03 January 2007

Out of the Everywhere

For the theme of the 20th Annual San Mateo County Fair and Floral Fiesta, the theme "Progressive Living" was chosen. While not exceptionally original, few terms could better sum up America in the post-War boom of the 1950's.

A decade of excess, frivolity and self-reward during which the American suburbs exploded seemingly from nowhere, television became the centerpiece of homes, and gracious yet easy living was the order of the day --- barbecues aflame on poolside patios while rock & roll music slowly, almost imperceptibly worked its way onto the dials of portable radios.

A lifetime away from the realm of motions pictures in the first years of sound --- films which would soon be finding their way onto small television screens in the wee hours of the morning --- but it's here, in 1954, that we must stop for a moment to witness an odd, unexpected and ultimately touching scene.

On the opening night of the San Mateo County Fair and Floral Fiesta, as crowds filled the Fair's Fiesta Bowl for the premiere performance of the "Entertainment Jubilee," two old friends --- a man and a woman, were awaiting their stage call. While the man basked in the attention and limelight that had remained with him through much of his performing career, the petite woman at his side considered the experience a lark, for she had long ago left behind her persona as a singer and dancer and had built a new life for herself here in San Mateo, California. Married well, financially secure, and making fine use of both these attributes to serve community and charitable functions, the woman was always agreeable to singing some of the "old songs" if called upon to do so for a cause or reason she deemed worthy. Such was Mrs. Henry Morris.

Waiting in the wings of the stage that balmy evening for their stage cue, the air perfumed with the thousands of flowers from the spectacular floral exhibits that dotted the fair, I wish we could read this pair's thoughts or hear them speak --- but we can only imagine. A bit of playful reminiscing surely, some light laughter edged with healthy and lucky show-biz nervousness, and perhaps a wistful sigh or two, as much for what once was as for what never was.

As a familiar old tune filled the stadium, electronically amplified to a degree undreamed of in 1929, audiences were asked to greet the famed "Singing Troubadour", Nick Lucas, and a well-known and much admired San Mateo resident, Nancy Welford --- both former stage and screen entertainers, and co-stars in the landmark 1929 all-Technicolor Warner Bros. musical, "The Gold Diggers of Broadway."

Spectators who were too young or simply unaware of Lucas and Welford's former cinematic pairing (it had been at least 25 years since anyone could have seen the film anywhere), didn't much mind nor care, and simply enjoyed the duo's musical performance, "singing many of the songs they both made famous," a medley which might have easily been book-ended with the two hit songs from their 1929 film, "Painting the Clouds With Sunshine" and (long before a silly song would forever become something rather grotesque via Tiny Tim,) "Tip Toe thru the Tulips."

Born in London in 1904 to theatrical parents, Nancy Welford's family migrated to America while she was still a child, and by the age of twelve she was working as a "flying bird" in the "Bird Ballet" at the New York Hippodrome during the 1916 season. Her skill as a dancer led to chorus work in a 1919 edition of Raymond Hitchcock's "Hitchy-Koo," and by 1921 she was touring the country with a featured performer from that show, veteran vaudevillian and musical comedy star William Rock on the B.F. Keith circuit, in a catch-all act billed as "Songs, Dances and Character Studies."

A description of the act is worth repeating here, if only for the fact that it's probably not been described since 1921: "Mr. Rock is made up like an old Broadway-ite on the look out for the pretty ladies. At the end, he and Miss Eby show some clever ballroom steps. Between these specialties comes a Chinese scene done with Miss Welford that is highly amusing and at the end there is an encore, a burlesque of classical dancing that is a scream."

From the start, critics took notice. Says an anonymous 1921 review of William Rock's act, "he is supported by two comely misses, both of whom bid fair to soon become stars themselves. One of them, Nancy Welford, was only recently graduated from the chorus, dancing her first solo and speaking her first lines before in audience in Fort Worth just three weeks ago. She has an abundance of personality and good-looks, large lustrous blue eyes, and a clear, resonant voice."

All that, plus her dancing skill led to a successful tour and then an amiable parting of the ways between Rock and Welford when the team arrived back in New York, where Welford's notices and experience landed her a featured part in Victor Herbert's "Orange Blossoms" and, in 1923, the leading role in Rudolf Friml's musical comedy "Cinders," in which she co-starred with George Bancroft.

