Irene Dare: A life beyond skating

Three years ago, I put out a call on this blog for the whereabouts of Irene Dare, the juvenile figure skater who performed in RKO and Monogram musicals of the late 1930s and early ’40s.

Irene Dare in the 1930s

I have my answer.

Irene, a “lost” player who death has (at this writing) gone undocumented on the Internet Movie Database and similar websites, died on May 29, 2020, in Pacifica, California. She was 89.

I have members of her family to thank for spotting this blog and helping me fill in the details of Irene’s post-skating and post-acting life. Skating fans of the ‘30s and ‘40s got to know Irene for her precocious stylings before live audiences. But film buffs remember her as the little girl who danced in RKO’s Breaking the Ice (1938, starring boy soprano Bobby Breen) and Everything’s on Ice (aka Frolics on Ice, 1939, with Edgar Kennedy); and Monogram’s Silver Skates (1943, co-starring Kenny Baker, Patricia Morison, and adult skating star Belita).

My original 2018 blog about Irene, which discusses her pre-1945 life, is here: Irene Dare, where have you gone? – earlysoundguy.com

Recent chats with two of Irene’s five children reveal a woman who endured sometimes difficult times after her retirement from professional skating. But she raised a family – often on her own  – and lived life (and saw its end) in her own way.

“She really didn’t talk about (her show-business career) too much to other people,” her son Will Shockley said from his home in northern California.

Irene retired from professional skating in the early 1950s, he said. “After she made her movies, she did [skating] appearances here and there professionally. But she skated up until she was 65 or 70 years old, and she was g-o-o-d, too. Every day after work, on the way home before she retired, she would stop off to go skating.”

“I remember her walking around the house on her hands even in the 1950s,” her son John Shockley said in a separate phone interview. “She stayed in pretty good shape.”

Irene was busy raising her family during the 1950s into the ‘70s. One of her two husbands, Sentell Shockley, was a professional speed skater.

“What she took away from acting was her love of reading,” Will Shockley said of his mother. “She was such an avid reader of everything, she just loved books … and she got that from reading scripts. At the studios, she would leave school in the morning around 11 o’clock and would read her script for the next day, and she did that every day.

Bobby Breen, she really didn’t care for; she thought he was kind of an arrogant guy. Edgar Kennedy was a real professional; she really liked him. Ginger Rogers and Lucille Ball, she really liked them; she would hang out at their houses.”

Even one of Irene’s most famous ice contemporaries, Olympic champion and Hollywood star Sonja Henie, was a mentor. “Sonja Henie was a really lovely person,” Will said. “My mother picked up a lot of skating tips from her. My mother was Norwegian (in ancestry}, and they really hit it off that way.”

In 1938, Irene – so the family story goes – was approached about the opportunity to play a part in the mega-hit Gone With the Wind. (The role of Bonnie Blue Butler, daughter of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, who were portrayed by Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable, would have been suited for someone about Irene’s age.)

“She told me … she tried out for the part,” Will Shockley said. “But her mother turned it down. … (Irene) was kind of upset about that; she really liked Clark Gable.”

Born Irene Davidson in St. Paul, Minnesota, on Valentine’s Day of 1931, Irene moved West with her family at a young age. During her professional skating years as Irene Dare, she lived in the Los Angeles area with her mother, while her father, a newspaper engraver, resided in the San Francisco area with Irene’s three siblings. Irene moved to San Francisco to graduate from public school. She married for the first time, but the union did not last.

Eventually, with five children to raise, she took a job as a cocktail waitress. “The last place she wanted to be,” Will said.

“The job she really loved to do, and that she retired from, was running the newborn intensive care unit for Children’s Hospital up here in the Bay Area,” Will said.

Irene worked at the hospital for more than 20 years, he said. By 1966, she had divorced for a second time and was raising her family on her own.

“I remember, as kids, we would feel sorry for ourselves because we couldn’t get this or that,” Will said. “She would have us come in for lunch and make us help feed the babies. (Her attitude was,) ‘When your life is hard, I want you to think about this. Coming into this world, have to fight to stay alive.’ … That’s something I always carried with me.”

