by Dora Albert
Ty Powers feels no one has a right to be as glad as Don perpetually is!
HE IS said to receive more fan mail than any other actor on his lot except Shirley Temple. Recently he was chosen by the deaf people of this country as the actor with the finest voice. (What they really meant was that his lips were the easiest to read.) He has a fan in Oakland, California, who has seen every picture in which he has appeared from fifty-five to one hundred and thirty times. A woman in Warren, Pennsylvania named a pig after him and entered it in a contest of the Ladies’ Aid Society.
You can’t ignore an actor who has all those distinctions, and for a long time I’ve been wanting to meet Don Ameche. Nearly all stories about Don fall into two classes: either they tell of the wild youngster who drank too much till his religion finally saved him, or else they tell of his romance and marriage to his childhood sweetheart, Honore Prendergast I wanted to find out for myself what he was like. Was he the gay, happy, young hooligan of legend or the prosaic husband Hollywood pictures him today?
When he came to New York recently, Don visited practically every night club in New York, but it didn’t cause i ripple of comment He even came to New York without his wife, something which practically no other actor could have done without causing the columnists to comment, ”Are the So and Sos splitting up?”
But the belief that the Don Ameche marriage is a completely happy one is so firmly entrenched even among the most cynical gossip columnists that no one of them suggested that this might be the beginning of the end!
“Why did your wife remain behind in Hollywood?” I asked Don curiously.
“Because she’s going to have another child,” he said. Come late summer, the stork will hover once again over their home. Thus it is best for Honore not to do too much traveling at this time.
We sat in a blue and gold room at the Hotel St Regis. Don looked even more handsome than he does in pictures. Over six feet tall, he has none of the lankiness and awkwardness most of the tall actors in Hollywood have. His hazel eyes are grave. He is very gracious and courteous, but slightly aloof. Meeting a writer for the first time, he has none of that gay, blustering warmth which so many actors cultivate as part of their professional charm. You find yourself wishing desperately that he would swashbuckle just a little, that he would reveal a tiny trace of the theatrical But he doesn’t.
“Would you like your next child to be a boy or a girl?” I asked. The Don Ameches already have two children— Ronnie, three, and Donnie, five.
Don shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t care which it is,” he said, “boy or girL Fll welcome either.”
Unlike most fond fathers, he has no definite theories as to how children should be brought up. When I asked him about it he floundered about for a few minutes and then said helplessly, “I have no theories, except to try to make them well-behaved.”
As a boy, Don himself was anything but well-behaved. He was the little hellion who used to gather up leaves in the fall so he could start fires in back yards. He broke lamps, threw tomatoes at his brother, covered the walls of the schools he went to with shocking murals, and smoked in school when it was against the rules. Whenever he had done anything for which he deserved to be punished, he would point to an innocent brother of his and nonchalantly say, “He did it”
“How do you manage to remain so completely normal in Hollywood?” I asked Don. The question wasn’t meant as a compliment To an interviewer, normality is the deadliest of sins. It makes such rotten copy.
Don seemed honestly bewildered by my question. “But there’s nothing in Hollywood,” he said, “to make you unnormal. Nearly everyone who has lived in Hollywood a long time realizes that A great deal is said about Hollywood divorces, but I think that if you could get accurate statistics, you’d find that the percentage of divorces in Hollywood is no greater than for New York or Chicago. Hollywood divorces simply get more publicity.”
“But there are so many more temptations in Hollywood,” I said. “What about the gorgeous women, the torrid love scenes?”
“They don’t affect me,” said Don. “I doubt if they affect other actors as much as some people believe.”
Much of what he hears and reads about Hollywood seems to Don to be greatly Actionized. Even more of what he reads about himself is purely imaginary.
There is, for instance, the legend of Texas Guinan, as told by one of the top sob story writers in the country for a national magazine. According to this story, Don Ameche once appeared in vaudeville with Texas Guinan. (That much of die legend is true.) One day Texas Guinan is supposed to have said to him, “Don Ameche, you don’t belong in vaudeville or even on the stage. You belong in radio. Remember!”
And Don Ameche remembered, the legend goes. Because of Texas Guinan’s advice, he came to Chicago and tried out for a radio career. He became the star of “The First Nighter” and appeared in numerous other dramatic programs. For five years he was one of Chicago’s favorite actors on the air.
Then Texas Guinan died. And once again Don Ameche remembered. Today, said the sob story writer, there are often roses on Texas Guinan’s grave, which come from the grateful Don Ameche. And with those roses, there always comes a card with just one word, “Remember.” “It’s a beautiful story,” Don told me, chuckling, “only I can’t remember anything like that ever happening. No, I’m afraid Texas Guinan never told me to try radio.”