As the 1920's rushed past, the years were filled with starring or featured roles in "Hit the Deck," "Irene," "No, No, Nanette," "Lady Do," and "Rain or Shine," and during the infrequent periods in which she wasn't on Broadway, she toured the country in road companies of these and other shows such as "Up She Goes" in 1924, and more often than not, as a well received single act simply billed as "Miss Nancy Welford in 'A Song Cycle'" that played up her success in "No, No, Nanette."

Following the closing of the circus themed Joe Cook production "Rain or Shine" in late 1928, Welford joined the throng of Broadway performers cautiously starting to trickle out West. Amidst production for "The Gold Diggers," (during which it was announced that Charlotte Greenwood would have the role eventually enacted by Winnie Lightner --- imagine that for a moment!) audiences first caught a Technicolor glimpse of Nancy Welford in an advertising film for the Pettibone-Peabody Company, which displayed actresses such as Welford, Mary Eaton and Shirley Mason in various hat creations --- cheap copies of which could then be bought locally.

"The Gold Diggers of Broadway" came next, and despite the mammoth success of the Technicolor film (such as being held over for six weeks in it's New York run) it doesn't seem as though Welford was considered for the lead in Warners' film rendition of "No, No, Nanette" despite her being the only logical choice. Whether or not there was some discontent between Welford and her studio is unknown, but a curious blind item from late 1929 announces --- with a straight face --- that Alice White had been signed for the lead role in the film. A make-do dancer at best, and a singer not-at-all, the news placement could have easily been a bit of whatever game was being played between Welford and Warners at the time, or merely a bizarre concoction of an overworked publicist's mind.

Conjecture aside, we do know that Welford wouldn't appear in the film version of "No, No, Nanette" nor any other film for Warners thereafter. A string of decidedly lesser features followed instead, including the first release for Nat Carr's Continental Pictures, "The Phantom in the House" (late 1929, with Ricardo Cortez and Henry B. Walthall) in which Welford sang "You'll Never Be Forgotten," "The Jazz Cinderella," a 1930 Chesterfield production with Myrna Loy (Welford's songs included "True Love" and "Hot and Bothered Baby") and finally "A Safe Affair" (1931) and "Yours Sincerely" (1933.) A 1931 announcement of a British remake of Mabel Normand's silent comedy "Mickey"with Welford in the title role would never materialize.

Details hereafter are vague and scattered at best, but as World War II was underway, Welford frequently worked with Ina Claire (who originated her "Gold Diggers" role in the first stage production of the property) and Lois Moran at the San Francisco branch of the Stage Door Canteen, and by the end of the War she had met and married one Henry Morris, prompting her retirement from a largely non-existent performing career at that point.

Thereafter, newspaper mentions of Welford are infrequent, save for those that associate her with various charity affairs and functions (always as Mrs. Henry Morris,) but every now and again she could be seen in news items detailing the guests at a party, or the guest judges of a beauty contest, or as in early 1954 when Welford consented to sing for an audience at a tea for the League of Service of St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in San Mateo.

Once a performer, always a performer. It can be supposed then, that when Nancy Welford took the arm of Nick Lucas to step out on the stage of the San Mateo County Fair (and Floral Fiesta) in August of 1954 to the sound of applause and melodies still with us today, in addition to feeling as though the past had rushed up to meet with the present, she must have also felt a wonderful sense of completion --- not of sorrow, but of having traveled full-circle on the "song cycle" she had begun so many years before.

Nancy Welford passed on in San Fransisco in 1991, aged 87.

A selection of three audio excerpts from "The Gold Diggers of Broadway."

In the first, in an attempt to aid her lovelorn friend's stalled romance, Nancy Welford sings an off-color tune at the piano to impress lawyer Conway Tearle as to just how an unsuitable young lady she is --- hoping her friend (Helen Foster) will seem a far more likely prospect by comparison.

Nancy Welford - Excerpt 1

From much later in the film, Welford declares herself fed-up with Tearle, despite her growing feelings for him. Seeking to once and for all pull the gold-digging routines to end them all, she fills Tearle up to the gills with hooch and then unravels an incredibly lurid, inane and colorful life story which, to her dismay, has quite the opposite intended effect.

Nancy Welford - Excerpt 2

Lastly, here's an excerpt from the film's lengthy finale reel --- Nancy Welford performing "Song of the Gold Diggers."


1 comment:

Ruth Doescher said...

My mother often told me of neighbors we had before I was born in Valley Stream, New York. They were an old theatrical couple named Cobb. They had a grandson named Heath, whose mother was Nancy Welford. This was in the 1920's.