Walter Huston didn't like carrying shingles up ladders so he became one of the leading actors of his time
WALTER HUSTON was always averse to manual labor, and so he became an actor.
Today he is considered by theatre-goers and critics to be one of the most honest and dependable stage and screen performers.
During high school vacations in Toronto, young Huston was conscripted into the building business. His father was quite a successful contractor; Walter remained a conscientious objector.
He reluctantly carried shingles up ladders, but balked when his elder suggested he carry up two-by-four scantling.
And so young Huston headed for Broadway, warned by his father not to write home for money !
Before this family showdown, Walter had had some slight experience in the theatre. Early in life, he fell in love with the backstage world of make-believe.
Huston, senior, however, believed that paint should go on houses, not on faces. Paternal disapproval was defied. As a lad in his early teens, Walter had his first theatrical triumph as end man in the annual St. Simon’s minstrel show, staged in St. George’s Hall in Toronto.
This latter edifice has now become that ultra literary temple, the Arts and Letters Club. As a recent guest of this august body, Huston looked up at the stately beams, noted the majestic lead-paned windows and gazed upon the gallery, and suddenly exclaimed: “Am I standing upon the identical spot where I first did anything on any stage?” He was!
Years before, at that first performance, he “stole the show;” and Mrs. Huston was the proud and dewy-eyed mother who knew her boy was going far.
One of Walter Huston’s prized possessions today, hung on the wall of his dressing room wherever he may be, is a group photograph of those St. Simon’s minstrels.
Mrs. Huston dug into the china teapot treasury. Walter attended the dramatic school of H. W. Shaw, then conducting the old Academy of Music in Toronto. He portrayed characters ranging from juveniles to men of seventy.
A Two-Line Star
TJTIS FIRST out-of-town engagement was in Richmond Hill, Ontario, where Mr. Shaw’s Thespians presented a town-hall production of “Richelieu.” In this tale of intrigue and glamorous sword-play, Huston was a palace guard and had two lines to say!
Those were the stirring days of the theatre when drama lovers drove in by horse and buggy from miles around to see a play. Entrepreneur Shaw took “Richelieu” and “The Fool’s Revenge” on a more extended road tour, but Huston had to stay at home. •
He did not see his old theatrical tutor again for many years. Shortly after his first Hollywood success, Huston was told one evening by his dresser that a Mr. Shaw wished to call. Huston had worked on the lot all day, but he has a splendid memory. An old and grey-haired gentleman was shown in at once. Huston is still finding minor parts in pictures for his old drama teacher.
After the Richmond Hill appearance, young Huston
played in other drama-starved Ontario communities. He was on the pay sheet at a fifteen-dollar stipend, but seldom got it. At least, he was seeing a lot of scenery, indoors and out.
Then he joined the George Summers Stock Company, and stamped and strutted at the old Toronto Opera House. Those were the days of such blood-and-thunder thrillers as “The Two Orphans” and “East Lynn.”
Three blocks away, little Gladys Smith, later to be known as Mary Pick ford, was winning the smiles and tears of an audience in golden kid-curl roles which, with the then undreamed-of advent of the films, were to spread her fame around the world. Beatrice Lillie, daughter of a Don Jail warden and later to be Lady Peel, was playing the strawberry-festival circuit in Cultural Impersonations, with mamma at the piano.
Professional Hockey Player
"pNJOYING his local triumphs, Walter Huston decided that Broadway was calling. With Bob Christie, close friend and fellow actor, the plans were laid. Neither figured the few dollars they had saved should be expended on railway transportation. They departed one night without warning, climbed aboard a freight train, and found themselves bound for New York !
Jolly and carefree Christie never came back. He contracted pneumonia in New York and died. The mention
of his companion’s name still saddens Huston’s eyes.
Like many other ambitious youngsters of the theatre, Huston trudged the White Way and nobody cared. He rented a small room in one of those theatrical hotels which dot the Forties. He hung around the offices of agents, and learned to smile at, “Nothing today.”
Huston, however, had a healthy appetite and his funds were running low. He remembered his hockey-playing days at St. Simon’s.
