Authors: Lorna Luft
Tags: #Biographies & Memoirs, #Arts & Literature, #Actors & Entertainers, #Composers & Musicians, #Television Performers, #Leaders & Notable People, #Rich & Famous, #Memoirs, #Specific Groups, #Women, #Humor & Entertainment
Once she came along, nothing was ever the same.
ama always loved to make an entrance. When she did arrive, at dawn on June 10, 1922, she looked like a tiny version of Grandma Ethel. They named her Frances, after her father—Frances Ethel Gumm—but nobody ever called her Frances. They just called her Baby. Once my grandfather got a look at her big dark eyes, he forgot that he’d been wanting a boy and fell hopelessly in love with Baby.
Mama would have that effect on people for the rest of her life.
The truth is, whatever Mama might say about it years later, everybody loved her. Even her big sisters, jealous as they were at times, found her irresistible. Every picture I have of her as a child shows this pixielike creature with big black eyes, skinny legs, a tiny body, and enough life in her face for any ten people. Even in her baby pictures, her eyes draw you. And now, except for the color of her eyes, my daughter, Vanessa, looks exactly like her.
Mama’s stage debut came at the tender age of two. She had grown up watching her family sing at home and in her parents’ theater, and from the time she could toddle, she was running out onstage to try to join them. At home she would stand behind her sisters when they practiced their numbers and try to imitate them. At the theater on Friday nights she’d stand backstage in the wings, peeking out at Suzy and Jimmy as they sang and danced. As soon as she could talk, she began begging to join them. When her parents said no, she’d scream and cry. Then one day, when she was
just two, her father decided to teach her the words to “My Country, ’Tis of Thee,” and to his amazement, she sang it right through to the end. Her father was her only audience at that first performance, and he was amazed. As Grandpa told Grandma when she got home, “Baby Gumm is good, she is.” Years later Mama told me she still remembered those words of praise from Grandpa.
The time had clearly come to let Baby Gumm make her debut. As she sat in Great-grandma Eva’s lap at her sisters’ Christmas Eve performance that year, she did her best to sing along with her sisters. After the performance, urged on by Grandma Eva, she edged up to her mother and whispered, “Mama, can I sing, too?” Grandma Ethel told her no, not that day, but promised she could sing two days later. “Not today, Baby—but soon.”
Grandma kept her promise. Mama already knew some of the words to “Jingle Bells,” so Grandma Ethel coached her until she knew it perfectly, complete with a small bell to ring at the appropriate moment. Grandma also made her a little sleeveless dress out of white netting, with a white bodice underneath and sprigs of holly pinned on by Suzy and Jimmy. With soft bangs and her hair curled into shoulder-length ringlets, Mama couldn’t have looked sweeter. When her turn came and her father gently pushed her onstage, she strode confidently downstage center. She was so tiny that she looked even younger than the two-year-old she was. The audience couldn’t believe she was going to sing.
If my grandparents were worried about Mama as she stood there that night, they didn’t need to be. As Grandma Ethel began the first notes of “Jingle Bells” on the piano in the pit below, Mama launched into her number on perfect pitch, with astonishing volume, keeping time with her little bell. When she finished her song, to wildly enthusiastic applause, she looked down at Grandma Ethel and announced, “I wanna sing some more.” And she did. Grandma hurried to catch up on the piano, doubled up with laughter the whole time, while Grandpa hissed to Mama from the wings, “Baby,
come off! Come off!” Mama, of course, ignored him and kept on singing. (She’d be doing
the rest of her life!)
Each time she got to the end of the song, she’d pause, take a bow, and start all over again. By then the audience was applauding and cheering, and Grandma was too busy playing the piano to stop her. Finally, after the fifth chorus, Grandpa went onstage, picked Mama up, threw her over his shoulder, and carried her off—still singing and ringing her little bell as he took her into the wings. Friends in the audience that night swear they could still her hear when she got backstage.
The love affair between Mama and her audience started that night.