“She was tough,” Will said. “She had four boys to raise, these big monsters, (but) she wouldn’t back down from anything until the day she died. … You didn’t want her mad at you.”

“If you pushed her, she would push back,” John Shockley said.

Around age 65, Irene had to stop skating after she broke both ankles in a freak accident that began when she stepped into a pothole, Will said. A longtime smoker, she suffered from COPD, and her health worsened.

At the end, Will said, “she didn’t want to stay in the hospital, she wanted to die at home. … She died quietly in her sleep. She said, ‘I want to go my way,’ and that’s what happened.

”She was a talented person her whole life. Perseverance would have been her middle name.”

Where did you go, Guy Robertson?

 

KING KELLY OF THE USA2
Guy Robertson (right) appeared with Edgar Kennedy in his only feature film, 1934’s “King Kelly of the U.S.A.”

The romantic musical comedy King Kelly of the U.S.A. (Monogram, 1934) was the only feature film for its top-billed player, stage baritone Guy Robertson, who prominently starred before the footlights from the late 1920s through the early ’40s but is pretty much forgotten now. His cinematic opportunities may have been limited by his strong facial resemblance to James Cagney, and there was no one quite like Cagney – even in a musical comedy. Robertson has also become a lost player of sorts, with only sketchy information about his probable whereabouts, but we think we know some of what happened to him.

A New York City native born in October 1898 and reared in Denver, Robertson was the son of stage actors: His mother, Maude, performed under the name Dollie Davis, and his stepfather, William N. Webb (aka William Webb Robertson), was a notable enough actor and director to merit his own New York Times obituary upon his death in 1934. Robertson was packed off to prep school – where, he would recall later, his roommates were Vincent Youmans and Norman Rockwell – and was educated as an engineer at Lehigh University. The tie to Youmans, the future composer and producer, didn’t hurt once the footlights won out.

With a Broadway musical career going back to 1919, Robertson became a matinee idol through prominence in such shows as The Circus Princess, White Lilacs, The Perfect Fool, and The Street Singer. He co-starred in Nina Rosa (the Sigmund Romberg show to which stage actress Ethelind Terry escaped after co-starring in the 1930 MGM flop Lord Byron of Broadway) and hosted the Broadway Varieties radio show. Robertson missed out on an even bigger success: He was initially announced as male lead Gaylord Ravenal in the original 1927 Ziegfeld production of Show Boat but was replaced, although he finally got to play the role in a 1930 St. Louis production (with W.C. Fields as Captain Andy).

Robertson’s film experience was scant, however. A trade publication report in late 1928 indicated that he was reprising his stage role in an independently produced all-talking screen version of the operetta White Lilacs, but the movie seems to have not been released. He was seen, however, in a 1929 Vitaphone short, High Waters, in which his singing accompanied stock footage of the Mississippi River, and in a 1933 Warner Bros. one-reeler, How to Break 90 #5: Impact, in which he was identified only by his first name and did little more than fill out a foursome to play with the famed golfer Bobby Jones. Another false start in the flickers occurred in 1933 when Robertson was signed by producer B.P. Schulberg, the former Paramount production head now releasing independently through that studio. Schulberg told the trades that Robertson to “become more popular in pictures than he was on the stage.” But it didn’t happen. At one point, Robertson was set to participate with Edmund Lowe and Wynne Gibson in Schulberg’s production Her Bodyguard, but he did not appear in the finished film.

Trem Carr, production chief of Monogram Pictures, pacted Robertson in the spring of 1934 with the intent of repeating the recent success of young leading man Ray Walker, who had starred in five films for the company. Robertson filmed King Kelly of the U.S.A. in June and July, just after a live stint – playing a movie star, of all things – in the musical comedy All the King’s Horses in New York. All the while, Robertson had to endure descriptions of him as a prettier version of Cagney. Judging by a 1936 interview with the Los Angeles Times, he was good-natured about it: “Oh, oh.  That chap is the bane of my existence. But I guess if I have to be like somebody, I’d rather it be Jimmy than anyone else.”

