American actress, singer, comedienne, and dancer Charlotte Greenwood (b. Philadelphia, PA, 25 June 1890; d. Los Angeles, CA, 28 December 1977) had a long and varied career, beginning as a chorus girl and moving on through vaudeville, silent film, Broadway (including four musical comedy hits in which she played essentially the same character, Letty), the “talkies;” a series of film extravaganzas for 20th-Century Fox during the Second World War, supporting the likes of Shirley Temple, Carmen Miranda, Alice Faye, Cesar Romero, Betty Grable, and Don Ameche; back to Broadway in Cole Porter’s Out of This World (1950), and on to her best-remembered role, Aunt Eller in the movie version of Oklahoma! (1955). At five foot ten inches and astoundingly double-jointed, she was renowned for her ability to lift a leg above her head at a 90-degree angle to her body.
Frances Charlotte Greenwood spent the first nine years of her life in Philadelphia. Her father, a barber – or a painter – at any rate a ne’er-do-well from England, abandoned the child and her mother before Charlotte was a year old. Her mother, Annabelle Higgins Greenwood, descended from a revered family of Revolutionary War heroes, went into the hotel management business to keep body and soul together. The little family moved to Boston, then to resorts on the Virginia shore, and Charlotte was often farmed out to families in the countryside when her mother was too busy to care for her. Though she had been sickly as an infant, farm life toughened her and endowed her with a robust health that was to see her through many an exhausting theatrical tour.
At school, Charlotte was gawky, clumsy, always a head or two taller than her schoolmates, and mercilessly mocked. Neither was she much of a brain. But she had the good fortune, at the age of thirteen, to encounter a sympathetic teacher. As she wrote in her memoirs much later, she began to realize that her mother’s life was one of “unending toil,” and to wonder what she could do to help. “As fantastic as it may seem, my secret wish was to become an actress.… I might have gone on wishing for the moon, had it not been for Miss Emily Newman.… Laughter seemed to follow me everywhere in school – when no one could reach my examples on the board, when if sent on an errand I would either drop what I was carrying, spill it, or fall down. The teachers saw in me only a backward drip who looked more like a college sophomore than a seventh grader. Everyone laughed but Miss Newman.…
“In those days members of the school board [would] make frequent trips of inspection.” On those occasions, “instead of sending me to the blackboard [as did the other teachers] to display my incredible ignorance, she suggested that I provide the Board with a bit of entertainment, by way of a song.… Let the Board pay a surprise visit to Room 3 and quick like a flash, Lottie Greenwood was on her feet singing ‘The Holy City’; let them move to Room 5, and I stumbled down the hall making a magnificent entrance, often on all fours, chanting the virtues of ‘Old Heidelberg’ or ‘The Palms’ or even something topical such as ‘Over the Garden Wall,’ ‘Red Wing,’ or ‘In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree.’ I even had a comedy routine, ‘The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo’ which I sang in costume – that is, high hat and a cane.… Between my long arms, unaccountable legs, and the cane it was inevitable that I would knock the flower vase from teacher’s desk, slip in the water, and get a good bump on the floor going down in a welter of arms and legs – but still singing. Unwittingly, I was mastering the first principles of knock-about comedy – learning the hard way, the Greenwood way.
“I didn’t care [about the laughter] while I was in the midst of my act. I was learning to regard Lottie Greenwood the entertainer objectively and quite apart from Lottie Greenwood the [school] dunce.”
At fifteen Lottie Greenwood quit school, traveled to New York City, where her mother had a new job managing the Royal Arms Hotel (right next to Hammerstein’s famous Victoria Theatre), and got herself a job – by pleading tearfully with one of the more influential residents of the hotel – as a chorus girl in a musical called The White Cat. The show’s director actually was too busy to notice her spindly build and height until the curtain went up on the dress rehearsal. Infuriated, he pulled her from the chorus and put her in a kimono in a Japanese comedy sketch. Nonetheless, she was now a professional.