There were now three singing Gumm Sisters. If they’d stuck to Friday night performances in my grandfather Gumm’s theater, nobody but me and my family would even remember them. But they didn’t stay in Grand Rapids. When my mom was four years old, the whole family went to California on vacation and then decided to move there permanently. The Grand Rapids newspaper lists at least six going-away parties in their honor, one a big banquet at the Episcopal church where my grandfather was choirmaster. That move would change our family forever.
My grandparents needed money for the long trip, so they decided to touch up their old vaudeville act and take it on the road. They must have stopped in nearly every little town from Minnesota to Los Angeles. Whenever they passed through a town with a movie theater and a stage, they stopped and made their pitch to the manager. Most of the time, the manager made a deal for a percentage of the house. The whole family would run around town putting up posters on fences and posts, then go get dressed in the restroom at the nearest gas station. “Jack and Virginia” would perform that night, with the three girls sitting in the front row, applauding as loudly as possible. If they were lucky, they got offered a second night. Sometimes, to sweeten the pot, my grandparents would offer to let the Gumm Sisters perform, too. Since it was pretty hard to
resist three little girls, especially my mother with her big black eyes, the managers usually went for it. By the end of the evening the family usually had enough gas and food money to move on. It wasn’t a good way to get rich, but it was a lot of fun, and it paid enough to get them the two thousand miles to California.
My mother never forgot that trip. Even though she was only four years old at the time, it remained one of her best childhood memories. And even then, Mama was a little clown. There’s a very funny scene at the beginning of
where my mother walks down Fifth Avenue making faces at the passing men so they’ll turn around and look at her as she goes by. Well, Aunt Jimmy said that as they were driving to California all those years ago, cars would sometimes swerve dangerously close to their car as they passed. Every time it happened, they’d notice that the people in the passing car would turn around to look at them, laughing and smiling. Finally my grandfather happened to glance in the rearview mirror at just the right time and saw my mother kneeling on the backseat with her face against the rear window, making faces at passing cars, having the time of her life, crossing her eyes and pulling up the lids, sucking in her cheeks, wiggling her tongue. When Grandpa shouted at her, she stopped, but not for long. Nothing could keep my mother from her audience—except my mother.
Eventually, the family settled down in the little desert town of Lancaster, a place my mother would eventually come to hate as much as she’d loved Grand Rapids. Lancaster isn’t exactly the entertainment capital of the world, but it didn’t matter to my grandfather. There was a beautiful five-hundred-seat movie theater for him to run, and Los Angeles was only a three-hour drive away. With Baby Gumm transplanted from Minnesota to the movie mecca, her performing opportunities soon skyrocketed. Besides, she was getting older, and the time had come to train in earnest for the profession her family—and her talent—had chosen for her.
Looking back on it, my mother always said that the move from Grand Rapids to Lancaster was the turning point in her life.
In Grand Rapids, they were happy. In Lancaster, they weren’t. In Grand Rapids, performing was a joy. In California it became a job, one that would consume my mother’s entire life and eventually control mine. Mama used to say she started working at five and never got a chance to quit.
For a while performing was still fun. At first my grandparents sang together at the new theater in Lancaster, and the girls performed with them. Their first notices were good. According to a review in the
Antelope Valley Ledger-Gazette,
my grandparents were “accomplished musicians” whose “little daughters completely won the hearts of the audience with their songs and dances.”
Slowly, though, things began to go downhill. As my grandparents’ marriage began falling apart, they stopped performing together and began to go their separate ways. For my grandfather, running the theater and struggling to make a go of it began taking up most of his time. My grandmother coped with the stress by throwing herself heart and soul into her children, especially her children’s careers. Every day after school now the girls had to come home and practice singing and dancing for at least an hour with their mother. Several afternoons a week they also went to dance lessons at the local studio. When things got really bad between my grandparents, my grandmother started taking the girls into Los Angeles every weekend for lessons and auditions. Eventually she would take an apartment there and live separate from her husband for long periods of time, keeping my mother with her most of the time.
My mother always blamed my grandmother for the strain in her parents’ marriage. According to family friends, my mother believed that my grandmother was having an affair all that time with Will Gilmore, a family friend who became her second husband after my grandfather died.
