Sunday, 22 January 2012

Birds, Bees and Dennis Day

Dennis Day learned what everyone who has reached any level of fame has learned—your audience typecasts you. At times, that can be a good thing. If a star does something bad in real life, people refuse to believe it because they “know” him. But, professionally, it gets to be annoying after awhile. It certainly did to Dennis Day, it seems.

There’s a bit of irony in that. Day owed his career to the fact that Kenny Baker wearied of the same stereotype that Day did, and quit the Jack Benny radio show because of it. Day stuck with it. It was the wisest career decision. Not only did his role expand a bit on the Benny show—he got to show off his ability to do impressions—he ended up getting his own starring show on NBC. But, again, he was playing a watered down version of his character on the Benny show, a naïve, somewhat silly young man who was a little awkward around young women.

All this seems to have perturbed Dennis as he looked to expand his career past the narrow role people continued to want to see him in. He talked about it in the public press in 1950 as he pushed his new movie. Here’s one syndicated column.

In Hollywood
HOLLYWOOD, July 1 (NEA)—Maybe it won’t impress Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, but Dennis Day, who has million-dollars tonsils, too, gets worry lines right under his widow’s peak whenever he thinks about Gloria de Haven.
The fancy forehead corrugation hasn’t a thing to do with bullfighters, either.
It seems that Gloria, a Hollywood doll who seldom gets a ting-a-ling when they’re looking for stained-glass window types, is about to throw a monkey wrench with SEX engraved on it smack into the middle of Dennis’ fan club of dear, old white-haired ladies.
When Gloria finishes hustling him soundly in Fox’s “I’ll Get By,” Dennis broods, the radio-confected pictures of him at an innocent lad in short pants will go boom-boom.
It’s worrying Dennis in the same way it would worry Gene Autry if he found himself in Mae West’s boudoir right in front of a million bubble-gum blowers.
Dennis looked around furtively and told me:
“I’m box office with those old girls. When I play theaters, they hobble down the aisles on crutches and smash into other people with their wheel chairs. Tired business men want to see Jane Russell. The white-haired gals who collect old-age pensions want to see me.”
Dennis says he’s been putting on the Little Lord Fauntleroy smile for years whenever somebody’s grandma yells for him.
He Knows, Girls
“They think I’m really the mother’s boy I play on Jack Benny’s radio show,” he sighed. “They don’t give me credit for knowing about the birds and bees.”
But there won't be any doubts when the picture is released, he’s sure.
“I get Gloria to make an honest man out of me by mentioning my mink farm. When Gloria hears me say ‘mink,’ she goes wild and screams, ‘Br-r-r-r-rother!’ Only the way Gloria bellows it, the word hasn’t got anything to do with National Brotherhood Week.”
Dennis can just see his picture turned to the wall in the parlors of the Day fans who look like Jack Benny in his Charley’s Aunt wig. He doesn’t think there’s a chance that it will be Gloria’s picture that gets the flip-over treatment. His over-sixty fans aren’t the kind who go around framing photos of girls in the Betty Grable league.
“I’ll Get By” is Dennis’ second movie—his No. 1 try was something called “Music in Manhattan” with Ann Shirley and Phil Terry about 10 years ago—and marks his first screen encounter with molten lipstick.
“Now,” he says, “I know how Shirley Temple felt when she got kissed for the first time.”
Dennis says that he’s been goggle-eyed about the radio public’s willingness to believe anything that comes bouncing over the air waves since he became the big load of whimsey on the Benny show in 1939. He complains:
“They think that Marie Wilson is a mental giant beside me. I have to go around saying, ‘I’m not a schmoe, I’m not a schmoe.’”
He’s lost count of the letters asking him about his wrestling, steam-fitting mother — “She’s really a demure lady”—and the age at which he was dropped on his noggin.
Even radio actors buttonhole him and whisper:
“Hey, just between you and me, is Jack Benny really that tight with a buck?”
Fair-Haired Boy
When Dennis isn’t peeking into Ulcerland about his first celluloid sex skirmish, he’s apt to go into a brown study about the Mother Macrees who haven’t seen him and think of him as a tall blond kid with hayseeds sticking out of his ears.
“Maybe,” says Dennis, “they’ll fall flat on their faces when they see me. Maybe the studio should have used the Larry Parks technique and hired Claude Jarman, Jr., or Butch Jenkins to play me.”
He says a lot of radio singers who have been trying to burst into movies for years fainted dead away and had to go to bed when word leaked out that he had turned down a chance to jump from “I’ll Get By” into RKO’s “Two Tickets to Broadway.”
One stopped him and said:
“Who are you to turn down pictures—Princess Aly Khan?”
Dennis has quite a reputation for his mimicry but nobody he imitates has ever threatened to give him a poke in the snoot. He’s not sure about Ronald Colman, though. When Colman first heard Dennis give out with the “I say, Bonita,” he turned to his wife and said:
“I say, Bonita, isn’t that a wonderful imitation of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.?”
Dennis hasn't figured it out yet.
“Maybe,” he says, “Colman doesn’t like Doug, Jr.”