For director/co-screenwriter Leonard Fields in King Kelly of the U.S.A., Robertson sings three unmemorable songs (“Believe Me,” “Right Next Door to Love,” and “There’s a Love Song in the Air”), all written by Bernie Grossman and Joe Sanders (the former leader of the Coon-Sanders Nighthawks jazz orchestra) in an old-school romantic style that was becoming passé by 1934. In the scenario, American stage producer James W. “King” Kelly (played by Robertson) takes his new show, Kelly’s Affairs of 1934, on an ocean liner to an engagement in Paris.  He falls for a passenger, Catherine (Irene Ware), secretly a princess from the small kingdom of Belgardia. T. Ashmore Brockton (Franklin Pangborn), an efficiency engineer en route to a job in Belgardia, tries to buy the contract of Kelly’s featured dancer, Maxine, so he can romance her.

Kelly receives word that his show’s work permit has been canceled. Brockton buys Kelly’s show for $1,000 – and his contract with Belgardia. In Belgardia, Kelly and aide “Happy” Moran (Edgar Kennedy) meet the eccentric king (Ferdinand Gottschalk), who wants the kingdom’s financial troubles cleared up, although Belgardia’s only asset is a surplus of unsold mops. Kelly proposes that Belgardia pay its debt to neighboring Moronia by marrying off Princess Tania to Prince Alexis of Moronia (William Orlamond), but he doesn’t know Catherine is Tania. Kelly must figure out how to save the kingdom from bankruptcy while keeping Tania for himself; his solution is to sell the mops on a “Voice of Romance” radio show sponsored by “Personality Mops.” With help from the grateful housewives of Belgardia, Kelly and Tania are united.

The story is mainly derivative but with an odd mix of Ruritanian-type operetta and Depression-era consumerism, with a short, primitive animated sequence thrown in. The script favors Edgar Kennedy, cast as right-hand man to Robertson’s girlie-show impresario whose good-old American ingenuity saves a European kingdom. Moreover, however competent his performance, Robertson’s screen time with female lead Ware (1910-1993) isn’t enough to generate fireworks. This wasn’t much of a booster to Ware’s career, which was stalling after an early impact in Fox’s Chandu the Magician (1932). (As in Chandu, she would be menaced by Bela Lugosi, this time with Boris Karloff, in Universal’s The Raven in 1935.)

The Film Daily praised King Kelly of the U.S.A. as “an amusing burlesque [that] … develops a considerable number of laughs,” and Motion Picture Herald predicted that Robertson “should be found appealing, especially to the feminine portion of the patronage.” But those were opinions of the showmen’s media; patrons came away with a different view. A theater manager from Florida reported to Motion Picture Herald that he was impressed with “a pleasing musical that Monogram should be proud of” after watching a screening, but he said that he would report again after his patrons responded. A few weeks later came his follow-up: “The paying customers don’t agree with me.  They didn’t like it and said so.”

An exhibitor from Oregon was even more direct in his submission to MPH: The exchange told me this was a good comedy. My customers told me it was not.  I am inclined to believe them, for they were sincere enough to get up and walk out in the middle of it. I didn’t see the picture, because after getting the comments on the first show, I hid in the office for the remainder of the run and trembled every time someone knocked on my office door.”

Most of the humor in King Kelly is provided by Kennedy, dumb blonde Joyce Compton, fussy Pangborn, and eccentric Gottschalk – an amusing enough lineup, you’d think – and Robertson was deemed worthy enough by Monogram to be announced for two more films, the first to be titled Smiling Irish Eyes. However, Robertson’s career went in another direction, back to the stage, with what would become his greatest triumph, as Johann Strauss II in the operetta The Great Waltz. Robertson originated the role in New York in September 1934 with such acclaim that Monogram used it in its trade ads: “Monogram presents a great box office star in his film debut … Guy Robertson, hit of New York’s $44,000-a-week stage smash is now starring for you … sign him up by booking King Kelly of the U.S.A.