In 1907 the “influential resident,” a producer named Max Hoffman, cast her in The Rogers Brothers in Panama (part of an ongoing series on the pattern of the Road to … films of Hope and Crosby, starring the dialect team of Gus and Max Rogers), as a very tall gypsy, her first solo singing role. Following the closing of Panama, Greenwood made the rounds of the theatrical managers and dug up a small comic part in a touring show, Nearly a Hero, produced by, and starring a short rotund actor named Sam Bernard – the first of her pairings with ridiculously short men. Somewhere on the road, the beautiful star songstress Grace LaRue eloped and quit the company. Bernard, hoping to shame LaRue into returning, substituted Charlotte, who knew all the songs already anyway. The result was one of those disasters that put Charlotte Greenwood on the map.
LaRue, as Charlotte later recollected, “used to sweep on to the stage wearing a long train to her blue gown. As she reached center stage, she would gracefully kick the train aside. I had seen her do it night after night, so I knew the business perfectly – unfortunately, I didn’t know the technique.… The train caught between my legs; I stooped to untangle it and lost a string of beads; I tried to recapture the beads and my hat fell off. As I stooped to retrieve my hat, another string let go and rolled all over the stage.… This was just the beginning. As I tried to stand erect I discovered that my heel was caught in the bottom of my skirt and the garment was raised above my knees. I kept on singing [‘Gee, I wish that I had a Beau’]…”
After a few more hilarious mishaps, the audience reaction was tumultuous. Greenwood received an encore, and as many bows as the lovely LaRue had ever had. Still, she was convinced she’d be fired, and would never be a star. Sam Bernard knew better.
As Nearly a Hero continued on its trek, Charlotte made friends with another chorus girl, Eunice Burnham (who was also a serious pianist), and together they formed a vaudeville duo, Two Girls and a Piano. Capitalizing on Charlotte’s awkwardness and outlandish physical characteristics, they toured the circuit from coast to coast – playing three or four shows a day – eventually becoming one of the highest-paid “sister” teams in vaudeville. When they were booked at last at Hammerstein’s Victoria Theatre in Times Square, Charlotte took the celebratory step of engaging a fashionable modiste to design their gowns, setting the high standard for the elegant costumes she would wear over the rest of her career.
“Some of my best bits of comedy came about through accident.” So it was with her famous “Camel Walk” when, after incorporating some of her astounding high kicks into the act, she fell onto the stage “with a crick in my back” and hurt herself seriously. The only way she could devise to get offstage was to crawl, straight-legged with hands and feet flat to the floor, with mock dignity as the laughter mounted. “I was ready for a career as a clown.”
In 1912 Eunice and Charlotte regretfully ended their partnership, and Charlotte was at loose ends – for maybe a month – until Lee and J.J. Shubert called and offered her a part in an extravagant revue, The Passing Show of 1912, opening their brand-new Winter Garden Theatre. Broadway at last! The show was a smash hit at 136 performances, and Charlotte Greenwood was singled out as a great new “find” by the critics.
This roaring success was followed by an appearance in a Franz Lehár operetta, The Man with Three Wives, which did not make much of an impression on anyone, not even Charlotte. The sequel to 1912’s Passing Show, The Passing Show of 1913, was such a dud (58 performances) that Charlotte requested that the Shubert brothers release her from her contract.
She had received an offer from Los Angeles theatrical impresario Oliver Morosco to join the touring company of L. Frank Baum and Louis F. Gottschalk’s The Tik-Tok Man of Oz, playing Queen Ann Soforth of Oogaboo. Although the show was popular in Los Angeles, where it closed in early 1914, Morosco himself did not think it advisable to take it to New York. Instead, he paired Greenwood with comic actor Sydney Grant, who was no more than five foot two, in a new vehicle called Pretty Mrs. Smith. This show did well enough to move to New York, where, with the doyenne of Viennese operetta, Fritzi Scheff, in the principal role, it ran for 48 performances.