“Princess Aly Khan” was better known as Rita Hayworth, who spent a fair chunk of time after her marriage refusing to work on pictures Columbia insisted on putting her in.

The following day, Hedda Hopper devoted her entire Sunday column to Dennis. You’ve got to love the way Hedda makes herself part of the story. And she gives a bit of insight into how canny Dennis was. There’s was a reason he inflicted “Clancy Lowered the Boom” on the Benny audience. He made money off it.

Dennis Day-He's Such a Boy
You'd never think that nostalgic tenor, that youthful innocence, that dumbjohn naivete came from a tough veteran in show business!


HOLLYWOOD—To millions of people Dennis Day is the eternal boy—a naive lad who says the things that most people only think, a lad who sings sweet songs in a tenor that calls forth nostalgic tears. And in recent years the public has come to think of Dennis as one of the world’s best comedians and imitators.
Every two years radio man Day shows his fans Dennis Day in the flesh through personal appearance tours across the nation.
And once in a blue moon Dennis makes a motion picture. This is his picture year. He’s co-starring in “I’ll Get By” at Twentieth Century-Fox with June Haver, Bill Lundigan and Gloria de Haven, and with such top stars as Clifton Webb, Jeanne Crain, Dan Dailey and Vic Mature doing specialty spots as background for his unique talents.
Won’t Sign Up
“You haven’t made a picture in six years,” I observed over our tea. “Why? It’s easier to let your public, see you on the screen than to go out on those killing personal appearance tours—and the money all goes out in tax anyway.”
“That’s true,’ said Dennis, “but you can’t find a producer who will let you off with one picture. They all want to sign you up for a baker’s dozen, and that I can’t do. Darryl Zanuck is the exception—when he wants you he’ll take you for a one-shot. He and Bill Perlberg don’t play that cards-to-the-chest game. They go out to make a top picture, and that's their first consideration.”
“Then you won’t make a p.a. tour this year?” I asked.
“No. I’ll spend my vacation time at Balboa,” he replied. “I’ve a house there and a little boat, and I’ll get 13 weeks rest. But I’ll go out on tour next year. The last time I went out we did six shows a day and I sing nine songs at each show. That’s work, sister. Toward the end of the tour I caught cold and lost my voice. I wanted to throw in the sponge, but you can’t let audiences down, so I came out and emceed the show in a croaking whisper until the voice got straightened out.”
His Name’s McNulty
Bronx-born Eugene Dennis McNulty is a fine looking lad in a drawing room. He wears with case and assurance clothes made by the best tailors. His ebony hair and heart-warming smile, a ready wit and flashes of temperamental fire make him a personality to remember. In private life the shy, star-struck boy of the radio becomes a man of modest reticence. He qualifies his success story repeatedly with use of the word “luck.”
“Luck has everything to do with it,” he said. “If Kenny Baker hadn’t pulled out of the Jack Benny show when he did, I’d probably be working away at the law. That’s what I wanted to be— a criminal lawyer. I find that branch absorbing.”
I wanted to know how a would-be criminal lawyer wound up as a world famous entertainer. “Didn’t that take some fancy footwork?” I asked.
“Oh, no. I’d always sung a bit. In the choir at St. Patrick’s cathedral when I was a small boy. I sang alto. Then when I was at Manhattan college we did some amateur shows with Larry Clinton’s orchestra. And I sang a couple of times on radio shows so in my spare time I’d fool about with recordings. I was recovering from an appendix operation when I made a recording of ‘Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair.’ Some fellows from a Canadian corporation were in the next room when I was cutting it and heard me. They bought it for $75. I ran home with the money and you can imagine the excitement. ‘A wonderful country this,’ my father said, ‘that pays you for singing. Why, when I sang in Ireland, they threw water at me!’”
It seems there were other singers among the McNultys. Dennis’ grandmother has a very fine voice and his mother is musical also.