Robertson played well over 1,000 performances of The Great Waltz. When he brought the production to Los Angeles in 1936, Robertson was asked by that city’s Times in an interview if he would like to play the Strauss role in the movies. “Of course, I would.  Don’t be silly,” he replied. “But I’ll wager if any studio has a Strauss picture in mind, it’ll pick Ted Healy for my role while I, Johann Strauss, gnash my teeth.” What actually happened was that MGM made a Strauss musical called The Great Waltz in 1938, without Robertson – and, thankfully, sans Healy. Robertson consoled himself in expanding his repertoire by playing George, seriously and with no music, in Of Mice and Men on tour.

Robertson’s career decline began in the early 1940s, although he found temporary bliss after marrying stage actress Audrey Christie in 1938. By 1942, while touring with his wife in the comedy My Sister Eileen, Christie was granted a divorce on grounds, according to a wire service report, “that Robertson twice struck her in a quarrel over his gambling.” A month later, at age 44, Robertson enlisted in the U.S. Navy, for which he divided his time between doing service radio shows in Chicago and serving on a destroyer as a chief petty officer in the South Pacific. After the war, he worked as a production director for the Mutual Broadcasting Company and returned to the stage as an actor and also as a singer/emcee in a touring show called The Copacabana Follies.

And then … Robertson’s name disappeared from public view – at least until King Kelly of the U.S.A. transitioned to TV and, later, home video. Why did his career fade? Perhaps an answer is hinted at in one of the last recorded notices of Robertson as a performer, this one for a 1946 stop of Copacabana Follies in Indianapolis, where a writer opined that Robertson’s voice was “a little rusty” and “shaky.” Robertson’s ultimate fate was not documented, and the birth-death information for him on the Internet Movie Database at this writing is almost certainly incorrect. (The IMDB info seems to match that of a Missouri-born former government official in California who died in an auto accident in Sacramento in March 1960.)

However, recent research indicates that the singing actor moved to Erie, Pennsylvania, in the late 1940s, worked there as a hotel and club singer, and died in a veterans’ hospital in Erie on February 1, 1974, at age 75. Information on the Guy R. Robertson who died in Erie in ’74 jibes with many of the vital statistics (date and location of birth, family members’ names, military record in both world wars) known about the actor.

Oddly, though, the local newspaper obituary for the Guy from Erie doesn’t mention his fame on the stage … which opens up another mystery even as one seems to have been solved. If anyone has more information on the actor-singer Guy Robertson, please let me know.

 

SOURCES

Ancestry.com

“William N. Webb Dies; Actor and Director,” The New York Times, November 1, 1934.

“His Parents Decided to Keep Him Off the Stage,” Wilmington (North Carolina) Sunday Morning Star, November 26, 1939.

“Powers Cinephone Is Now Making White Lilacs,” Motion Picture News, December 8, 1928.

“Schulberg Signs Robertson,” The Hollywood Reporter, April 10, 1933.

“Schulberg Starting Bodyguard Monday,” The Hollywood Reporter, May 3, 1933.

“Guy Robertson Telephones Reactions to Spectacle,” Los Angeles Times, December 21, 1936.

“Reviews of the New Features: King Kelly of the U.S.A.,” The Film Daily, September 11, 1934.

“Showmen’s Reviews: King Kelly of the U.S.A.,” Motion Picture Herald, September 15, 1934.

“What the Picture Did for Me,” Motion Picture Herald, October 27, 1934; November 3, 1934; and December 29, 1934.

“Divorce Given Famed Actress,” International News Service report, quoted from The Daily Times (New Philadelphia, Ohio), September 10, 1942. (Wire-service accounts of Robertson’s enlistment in the Navy appeared in many newspapers in late October.)

“Varied Acts in Keith’s Copacabana Follies,” Indianapolis Star, March 9, 1946.

“Guy Robertson” (obituary), Erie (Pennsylvania) Daily Times, February 4, 1974.