Indiana is an odd state. South Bend is in the north; North Vernon is in the south; and French Lick doesn’t mean what you think it does!
Now that I’ve got your attention, I’ll add that yes, in some ways, my Hoosier state IS a little odd. Our obsession with basketball; our belief that if you live south of U.S. 40, you can forget about getting any help from the state; the fact that if you live in southern Indiana, you probably sound like a REAL southerner, to people not Hoosiers; that if you live in central Indiana, you don’t appear to have any accent at all; and that if you live up-state, you’ll probably sound like people from Chicago — or southern Michigan.
But when it comes to how many notable people we’ve produced in our history, I’d say there are no states our size, and not many much larger, who can brag about as many as we can.
And that holds true especially when it comes to show business.
Music? Well, Cole Porter was one of the greatest composers of the 20th Century. And he was born and raised in Peru, Indiana . Ever heard of these songs? “You Do Something to Me”; “Begin the Beguine”; “Just One of Those Things”; “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To”; “Don’t Fence Me In”; “From This Moment On”. He wrote them all. And many, many others.
I remember seeing a movie, made in 1947, about Porter’s life. Who played the great songwriter? Cary Grant. No, I’m not joking. Anyway, the film included several of Porter’s most popular songs. It also depicted his marriage (which was a fake to fool the public; he was actually gay. Which may be why Cary Grant was chosen to play him. Just a thought, folks.)
At some point in the film, Porter receives a phone call from his parents telling him that his grandfather, J.O. Cole, then referred to as “the richest man in Indiana,” is seriously ill and that Porter had better come back to Peru immediately if he wants to see his grandfather alive. So Porter goes home, and a couple of scenes later we see him with his grandfather, sitting in the latter’s living room, reminiscing about their family history, etc.
And, guess what? Both Grant, and the man playing his grandfather, are speaking with British accents! I thought when I first saw that, “Great casting, Mr. Director! In what part of Indiana do you think people talk like THAT?”
Anyway. Bloomington, home of Indiana University, produced another Hoosier songwriter whose genius was right up there with Porter’s. Hoagy Carmichael wrote one of the most beautiful, and famous, popular songs of the 20th Century: “Stardust.”
In addition, he composed a song which sparks debates to this day: Was he writing about a woman, or a state? “Georgia On My Mind” was recorded many times by prominent singing stars. Probably the best version, in that it conforms most closely to the general tone of Carmichael’s songwriting, was sung by Willie Nelson.
Hoagy’s songs are unique in that once one becomes familiar with his style, they can easily be spotted as his. “Rockin’ Chair”; “Ole Buttermilk Sky”; “Lazybones;” “Two Sleepy People,” and many others, have a leisurely, unhurried pace, very similar to the way Hoagy himself talked. Hoosier twang; measured, fairly slow speech; like he wore a sign that said, “Southern Indiana.” You’d never have mistaken him for a Briton!
And of course, there is composer Paul Dresser, of Terre Haute, whose best-known song was “On the Banks of the Wabash.” And John “Cougar” Mellencamp, a southern Hoosier from Seymour, well known by younger people for his rock music and composing. I’m jealous that he wasn’t born and raised in my hometown of Madison. And also the Jackson Five from Gary, and their youngest and most talented member, Michael Jackson, considered one of the leading rock music singers of the 20th Century. Not by ME, but by many people.
When it comes to the movies, Indiana provided a very large chunk of the “B-Western” cowboys of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. For instance, Ken Maynard and his younger brother, Kermit, both were born in the little Ohio River town of Vevay, 25 miles upstream from Madison. Ken was a leading Western star up into the middle to late 1930s. His horse, Tarzan, was probably “the smartest horse in the movies” (forget Trigger). But Ken’s heavy drinking, multiple marriages, and quarrelsome personality started him downhill to later poverty and life in a trailer park.
Gene Autry, the “Singing Cowboy” who later became the leading B-Western star in Hollywood, got his film start in a Ken Maynard feature. Many years later, when Autry was very wealthy and Maynard almost penniless, rumor had it that Gene was sending money to Ken each month to help him keep going. But doing it without Maynard knowing where the money was coming from. Gene was afraid that, since Maynard had given Autry his start in the movies, Ken’s pride might have kept him from accepting direct payments from the Singing Cowboy.
Ken’s brother Kermit starred in a number of Westerns, too, but did more of his Hollywood work as a stunt man for various other screen cowboys. He didn’t have Ken’s thirst, or cantankerous personality, either.
,Ranking right up there with Ken Maynard was Buck Jones, another Hoosier cowboy star, who was born and raised in Vincennes. Jones had a grim, tolerate-no-nonsense personality which was very popular with his many, many young fans. He was an active Hollywood star right up until he died in a huge nightclub fire in Boston in 1942. He and Ken Maynard knew each other, but they didn’t get along.
“Sidekicks” were popular for cowboy stars in the ’30s and ’40s, and no comic relief guy was better known than Max “Alibi” Terhune, who was born and raised in Franklin. Terhune had multiple talents, including being a ventriloquist (his dummy was named “Elmer”); the ability to imitate a number of animals, verbally; whistle tunes with great versatility; and he was a highly skilled card shark and magician.
Terhune was the “comedy relief” in the two Western trios series the Three Mesquiteers and the Range Busters.
Allan “Rocky” Lane, a Western star who came along a few years later than those above, was a native of Mishawaka, but grew up in Michigan. But, he was born in the Hoosier state, so we get to claim him.
