, You Can't Have Everything, Wake Up and Live, and the topper for the year, You're a Sweetheart.  You're a Sweetheart was a musical comedy directed by the inestimable David Butler (full disclosure, we were unfamiliar with Mr. Butler before exploring his contribution to You're a Sweetheart, but his career was closely linked to that of Miss Doris Day).  The movie is about a Broadway producer who is competing with a charity event for the debut of his show and does whatever is necessary to get New York's elite to attend.  Don't worry, this film isn't about the plot. It's about the music.

With five songs written and composed by Jimmy McHugh and Harold Adamson, the title track is the one we're recognizing today.  Since the sheet music for this song is displayed right here, at the American Treasure Tour, in our Music Room.  Let us know if you can find it the next time you come in for a visit!

Fred Astaire

QUESTION:  Who was Fred Astaire's first dance partner?
A). Ginger Rogers
B). Adele Austerlitz
C). Rita Hayworth
D). Louise Brooks

The American Treasure Tour has walls covered in the photographs of celebrities, including athletes, performers, and even a few politicians. One of the men in our Music Room is Fred Astaire, widely considered one of the most influential dancers ever to appear on film, an inspiration for such prominent stars as Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gene Kelly, and Michael Jackson. Astaire was born in 1899.  Soon after, his father lost his job, ands and decided to put the six year old Fred and his sister into vaudeville. They did quite well, until something awkward happened - Fred's sister grew three inches taller than her younger brother. Because of that and a fear of child labor laws, the Astaire kids temporarily retired.

By 1915, the Astaires were back. A chance meeting with George Gershwin brought positive attention to everyone, and the Astaires became Broadway stars dancing to Gershwin's music. Then Jerome Kern and other luminaries of early-twentieth century music. Fred became regarded as the best tap dancer on the stage, while his sister started to fall into his shadow. She retired in 1932, the year she married Lord Charles Cavendish, the 9th Duke of Devonshire. The family business may have ended, but the Fred Astaire story was about to begin a new chapter, as he moved into motion pictures.

ANSWER:  B). Adele Austerlitz.  She was Fred's older sister.

Kiss Me Kate

QUESTION:  Which of the following musicals was not inspired by a Shakespeare play?
A)  The Lion King
B)  West Side Story
C)  Spamalot
D)  My Fair Lady

The American Treasure Tour blog has spent some time exploring the famous people depicted in lithographs hanging in our Toy Box. Today, we are going to shift just a little bit to the right of them Specifically, to a collection of original watercolor paintings that depict Broadway Musicals. They were created by artist and theater lover John M. Savidge, and we have only a small representation of his works displayed currently, with the hope that more will be available to enjoy in the future.  The first plays performed on Broadway in New York City occurred in the 1750's. The city was small back then, so the theaters were located in what is now considered the financial district, down by Nassau Street. As the city grew over the years, the theater district moved. By the turn of the twentieth century it reached the location where it would remain to this day - between 42nd and 53rd Streets, surrounding Broadway. All forms of entertainment happened in these theaters, but they have become most closely associated with musicals over the years. Today's Savidge painting we would like to highlight is 1949's Kiss Me Kate.

Few would even try to challenge the statement that William Shakespeare is the greatest of all playwrights. Kiss Me Kate is the story of a stage production of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew and the behind-the-scenes dramas of the various actors performing the show-within-a-show. Released in 1949, it was Cole Porter's response to the hugely popular Oklahoma! by Rodgers and Hammerstein - one of the most popular plays ever to be performed. Kiss Me Kate did quite well in its own right, and gave Oklahoma! a run for its money.  In 2015, the original Broadway recording of its soundtrack was placed on the prestigious Library of Congress' National Recording Registry due to its "cultural, artistic, and/or historical significance to American society and the nation's audio legacy."  Easily, one of the most recognizable songs from the show is Porter's classic "Too Darn Hot."

ANSWER:  C) Spamalot. That was inspired by the King Arthur story, which predates Shakespeare by a few hundred years. The Lion King is a loose adaptation of Hamlet, West Side Story takes the Romeo and Juliet storyline to a new level, and My Fair Lady is taken from George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, which is a reinterpretation of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew.  Nobody said this stuff was easy!

