Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Searching for ABW - Bill H.

Federal Theatre Project dance rehearsal, 1937

We've been on a tour of Los Angeles, following the trail of [The Man I Love]'s grandfather, ABW, who lived in this city from about 1918 until his death in 1946.

[The Man I Love] didn't know his grandfather. His grandparents' marriage had broken up in 1921. All we had to mark the trail were public records like census listings, city directories, and newspaper articles. Luckily, we found one essay that ABW wrote late in life, telling about his career as a newspaperman, printer, and linotype machine operator.

In 1930, at the age of 57, ABW moved into a small bungalow in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles with a woman named Emma H. and her 23 year old son William.

It's funny how you can get off on some side trails. As we tried to find out what life was like for ABW in Silverlake, we found ourselves following William's story.

Belmont High School, 1927

William was born in 1907. In 1923, he was part of the starting class at the brand new Belmont High School in Los Angeles. Belmont was located a few blocks south of Echo Park Lake. Echo Park was the home of the early silent film industry. Mack Sennett, Tom Mix, and other famous stars and directors worked and lived here. Some of the funniest scenes in silent movies took place on the hilly streets of this neighborhood.

No wonder local kids were into show-biz. In 1924 William became the first Manager of Belmont High School's Stage Crew. A photo of the crew appears in the school yearbook.

He was also Treasurer of the Boys' Glee Club and performed in school productions of plays and operettas.

In the 1930 census, when he was 23 and living with his mother and her new husband ABW, William's occupation was listed as a dancer, in the theatrical industry.

Broadway at Ninth Street, Los Angeles 1929
There were lots of opportunities in show business. Vaudeville was still thriving, and so was the movie industry. The two art forms meshed perfectly. All over America - and especially in Los Angeles - huge and elaborate theatres were being built, so that people could come watch a vaudeville show followed by a movie. Broadway in downtown Los Angeles saw over a dozen movie palaces spring up during the 1920s.

William must have worked on the stage, in touring theatrical productions.

Photo from the New York Public Library of "Band Wagon" dancers, 1931

In 1931 William married 21-year-old Ellen Elizabeth Hegstrom, also a dancer, at the Claridge Hotel in New York City - the Claridge was located in the Theatre District.

"Band Wagon" scene, 1931, NewYork Public Library

One popular attraction on Broadway that year was the hit musical "Girl Crazy," starring a young singer Ginger Rogers. It ran seven months before closing in June. A new musical called "Band Wagon" opened a few days later at the New Amsterdam Theatre, featuring a skinny guy who was a helluva good dancer.

"Band Wagon", 1931

At the end of the '20s, the old Keith-Albee-Orpheum vaudeville company bought into the movie industry, and became the RKO Company. The industry was going through a cataclysmic change. No longer silent, movies included sound - talking, singing and music.

Drawing from their resources in vaudeville and musical theatre, RKO began producing elaborate movie musicals, capitalizing on the new technology and casting stars of Broadway and vaudeville.

In 1933, "Flying Down to Rio" was made, casting the same skinny guy from Broadway's "Band Wagon" dancing with a pretty newcomer, Ginger Rogers. Their onstage chemistry was so successful the studio went on to make more movies with the couple, with scores by composers Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin.

In 1935 they made "Top Hat." With music by Irving Berlin and dance routines by Astaire himself and a brilliant choreographer named Hermes Pan, it is considered the best of the Astaire and Rogers dance movies, and RKO's most profitable film of the decade.

Now back in Los Angeles, William is credited as Dance Director for "Top Hat." I'm not sure exactly what he did, with Astaire and Pan receiving much of the praise for the wonderful dance routines, but he was definitely back in Los Angeles, and working at RKO.

William and Ellen lived right around the corner from his mom and ABW, at 451 N. Occidental Avenue. They had a child, a girl named Loretta. His mom must have been delighted to be so close to her granddaughter.

By the time the movie wrapped, William was working as Ginger Rogers' personal secretary. In her autobiography, Ginger calls him Bill. Ginger Rogers was a young girl, younger than Bill by a few years. She was devoted to her mother, who toured with her. She was a teetotaller, and somewhat of a prude, despite the fact that she had married and quickly divorced at 17 to another vaudeville performer. In Hollywood she married a second time to actor Lew Ayers, but they separated in May 1936 - she couldn't take his partying, late nights and drinking.

Ginger was a devout Christian Scientist, and that may have been something that she and Bill had in common. ABW and his former wife Oro had been Christian Scientists, too, and it's likely that Emma had raised William in the same faith.

Christian Science is often wrongly depicted as forbidding its members from using conventional medicine, resorting to prayer for healing instead. That's not entirely true. That doctrine certainly wasn't followed in July of 1936 when William's family experienced a nasty scare.

A story in the L.A. Times recounts that their daughter Loretta, with a young playmate, ate some poison toadstools that were growing in the yard. Horrified, Ellen rushed the children to the emergency room where their stomachs were pumped and they were given a scolding.

Between 1935 when "Top Hat" was made and the end of 1937, Rogers made seven films for RKO. In March of 1938, she just completed a film called "Vivacious Lady," when the studios rushed her into making some retakes for the earlier "Having Wonderful Time."

She had planned a skiing vacation with her mother in Sun Valley, and was frustrated at the demands on her time.

On Sunday, April 10th, Bill was at a friend's house in Beverly Hills. It was a modest part of town, where even today the homes are small Spanish-style cottages and bungalows. He was suddenly stricken with severe abdominal pain, collapsed and died. He was thirty-one years old.

His funeral took place at Forest Lawn Memorial Park a few days later.

Wee Kirk o' the Heather, Forest Lawn Memorial Park

Why would a young man in his prime die so suddenly? There are three stories in the Los Angeles Times, and some of the details don't quite make sense. On April 11th, it reads:
Complaining of severe pains, William E. H_____, 30 years of age, of 451 N. Occidental Avenue, secretary to [Actress], motion picture actress, collapsed in the home of a friend yesterday and died before medical aid could be obtained. Deputy sheriffs said an autopsy will be performed to determine cause of death. H____, who, with his wife Ellen and 8-year-old daughter were visiting the home of Peter Williams at 8853 Ashcroft Ave in Beverly Hills, previously had eaten in a Wilshire Boulevard [drugstore.]

An article the following day reads:
Death of William Edward H_____, 30 year old personal secretary to Ginger Rogers, film actress, last Sunday was attributed to an acute abdominal ailment following an autopsy conducted yesterday. H_____ , who lived at 451 N. Occidental Avenue with his wife Ellen and 8-year-old daughter, was stricken after partaking of luncheon at a public eating place. He collapsed at the home of a friend, Peter Williams, of 8853 Ashcroft Avenue, Beverly Hills. He died at Beverly Hills Emergency Hospital shortly afterward.
The next day, this article appeared:
Christian Science funeral services will be read today at 10:30 at the Wee Kirk o' the Heather, Forest Lawn Memorial Park, for William Edward H____, for the last three years personal secretary for Ginger Rogers, actress.
Ginger Rogers' autobiography mentions Bill only twice. She writes of her frustration during March and April of 1938 at being kept in L.A. for retakes of "Having Wonderful Time," and her distress over muddled vacation plans. "Ordinarily, Bill made my travel arrangements. I could always count on Bill to make sure everything went smoothly," she writes. But this time someone else, her mother's friend, made arrangements, and things did not go so well - there were missed connections and mixups.

She returned from her vacation on May 9, and began shooting her next film, "Carefree." She doesn't mention Bill again.

William's death seems to have split the family asunder. By 1939, ABW and William's mother Emma split up - ABW moved to an apartment on Ardmore Avenue in Hollywood. William's widow Ellen moved to Atwater Village, north of downtown L.A. Emma remained in the house on Bellevue Avenue.

How could such a young man be so suddenly stricken down from a meal at a drugstore counter? Food poisoning is rarely this deadly, and so swift.

Were his family with him when he died? Did he die at Peter's home or at the hospital? Did he go to Peter's place when he felt sick, or had the visit been planned? And who grabs lunch at a drugstore while on a Sunday visit, anyway? Did he receive medical treatment, or not?

Why would his employer avoid mentioning his death - and yet in a round-about way hint that he was no longer available to help her? Why would his wife move away from her mother-in-law, instead of going to her for support? Why would his stepfather leave his grieving mother?

There's a mystery here.

It makes me sad to think of William's little girl Loretta - losing her Daddy so suddenly, and remembering her own near-fatal brush with a tummy-ache.

Because [The Man I Love]'s family had lost contact with ABW, we don't have family tales and anecdotes to weave a clear narrative around these happenings. All we know about William, his career in Hollywood and his untimely death we found from census reports, voter registration reports, City Directories, and newspaper articles we can dig up. And we follow the trail where it leads - to Ginger Rogers' biography, to the Movie Database.

A promising young man worked on the best movie of the decade, with top stars, and two geniuses of theatrical dance - his passion. And then he was suddenly, violently, gone. The story is incomplete. We'll keep looking, but we may never know more.


mo.stoneskin said...

Crumbs, so many questions! Fascinating though, and a fine array of photos as usual.

Tristan Robin Blakeman said...

fab post - so many wonderful pictures - and so many wonderful tidbits of showbiz trivia - which just seem to bring up MORE questions!


JCK said...

G, this is an amazing story. You must investigate further. You have so much of the story already. It does seem very strange - the death.


Smokes! This is an interesting story. What became of the little girl? Perhaps she's still alive and can provide some answers.

Geneaology is very, very interesting. Keep plugging along.