Then as now, Canadian puck-and-stick handlers were eagerly welcomed below the boundary line. Huston joined a Brooklyn professional team. This paid his room rent and bought his groceries, but a place on the stage was still his ambition. At night he played hockey; daytimes, he hung around the agents’ offices.
One day Huston answered a call for supers, that term defining the anonymous individuals in mob scenes. The play was “Julius Caesar;” the stars were Robert Manteli and Julia Marlowe. The job was simple and not a matter of acting. All Huston had to do was walk on stage, not fall over the furniture, and keep out of the way of the Mantell-Marlowe duo.
He had four lines to say and, as a Roman legionnaire, carried a spear. He muffed his lines on opening night, and the great Manteli came off-stage on the verge of an apoplectic fit. Huston was fired !
But there were other engagements. This time, Huston
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watched his step. At the end of the current season, he had saved a little money and, because the homesick pangs were gnawing, he decided to visit the family.
Down on Fourteenth Street, he bought the latest style in Broadway suitings, a pair of yellow square-toed shoes, and a dinky straw chapeau. He landed in Toronto with thirteen dollars and sixty cents but—he was an actor !
His former schoolmates gaped at the nonchalant success. Mrs. Huston was the happiest woman in town, and even Huston, senior, relented with a somewhat sheepish grin when he heard the tall tales of Times Square.
In a few days, Walter returned to his beloved Broadway. The weary rounds commenced again. He finally secured a part from Hal Reid, father of the late Wallace Reid of silent pictures fame. The play was “Convict’s Stripes” and Lillian Gish had just replaced a girl named Mary Pickford as the ingenue.
Later he went on the road with itinerant companies, the managers of which had an uncanny faculty for discovering remote regions in which the actors could be stranded. When he finally found himself marooned in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Huston gave up the legitimate stage in disgust.
Song Composer to Engineer
IN THE meantime, he had met and married the charming Bayonne Whipple, and had written a vaudeville sketch. If the stage held no outlook in those happier days, there was always the four-a-day. The two went on the road as Whipple and Huston and, in the next few years, played in nearly every vaudeville house in Canada and the United States.
One of his songs, “I Haven’t Got the Do-Re-Mi,” became a hit. Quartets still harmonize it when the moon is full. On certain occasions, if he feels at ease with everyone, Huston will sing for the company, “Lindy, Ma Belle,” another one of his hit songs.
Still, this wasn’t acting. Both the Hustons were tired of vaudeville, bad hotels, and overnight jumps that were chiefly notable for lack of sleeper accommodation.
Now Bayonne had never spoken much
about her family living in St. Louis. But when she mentioned that her father held control of most of the electric light, heat and power utilities in that part of her home State, this sounded grand to Huston.
In no time at all, and by devious political routes, Walter found himself chief electrical engineer of St. Louis, complete with office and swivel-chair. On the query of qualifications, he says he picked up all he needed to know.
But he soon grew weary of big business. Once again, the evening breezes brought the whiff of grease-paint and the musty backstage odors.
In the meantime, Huston’s sister, working under the name of Marjorie Carrington, had become a noted concert singer and had married a Wall Street broker. She heard that Zona Gale, her best friend, had, by all the luncheon-table accounts, written a play that was a play.
Marjorie read the script and knew the lead would fit her brother. The city fathers woke up one morning to find themselves without an electrical engineer.
The Broadway rumor, never disputed, has it that the glamorous Marjorie backed the “Mr. Pitt” production. However, Walter had thrown up his municipal duties, caught the flier for New York, and immediately placed himself under the tutelage of his sister and Miss Gale.
On opening night, the worthy burghers of New York were pleased. The applause at every curtain fall was loud and long but, through the peepholes, Huston trained an anxious eye on the dreaded Death Watch, that classification applied to the critics usually sitting somnolent in their aisle seats.
Toward the end of the third act, three of them walked out. Huston’s heart turned over. He was not then well enough versed in journalistic mechanics to know that morning editions go on the street a little after midnight.
Success in “Mr. Pitt”
UNLIKE Lord Byron, Huston did not wake up famous; he never even went to bed that night. With his sister, the author, and some friends, he waited for a bellhop to bring up the morning papers. The press notices agreed that a new star
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had rocketed into the Broadway firmament. Huston had created a new style of portrayal. Here was an actor, plain and simple in his delivery, who stirred imagination and affection for a sympathetic character. The Death Watch went to town that night in searching for their adjectives.