Charlotte Greenwood’s character in Pretty Mrs. Smith bore the name Letitia Proudfoot. The New York Times critic announced that Greenwood had entirely eclipsed the star, and that “Pretty Mrs. Smith” should have been renamed “Funny Miss Greenwood.” Fritzi Scheff made a silent film version of the original play soon afterward, in which the Letitia Proudfoot character did not appear at all.
According to Charlotte’s memoirs, Sydney Grant wrote a song in her honor, “Long, Lean, Lanky Letty” that led indirectly to the spinoff of her character into three more stage pieces: So Long Letty (Los Angeles 1915, New York 1916), Linger Longer Letty (1919), and Letty Pepper (1922), all written and produced by Oliver Morosco. (Attempts were made on two other Letty plays; one never went farther than New Haven, the other, Leaning on Letty – as late as 1936 – was a great success on the road and started on a world tour that was cut short at the outset of World War II.) While So Long Letty was playing in Los Angeles, Greenwood was invited to make her first film, Jane (1918, also with Sydney Grant). Although she notes that “to most of us in the theater, the movies were still something of a toy,” and Morosco boasted that he would never let films be shown in his theatres, Greenwood exclaimed, “I don’t care where they show the flicks so long as I’m in them!” Only fragments of Jane survive.
By 1924 Charlotte – or Letty – was such a celebrity that she was invited to breakfast at the White House, making her entrance on the arm of President Calvin Coolidge. Charlotte was then appearing in Hassard Short’s Ritz Revue on Broadway, performing a risqué sketch called “Her Morning Bath” and singing the songs of a well-known young composer named Martin Broones. She and Broones would be married at the end of the year, and would remain close companions until his death in 1971. (She had been married previously to actor Cyril Ring in 1915, but that relationship had ended almost as soon as it began.) The Brooneses moved to Beverly Hills in 1927, and Martin became the first music director for M-G-M.
Greenwood’s first talking film was an adaptation of her 1916 stage success, So Long, Letty (1929), and despite her lifelong desire to be viewed as a serious actress, it firmly established her character as a zany, boisterous, party-loving man-chaser. By 1934 she had made seven more films – five in 1931 alone – co-starring with some of the top names in comedy: Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931) with Buster Keaton and Reginald Denny, filmed at Keaton’s villa; Stepping Out (1931) with Reginald Denny; The Man in Possession (1931) with Robert Montgomery; Palmy Days (1931) with Eddie Cantor (in which she led the chorus in a sensational “Bend Down, Sister” routine); and Flying High (1931) with Bert Lahr.
In the fall of 1932 Charlotte Greenwood was in London starring in Wild Violets, a German operetta adapted for the Drury Lane Theatre, sweeping the critics off their feet and, on one occasion, playing to the King and Queen of England, the King and Queen of Norway, the King and Crown Princess of Sweden, and King Faisal of Iraq. The show ran for a full year, after which Greenwood was called back to San Francisco to play the lead in Sidney Howard’s The Late Christopher Bean, a rather more serious role than she had undertaken heretofore. Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, meanwhile, who had met her in London and promised to write a musical comedy for her at Drury Lane, had finished their work on Three Sisters. Christopher Bean closed in early 1934, and Charlotte rushed back to London’s West End. Three Sisters ran for four months but, with an American composer, an American librettist, and an American star, was underappreciated by the British audience.
Greenwood remained in London with another musical, Gay Deceivers (1935; the first and only time she would make her entrance via parachute), until reluctantly persuaded to return to San Francisco in yet another “Letty” vehicle, Leaning on Letty. Surprisingly (to Charlotte), it was a smash hit, traveled to Hollywood and Chicago, and after a brief interruption while the Brooneses made a junket to England for the coronation of George VI, continued on to Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Boston, where it closed in 1938. The following year the Letty company set sail for Australia, planning a world tour that was supposed to include South Africa, New Guinea, Borneo, Java, Bali, Singapore, and India.
