Sunday, 4 October 2020

Baker on Broadway

Kenny Baker wasn’t satisfied.

He was a virtual unknown outside his home town when he was vaulted into fame on the Jack Benny radio show. But he got tired of playing a silly character so he quit. He went into motion pictures. But he got tired of playing silly characters so he quit.

In between he lost his gig on Fred Allen’s show when it was cut from an hour to a half-hour (and the trades reported some friction as well).

He moved onward and, mostly, downward. He was given the starring role on a show called Glamour Manor. But it was a daytime show on the number three network and tried to remind people “Hey, I was with Jack Benny once!” by incorporating Don Wilson and Schlepperman into the cast. He signed with Ziv to cut a series of transcribed 15-minute musical shows for syndication. Both shows petered out and Baker was pretty much a spent force in radio by the end of the ‘40s.

Baker had two other claims to fame during this period. He cut some religious records—he was a Christian Scientist—and he appeared on Broadway.

Let’s go back to 1944 and check out what Kenny had to say. The first story appeared in papers around February 11th, the second around August 10th (remember that, back then, newspapers would leave feature stories on the spike until they needed them, so they could appear months after hitting the wire).
Kenny Baker Has Good Words
(United Press Staff Correspondent)
NEW YORK—Up to now you could have put all the Hollywood and radio personalities who escape with a whole pelt when they make a pass at Broadway without any stage training into a ballpark peanut bag and have room left for the hulls, but not any more.
Kenny Baker, the popular tenor who happens to have a voice, is too big.
"I'm not interested in putting in any complaints against the movies and radio," Baker said in his dressing room at the 46th St. theater, "because they're great businesses, and I hope to see more of them. But somehow in the several years that I was working in those fields I didn't care to do much but sing or develop as a rather dopey foil for Jack Benny. That kind of work buys a lot of groceries but it gets monotonous. I wanted to know if I could do anything more, and I've found it on Broadway."
Kenny, a tall, round-faced, husky gent with a beguiling smile, came in cold as far as Broadway was concerned four and a half months ago as the leading man of the musical comedy "One Touch of Venus" and won himself a set of critics' notices that have come in mighty handy in this winter when you buy coal by the bushel.
Baker began looking toward the stage a couple of years ago. He went to a teacher who lowered his speaking voice and was in a receptive mood when producer Cheryl Crawford showed up in Hollywood with a script and an offer. But the story wasn't quite right, Baker thought, and besides his wife was expecting their third child. He stayed on the coast. Then Miss Crawford came back, with a written script, and got the singer's autograph on a contract.
Baker's great appeal, aside from his undoubtedly capable voice, is that he doesn't fit the popular conception of the matinee idol. He just looks like a good ordinary guy, which is the role he plays in "Venus," wherein he is a barber in a mythical suburb called Ozone Heights.
The singer began his vocalizing with a college glee club, won a radio contest after a few years and from then on had no trouble meeting the rent. His wife was his college sweetheart. They and the three children, two of whom go to school, are living for the show's duration in a house in a Long Island suburb. Their home is a small ranch in the Hollywood area.
Baker uses the subway to go to and from the theater. He gets in a couple of hours before a performance and does a bit of vocal calesthenics to get the pipes in shape. On the two matinee days he gets in shortly after noon and stays right through until about midnight, by which time he will have reckoned with some backstage visitors and removed the makeup.
“I certainly don’t have any weight trouble in this show," he said. “Matter of fact I keep losing a little weight steadily and never seem to get it back. But I'm not kicking. There are worse ways of earning a living.”
Which will do for the week’s prize understatement.

Kenny Baker Quits Films, Proves Ability on Stage
National Enterprise Association
LIKE a lot of other people, Kenny Baker had to go to New York to prove to Hollywood that he could act.
Hollywood discovered a long time ago that Kenny could sing, but a series of insipid screen characters inspired by his stooging on the Jack Benny radio show convinced the movie-makers that he should stick to singing.
"I was stuck with insipid characters in corny pictures," Baker says, "and I couldn't get out of them. I was typed as a sap with about as much backbone as a jelly fish."
So a year ago Baker said nertz to Hollywood, shuttered up his home, drained his swimming pool and took his wife and three children to New York. The rest you know. Kenny was a hit on Broadway opposite Mary Martin in One Touch of Venus. He sang, of course, but what pleased him most was that the New York critics were equally impressed by his acting.
He left the show recently to return to Hollywood for a radio program and the title of Radio's No. 1 Tenor. And he's pleased by something else. Several film studios are bidding for his services in straight acting roles.
One Touch of Venus convinced Hollywood that Kenny Baker could act, and it also convinced Kenny that stage work should be listed as essential to film careers. "I had sung with bands on the stage," he said, "but I had never had the chance to act before a live audience. It was wonderful training. I should have paid them for letting me work in the play."
• • •
HE'LL never forget the time Mary Martin ran across the stage wearing only a pair of shoes.
That happened during the play's first tryout in Boston. "She had to make a fast change," Kenny said, "and in the confusion of opening night she undressed on one side of the stage and then discovered her clothes were on the other side. Her cue was coming up so she just ran across the stage behind the scenery. Only she forgot there was a five-foot open place in the scenery, putting her in full view of the audience, just before she reached the wings. It was kinda dark, though, and I guess no one noticed her."
Kenny was on stage at the time. "I always miss all of those things," he said.
• • •
KENNY BAKER, a Monrovia, Calif., boy, has done all right since he switched from playing the violin to warbling. In junior college he made the discovery that he was a better singer than virtuoso. "I sang at so many Lions, Rotarians and Kiwanians luncheons that I was known as the service club tenor."
The Baker home is in Beverly Hills. But there's also a 150-acre Baker ranch near Santa Barbara where he spends most of his time, Mrs. Baker is Geraldyne Churchill, the girl next door whom he planned to marry ever since they went to high school together. They were married in 1933, and have three children—Kenny Jr., 8, Susan, 6, and Johnny, 8 months.
Baker did some stage and TV acting in the ‘50s, recorded some religious music and signed a deal for a daily 15-minute radio show on Mutual, but had pretty well retired to his ranch and his kids. By all accounts, Kenny Baker was now satisfied.

1 comment:

  1. Marx Brothers fans will forever sneer at his performance as the simpy love interest in "At the Circus."