And, although most people probably don’t remember this guy, Monte Blue played “bad guys” in a number of Westerns, and he was from Indianapolis.
Of course, the Hoosiers who played cowboys were only a small part of the Indiana theatrical troupe. As an example, two of the “coolest” actors in Hollywood were from Indiana, by birth.
James Dean is a movie legend. He starred in, or had leading roles in, three movies: “East of Eden;” “Rebel Without A Cause;” and “Giant,” in the early to middle 1950s. After filming was finished for the third movie, Dean died in an auto accident near Hollywood. He was only 24 years old, having been born in Marion in 1931, and had played high school basketball at Fairmount. He WAS a Hoosier, after all; roundball comes with the territory. Dean’s unique, moody style makes his films popular, right up to the present day. Ever hear of a film, from recent years, titled, “Come Back to the Five-And-Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean”? That’s who they’re talking about.
Steve McQueen was considered the “King of Cool” of U.S. actors of the 1960s and ’70s. He was born in Beech Grove in 1930. Spent part of his childhood in Missouri, but a Hoosier born is always a Hoosier. McQueen had a hard childhood, and teen years, but by the early 1960s he was starring in movies, and went on through the ’60s and the ’70s, being “Mr. Cool” with his anti-hero persona in pictures like “The Great Escape” (remember his flight on the motorcycle?); “The Towering Inferno”; “The Cincinnati Kid”; and “The Thomas Crown Affair.” Sadly, he passed away late in 1980, of several illnesses, just 50 years old.
Am I ignoring the female Hoosiers who made it big in show business? Of course not! Take Carole Lombard, for instance. She was a native of Fort Wayne, and a leading light in the “screwball comedy” movies of the late 1930s. In that same time period, she was the highest-paid star in Hollywood. And she was also one of the most beautiful actresses in the history of U.S. film.
Carole married fellow star Clark Gable, viewed as Adonis by many female fans, in the late ’30s, also. But, tragically, their marriage was cut short when, in January 1942, Lombard was killed in a plane crash while flying back from an early personal appearance supporting America’s recent entry into World War II. Gable, obviously devastated by Lombard’s death, soon after enlisted in the U.S. armed forces to help with the war effort.
Speaking of famous actresses from Indiana, do you remember the “Ma and Pa Kettle” series of film comedies? Probably don’t if you’re young enough to be my son — or daughter. Anyway, Ma Kettle was Marjorie Main, one of the most unique actresses in Hollywood history. Her real name was Mary Tomlinson, and she was born in Acton, in Shelby County, central Indiana. After her appearances in a number of live theater plays in her early years, by the early 1930s she was playing character roles in Hollywood films. They included “Dead End”; “The Women”; “Wyoming” and “Barnacle Bill,” in both of the latter starring with the equally oddball Wallace Beery; and “Meet Me in St. Louis,” which also starred Judy Garland.
Marjorie would never have fit the “leading lady” role, even in her earliest films. Tall, hatchet-faced with piercing eyes, and a loud, totally unmistakable voice, Marjorie Main was one of a kind. As we’d say in Indiana, she was “one you didn’t want to mess with.”
And probably the greatest film actress, came from my hometown, Madison, Indiana. Well, let me amend that a little. Irene Dunne was born in Louisville, Kentucky (damn it!), but when her father died when she was 12 years old, her mother moved Irene and her younger brother here to Madison, where the mother had grown up.
After high school she began a career as a singer, but then switched to theater, and in about 1930, to movies. Her first leading lady role was in the Western “Cimarron,” starring Richard Dix, made in 1930. She was nominated for the Best Actress award five times over the years, but never received it. Some “in the know” in Hollywood said that the reason for that was, she made excellent acting look too easy. But many years later, in her last years, she was presented several awards honoring her for her remarkable career.
One of the Hoosier actors who is almost forgotten today, but who played a masterful role in a Walt Disney movie in the late 1940s, is James Baskett of Indianapolis. The African-American portrayed Uncle Remus, the hero of “Song of the South,” a post-Civil War story in which the White and black Southerners were depicted as getting along with each other much too well to suit the civil rights activists and the White ultra-liberals, who put great pressure on Disney for years not to allow the movie to be shown any more in the U.S. The studio finally caved in to the pressure, and DVDs of the film could only be purchased from European companies for 30 years, before Disney finally grew a backbone a few months ago and made the movie available in the U.S. again.
By the way, the picture featured a number of cartoon segments, starring Br’er Fox, Br’er Bear, Br’er Rabbit, etc. Baskett delivered a magnificent performance as Uncle Remus, and was presented a special Academy Award for it. Unfortunately, his health was failing, and he died just a year or so later.
And I imagine many of you will agree with me, that I saved the best until last. There have been other comedians from Indiana, but none ever achieved the pinnacle reached by Richard “Red” Skelton, born and raised in Vincennes. Starting in burlesque, vaudeville, and the circus, he eventually made it into movies such as “The Fuller Brush Man” and my favorite of his, “Excuse My Dust,” about the inventor of a “horseless carriage” at the turn of the 20th Century (I was fascinated by old cars as a child). He had his own TV show for 20 years, doing skits as “Clem Kadiddlehopper”, “Freddie the Freeloader,” and others.
Red was zany, lively and hilarious. But his good-bye to his fans at the end of each show revealed his true spirit, and also his Indiana roots:
“Good-bye, and God bless!”