But the clouds of war were glowering over Europe. After playing only three cities in Australia, everyone’s passport was revoked and the tour had to be cancelled. “We had traveled a month by water and faced another month to return.… We got very little sleep until we reached California waters and safety and home.”
Her return gave the studios of 20th Century-Fox the opportunity to rediscover Charlotte Greenwood the film actress. She was immediately cast with Linda Darnell in Star Dust (1940), a tale of a Hollywood hopeful (“Don’t Let It Get You Down”), then as Shirley Temple’s guardian in the musical Young People (1940; “Fifth Avenue”, “The Mason-Dixon Line”, “Tra-La-La-La”, “On the Beach at Waikiki”, “Baby Take a Bow”). She was such a hit that Fox signed her to a long-term contract. Throughout the wartime years she would act the wise-cracking, high-kicking aunt, mother, chaperone, or guardian of the young heroine in Technicolor song-and-dance entertainments like Down Argentine Way (1940) with Carmen Miranda (“Sing to Your Señorita”), Tall, Dark and Handsome (1941; “I’m Alive and Kickin'”), Moon Over Miami (1941) with Don Ameche, Betty Grable, and Jack Haley (“Miami Oh Me, Oh Mi-Ami,” “Is That Good?”), Springtime in the Rockies (1942) with Betty Grable, Carmen Miranda, and Cesar Romero, and The Gang’s All Here (1943) with Alice Faye and Carmen Miranda, in which the middle-aged Greenwood does a spectacular jitterbug with a twenty-year-old. Her movie career continued unabated through the ’forties with Up in Mabel’s Room, Home in Indiana (her first serious film acting role), Wake Up and Dream, Driftwood, The Great Dan Patch, and others. Her 20th Century-Fox contract unfortunately prevented her from accepting an offer from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II to play Aunt Eller in the original Broadway cast of Oklahoma!
When her ten-year contract expired at last, Greenwood did appear once more on the Great White Way, as Juno in Cole Porter’s Out of This World (1950), introducing the classic “I Sleep Easier Now” and “Nobody’s Chasing Me.” As one of her co-stars testified, “Maybe she was 60, but she could still kick a high leg. Her leg went absolutely perpendicular to her head and body. Extraordinary. And I would confirm that Greenwood kept that show going. Four months’ run. It might have closed after one week without her.”
Charlotte was to make four more movies before her retirement in 1956: one was an Esther Williams feature called Dangerous When Wet (1953); her last was a misguidedly musicalized version of Clare Boothe Luce’s play The Women (The Opposite Sex, 1956). But one role, Aunt Eller in Oklahoma! (1955), was her masterpiece, the one for which she is recognized as a great artist (and the one that had been created with her in mind by Hammerstein back in 1943). Indeed some of her high kicks and robust frolics are still to be enjoyed in “Ev’rything’s Up to Date in Kansas City” and “The Farmer and the Cowman,” but as Greenwood’s biographer Grant Hayter-Menzies has written, “What caught up with Charlotte, in the role of Aunt Eller, was who she had wanted to be, and prepared to be, all along.… the actor of subtle, deep, arresting dramatic gifts, who could give people in silence just as much as she ever gave them in the clowning of her earlier stage and screen work.”
In her post-retirement years, this comedienne who, in her own words, was “the only woman in the world who could kick a giraffe in the eye,” suffered severely from arthritis, though that word was not part of her vocabulary. She and husband Martin Broones were Christian Scientists – he was a C.S. practitioner for several years, and consulted with Doris Day in that capacity. When Greenwood died, she had been out of the public eye for decades, and it was months before the world took notice.
At 1601 Vine Street in Hollywood, California, there is a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – not for film, but for Radio – commemorating The Charlotte Greenwood Show, which she hosted from 1944 to 1946.
– Lucy E. Cross