Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Aunt Harriet Meets Stanislavsky

She was clueless and a little dithery, but who didn’t love Aunt Harriet?

Madge Blake popped up on TV shows other than “Batman,” but it always seemed a little odd, like she didn’t belong anywhere except Stately Wayne Manor. I guess that’s how strongly I associated Aunt Harriet with her. But Mrs. Blake carved out a nice career, with regular turns on “The Real McCoys,” “The Joey Bishop Show” and occasionally on “Leave It To Beaver.” Maybe her most famous movie role was as the Louella Parsons-esque columnist in the cheery “Singing in the Rain.” But perhaps you didn’t know her acting career came comparatively late in life.

Madge was born Madge Elizabeth Cummings on May 31, 1899 in Kinsley City, Kansas to Albert W. and Alice F. (Stone) Cummings. Blake was her married name; she married J. Lincoln Blake, an interior decorating plant manager (they later divorced). Her father was a minister and didn’t approve of those acting folk. So, as her Associated Press obituary revealed, she waited until he was dead and her kids were grown before embarking on a show-biz career in the late ‘40s.

The only newspaper article I’ve been able to find on her is the one below from a newspaper syndicate, published August 13, 1963.

Woman Past 40 Became Actress

Copley News Service
HOLLYWOOD—Her hair was already beginning to be well-streaked with gray. Two sons were grown and were away from home. In years, she was already well past 40. That’s when Madge Blake decided it would be very nice to get into the movies.
Madge is the delightful woman who spent six years in the cast of “The Real McCoys.” Currently she’s appearing in “A More Perfect Union” at the La Jolla, Calif., Playhouse. Her success as an actress, in movies, television and on the stage, despite her late start, has been remarkable. But don’t for a minute think it was easy.
Miss Blake recalls vividly the comment a director had for her when she first began this quest.
“He asked me point-blank why I didn’t just go home,” she said.
“He told me that I would never be able to make myself heard on stage, that my walk was wrong and my gestures were awkward. He suggested that I not only was wasting my time but the theater’s as well.”
The effect on Miss Blake was not discouragement, however. On the contrary. She vowed she was going to make this particular critic swallow his acid phrases one day. And she did.
This determination had been well hones on other projects. There was the time during the depression when she decided she should have a job. She bombarded the president of a Los Angeles department store with letters until she was hired. And during the war, when her sons were in the service, she felt she should be contributing, so she took a job loading nitroglycerin pellets in rockets.
At the time she set her sights on professional acting, Miss Blake was teaching in a Pasadena, Calif., elementary school. Every night she either worked at the Pasadena Playhouse or at the Glendale Center Theater.
“I knew I had to absorb everything I could,” she said, “because I knew so very little about the theater. I took any role that was offered to me or I worked backstage, just so I could be part of the theater. I read all through Stanislavsky, though I didn’t understand a work of it.”
Once, for example, Madge was given the role of an eccentric English woman in a Noel Coward play at Glendale. She knew nothing about accents, she said, but she found a woman in Pasadena who had recently arrived from England.
“I’ve often thought since how puzzled that woman must have been,” she laughed. “For a time I really cultivated her. I was with her every day, listening to the sound of her voice. Then when I began rehearsing I didn’t see her again and haven’t since.”

The neat revelation in the story is Madge Blake was not a somewhat-addled little old lady like many of her characters on TV. She provides a good example for us all, that ability and determination can help you achieve your goals. In a way, that lesson is as good as anything that we can learn from the Caped Crusader.

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