Milton Sills

QUESTION:  Milton Sills starred opposite yesterday's blog topic Alla Nazimova in what 1925 film?
A)  As Man Desires
B)  Madonna of the Streets
C)  The Knockout
D)  Paradise

Alla Nazimova was a controversial woman in her own time thanks to her multiple (simultaneous?) marriages and outrageous parties.  In contrast, today we would like to talk about another silent film era actor, Milton Sills. His rise to fame was hardly as dramatic as Nazimova's, although it was a little unusual. Sills was born in 1882 to a successful mineral dealer and the heiress to a successful banking family. His life was set out for him from day one. He was a prominent student at the University of Chicago, and was lecturing on philosophy and psychology when he hosted a lecture by a popular stage actor named Donald Robertson. Robertson liked Sills, and suggested that he abandon teaching to become an actor. Sills did.

It may come as a surprise that Sills succeeded.  He starred in around a dozen plays between 1908 and 1914. That was the year he signed on with a studio to become a film actor, and he not only starred in numerous films over the next sixteen years, including the highly popular Flaming Youth and 1924's top-grossing movie The Sea Hawk, but wrote a number of them as well. His star kept rising when, in 1930, he suffered a fatal heart attack while playing tennis with his wife, the actress Doris Kenyon.  He was 48 years old.

ANSWER:  B)  Madonna of the Streets.  And, as everyone knows, Paradise was released in 1926, not 1925.  So that is just a ridiculous answer!

Ben Vereen - October 10, 2014

Happy 68th Birthday to Ben Vereen! Showing a talent for drama and dance at a young age, he was accepted into the prestigious High School of Performing Arts in New York. Vereen studied under world-renowned choreographers Martha Graham, George Balanchine, and Jerome Robbins, and began working on stage shortly after graduation. He toured with Bob Fosse’s production of Sweet Charity from 1967-68 and was cast in the 1969 film version starring Shirley MacLaine. Vereen is also known for his roles in Funny Lady, Roots, and All That Jazz, and winning a Tony for 1973’s Pippin.


In 1964, Vereen was an understudy for a huge star for the 1964 Broadway musical Golden Boy. Who was it?

a) Sammy Davis, Jr.

b) Robert Goulet

c) Joel Grey

d) Sidney Poitier

Answer below!


Check out Vereen’s amazing skills in his Tony award-winning performance in Pippin.


Vereen’s character of “Bert Robbins” in Funny Lady is a composite of famed vaudeville performer Bert Williams and tap-dancing superstar Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.


Vereen is the godfather of R&B star Usher.


If we plant the right seeds, tomorrow will be better. If you put out good things, then you'll get good things back. That's part of our responsibility as entertainers.

~Ben Vereen


a) Sammy Davis, Jr. 

West Side Story - September 26, 2014

On this day in 1957, West Side Story opened in New York to glowing reviews. The production was directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, who won the Tony Award for Best Choreography. It would run for nearly two years—732 performances—and confirm Chita Rivera as a bona fide Broadway star. This was Stephen Sondheim’s first time writing lyrics for a musical, and Leonard Bernstein’s third musical score. 

Chita Rivera

Chita Rivera

Jerome Robbins on the set of the film version.

Jerome Robbins on the set of the film version.

Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein

Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim


How many Oscars did the 1961 blockbuster film version of West Side Story win?

a) 5

b) 7

c) 10

d) 12

Answer below!


Enjoy the splendor of  Rita Moreno and George Chakiris in their Oscar-winning roles dancing to Oscar-winning choreography and singing Oscar-winning music.


The original score for West Side Story, heavily annotated and revised by Leonard Bernstein and his co-orchestrators, Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal, is in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library at Columbia University.


c) West Side Story won 10 Oscars including Best Picture, Best Actor in a Supporting Role (George Chakiris), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Rita Moreno), Best Director (shared for the first time by collaborators Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins), and Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture.