I’m a man who examines and totals the restaurant check. And so
should you at today’s prices; but if you’re afraid to,
disinclined to, or too embarrassed to, then that’s up to you.
I indulge in no such insecurities. I examine my bills. Just as
any other sensible man would when doing business at any other
Which reminds me that Time
magazine recently claimed I still have the first nickel I ever
made. I really should look for it. A nickel of that vintage
ought to be a collector’s item by now and worth quite a bit
more. Perhaps, like all those bartenders who keep the first
dollar they take in, I could frame it so that the income-tax
department would always know where to find the four and a half
cents they collect from each five I earn. Of course, I’d
prefer they didn’t, but if they didn’t, then I might not be
able to write with such freedom or in such safety.
Time also reported I
counted out change to one of my wives. Now isn’t that odd?
Especially since I don’t remember giving any of them any
change at any time. I was more intent upon getting theirs for my
I like money. Anybody know
anyone who doesn’t? You do? He’s a liar.
When it comes to income tax, I
have little knowledge of its ever-changing regulations and
complexities, and leave such matters to men who specialize in
them. I have the ability to earn large sums and trust they will
be properly, fairly and legally used and administered. Hundreds
of letters asking for personal help reach me weekly from
scattered hopefuls. But aside from the nationwide charities, the
local Community Chest, and certain other organizations which
receive annual donations from me, my advisers insist I give to
none of them.
There has recently been an
extraordinary rash of people eager to make easy pin money by
compiling a cookbook of celebrities’ recipes. I’ve given up
answering them. There’s an even larger accumulation of mail
from people who’ve decided to hold auction sales of “little
personal items” from celebrities. It is no longer possible to
answer each request. It would take a larger office staff than I
now possess and my home would be empty of belongings and I would
be broke and, in turn, unable to retain either the home or the
After that successful 1924
vaudeville season, during which most of us saved sufficient
money to feel our independence, we also began feeling the strain
of our incompatibilities. And so, unable to amiably discuss our
mutual dissatisfactions, we disbanded and returned to New York.
Some of the troupe left for England, and others, including
myself, remained in America.
I wish I could report a sudden
meteoric rise of career, but summer and its slack theatrical
season was around again. I remained in New York, eking out my
savings while living in a very small but clean, pleasant room at
the National Vaudeville Artists Club, where I was again
permitted to run up bills while trying to run down jobs. I still
think of that club and its staff with fond, grateful memory. At
night, many well-known theatrical figures of vaudeville and
musical comedy came there for late supper after their shows, and
at almost any other time during the day I could be surrounded by
the sound of friendly voices. I met performers of every kind and
often teamed in temporary partnership with young comedians no
more experienced than myself, in order to obtain a day’s work
here and a day’s work there. Usually somewhere close to New
York, on a Saturday or Sunday, when small theaters advertised,
as a sort of weekend bonus, three or four “outstanding”
acts, to embellish their movie program.
We were paid the regular minimum
scale of $62.50 a day. For the two of us. Less 10 percent
agent’s commission. Less cost of travel, less cost of keeping
our clothes clean for the performances, less tips at the theater
and meals between shows. Leaving less and less and, too often,
nothing. But I was glad for the work. The experiences were of
incalculable benefit, because it was during these one- and
two-day engagements that I began learning the fundamentals of my
craft. (Give me a sentence with the word fundamental: I went
horseback riding yesterday, and now I have to eat fun da
Eventually, after graduating to
more entertaining routines with more accomplished comedians and
more regular bookings, I played practically every small town in
America. As the “straight man,” I learned to time laughs.
When to talk into an audience’s laughter. When no to talk into
the laughter. When to wait for the laugh. When not to wait for a
laugh. When to move on a laugh, when not to move on a laugh. In
all sorts of theaters, of all sizes, playing to all types of
people; timing laughs that changed in volume and length at every
I was 21 years old and still six
years away from Hollywood. Six years of intensive, diligent work
toward an unknown goal.
While playing some short
but lucrative engagements in and around New York, I struck up a
happy acquaintance with a musical-comedy juvenile named Max
Hoffman, Jr., and through him met Reginald Hammerstein, a stage
director and younger brother of Oscar Hammerstien II. One
evening, in the nightclub where Helen Morgan sang her
unforgettably poignant songs, Reggie suggested that instead of
pursuing what was becoming a profitable livelihood in
vaudeville, I should begin training for musical comedy. He
concluded that although I might someday become quite popular on
vaudeville circuits throughout the country, it would still not
bring me recognition on Broadway, the New York center of the
theatrical world. It was logical and sound advice, and I have
never regretted taking it, nor forgotten the considerate manner
in which it was offered.
Reggie was about my own age.
Usually I found myself gravitating to older people to seek
advice, or to enjoy their amused regard of life and be reassured
that people could mature with age. Of course, nowadays,
people older than myself are becoming increasingly difficult to
find; but I’m consoled to note that young people, in turn, now
gravitate to me.
Yet, what hopeful advice can one
give a younger person? How can young people, products of
today’s sociological order, derive comfort from the words and
deeds of our political, scientific, religious, moralistic and
philosophic leaders, regardless how well intended, when the
combined result of all their rules, regulations and beliefs has,
cyclically, led us to armament and eventual war?
In society’s present stage of
evolution, how can anyone tell anyone else how best to live? I
can only advise you to relax and, just as all lasting religions
prescribe, have faith in a master plan far greater than our
minds can yet perceive. Find, through prayer, an inner peace for
yourself no matter what goes on around you. Perhaps someday
there will be a magic moment when everyone everywhere prays
simultaneously, in unity, for eternal peace.
Until that great day, do the best
you can. For yourself. And for your fellow man. Take care of
yourself and of each other.
Permit me to suggest that you
dress neatly and cleanly. A young person who dresses well
usually behaves well. Learn good manners. Good manners and a
pleasant personality, even without a college education, will
take you far.
What is the use of packing our
heads with general or academic learning, instruction or
information, if neither the learning nor the use of it, in a
world of competitive rather than concerted efforts, can bring
you personal happiness? Most of us, certainly myself, spend
years congesting our minds with useless bits of knowledge that
will go with us to the grave, and leave little room or time for
philosophic thought and the quiet meditation of life beyond the
Reggie Hammerstein cheerfully
took me to the offices of his uncle, Arthur Hammerstien, who was
soon to begin rehearsals of he expensive, well-produced but
ill-destined operetta, Golden Dawn, which opened the
newly built Hammerstien Theater at Broadway and 54th Street in
1927. I played a small part and understudied the leading man,
Paul Gregory. On matinee, he arrived at the theater only a
moment before curtain time. I had feverishly dressed preparing
to go on in his place, quaking with fright; with the overture
ringing in my ears, I begged him never to do that to me
again! Despite that familiar movie plot about the understudy
finally getting the great opportunity, I was one who welcomed it
When Golden Dawn closed
after a disappointingly short run, Mr. Hammerstein groomed me
for the lead in his next venture, a musical version of Polly
With a Past. We opened in Wilmington, Delaware, where a
local critic wrote that “Archie Leach has a strong masculine
manner, but unfortunately fails to bring out the beauty of the
score.” My musical-comedy inexperience was too evident to go
unnoticed, and I was taken out of Polly and replaced
before it opened on Broadway, where it too, unluckily for that
wonderful man Mr. Arthur Hammerstein, was not a success.
At this point, Marilyn Miller
became interested in me as a replacement for her leading man in Rosalie.
The male star of the show, of course, was the great comedian
Jack Donahue, whom I knew and greatly admired. But Mr.
Hammerstien and Mr. Ziegfeld, who produced Miss Miller’s show,
were hardly on friendly terms and, over my complaining voice, my
contract was taken over by the Messrs. J.J. and Lee Shubert,
managers and owners of a vast theater chain and countless
original plays, musical comedies and other theatrical
I was kept happily, gainfully and
steadily employed with them for almost three years. First in the
New York production of Boom Boom starring Jeanette
MacDonald, at the Casino Theater, which was then almost opposite
the old Metropolitan Opera House, and next in the traditional
male role of Die Fledermaus at the Majestic Theater in
New York. Followed by a summer season of operettas at the
delightful open-air St. Louis Municipal Opera in Forest Park.
In those years of 1928, ‘29 and
‘30, I earned from $300 to $450 weekly, with seasonal raises;
more than many featured stage players earn today, and was
treated with consistent thoughtfulness and courtesy by Mr. J.J.
and Mr. Lee. Yet I often overheard actors of dubious ability,
who had been given good employment year after year, grumble
about the so-called Shubert control of the theater and
In 1928 I bought an automobile.
Bought it before I could drive it. A Packard. At that time the
finest of American-made cars. There was almost no chromium in
those days, and all shiny parts had to be polished with metal
polish. An arduous task, but for me a work of love. I washed,
polished, scrubbed, waxed, patted, doted upon, and finally even
learned to drive, that car. It was a phaeton, called a touring
car; a model no longer made. It had a 143-inch wheelbase, which
made it difficult to lumber around corners. On my first day out
for a spin in the country, having only just called for two young
ladies, who sat demurely in the back, I began to make a nice
wide turn, but couldn’t properly manage to alternate my foot
between the gas and brake pedals, and plowed slowly and steadily
into a bright new car that a surprised middle-aged gentleman had
just finished parking. Well, he got out. And I got out. The
girls remained in the car.
I told him how sorry I was and
explained that I was unaccustomed to driving such a long car and
indeed, in lower tones, unaccustomed to driving any kind
of car, and only trying to impress those two young ladies who
sat over there in the back seat. He looked at me for a long,
silent moment, then bade me good-day with a smile of forgiveness
and a raise of the hat. I’ve often wondered about that man.
Rare. Probably French. Only the French have that sense of the
romantic. Personally I would have blown my top.