Don has had his share of misquotes. Once he was quoted as saying, “I should like to find something that I have to fight for. This luck I have been having is getting monotonous.” “I certainly never said that,” said Don. “It’s true I’ve had a million times my share of luck, but it’s been mixed with hard work. I’ve had plenty to fight for.”
Another myth about Don is that he hates servants, and doesn’t believe anyone ought to employ them no matter how much money he has. “That’s not true,” Don told me. “Honore and I have three servants, two to take care of the house, and one to take care of the children.”
According to myth, Don is supposed to hate eating at home. He has been quoted as saying, “Eating at home is all right as a novelty, but my wife and I like to look at each other across strange tables.”
“I never said that at all,” Don told me. “It’s true that because of circumstances I usually have to eat out but I don’t dislike eating at home.”
Recently, when he appeared in “The Three Musketeers,” a new legend grew up that Don was one of the greatest fencers who had ever come to Hollywood, and that if he had lived in the time of D’Artagan, he would have put all the fencers of France to shame. His fencing teacher is supposed to have said that until Don Ameche came along, Douglas Fairbanks was the best fencer among the actors, but that Don Ameche had outstripped even Doug Fairbanks.
When this was mentioned, Don turned slightly red. “It is news to me,” he said. “I studied fencing for three weeks. To become an expert fencer requires at least three years.”
Don and Tyrone Power are said to be rivals. Their feud is supposed to have started when Tyrone first came to Chicago at the time of the World’s Fair and applied for dramatic roles on the air. Every time he asked for a role, he was told Don Ameche had been selected. Finally he was given a small part in a radio play in which Don was to be the star. But even that didn’t help Tyrone, for while Don continued to be the most sought-after dramatic actor on the air, Tyrone got nowhere. Finally, when he was asked to read funny papers to children over the air, Tyrone quit.
YEARS later, they met again in Hollywood. When Tyrone came to Hollywood, he found that Don Ameche had already played a dual role in “Sins of Man.” For a while it was nip and tuck between the two men. Don Ameche created a stir as the Indian in “Ramona,” and Tyrone Power was very effective in a small bit in “Girls’ Dormitory.” Both men had parts of equal importance in “Ladies in Love.” Then the tide turned. Given the lead in “Lloyds of London,” Tyrone became even more popular than Don was.
Today Don is extremely popular at the box-office, but Tyrone is even more so. Don was announced for Sonja Henie’s last picture, “Second Fiddle,” but Darryl Zanuck changed his mind. He took Don out of the cast and put Tyrone in.
“Tyrone and I are the best of friends,” said Don. “I’m not at all hurt when Tyrone is put into a role for which I’ve been considered, and I know Tyrone isn’t hurt when I’m put into a part for which he’s been considered. We’ve often laughed about our ‘feud.’ ”
I asked Don if he objected to such stories. Many actors do resent faked items but Don is merely amused. “There must be a demand for such stories,” he said, “or the papers wouldn’t print them.”
You would imagine that all the myths that have been published about Don Ameche were invented because nothing really dramatic ever happens to him, yet that isn’t true. In some respects his life has been ultra-dramatic, but he talks about the highlights very matter-offactly. He plays his big moments off the screen, just as he plays scenes on the screen, without a trace of ham.
LET’S look at the record. He was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the son of an
Italian father and a mother in whose blood was mixed the strain of many nationalities. When he was fourteen, Father Sheehy, a man who is still his friend, introduced him to Honore Prendergast, and for three years they were madly in love with each other. “Of course it’s only puppy love,” their parents said. “It isn’t possible for two people that young to know their own minds.”
Don Ameche was sent off to a university. It wasn’t until many years later that he met Honore again, and found it hadn’t been puppy love after all. With Honore to encourage him, he acquired a firm faith in his own destiny. Gambling on that faith, he went to Hollywood and took a test for M-G-M. The test was so bad that the director told him, “Look, I hate to give advice, but you’re a nice guy, and I’ll break my rule for you. Honestly, if I were you, I’d stay with radio, where you’ve got a name and a reputation. If you go into the movies, you’ll ruin that reputation. You have a funny chin and you’re not the handsome hero type.”
Completely discouraged, Don went back to Chicago. But an agent, who was a friend of his, upon hearing about the failure of his movie test, said, “It doesn’t prove anything. Plenty of actors have flopped on half a dozen tests and then made good. Twentieth Century-Fox wants to test you at their expense.” This time Don’s test was successful, he was assigned a dual role in “Sins of Man.” For one role he was his brunette self, for the other he wore a blonde wig.