“Mother played the tenement house piano—that’s what we call the accordion—at her own wedding,” Dennis explained. “She plays it now when we have a family get-together around the piano.”
So many McNultys came to California after Dennis arrived that they just bought they own apartment house and settled down. I wanted to know how many songs Dennis knew by heart.
Got to Keep Working.
He thought a moment. “It would run into the thousands I guess.” he smiled deprecatingly.
“You can’t help knowing a good many when you've been singing as long as I have. Then, you see, I take a singing lesson every day when I’m not making a picture. You can’t stand on your honors in life— you've got to keep working.”
Dennis sang a number of songs when he auditioned for the Jack Benny program—“I Never Knew Heaven Could Speak” and “Don’t Worry About Me” and “Yours Is My Heart Alone,” “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody,” “I’ll Follow My Secret Heart” and I don't know how many more. But it was “Jeanie” which caught Mary Livingstone’s fancy and which got him the chance to land in what he calls “the greatest showcase in the world”— the Benny show.
When Jack finally called Dennis’ name singling him out of a room full of hopeful aspirants, it was Dennis’ instant response “Yes, please,” which keyed the eternally fresh character he plays. He was nervous and reticent and his voice was higher than normal and a trifle breathless. Jack Benny a master showman, recognized his comedy value. “There’s our boy,” he told Mary. “We’ll play him just like that— a shy utterly sincere boy whose mother is somewhere in the offing all the time.”
Correct Psychology
Jack’s psychology was correct. Mrs. Patrick McNulty, who was Mary Grady of Carracastle, Ireland, has reared a family of four sons and a daughter to be proud of. It was his mother who introduced Dennis to Peggy Almquist, his wife and the mother of small Paddy and Denny. One brother is a doctor, another a teacher of electrical engineering at U.C.L.A., another is Denny’s business manager, and the fourth is in the pharmaceutical business. Dennis’ sister is married and the mother of four, and Grandma McNulty has nine grandchildren to fuss over, and she’s not yet 60.
Dennis has one great difficulty! There aren’t enough hours in a day for him He says he’s an eight-hour man when it comes to sleep and just must have it to keep his voice fresh. His two music publishing businesses take up a good deal of his time since he personally checks on all the songs that get past his brother John with a recommendation.
He Isn’t Greedy
“You can’t afford to overlook anything submitted in the music publishing business,” he told me. “Song writers are spurt people. They jot down the flash as it comes because if it’s not caught on the fly if often leaves never to return. ‘Clancy Lowered the Boom’ was submitted to me on the back of a laundry list, probably the only piece of paper at hand.” Dennis thinks he has another hit in “When I Was Young and Twenty,” from the Housman poem which he has set to music.
Eugene Dennis McNulty isn’t money greedy, but he knows the value of a dollar. And he has a certain inflexibility when it comes to things that might interfere with his standards—nobody can break him down. He is the only big-moneyed entertainer in Hollywood without a swimming pool. His home, which he bought before he married, and which is in a conservative residential section of Los Angeles, might be the home of a doctor or lawyer.
After Dennis Day had gone I remembered all the times I’d sat in my library listening to that golden voice. There, I thought to myself, goes talent and brains and manners and high ideals and charm—there goes a boy every woman in the world would be proud to call son.

Hedda Hopper was 65 years old when she wrote this column. Right in Dennis Day’s motherly musical audience demographic. When you sing sentimental songs from the Victrola days, you attract fans who are sentimental for the songs from the Victrola days. It would have been pointless, and far less lucrative, to hope for some other result. It may have been frustrating at times, but if fans wanted a naïve, boyish singer, that’s what Dennis Day gave them. It’s the reason why he’s remembered today.

No comments:

Post a Comment