“Mr. Pitt” ran over a year. Eugene O’Neill had just completed months of travail in writing his grim and pathological “Desire Under the Elms.” This play of stem New England farm life was read by Huston and the leading role accepted.
He says now: “My people came to
Upper Canada and were pioneers in ‘Muddy York.’ Grandfather had a farm I often visited. When Eugene picked me for the lead, I knew just what he wanted. I played my grandfather.”
In the tensest scenes Huston spoke conversationally. There seemed a deliberate intention to underplay the role. A new style of histrionics had been set. Restraint established Huston on the Broadway that had long been his goal.
Huston stepped into the lead in “The Barker,” a tale of outdoor carnival life. In the cast were Claudette Colbert, Norman Foster and George Barbier, today Hollywood stars. Miss Colbert, less beautiful then than now, married Norman Foster in an after-the-show ceremony with Huston as best man.
Came the advent of the talkie era. The vocal squeaks of robust stars of the silent days drew squawks from former fans. The movie gentlemen of Hollywood were frantic. The search began for voices. They raided Broadway and thrust forth contracts with abandon. Huston left for Hollywood.
He starred in the film version of “Gentlemen of the Press” and got $50,000 for that chore. Fan mail poured in.
The proudest moment of his life, he tells you, was when the seneschals of the cinema decided he must play the “Abraham Lincoln” title role. There were nearly 150 aspirants to the coveted assignment, but the Canadian film recruit walked away with the screen-test honors, created a sentimental but profoundly moving characterization, and made box-office history.
More fan mail arrived. Since that time his pictures have been money-makers: his plays have had long runs on Broadway and the road. He says: “I do pictures because I can make money quicker that way. By making a film or two a year, I am free to do what I want to do—act in a play.”
Prefers the Stage
HE IS charming to such strangers as are allowed to invade the privacy of his dressing room. His valet is a burly person
who passes on credentials and shoos everyone out fifteen minutes before the curtain call.
Huston engages in raging but intelligent arguments with friends, but never descends to personal attacks. He looks you straight in the eye and frequently acts out his arguments with wildly waving arms. He wears hom-rimmed spectacles off-stage.
An item in his credo is that a parent should never seek to mold a child’s career. His best friend was brought up to be a musician and is now a famous surgeon.
He is a staunch admirer of Shakespeare, without that reverent approach which most actors bring to the works of the Bard. Said Huston one evening, when in a serious mood: “It’s when you begin to act
Shakespeare that you find out how much more than all the others he knew about life and human nature. Shakespeare’s plays build up. Stand in the wings and the words are ringing in your ears. There was a craftsman of the stage! The scene has been built up, mounting in intensity, before your entrance.”
On the opening night of “Othello,” George M. Cohan sent a note backstage: “I am out front watching my favorite blackface comedian.”
Huston likes golf, plays consistently in the eighties, and prefers a male foursome. He plays a spectacular game of tennis, once he is induced to leave the shade of a lawn awning or the clubhouse verandah. He also likes to fish and, nearly every summer, returns to Canada to angle in the company of his brother, Alex, who always knows just where the fish are biting.
His success in recent years has not spoiled Walter Huston. During his last visit to Toronto, he was given one of those rare civic welcomes at the City Hall, was photographed and interviewed, presented with an illuminated scroll extolling him as a native son and “the foremost actor on the continent.”
Later, among a group of friends gathered in his hotel room, he contorted himself into a bent and trembling old gentleman, unrolled his scroll and plaintively pleaded: “Could anyone spare an old actor a dime?”
He was profoundly touched, however, at the presentation and is proud of the distinction.
He prefers stage work to screen. During the filming of a picture, he must be on the lot at nine in the morning in full make-up. Sometimes the make-up application takes two hours, and then he may work all day on a scene that runs only a minute or less on the screen when the cutting-room boys are finished.
He mentioned the other evening that if he and Richard Arlen hadn’t bought a yacht on shares, Hollywood would be no fun at all !