It was while he was playing the role of the Indian in “Ramona” that the most unbelievable incident of his Hollywood career occurred. One day, while swimming out at LaJolla, Don felt something suddenly sting the bottom of his foot. On having it examined, he learned that he had been stung by a sting ray, and that he would probably be in some pain for several days. The next day he was sitting in a chair on location with the company at Warners Hot Springs and discussing the incident. “All I need now,” he said, “is for a rattlesnake to come along and bite me.” Suddenly he saw a snake edging along the side of his chair, and was almost transfixed with horror. At the same time one of the workmen saw the snake and killed it.
“That sounds as if it couldn’t possibly have happened,” I told Don.
He shrugged his shoulders. “It’s true,” he said.
Another dramatic thing which happened to Don was his appearance with Mae West in the famous broadcast in which Mae shocked the country by playing Eve to Don’s Adam, in a very suggestive manner. In one scene Don was supposed to kiss Mae’s eyes and lips. Then there was a moment’s silence. It was broken by Mae’s voice saying insinuatingly, “Oh, so that’s what you want!”
“How did you happen to appear on that broadcast?” I asked Don. “Did the script read all right?”
“I suppose,” said Don thoughtfully, “it didn’t, but none of us realized it. I just didn’t think. It did not occur to me that a burlesque of Adam and Eve would give offense to many people. If it had occurred to me and I had had any choice about the matter, I certainly would not have appeared on that program. Of course, as a matter of fact, I have no choice about the lines I read. But if I had realized that the script might be offensive, I should certainly have said something to the director about it. Nearly always when an actor does object to a line, the director will try to have it changed. That is the only time anything like that ever happened to me,” said Don gravely. “I hope nothing like it ever happens again.”
The silliest of the legends about Don is that with success he has become a dull, prosaic person, without a spark of fun in his make-up. The opposite is true. When it comes to playing practical jokes, he is the holy terror of the Fox lot. “At one time or another,” he confessed, laughing, “I’ve wrecked the dressing-room of almost everyone on my lot. I throw all their belongings on the floor. I tear up all the lamps, and fling the contents of the make-up kits about the room.”
Recently when Tyrone Power was elected king of the movies in a newspaper poll, Don Ameche and Henry Fonda worked out a plan to rib the new king. When Tyrone came down to the studio commissary that day, he found a huge throne awaiting him with his name in large letters across the back. Grouped around the throne was a staff of courtiers, who bowed mockingly. The waiter who came up to take his order was dressed in regal attire, and addressed Tyrone as “Your Majesty.” By the time the lunch was over, there wasn’t the slighest danger that Tyrone would let the new honor go to his head.
Every month Don is enthusiastic about something else. One month it is golfing; another, it is horseback riding; a third, it’s swimming. Right at this moment it’s brood mares and baby colts. Don and Chester Lauck have a racing stable near Hollywood, where they breed their own colts, more as a hobby than for profit, and Don will talk about colts for hours to anyone who will listen. When one of his horses wins, he is in seventh heaven. When one loses, he shrugs his shoulders. He is a good loser.
HE is very moody, on the heights one day and in the depths the next. Any sad story or hard luck tale depresses him, and he will stay depressed all day. He very often forgets appointments and often shows up at the wrong place. He has gotten into innumerable jams through his inability to remember appointments. But when he does remember them, he always arrives on the dot. That’s the result of his radio training.
When he answers the ‘phone or calls up a friend, he never says, “This is Don Ameche.” No, first he must pretend to be an Italian, a Chinaman or an Irishman. Not until he has thoroughly confused and bewildered his friends, will he admit who he really is.
He detests formality, and prefers a simple picnic to an elaborate banquet. In Hollywood, where a star never speaks to a featured player, and a featured player never speaks to a bit player, and a bit player never speaks to an extra, Don pals around with Bob Melton, a stand-in.
He hates to dress up in formal clothes. Once he was invited to a formal dinner by Chester Lauck, who is Lum of the famous Lum and Abner radio skits. “You mean I have to wear a dinner jacket?” he asked.
“Yes, and a silk hat and white tie.”
“You know how I hate them,” groaned Don.
“You shouldn’t,” said Chester. “If you only knew how grand you look in tails, you’d love formal dinners.”
“All right,” said Don. “I’ll come.”
When Don and Mrs. Ameche arrived, Chester Lauck breathed a sigh of relief. He’d half expected Don to pull something. But there was Honore, in a stunning white gown, with an ermine wrap. And there was Don, looking grand in a topcoat and silk hat. Of course it was just like Don to be carrying an awkward-looking package in his hand. For a moment Chester wondered what the bulky package could possibly be.
As he helped Don off with his coat, all the men and women at the party gasped. For under the topcoat, Don had on nothing but a bathing suit! As they all looked on, Don calmly began unwrapping the awkward-looking package, which turned out to be a picnic lunch, containing sandwiches, hot dogs and a soft drink. Then Don sat on the floor in the living room, and very much at ease, proceeded to dispose of his picnic lunch, while the other guests filed into the dining-room.