There are other rumors, too, rumors that have been widely circulated since my grandfather’s death. According to these rumors, Frank Gumm was a “latent homosexual,” and the marriage
collapsed when my grandmother found out. I don’t know whether or not these rumors are true. My mother certainly never said anything to confirm this, even to my father, though she did once tell him she’d heard the stories. Dr. Marc Rabwin, a close family friend, believed the rumors. I respect his opinion, but since he wasn’t speaking from direct knowledge, I take it as opinion, not fact. I’m suspicious of the widespread stories about my grandfather’s “orientation” because none of them appeared in print until after his, his wife’s, and his children’s deaths, when it was too late to verify them. Since everyone in my immediate family (including me) has been labeled “gay” in print at some point, I’m skeptical about the rumors surrounding my grandfather. As far as I know, the only gay member of my family was Peter Allen, my beloved brother-in-law, who died of AIDS a few years ago. But it doesn’t matter to me anyway. I have friends who are gay and friends who are straight, and I love them all.
certain: stories of my grandfather having trouble with the authorities in Minnesota because of “unwelcome advances” to young men are false. A detective hired by the Children’s Museum in Grand Rapids (formerly the Judy Garland Museum) spent months going through newspapers and public records in Minnesota for the twelve years my grandparents lived in Grand Rapids, and he found no official complaints about Frank Gumm. If the police had ever been called about my grandfather, there would be a record buried somewhere. There isn’t.
No one but my grandfather, and any men he may have had contact with, could possibly know the truth about the rumors. It’s not for me to say what happened, because I don’t know. I don’t really care, either. What matters to me is that Frank Gumm was a great father, and my mother adored him. I wish he could have been there for us when I was growing up.
Whatever the reasons for the rift, the tensions in my grandparents’ marriage created an atmosphere of anger and resentment at home. The result was that the family was together less and less.
In a show business family, life on the road is the perfect cover-up for a dysfunctional, disintegrating family. It is a pattern that repeated itself in my own marriage.
So the Gumm family went back on the road again, this time on a part-time basis. Only now, instead of “Jack and Virginia” and the Gumm Sisters, it was just Grandma Ethel and the girls. Grandpa stayed in Lancaster, and Grandma took the girls to Los Angeles, where they enrolled in the famous Meglin School of Dance, which eventually produced Shirley Temple and a whole host of other child stars. The girls worked on their singing and dancing there and were soon appearing regularly in the
Meglin Kiddies Show
at Loew’s State Theater in downtown Los Angeles. They also played an occasional booking at small theaters outside of town. As their popularity grew, they began doing bookings from Long Beach to San Francisco, eventually going out of state to Seattle. They also did radio appearances. They even made four film shorts, and after the first couple of years, they actually got paid for all this. It would be a crazy way to grow up for most kids, but for a vaudeville family, it was no more unusual than a kid working in his parents’ grocery store after school. It was just what they did.
Sometimes it was a lot of fun. Years later, after my mother’s death, Aunt Jimmy told me stories about life as a child performer. On Saturday nights my grandmother would take the girls to see performances at all the best theaters in town—the Loew’s State, the Paramount, or Warner’s Hollywood. It was exciting and even glamorous. And although there were lots of long drives, the three girls would pass the time singing in the car together, everything from childhood favorites like “The Old Gray Mare” to the latest hits.
Even the performances could be great fun, especially when things didn’t go as planned. My mother sometimes told us about the ridiculous things that happened to them on the road. One time when they were performing at a small rundown theater near L.A., the audience was filled with bored teenagers who had hidden cloves
of garlic in the footlights before the show. When the footlights were turned on and Mama and my aunts came out to sing, the garlic started cooking. A few minutes into their act, the girls were overwhelmed with the odor of cooking garlic. Giggling and choking on the fumes, they struggled on, but then a sandwich sailed onto the stage, hitting Aunt Suzy in the stomach and strewing salami and cheese across the stage floor. Totally losing control, the girls looked at each other, linked arms, and danced sideways offstage, where they fell down laughing.